Conference Catchup: Does Kansas finally relinquish control of the Big 12?

0 Comments
source: AP
Georges Niang (AP)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big 12.

MIDSEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Georges Niang, Iowa State

In-part because of an offseason body transformation, the junior is playing very efficient basketball for a very good Iowa State team. Niang is taking fewer shots this season but averaging nearly the same in terms of points because he’s increased his shooting percentages to 52 percent from the field, 38 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the free-throw line. Niang has also improved his rebound (5.4 per game) and assist (3.9 per game) numbers this season and he’s improved on the defensive end because he’s laterally quicker and stays engaged for longer stretches of time.

THE ALL-BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Georges Niang, Iowa State
  • Jonathan Holmes, Texas – The senior forward isn’t putting up gigantic numbers, but he’s stepped up his play in big-game situations while also sacrificing minutes because of Texas’ tremendous front court depth. When point guard Isaiah Taylor went down, Holmes stepped up, and he looked like the best player in the 2K Sports Classic before a game-winning shot on the road at UConn.
  • Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State – With the loss of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, the Cowboys could have been really mediocre, but Nash is averaging a conference-leading 17.9 points per game to go along with 6.5 rebounds per game. His low point total on the season is 13 and the senior has been consistent all season scoring and getting a high number of free-throw attempts. Without him, Oklahoma State is not even close to 10-2.
  • Buddy Hield, Oklahoma – A brief slump pushed the junior’s field goal percentages down a little bit, but he’s still Oklahoma’s go-to scorer and one of the toughest assignments on the perimeter in college basketball. Hield is averaging 15.7 points, 5 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game and gives the Sooner big men a lot of space to operate.
  • Juwan Staten, West Virginia – While his numbers have gone down a bit from a remarkable 2013-14 campaign, Staten is still the senior point guard that makes West Virginia go. The Mountaineers are 12-1 as Staten is averaging 16.1 points, 4.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game while also being apart of a tenacious West Virginia defense.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. The Big 12 once again looks very deep: As we enter the New Year, the Big 12 once again looks tough from top-to-bottom. This is a league that could clean up on NCAA Tournament bids this season with other leagues like the Pac-12, SEC and AAC struggling for depth. Six teams are ranked in the top 25 as we enter 2015 and that doesn’t even include unbeaten TCU. With a 10-team league and a true home/road conference schedule, things are going to be very interesting in the Big 12 this conference season.

2. Kansas is still trying to forge an identity: We can tell Kansas has talent and we know they have depth in the front court, but this team is still trying to find a go-to player and a consistent source of toughness. The Jayhawks have also received inconsistent play at some point this season from nearly every player on the roster as they scramble for leadership as well. Talented freshman wing Kelly Oubre “solidified” a spot in the starting lineup just this week and he’s the team’s most talented player. If Oubre can settle in as a go-to guy and Kansas finds consistent toughness and leadership, they should be just fine.

3. West Virginia is back: Winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off and head coach Bob Huggins publicly ripping an opposing coach shows that the Mountaineers mean business this season. We already knew that point guard Juwan Staten was a serious conference player of the year candidate entering 2014-15, but he’s now surrounded by a lot of tough-minded players who wreck havoc on the defensive end. West Virginia has an astounding nine different players averaging at least one steal a game right now. Jonathan Holton looks like one of the best defenders in the Big 12, and Devin Williams one of the best rebounders. As long as the bench continues to play well, and Staten has continued help, West Virginia should be back in the NCAA Tournament.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Does Kansas continue its streak of Big 12 titles? It’s been a decade of dominance for the Jayhawks in the Big 12 as they’ve won an astounding 10 consecutive conference regular-season championships. Kansas is also the only program from the Big 12 to reach the Final Four in the last decade and they’ve done it twice, in 2008 and 2012. But this year’s team has struggled to figure out what makes them go and they’ve looked very lost at times early this season. Kansas has good wins over Michigan State, Florida, Georgetown and Utah (in consecutive games), but they’ve also been completely blown out by Kentucky and Temple. The Kentucky loss was concerning, but the Temple loss was tough to stomach. The Jayhawks continued to at least put up a fight against Kentucky, but they just stopped competing in the loss at Temple. How is Kansas going to fare in tough Big 12 road games when everyone in the league is gunning for their spot at the top?

2. How does Texas look with the return of Isaiah Taylor? Texas has stayed in the top 25 this season despite the loss of starting point guard Isaiah Taylor. The sophomore played in three games this season before going down with a wrist injury in a win over Iowa. Since then, the Longhorns have still played pretty well, going 8-2 in his absence with losses only coming at Kentucky and in overtime against Stanford. Texas has shown that its front court is one of the best in the country in terms of overall talent and depth, and the return of a dynamic guard like Taylor should help the Longhorns significantly. With a healthy Taylor, Texas has a Final Four ceiling.

3. What makes this Baylor team tickI’ve had some discussions about Baylor with my CBT colleague Rob Dauster and of all of the top-25 teams, we just can’t seem to get a great feel for the Bears. Who are they? They’re off to an impressive 11-1 start, but they don’t have any eye-popping wins yet — just a lot of solid ones. Baylor doesn’t have any star power, but they have a roster built on specialists who seem to mesh well together. Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale are both in the top four in the conference in 3-point percentage. Rico Gathers and Jonathan Motley clean up the misses and both rank in the top five in the league in offensive boards per game. Lestor Medford and Kenny Chery both set up other players with assists. O’Neale has been the team’s most complete all-around player, but it seems as though Baylor has its players focusing on their main strengths and they’re succeeding early because of it.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Texas wins the Big 12: With Isaiah Taylor returning, Texas has a superior point guard and a superior front court to Kansas this season. The interior combination of Jonathan Holmes, Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh is as solid as any front court group in the country outside of Lexington and should give the Big 12 some major issues this season. With Holmes and Turner both shooting at or above 40 percent from three-point range, this team is really tough to defend and they will add another gear with Taylor’s ability to touch the paint with the ball in his hands.

2. A few teams will emerge as Final Four contenders: The Big 12 has been dominated by Kansas for the last decade, but outside of the Jayhawks, there are a few other teams that should be in the Final Four conversation this season. Texas is a serious contender to reach Indianapolis. Oklahoma received a lot of preseason love as a darkhorse to reach Indy as well. Iowa State once again looks like a credible threat as Georges Niang continues to look great and he’s surrounded by a balanced and talented team that can really score. And you can’t count out the Jayhawks just yet. That four-game win streak earlier in the season was NCAA Tournament caliber and Bill Self knows how to get his team clicking heading into conference season. Don’t be surprised if the Big 12 has a representative in Indianapolis in a few months.

3. TCU misses the NCAA Tournament despite a 13-0 start: Sure, TCU is 13-0 and one of the last unbeatens left in college basketball. Trent Johnson deserves credit for winning every game and giving the Horned Frogs a respectable start and Kyan Anderson and Kenrich Williams are a decent top two, but this team hasn’t played anybody good. TCU hasn’t played a top-50 opponent and their non-conference strength of schedule ranks 347 out of 351. They’ve at least played all Division I opponents, but only three of those wins are against teams in the top 150. They’re just not ready to run the gauntlet of great teams in the Big 12. I think they falter in a big way and miss the NCAA Tournament.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Texas, Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Baylor

NIT/CBI: Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech