Big 12 Conference Catchup: Can Texas end the reign of Kansas?

2 Comments
source:
AP Photo

The Big 12 may not have been the best conference during the 2013-2014 season, but it certainly was the most competitive and the most thrilling.

As of late February, there were eight teams in the ten team conference that had a shot to make the NCAA tournament. Seven of them did, including Baylor and Oklahoma State. Baylor lost eight of ten to start league play. Oklahoma State lost seven straight games at one point.

The top of the league wasn’t great — Baylor and Iowa State were the only teams to reach the Sweet 16 and they both lost there — but it was the balance that made it so entertaining. Anyone could beat anyone on any given night.

I’m not sure that will be as true this season.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

Once again, Kansas looks like the favorite to win the conference. They lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the draft but they replace them with Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, a combo that should be able to match their production, if not their potential. The Jayhawks also traded out Naadir Tharpe for Devonte Graham, meaning that their season will, once again, hinge on the point guard play.

Texas will be the second-best team in the league after they beat out Kansas for top ten recruit Myles Turner. With Cameron Ridley, Johnathan Holmes, Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix all returning as well, the Longhorns will be loaded and the biggest challenger to the Jayhawks’ streak of regular season titles.

Oklahoma loses Cameron Clark but will still have plenty of talent returning. The same can be said for Iowa State, who lose Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane. Kansas State brings back Marcus Foster, making them a likely NCAA tournament team. Beyond that, we’re looking at some rebuilds. Baylor should make the tournament despite their personnel losses, but it seems unlikely that Oklahoma State will.

THREE UP

source:
Getty Images

Texas: My, what a difference a year makes. At this time last year, we were wondering if it was even possible for Rick Barnes, who had been unable to tap into the talent-rich Texas high school ranks of late and who was jettisoning players from his program, to make it to May 15th with his job at Texas intact. Today, we’re talking about how the Longhorns might be the favorite to end Kansas’ streak as Big 12 regular season champ. After a third-place finish last season, the ‘Horns returned essentially everyone of importance while adding top ten recruit Myles Turner to the mix. They’ll enter the season in the top ten.

Kansas State: The Wildcats were a huge surprise a season ago, making the NCAA tournament despite entering the season without much expectation. The biggest reason for that run? Marcus Foster, the overlooked freshman that led the team in scoring. Foster won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season, but he should end up being one of the best off-guards in the conference while leading KSU back to the tournament.

Monte Morris: Morris put together quite an impressive season for a freshman point guard in 2013-2014, but since he was playing behind all-american DeAndre Kane, his numbers went largely unnoticed. That will changed next season, when Morris takes over the role of starting point guard. He’ll have some talent surrounding him — namely Georges Niang and Bryce Dejean-Jones — but don’t be surprised to see Morris develop into one of the better point guards in the league.

THREE DOWN

Oklahoma State: Marcus Smart went pro. Markel Brown graduated. Stevie Clark has been kicked out of the program, Jared Terrell got out of his letter of intent, and Kamari Murphy transferred. That basically leaves Le’Bryan Nash, Phil Forte and their cast of characters at Travis Ford’s disposal. And with the massive buyout that Travis Ford has in his contract, things may not get easier anytime soon.

Baylor: The Bears lose Isaiah Austin to the draft and Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip to graduation. Those are gaping holes for Scott Drew to fill. He’ll have some pieces — Kenny Chery is one of the nation’s most underrated point guards and Drew does have talent stored on his bench — but replacing a pair of double-doubles machines and one of the nation’s most lethal shooters is not an easy task.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers were sneaky-good a season ago, but with Eron Harris departing, West Virginia will be relying heavily on the shoulders of Juwan Staten to carry them. With Harris, WVU might have had the best back court in the conference.

FIVE NEW FACES

Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre: Kansas loses Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, which will hurt quite a bit. But their replacements should do just fine. Oubre is not the defender that Wiggins was, but he should be able to provide the same scoring pop on the perimeter. Alexander isn’t the same force around the rim that Embiid was, but he’s as aggressive and athletic of a big man as you’ll find. Throw in Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis, and the Jayhawks are once again a top five team. The key? The point guard spot, and possibly another freshman, Devonte Graham.

Myles Turner: Turner is a top ten recruit in the Class of 2014, a shot-blocker with three-point range on his jump shot. He’s going to have some competition for minutes in the Texas front court, but his presence should help make the Longhorns a legitimate Final Four contender. The Texas native is as bright as they come and should be an instant fan favorite in Austin.

Bryce Dejean-Jones: Iowa State landed themselves yet another high-profile cast-off. Dejean-Jones is one of the more talented scorers in the country, but this will be the third school that he has played at. He’s a gunner, the kind of wing that never saw a shot he didn’t think he can make. He’ll be the key to the Cyclones this season. If he can buy into what Fred Hoiberg is running, Iowa State is a top 15-caliber team. If not, they could end up going the way of UNLV the last couple of seasons.

Jordan Woodard: Jordan Woodard isn’t a new face — he was a freshman last season — but I think that he’s on the verge of becoming a star in the Big 12. There’s a reason that Je’lon Hornbeak transferred out of the program, and with Cameron Clark gone, Woodard has a chance to really break out this year.

Jeff Newberry: Newberry is going to be a key for Oklahoma State. A highly-regarded JuCo guard, Newberry is going to be asked to be a primary ball-handler and a key cog for the Cowboys offensively right off the bat, and with some of the personnel losses the Pokes will suffer, his role will be vital.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Kansas
2. Texas
3. Oklahoma
4. Iowa State
5. Kansas State
6. Baylor
7. Oklahoma State
8. West Virginia
9. Texas Tech
10. TCU

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke back to No. 1, Tennessee hops Gonzaga

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Here’s the conundrum that is going to face voters in the top 25 this week: What do you do with Kansas?

When it comes to resume, Kansas probably has the strongest one of any team in the top seven. They’ve beaten Michigan State on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Tennessee on a neutral court. They’ve beaten Marquette on a neutral court. Every win they have in Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year comes against teams ranked in the top 135 on KenPom.

And then there is this: Kansas has beaten Tennessee. Tennessee has beaten Gonzaga. Gonzaga has beaten Duke. Duke, according to some, can beat the Cavs, which officially means that Kansas is a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Or something like that.

The point is that it makes total sense to rank Kansas No. 1 based on what they’ve accomplished this season, but I think that even the most irrational Kansas fans will cop to the fact that these Jayhawks haven’t come close to hitting their stride yet this season, and that’s before you factor in the loss of Udoka Azuibuike to an ankle injury.

The difference between the top seven teams this season is marginal, particularly if you are not as high on Duke as I am, and while that means there really isn’t all that much difference between Nevada at No. 7 and whoever it is that you are going to rank No. 1, it does mean that a team like Kansas — who is in a bad run of form — drops to sixth in this ranking.

And to be frank, as long as your top seven is, in some order, the same as my top seven, your ranking is probably going to be just fine. I’d quibble with ranking Nevada in the top four, and I think it’s probably silly to have Duke, Tennessee or Gonzaga outside the top four, but there are arguments to justify it all. I’m sure Kansas fans will call me a Duke homer and say that Bill Self must ignore my calls, but the truth of it is that there are a lot of really good teams at the top this year. Parsing through a jumbled mess like that is never easy.

I dropped Kentucky all the way out of the top 25, as I did Kansas State, but I’ll go more in depth on that in the Monday Overreactions column.

Here is the full top 25:

1. Duke (9-1, Last week: 2)
2. Michigan (10-0, 3)
3. Tennessee (7-1, 6)
4. Gonzaga (9-1, 1)
5. Virginia (9-0, 4)
6. Kansas (8-0, 5)
7. Nevada (10-0, 7)
8. Auburn (8-1, 8)
9. North Carolina (7-2, 9)
10. Florida State (8-1, 10)
11. Texas Tech (8-0, 11)
12. Michigan State (8-2, 13)
13. Virginia Tech (8-1, 14)
14. Wisconsin (8-2, 15)
15. N.C. State (8-1, 17)
16. Ohio State (8-1, 19)
17. Arizona State (7-1, 20)
18. Purdue (6-4, 18)
19. Villanova (8-2, UR)
20. Syracuse (7-2, UR)
21. Marquette (8-2, UR)
22. Buffalo (9-0, UR)
23. Mississippi State (8-1, 25)
24. Iowa (7-2, 23)
25. Nebraska (8-2, 24)

New Additions: 19. Villanova, 20 Syracuse, 21. Marquette
Dropped Out: 12. Kentucky, 16. Kansas State, 21. Creighton

Virginia point guard to undergo wrist surgery

Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Virginia’s starting point guard Kihei Clark will undergo surgery on his left wrist on Monday, head coach Tony Bennett told reporters after the No. 4 Cavaliers knocked off VCU in Charlottesville, 57-49, on Sunday.

Clark played 33 minutes in the win. He held VCU’s star Marcus Evans to three points on 1-for-10 shooting. He changed the game when he forced a 10-second violation in the backcourt all by himself, a play that came after Virginia had knotted the game up at 43; they had been trailing 43-38. By the time VCU came to again, UVA had pushed the lead to 53-45, and the game was all but over.

Should I mention that Clark actually suffered the hairline fracture in his wrist on Dec. 3rd, that he spent a week practicing and 33 minutes on Sunday playing with a cast on?

That sums up everything that you need to know about the Virginia freshman. He’s the first wave of Virginia’s defense, the kind of tough and aggressive point guard and on-ball defender that Tony Bennett loves. He’s also the piece that allows Ty Jerome to play off the ball for extended periods, and his presence in the backcourt means that Kyle Guy can slide over to the three and De’Andre Hunter, Virginia’s resident all-american and future lottery pick, can play the position that fits him best — the four.

The good news is that this does not appear to be a season-ending injury, although Clark told reporters that he was not given a timetable for a return. The Cavs have also gotten through the most difficult part of their non-conference schedule; they play at South Carolina and get William & Mary and Marshall at home before league play kicks off on Jan. 5th.

That’s four weeks away.

Four Takeaways from No. 7 Tennessee’s win over No. 1 Gonzaga

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Sunday afternoon gave us another early-season instant classic, as No. 7 Tennessee ended Gonzaga’s unbeaten run and likely knocked them out of the No. 1 spot in the polls with a thrilling, 76-73 win in Phoenix

In a back-and-forth affair that featured some unbelievably athletic plays and some high-level shot-making coming from unexpected sources, the Vols set themselves up as the early favorite in the SEC and made a statement to the rest of the college basketball world that they are for real. 

There is a lot to take away from this game. 

Let’s dive into it:

1. THE WORLD HAS BEEN INTRODUCED TO ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD

Schofield had a career-high 30 points on Sunday afternoon. He scored 25 of those 30 points in the second, including the final 11 points of the game for the Vols. His three with 22.1 seconds left was the game-winner. Those points were made all the more important because Tennessee was without Lamonte Turner for this game and lost Grant Williams with three minutes left to his fourth foul of the game.

There is so much to like about the way that Schofield plays, and like Grant Williams, he is the guy that sets the tone for Tennessee. He’s an undersized wing that can defend up and down, he can make threes and there isn’t a possession that goes by where Schofield does anything other than play his tail off. Tennessee has proven themselves to be one of the best programs in the country at developing talent, but that’s something that is helped by the fact that the two best players on the roster — Schofield and Williams — also happen to be the two hardest workers.

The other thing that this performance does is shoot Schofield up NBA draft boards. Playing against Gonzaga means that there are going to be plenty of NBA scouts with their eyes on the game, and there should be little doubt that playing like this is going to garner Schofield — who was already a potential second round pick — more attention. He does all the things that we look for out of a role-playing wing in the NBA. He shoots it. He’s versatile defensively. He plays hard. He knows that, at his core, he’s a role player.

What else are you looking for?

Admiral Schofield (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

2. TENNESSEE CAN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

There is a clear-cut top tier in college basketball this season.

Duke is part of that group. Gonzaga, too. Michigan probably belongs in that conversation, as does Virginia. Kansas is in the mix. Nevada is in the mix. And, yes, Tennessee belongs there as well.

The reason for that is Tennessee just doesn’t have many holes. If they need to play big, they can put Kyle Alexander out there with Williams and Schofield and they have enough size to matchup with anyone. If they need to play small, they can put Lamonte Turner in the backcourt with Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden. If they want to go with a switchable lineup, they can play Yves Pons with Williams and Schofield. They have good guards. They can make threes. They have a guy in Williams that can score on the block and who Kansas head coach Bill Self said could end up being the best player that the Jayhawks face all season long.

That makes them a very, very dangerous basketball team.

3. BRANDON CLARKE IS GONZAGA’S BEST PLAYER

Rui Hachimura is the guy that gets all the plaudits, and it’s certainly deserved. He’s the leading scorer for the No. 1 team in the country. He is the guy that made the game-winning shots against both Duke and Washington. He’s a future lottery pick and a player that is an icon in his home country of Japan. He deserves all the recognition that he gets, and going for 21 points and eight boards on Sunday doesn’t change that fact.

That said, Clarke is the best player for the Zags for the simply fact that he is arguably the best defensive player in the country. He’s an unbelievable athlete and rim protector that can switch onto smaller defenders and jumps passing lanes. He’s going to be a first round pick in the NBA because of it.

He also averages 16.4 points and 8.2 boards. On Sunday, he led Gonzaga with 21 points and nine boards. He had what may go down as the best block of the college basketball season:

The thing that makes Gonzaga so good is that picking their best player is like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream. They’re all good. Hachimura is an all-american. Zach Norvell Jr. makes more big shots that anyone in college basketball and will, by the end of the season, become known for what he does in the second half of games. Corey Kispert is an elite role player. Josh Perkins will finish among the league leaders in assists.

But for my money, Clarke is their best player.

4. SUNDAY SHOWED US WHY JOSH PERKINS IS A CONCERN FOR THE ZAGS

The irony, however, is that Clarke isn’t the most important player on Gonzaga.

That title belongs to Josh Perkins, the only point guard currently on Gonzaga’s roster and a guy that just so happens to have a reputation for being consistently inconsistent.

We saw the full Josh Perkins Experience on Sunday. He had a number of flashy assists, finishing with nine in total against just a single turnovers, but he was 0-for-6 from the floor, scoreless and nowhere to be found down the stretch when Gonzaga needed some big buckets.

Guy, Jerome lead No. 4 Virginia over VCU, 57-49

Zach Wajsgras/The Daily Progress via AP
Leave a comment

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome combined to score 29 points as No. 4 Virginia held off Virginia Commonwealth 57-49 on Sunday.

Guy scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half, while Jerome put up 11 of his 14 after the break.

Virginia (9-0) missed 13 of its first 15 shots after the break and VCU (7-3), coming off its road upset of Texas on Wednesday, led 37-36 midway through the second half.

Isaac Vann led the Rams with 10 points as VCU played its closest contest with Virginia since its 59-56 victory in 2013. Since then, the Cavaliers have won three straight.

Kihei Clark played with a cast on his injured left wrist but still started the game and logged 33 minutes, scoring nine points and dishing out four assists for Virginia.

BIG PICTURE

Coming off its upset of Texas and former coach Shaka Smart, VCU impressed again, sticking close to Virginia for much of the afternoon. While the Rams lost for the third straight time to the Cavaliers, this was the closest of those matchups. … Virginia struggled offensively, but its defense and two stars lifted it to what should be considered a quality win on its NCAA resume come March.

No. 1 goes down as No. 7 Tennessee, Schofield upset Gonzaga

Christian Petersen
Leave a comment

PHOENIX — Admiral Schofield hit a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left and scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half, helping No. 7 Tennessee knock off top-ranked Gonzaga 76-73 in the Colangelo Classic on Sunday.

Tennessee (7-1) jumped on Gonzaga early and fought back from a nine-point, second-half deficit.

Reigning SEC player of the year Grant Williams fouled out with 2:30 left, but the Vols went up two when Schofield banked in a 3-pointer with 80 seconds left.

After Rui Hachimura tied it with two free throws, Schofield hit a long 3 and Tennessee held on for its first win over a No. 1 team — fifth overall — since beating Kansas in 2010.

Gonzaga (9-1) had two shots at a tying 3-pointer, but Zach Norvell Jr. and Hachimura missed.

Hachimura and Brandon Clarke had 21 points each for the Bulldogs.

The Zags passed every previous test despite playing without injured forward Kevin Tillie.

Gonzaga blew out Texas A&M in Spokane, then knocked off Illinois, Arizona and then-top-ranked Duke to win the Maui Invitational. The Bulldogs beat Washington in their last game on Hachimura’s last-second jumper.

Tennessee, a popular preseason Final Four pick, took No. 2 Kansas to overtime before losing and beat Louisville by 11 in its closest win of the season.

Hachimura had no trouble against one of the nation’s best defensive frontcourts, effectively using his mid-range jumper to score 14 points by halftime.

Williams had 12 and the Vols led 34-33 after Jordan Bowden hit a last-second jumper.

Gonzaga built a quick seven-point lead in the second half, let Tennessee claw back, then went up 58-50 on a pair of Norvell 3-pointers as he traded baskets and trash talk with Schofield.

Schofield brought the Vols back, tying it at 68l with a 3-pointer from the wing with just over three minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee looked every bit a Final Four contender, knocking off the nation’s No. 1 team with its best player on the bench the final 2:30.

Gonzaga had passed all its previous tests, but not having Tillie hurt the Zags against the talented Vols.