Over the course of this week, we will spend a few minutes catching you up on how some of the best conferences in the country currently look. With conference play starting up, its time to get into the basketball spirit.
I just finished recording a podcast over at CBS, and one of the things that we discussed was Baylor and why they aren’t getting the same kind of hype as, say, Indiana or Ohio State or UConn. The most obvious reason is that they haven’t exactly beaten a murderer’s row; BYU, West Virginia and St. Mary’s are, by far, the Bear’s three best wins. Teams build hype by winning games that you cannot help but watch, and as of now, Baylor doesn’t have a single win of that ilk. But there is more to it: Baylor has serious question marks about three important pieces on their team. Is Scott Drew a good enough coach? His reputation is that of a recruiter, not a play-by-play tactician. Can Pierre Jackson run the point for this team? He’s made some clutch plays over the past couple of games, but he also has a tendency to go into NBA 2K mode when he’s not good enough for that. Is Perry Jones III ever going to find the “Eff You!” mentality that the best-of-the-best have? Assertiveness and aggressiveness are the only things that are keeping PJIII from being a serious contender for National Player of the Year.
– And-1: There are four undefeated teams left in the country. Baylor is one of them. Missouri is another. The Tigers are a much different team from Baylor — where the Bears are one of the longest and most athletic teams in the country, Missouri plays four guards and is arguably the best shooting team — but they have been just as impressive. Mizzou is a potent offensive team, with two playmaking point guards (Phil Pressey, Mike Dixon) that free up a pair of devastatingly good shooters (Kim English, Marcus Denmon). The issue plaguing Missouri right now is whether the numbers they have put up (they are second in adjusted offensive efficiency in the country) are simply a result of playing a weak schedule. Teams like Cal, Illinois and Villanova are not as good as they have been in recent season.
Biggest Surprise: Kansas State
The Wildcats have had a nice start to the year. They are 11-1 — with the “1” being a double-overtime loss to West Virginia — and are playing some typical Frank Martin basketball. They have a trio of quality big men (Thomas Gibson, Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez) that pound the offensive glass and they have a roster of kids that go to work on the defensive end of the floor. The difference of late has been the emergence Angel Rodriguez alongside Rodney McGruder and Will Spradling. Not bad for a team that lost Jacob Pullen last season.
– And-1: I have to admit, I really didn’t expect much out of Texas this season. They lost a ton of talent from a team that chronically underperformed and replaced it with slightly off-the-radar freshmen. But it has worked this year. J’Covan Brown has been good and Myck Kabongo, who has had the typical ups-and-downs of a freshman point guard, is getting better. More impressive, however, has been the play of Julien Lewis, Sheldon McClellan, and Jonathon Holmes, all freshmen as well. The Horns have six freshmen in their nine man rotation. That means the season will be a learning process, but that this group will have a steep learning curve.
Biggest Disappointment: Texas A&M
At this point in the season, its really not fair to be too harsh on the Aggies. Besides the fact that their best player, Khris Middleton, missed seven games early in the season with a knee injury, Kourtney Roberson has missed the past three games with a fractured ankle and freshman Jamal Branch has transferred out of the program. The biggest issue is that their head coach is battling early on-set Parkinson’s. That’s far from an ideal situation. But A&M’s start has been far from ideal as well, with the Aggies most recently getting blown out by Florida and following that up with a loss to Rice. Until A&M can find a consistent way to score the ball, they are going to continue to struggle.
– And-1: Oklahoma State wasn’t exactly expected to win the Big 12 this season, but they also weren’t expected to finish in last place. But that’s exactly where they stand heading into the start of league play, and things aren’t exactly looking up. LeBryan Nash has been, well, awful. JP Olukemi is out for the season after tearing his acl. Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell have both transferred out of the program. Travis Ford is going to have his work cut out for him as he tries to turn this thing around.
Something left to prove: Kansas
Thomas Robinson is a monster. That much we do know about the Jayhawks. After that, however, there still is plenty to find out. There are the questions marks surrounding the leadership abilities of Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor. There are the issues regarding the amount of talent that Bill Self’s role players have — Travis Releford, Jeff Withey, Naadir Tharpe. The are concerns (at least on my end) of whether or not T-Rob is enough of a go-to player to carry the Jayhawks. That said, Kansas is Kansas. Bill Self is Bill Self. And there is a reason that the Jayhawks have won seven straight Big 12 titles. Until its official, Kansas has to be considered in the mix for the title.
– And-1: Lon Kruger has done a great job turning around the Oklahoma program. Heading into Big 12 play, the Sooners are 10-2 on the season. They have wins over Washington State, Santa Clara, Houston and Arkansas. They have one of the most improved players in the country in Steven Pledger. They came within a late-game collapse of knocking off the new-and-improved Cincinnati Bearcats. We’ll find out just how “for real” this group is when they open up league play at Missouri.
Player of the Year: Thomas Robinson, Kansas
T-Rob has proved that the all-american hype he had in the preseason was deserved. He’s averaging 17.7 ppg and 12.2 rpg through non-conference play, providing a rock in the post for the Jayhawks. If he’s not the hardest-working player in the country, he’s somewhere in the top five. In a conference that has plenty of Player of the Year options, Robinson is a pretty easy pick.
POY: Thomas Robinson, Kansas
G: J’Covan Brown, Texas
G: Marcus Denmon, Missouri
G: Steven Pledger, Oklahoma
F: Royce White, Iowa State
C: Perry Jones III, Baylor
4. Kansas State
6. Texas A&M
8. Iowa State
9. Texas Tech
10. Oklahoma State