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No. 2 Baylor at No. 3 Kansas Preview: Do the Bears have a shot at getting the win?

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The matchup that we’ve all been waiting for in the Big 12 will happen tonight, as No. 2 Baylor makes the trek up to Lawrence to pay their visit to No. 3 Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

The Bears are currently sitting at 20-1 on the season and are tied with the Jayhawks for first in the conference regular season standings at 7-1, but given the way that they were smacked around by West Virginia and the fact that they just can’t quite seem to blow anyone in the conference out, there have been some questions about whether or not this Baylor team is “for real”.

(Hint: they are.)

But since it’s Baylor and since Baylor is coached by Scott Drew, the nation-at-large isn’t going to believe it until it’s proven to them. That’s not a knock on the program, that’s a fact of life. Bill Self has won 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles, Drew is the butt of every running ‘he can’t coach’ joke.

This is their chance to prove the doubters wrong, and while it is foolish for anyone to think that it will be easy to go into Phog Allen Fieldhouse and get a win, Baylor does matchup pretty well with the Jayhawks on paper.

It starts with that zone. Technically, what they play is probably classified as a 2-3 zone, but it morphs. Typically, they have a guard matching up with a player at the high post and the other guard matching up with the ball-handler, meaning that, often times, it looks more like a 1-1-3 or a 1-3-1 zone. This has two benefits:

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  1. It makes it more difficult to get the ball into the paint, either via penetration or by passing the ball into the high-post. We generally think of a zone as being a defense that’s easy to shoot over, but that’s only the case when the ball gets into the teeth of the defense and shooters are left open when the defense collapses. Baylor’s zone is designed to make that difficult to do, which, when combined with the length they have on their front line, is why they are 13th nationally in three-point percentage defense. This is probably where I should note that Kansas is fifth nationally in three-point shooting. Strength vs. strength.
  2. Baylor’s zone means that Josh Jackson won’t have quite as easy of a time taking advantage of mismatches by playing the four. Baylor is one of the few programs that still starts two natural big men, a true center in Jo Lual-Acuil and a Player of the Year candidate in power forward Johnathan Motley. Those two would not be able to chase around Jackson, who will be a top five pick as a small forward prospect despite playing the four in a small-ball lineup for the Jayhawks. He’s going to have to deal with those big bodies defensively, but they aren’t going to be chasing him around on the perimeter.

Kansas is coming off of a win at Kentucky on Saturday, and that win came as a direct result of Self’s decision to play zone in the second half. I would fully expect him to do the same thing on Wednesday. Baylor, like Kentucky, is not exactly a team built to beat a zone – they have one player shooting better than 40 percent from three while Motley is a guy that could easily get Landen Lucas, the only big man on the Kansas roster with Carlton Bragg Jr. dealing with an arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia, into early foul trouble.

Going zone would help protect Lucas. It would help protect Jackson, too, and I have a hard time imaging a situation where Self doesn’t recognize that.

What’s truly interesting here is what happens if the Bears are able to get this win.

It would put them a game in front of Kansas in the Big 12 standings with a home game against the Jayhawks still on the schedule. It’s stupid to predict that Kansas will not win the Big 12 title – We’ve been here over and over again in recent years; remember when the Jayhawks were 2-3 in the Big 12 last season? – but being a game up halfway through the conference slate with a home game left against Kansas is where you would want to be.

Conversely? I’m not sure if Baylor can win the outright regular season title if the Jayhawks pick them off.

So there’s a lot on the line here, and that’s before you consider the No. 1 seed implications this season.

So yes, this a really important matchup. Phog Allen will be rocking. Two of the top three teams in the country will be playing.

Buckle up.

PREDICTION: The line for this game opened at Kansas (-5.5) and has since moved to Kansas (-6.5). KenPom projects Kansas (-4). I would take Baylor (+6.5). Between the potential issues with front court foul trouble and the fact that the Bears should be able to take away the best Kansas matchups offensively, I think they’ll be able to keep this thing close.

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

No. 22 Creighton makes statement with win at No. 16 Butler

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Maybe it was too soon to write off Creighton.

Many did it after Creighton gave up 102 points to Marquette in Omaha last weekend. I did it after the Bluejays were smoked by Georgetown last Wednesday night. It was hard not to. The Bluejays had lost their engine – Mo Watson Jr., an all-american candidate – to a torn ACL and proceeded to get run out of the gym in two games they otherwise would have no business losing.

Saturday’s win over DePaul didn’t do much to change that sentiment.

Tuesday’s win at No. 16 Butler?

That will.

Justin Patton scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, adding seven boards and a pair of blocks, as No. 22 Creighton went into Hinkle Fieldhouse and beat the Bulldogs, 76-67. Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas both added 15 points for the Jays, who shot 13-for-21 from three in the win.

The story of the game, however, were Watson’s replacements. Greg McDermott scrapped the idea of using senior Isaiah Zierdan at the point guard spot and, instead, turned the keys over to freshman Davion Mintz and walk-on Tyler Clement, and they were both good. Mintz had eight points and three assists without committing a turnover, hitting a pair of big threes early in the second half to help push Creighton’s lead out to double-figure.

But it was Clement that really availed himself. He looked overwhelmed at Georgetown, like he wasn’t ready to handle the responsibility that came with running this show. Who could blame him? On Tuesday, however, you never would’ve guessed that he entered the season as the third-string, emergency point guard, the guy whose job was mostly to run the offense at the end of blowout wins.

He handed out six assists, including a pair of beautiful pick-and-roll dimes to Patton, but more importantly, he was able to get the Bluejays into their offense. Sometimes that required leading the break, sometimes all it took was him getting the ball over half court and initiating the set that McDermott called.

If there is anything that McDermott’s teams have developed a reputation for, it’s been their execution in the half court. Creighton is always going to be able to get good looks on the offensive end of the floor because of it. What we saw on Tuesday was less reliance on a point guard to make things happen and more crisply-run offensive sets. Lots of movement, lots of motion, plenty of screens to get Patton touches in the paint.

The fact that Creighton can do that takes some of the pressure off of the point guard spot.

But this group still needed a presence out there, some to take charge, pull the ball out, call a play.

Mintz and Clement were those guys on Tuesday.

And as a result, there’s reason to be hopeful that Creighton’s dream season is not a lost cause.

Bubble Banter: The theme of the night was missed opportunity

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LOSERS

Georgia (RPI: 51, KenPom: 52, bubble): The Bulldogs desperately needed a marquee win, and all the stars were aligned for them to get it on Tuesday night. Kentucky, playing at home, was coming off of a two-game losing streak and playing without De’Aaron Fox, who reportedly had the worst of a stomach bug that had spread through the team. Then the Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first six minutes, and this thing looked like it was going to go their way.

But alas, Malik Monk went bananas, Isaiah Briscoe had one of his best games as a Wildcats and Kentucky, in the end, pulled out the win. It was a massive missed opportunity for the Bulldogs, which was a common theme on Tuesday night on the bubble.

Pitt (RPI: 58, KenPom: 86, next four out): The Panthers are very much on the outside looking in right now, and they missed a golden opportunity to vault themselves past some other teams on the bubble. Pitt had a shot to beat North Carolina at the buzzer in the Dean Dome on Tuesday night and couldn’t capitalize.

Iowa State (RPI: 44, KenPom: 26, No. 9 seed): The Cyclones had a chance to solidify their tournament status and improve their seeding with No. 7 West Virginia, a team that has struggled on the road this season, coming to town. It went to waste in a double-digit loss.

Illinois (RPI: 50, KenPom: 67, next four out): Like Pitt and Iowa State, the Illini missed a great opportunity to land a marquee win with a home game against No. 15 Wisconsin. John Groce’s club is running out of chances to get themselves off of the bubble.

Auburn (RPI: 56, KenPom: 77, bubble): It was probably generous to put Auburn in bubble consideration. Losing at home to Tennessee doesn’t help.

WINNERS

Tennessee (RPI: 41, KenPom: 38, next four out): The Vols backed up their wins over Kentucky and Kansas State last week by adding a road win over Auburn on Tuesday night. The Vols are now 12-9 on the season and 4-4 in the SEC. They probably needed to get to 11-7 in the league to really have a chance, but it’s certainly doable. As we know, the SEC isn’t exactly loaded with title contenders.

Georgetown (RPI: 54, KenPom: 55, bubble): Georgetown put themselves back into the bubble picture after beating No. 22 Creighton and winning at No. 16 Butler last week. They backed that up by going into Chicago and knocking off DePaul, a win that matters in that it’s not a loss on the Hoya résumé. Georgetown still has work left to do, but with wins over Oregon (neutral), Butler (road) and Creighton (home), they have three wins that most bubble teams can only dream of having.

Dayton (RPI: 33, KenPom: 36, No. 8 seed): The Flyers avoided doing what VCU did earlier this month – losing at Fordham – and kept themselves comfortably on the right side of the bubble.

Wake Forest (RPI: 29, KenPom: 34, play-in game): The Demon Deacons played with fire, blowing a big lead and finding themselves behind Boston College in the second half, but they were able to pull out a road win over a team that is not all that good. Wake Forest is in a spot right now where they don’t really have the margin for error to drop a game like this.

Rhode Island (RPI: 48, KenPom: 48, bubble): The Rams are in a tough spot right now, playing in an Atlantic 10 that doesn’t have a lot of quality wins available. They picked up a win they needed tonight, knocking off George Washington at home.

 

 

Rick Pitino: Quentin Snider’s return ‘not in the foreseeable future’

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Two weeks ago, Louisville’s starting point guard Quentin Snider went down with a hip injury that was supposed to keep him out of action for 2-3 weeks, but according to head coach Rick Pitino, the program doesn’t seem to have a feel for when he will be back on the floor.

“We really don’t,” Pitino told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It’s not in the foreseeable future. We’re going to get 4-5 days of practice in him before he plays and it’s a ways away.”

Snider’s return became that much more important last week when back-up point guard Tony Hicks went down for at least six weeks with a broken hand.

Louisville is 3-1 in Snider’s absence, and in the last two games, Donovan Mitchell has played the best basketball of his Louisville career; he was named the NBCSports.com Player of the Week. But those performances came in games against Pitt and N.C. State, who have a combined-four wins in ACC play.

The Cardinals need Snider, who is averaging 12.1 points and 4.0 assists this season, back sooner rather than later.

“I’m doing better,” Snider said, according to the paper. “Right now it’s just straight running because I can’t really plant right now and change directions. I’m just getting up shots and doing a lot of stretching and stuff.”

CBT Podcast: Kansas-Kentucky, Kansas-Baylor, Kansas legal issues, is Duke back to being back?

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Travis Hines joined me on the podcast today to talk about Kansas – their game against Kentucky, their upcoming game against Baylor, their legal issues – as well as Duke’s return to normalcy and the Coach of the Year rankings.

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Player of the Year Power Rankings: The Swanigan-Happ debate is heating up

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1. Frank Mason III, Kansas: Mason’s case is getting weird. He was the best guard on the floor as the Jayhawks went into Rupp Arena and picked off Kentucky, finishing with a team-high 21 points and four assists while outplaying De’Aaron Fox, but he probably wasn’t the best Kansas player in that game. Josh Jackson was, and that wasn’t a fluke, either. Jackson has been terrific of late and, it’s fair to wonder, may end up being the best player on the team down the stretch of the season.

That’s great news for Kansas. That’s terrible news for people looking for clarity when they’re doing Player of the Year Power Rankings.

2. Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart struggled in Sunday’s win over Virginia, but he also made some big plays down the stretch that allowed the Wildcats to make their comeback against the Wahoos. Oddly enough, for a guy that was arguably the most ruthless clutch performer early-on this season, his missed runner at the end of regulation is what set up Donte DiVincenzo’s tip-in at the buzzer. He also missed a tip-in at the end of the loss at Marquette that would have won the game at the buzzer.

3. Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
4. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: We went through the struggles with picking between Swanigan and Happ last week. It hasn’t gotten any easier, not with the way these two are playing. Swanigan had averaged 19.5 points, 15.5 boards and 4.5 assists last week and is now shooting 50 percent from three and 78.8 percent from the line. Happ was good against Penn State and then carried Wisconsin with 32 of the team’s 61 points in a forgettable overtime win at Rutgers.

This week, I’m swapping Happ and Swanigan for one, simple reason: Happ has been reliable down the stretch to close out tough road games. Swanigan was not against Nebraska on Sunday night and he was not earlier this season in a loss at Iowa.

It’s anecdotal, I know, but that’s how thin the margins are here.

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 28: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins tries to get around Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks late in the game at Matthew Knight Arena on December 28, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: Two weeks ago, I said that the Player of the Year race is down to, essentially, just three players: Frank Mason, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball. I said that before UCLA’s issues on the defense end of the floor became the talking point of their entire season, and as good as Ball has been offensively, it hasn’t been enough to make up for the struggles that he – and this team – have defensively.

UCLA has a higher ceiling than anyone else in the country. When they play their best game it can beat anyone else’s best game. The problem? They’re not going to be able to churn out their best game for six consecutive games in March, meaning that, unless they find a way to fix their defense, that inability to get stops is going to cost them a shot at the national title. Ball isn’t the only one at fault here, but he’s not exactly Gary Payton. Some blame does fall on his shoulders.

6. Luke Kennard, Duke: What Kennard did in the second half against Wake Forest was unbelievable. With all due respect to Malik Monk’s 47-point outburst against North Carolina, Marcus Keene’s 50-point game and the 38 points Jeremy Morgan scored in the second half earlier this year, Kennard putting up 30 second half points on 10-for-10 shooting to go along with four assists to save Duke in a road game they had absolutely no business winning is the best performance we’ve seen this season.

And it’s making it very difficult to figure out where to rank him on this list. When Duke embraces the fact that he’s the guy their offense needs to run through, Kennard plays like a first-team all-american. But that hasn’t exactly been the case since the start of ACC play.

7. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox was not his best last week, as he injured an ankle against South Carolina then played just OK in losses at Tennessee and to Kansas at home. That said, I think the fact that Kentucky lost the games that Fox was “just OK” in tells you about how valuable and important he is to that team.

8. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Arizona is now a top five team and the favorite to win the Pac-12 regular season title, and while the recent play of the Wildcats guards and the return of Allonzo Trier has been a boost, at some point we have to give credit to Markkanen for how good he’s been. He’s averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 boards while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor, 50.5 percent from three (on five attempts a night) and 84.3 percent from the line.

9. Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss leads Gonzaga in scoring at 14.8 points. He has 30 more assists this season than anyone else on the roster. He’s second on the team in rebounding while playing as a 6-foot-2 point guard. Gonzaga is undefeated with wins over Arizona, Florida, Iowa State and Saint Mary’s. None of those things are alternative facts.

10. Johnathan Motley, Baylor: Motley continues to be the best player for a Baylor team that just doesn’t seem to be going away. He averaged 20.5 points and 9.0 boards for the Bears, who are now 20-1 on the season, last week.

JUST MISSED THE CUT

11. Joel Berry II, North Carolina
12. Melo Trimble, Maryland
13. Josh Jackson, Kansas
14. Malik Monk, Kentucky
15. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
16. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
17. Markelle Fultz, Washington
18. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
19. Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s
20. Alec Peters, Valparaiso

TUCSON, AZ - JANUARY 12:  Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after scoring against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on January 12, 2017 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils 91-75. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Lauri Markkanen (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)