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

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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 

Miles Kelly leads Georgia Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.

No. 17 Illinois rallies late, beats No. 2 Texas 85-78 in OT

Illinois v Maryland
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NEW YORK – Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 12 of his 16 points in overtime, including the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining, and No. 17 Illinois rallied to hand second-ranked Texas its first loss of the season, 85-78 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.

Jayden Epps added 11 points, including the final five points of regulation – a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left and two tying free throws with 8 seconds remaining. Epps then blocked Marcus Carr’s jumper in the lane just before the buzzer to force overtime in an entertaining showdown at Madison Square Garden.

Matthew Mayer, who faced Texas several times at Baylor, tied a career high with 21 points as he made his first seven shots and finished 8 of 10.

Shannon, who missed eight of nine shots in regulation, took over in the extra period to help Illinois (7-2) beat a ranked foe for the second time this season. He opened overtime with a jumper after Marcus Carr was called for traveling and then hit an open 3 from the right wing over Brock Cunningham for a 73-70 lead.

Shannon then converted a reverse layup and finished off a three-point play to make it 77-70 with 2:16 left. Carr hit two free throws to get Texas within one with 1:28 remaining. Jayden Epps hit a layup, RJ Melendez sank two free throws to put Illinois ahead by five, and Shannon made two free throws with 27.7 seconds left.

Timmy Allen scored a season-high 21 points for Texas (6-1), which failed to open 7-0 for the first time since 2014-15. Tyrese Hunter added 10 points but Carr was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting as Texas had 12 shots blocked and shot 42%.

Texas took its only double-digit lead when Dillon Mitchell hit a layup with 8:28 left. Illinois cut the lead to 58-56 on a 3 by Melendez nearly four minutes later. After Cunningham hit an open 3 with 4:15 remaining, Si’Jabari Rice made a 3 for a 64-58 lead.

Allen found Cunningham for an open jumper that counted when officials called goaltending on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins. That gave Texas a 65-61 lead with with 1:51 remaining.

Carr’s rainbow jumper in the lane made it 68-63 with a minute left and Illinois had a 3-pointer by Melendez waved off because it called timeout with 45.3 seconds left. After the timeout, Epps made an open corner 3 with 33 seconds remaining.

Hunter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Epps’ tying free throws.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 17. But only two of them came in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation or overtime. Illinois’ 15th turnover was an offensive foul by Mayer, which sent him to the bench with four fouls with 10:42 remaining.

Texas: The Longhorns had little offense beyond Allen and Hunter. While the duo was a combined 13 of 29, the rest of the team missed 24 of 40 shots.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts Penn State in its second Big Ten game on Saturday. The Illini lost their conference opener to No. 13 Maryland.

Texas hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Jimmy Blacklock Classic on Saturday.

Clark, Gardner lift No. 3 Virginia past James Madison, 55-50

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Kihei Clark scored 18 points, Jayden Gardner had 14 points and eight rebounds, and No. 3 Virginia beat feisty in-state rival James Madison 55-50 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (8-0), who lost starting guard Reece Beekman to a right leg injury early in the first half, prevented the Dukes (7-3) from winning a second straight December game in Charlottesville. James Madison beat Virginia 52-49 last Dec. 7.

Clark had seven assists while playing nearly 39 minutes with Beekman sidelined.

“Kihei gave everything he had and I had to, you know, ride him,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Sure, he missed some free throws. And I know he made some mistakes, but you could just see him, you know, how tough-minded he was.”

Dukes coach Mark Byington said he told Clark – who’s playing his fifth season for Virginia – after last year’s game that he loved watching him play.

“He’s seen everything and nothing you’re going to do is going to surprise him,” Byington said. “There’s nothing Kihei Clark hasn’t seen out there, and he’s poised. I mean, you can’t rattle him. … So I told him this time I was like, `Look, I better never see you in college basketball again.’ But he’s one of my favorite players to watch just because he’s tough, talented, and he’s a winner.”

Takal Molson scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half for James Madison, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 42-all with 7:47 to play. Gardner responded for Virginia by scoring five straight points in a 9-1 run.

The Cavaliers kept the Dukes in the game by missing eight of 13 free throws over the last six minutes.

Molson made an acrobatic layup while being fouled with 1:51 left, but he missed the free throw. He scored again with 1:01 left, pulling the Dukes within 52-50, but freshman Ryan Dunn answered with a strong move on the baseline for Virginia with 35 seconds to play.

James Madison threw the ball away on its ensuing possession.

BIG PICTURE

James Madison: The Dukes came into the game leading the nation in scoring (93.3 points per game) and having scored as many as 95 points five times. They were shooting 52.7% for the year, but made just four of their first 19 shots and finished 15 of 55 (26.9%). Vado Morse scored 11 points, the only other JMU player in double figures.

“Yeah, we knew how good they were and they showed it in spots tonight,” Gardner said. “But I think you saw a lot of resiliency tonight on the defensive end getting crucial stops.”

Virginia: The Cavaliers played the final 36 minutes without Beekman and gave extensive minutes to freshman Isaac McKneely. Virginia will hope Beekman, its third-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler and defender, recovers in time for its showdown with No. 1 Houston on Dec. 17.

UP NEXT

The Dukes return home to play Gallaudet on Saturday night.

Virginia has a 10-day break before hosting the top-ranked Cougars.

No. 25 Villanova women beat American University 83-42

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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Maddy Siegrist had 24 points and seven rebounds, Lucy Olsen added 14 points and No. 25 Villanova beat American University 83-42 on Tuesday night.

Siegrist scored 15 points in the opening 13 minutes as Villanova led 34-15. The Wildcats extended it to 46-23 by halftime before starting the second half on a 9-0 run for a 32-point lead.

Villanova added an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter for its largest lead of the game at 79-36. The Wildcats held American to 15-of-50 shooting (30%) and scored 21 points off 19 turnovers.

Christina Dalce scored 13 points for Villanova (8-2), which plays Saint Joseph’s on Saturday before taking a week off for final exams. Siegrist, who was coming off a 29-point performance on Sunday, made 10 of 17 shots as Villanova shot 56%.

Emily Johns scored 12 points for American (0-8), which hosts Marist (3-5) on Saturday.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.