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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big 12’s best players and biggest story lines

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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.

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

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Frank Mason III, Kansas

Josh Jackson is the Jayhawks’ top draft prospect, but Mason is their most important, and though 12 games, their most productive. He’s shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and dishing out 4.7 assists while quarterbacking an offense that ranks in the KenPom top five. He’s the Big 12 player of the year and on the short list for contenders for national player of the year.

ALL BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East | Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  • 1. The league is much better than anticipated: The thought coming into the season was that it was Kansas and everybody else. Well, the thought was it was like that more than it usually is in a league the Jayhawks have won 12-straight times. Instead, the league looks again as tough as any in the country and in some sense, maybe the deepest it has ever been. Baylor and West Virginia have established themselves as top-10 teams, but what’s maybe even more interesting is there appear to be no bottom feeders. TCU is vastly improved, and Oklahoma State looks for real. There doesn’t look to be an easy night on the schedule for anyone.
  • 2. The Scott Drew jokes have to stop: Drew has been among the sport’s favorite punching bags for some time. Whether it was questions about his high-level recruiting, his ability to turn talent to wins or his sometimes odd in-game decisions, there’s not much of a more mocked coach in the country. Rarely do his two Elite Eight appearances come into the conversation, and if they do, they’re qualified by an easy path. What about this Bears team, though? They’ve got one of, if not the, best resumes in the country with an undefeated record and wins over Oregon, Xavier and Louisville. And it’s not like Drew and the Bears are doing it with a ton of guys that topped recruiting boards. It’s more of a rag-tag group. Drew, and his guys, are getting it done.
  • 3. Press Virginia is maturing: When Bob Huggins pulled the handbrake on his program and quickly shifted directions into a full-court pressing team in 2014, it was unclear if Huggins would stick with it beyond that year or if it would even be sustainable. It’s looking like the Mountaineers are just starting to perfect it. Their turnover rate of 35 percent is by far the best of the Press Virginia era. Yes, it’ll come down in conference play, but that’s an astounding number.

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KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  • 1. Is there a contender to Kansas?: Probably not, right? Every year we ask this question and for the last 12, the answer has been no team has been good enough to knock off the Jayhawks. Tie them in some instances, yes, but never best. Baylor and West Virginia look like the real deal, but Kansas still would appear to be a tier better – plus they still play nine games at Allen Fieldhouse.
  • 2. Is the Big 12 still tops?: The conference has been the consensus top league in the country in recent years, but was expected to take a step back this season. The ACC might have more better teams, but it’s also got 14 members to the Big 12’s 10, which, as of Christmas day, all were ranked in the KenPom top-70. With Kansas carrying the banner, Baylor and West Virginia following closely behind and a host of solid squads, the Big 12 could once again be the country’s top league.
  • 3. How many bids?: Last season the league sent 70 percent of its members to the NCAA tournament. For that to be repeatable, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech all have to prove to be more than just good-looking records against soft schedules and none of the other league’s expected dancer can take a step back. It’s doable for the Big 12, but also a tall task.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Tarik Phillip #12 of the West Virginia Mountaineers talks with head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Tarik Phillip (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Oklahoma sits just a game above .500 with a 6-5 mark, but two have their losses have come in overtime, another two were by a combined seven points (and leading scorer Jordan Woodard missed one of those game) and then there was a 20-point loss to Wisconsin. If the Sooners can get Woodard back healthy, they’re good enough to compete for a top-half finish in the conference behind one of the country’s most underrated coaches, Lon Kruger.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Chris Beard has led Texas Tech to an 11-1 record in his first year in Lubbock, but the schedule is as soft and nondescript as a blanket of snow. Right now, the Red Raiders’ top KenPom win is Rice, which is ranked 112th. Texas Tech might be OK-to-good, but its resume doesn’t reveal much.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Since sharing the league title in his first season of 2013, Bruce Weber and Kansas State have seen their fortunes steadily decrease over the last three seasons. Oklahoma State snapping up Wildcat alum Brad Underwood after his dominating run at Stephen F. Austin only ratcheted up the scrutiny. Weber has the Wildcats at 11-1 this season, but they don’t have anything close to a “good win.” The win total looks nice, but it’s not really indicative of much growth.

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 10: Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks he ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Allen Field House on December 10, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Josh Jackson (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1.Kansas: The Jayhawks continue to be the toast of the league and look every bit the part of a national title contender. The backcourt of Mason and Devonte Graham has been superb and while the loss of Udoka Azubuike (wrist) hurts the front line, Josh Jackson has been as good as advertised.
  • 2. Baylor: It’s been one of the best stories this season in the country as the Bears remain undefeated with some serious wins to their name. Despite not having the five-star recruits that powered the early part of his tenure, Scott Drew might have his best team in Waco.
  • 3. West Virginia: Bob Huggins just got win No. 800 for his career and has the Mountaineers looking like another Final Four possibility for Huggs. West Virginia’s success over the last three years is proof enough their new style of play is sustainable against even the best teams in the country. The Mountaineers will be one of the most difficult matchups for any team on its schedule.
  • 4. Oklahoma State: The return from injuries of Jawun Evans and Phil Forte has allowed first-year coach Brad Underwood to hit the ground running in Stillwater. The defense is still a concern, but the Cowboys look to have a formula that works.
  • 5. Iowa State: The Cyclones have struggled some to adjust to a post-George Niang world, but their defense has been markedly improved and the offense figures to catch up at some point. Iowa State really needs Monte Morris to be a bigger scorer and its wings to shoot it consistently from deep.
  • 6. Texas Tech: It’s been a Charmin-soft schedule for the Red Raiders, but their offense – especially their offensive rebounding – will probably translate enough to the Big 12 to put them in a position to hear their name called for a second-consecutive Selection Sunday.

NIT teams

  • 7. Oklahoma: The Sooners enter conference play on a down note of three-straight losses, but getting Jordan Woodard healthy should help them steer out of the skid and finish above .500.
  • 8. TCU: Jamie Dixon’s first season at his alma mater is making the school look smart for bringing him back home, but the schedule has allowed them to pile up wins without too much resistance. An NIT bid would be a nice start to his tenure with recruiting picking up.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Kansas State: The Wildcats have exceeded expectations through the non-conference portion of their schedule but they haven’t been tested at all, either. Their younger players will certainly be put to the test in the grinding 18-game conference slate.
  • 10. Texas: How about this? Seeing the Longhorns struggle so mightily in Year 2 under Shaka Smart is pretty shocking, especially given he’s bringing McDonald’s All-Americans to Austin, but the total lack of guard play has been crippling to Texas. The Longhorns can’t really shoot it, either, which in basketball is a problem, I’m told. It’s hard to see them being able to correct that enough to climb the conference ladder.

North Carolina rolls to Sweet 16 with win over Washington

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It has not been the easiest road for Nassir Little this season.

A top five prospect in the Class of 2018 and a guy that was projected as a potential top three pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Little spent his first — only? — season on North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus as the guy that everyone seemed to have a question about.

And rightfully so.

For all the hype that he entered school with, for a guy that won the MVP in both the McDonald’s All-American game and Jordan Brand game, he was … just OK?

On the season, Little averaged 9.7 points and 4.6 boards. But he shot just 26.5 percent from three. He played just 18 minutes a night. There were long stretches were he looked lost, on both ends of the floor, as Roy Williams tried to find a way to get the best out of his talented young forward.

There were flashes along the way — he had 23 points against Virginia Tech in January, he had 18 and eight boards against Florida State in February — but I think it’s fair to say that the most impressive back-to-back performances that Little has produced this season have come this weekend.

He was the best player on the floor for North Carolina in Sunday’s 81-59 win over No. 9-seed Washington, tearing up the interior of the Huskies’ 2-3 zone to the tune of 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting and seven boards. That came after he went for 19 points in just 17 minutes in UNC’s win over Iona in the first round.

Little, it seems, is starting to figure things out at the best possible time.

The question that needs answering, then, is whether or not this is just a product of matchups.

Iona wants to run and gun and is totally overmatched athletically. That’s the kind of environment that Little can thrive in, allowing his incredible physical tools to take the wheel. Washington’s zone was ripe for the picking, as the Huskies were forced to continually extend out on the perimeter to chase around North Carolina’s shooters. Little wasn’t even North Carolina’s best player on Saturday. That was Luke Maye, who finished with 20 points and 14 boards.

Both of those games played to the strengths of Little’s game.

And here’s the most promising part for Carolina fans — Auburn wants to play just as fast as Carolina does, and with the number of perimeter oriented big men that Bruce Pearl has on his roster, Little becomes such an important piece. He can do what Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore do, and he might be better at it than them.

That’s where his value lies.

North Carolina’s offense is fairly unique in basketball these days in that Roy Williams always wants two big guys on the floor because controlling the glass on both ends of the floor is as important to him as getting out of the break and running is. That can be a problem as more and more teams start playing modern four-men. Little is the key, because he’s capable of doing so many of the things on the offensive end of the floor that Williams wants his big men to do, and he can do it while allowing them to play a brand of small-ball that works.

I’ve said all season long that Little is the key that unlocks UNC’s full potential.

And even if it’s come in 20 minute spurts, we’re starting to see that play out in this tournament.

California fires Wyking Jones after two seasons

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Sunday afternoon it was announced that California has fired head coach Wyking Jones, who spent two seasons in the position after being promoted after Cuonzo Martin left for Missouri. The program struggled mightily under Jones, posting an overall record of 16 wins and 47 losses.

“This was a difficult decision to make and comes after a deliberate and holistic review of our men’s basketball program,” Cal director of athletics Jim Knowlton said in a statement released by the school. “As always, we were guided by the best interests of our student-athletes, as well as the values and objectives of Cal Athletics and our University.

“As we quickly turn toward our search for a new head coach for our men’s basketball program, I am certain that we will attract a strong, talented and highly qualified pool of candidates,” Knowlton continued. “I am confident that we will find someone who will help lead us on a path to being exceptional.”

After going 2-16 in Pac-12 play last season the Golden Bears were 3-15 this season, with the wins coming against Bay Area rival Stanford, Pac-12 regular season champion Washington, and Washington State.

According to John Canzano of The Oregonian, former Cal point guard Jason Kidd is one person who’s been mentioned as a candidate this opening. UC Irvine head coach Russell Turner and Nevada head coach Eric Musselman have also been mentioned as possible candidates.

Tennessee avoids collapse, survives Iowa in overtime

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Tennessee tried their best to give away the biggest lead in NCAA tournament history, but their all-american Grant Williams wouldn’t let them.

Williams was responsible for a 9-2 burst to open overtime as the No. 2-seed Volunteers hung on to beat 10th-seeded Iowa, 83-77, to get to their first Sweet 16 since 2014. Tennessee pounded the ball into their best player on every possession they had in the extra period, and he responded with three buckets and a kick out to Jordan Bone, who buried a 25-foot three.

Williams finished with 19 points, seven boards, five assists, four steals and three blocks, putting together precisely the kind of all around performance that he has become famous, and it could not have come at a better time for Rick Barnes and company.

For the second straight game, the Vols jumped out to a huge first half lead before giving it all away. Against Colgate in the first round of the tournament, Tennessee led by as many as 15 points in the first half, but they allowed the Raiders to catch fire in the second half, eventually taking the lead before Admiral Schofield buried three straight corner threes to ice the win.

Sunday was the same story, just on steroids.

Tennessee jumped out to a 44-19 lead in the first half and took a 49-28 lead into the break before forgetting how to play basketball. Tyler Cook scored all 11 of his points in the second half, Tennessee turned the ball over 11 times after the break and the Hawkeye shooter finally found a bit of a rhythm, outscoring the Vols 43-22 in the second half to force overtime and come a possession away from landing the biggest comeback in the history of the NCAA tournament.

The record, for what it’s worth, came last season when Nevada erased a 22 point second half deficit in their second round upset of No. 2-seed Cincinnati.

The question now becomes the why.

This is a Tennessee team that has won an SEC regular season title. They have now won 57 games the last two seasons. They have a roster full of players that are veterans known for their toughness, both physical and mental. And there is something to be said for a team blowing a big lead, regrouping and find a way to win. That’s a good thing!

But they were bailed out by Grant Williams simply being by far the best basketball player on the floor on Sunday. They were bailed out by the fact that Colgate is Colgate and was playing without their best player on Friday. We have now reached a point in the tournament where the teams that they play are not going to let them get away with the silly, lazy and undisciplined mistakes that they have made in the last two games.

The second half on Sunday is a perfect example.

Half of Tennessee’s 10 second half turnovers were unforced and totally avoidable. Jordan Bone threw the ball to Iowa more than he threw it to his own team. After spending the first 20 minutes shoving the transition game down Iowa’s throat, the Vols took their foot off the gas and looked like they assumed that Iowa would roll over and die, which is silly because Iowa is only in the second round of the tournament because they erased a 12 point lead in a win over Cincinnati in the first round.

The Vols will advance to take on Purdue in Louisville in the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers are coming off of a blowout win over Villanova in the second round, one that reinforced the notion that this Purdue team, which does not look like a Sweet 16 team on paper, won a share of the regular season title in what has proven to be the toughest and deepest league in the sport.

They are not going to survive a second half meltdown against Matt Painter’s club.

So Rick Barnes better figure out what it is about the last two games that made his team play like they did.

Because they’ll be heading home sooner than he would like if he doesn’t.

Robinson’s return provides boost for Virginia Tech

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Having star point guard Justin Robinson back on the court was music to the ears of Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams.

Specifically for Williams, it was the relaxing feeling he gets when listening to the Eagles playing their soft rock classic “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

“When 5 has the ball, I think everybody feels that way,” Williams said Saturday, referring to Robinson’s uniform number. “Our guys don’t listen to that genre of music. When 5 had the ball yesterday, I know statistically it wasn’t his normal game, but in the 27 minutes he played he was a big part of handling Saint Louis’ pressure, handling their physicality. Because when he has the ball, you know he’ll make the right decision.”

Robinson’s return after missing 12 games with an injured left foot helped make the Hokies complete again.

The player his teammates dub the engine that makes Virginia Tech go and the player Williams calls perhaps the most important person in the turnaround of the program the past few years, is back for the most important stretch of the season.

After shaking off some rust in the 66-52 win over the Billikens, Robinson is ready to build on that performance and go on a long tournament run when the fourth-seeded Hokies (25-8) take on 12th-seeded Liberty (29-6) in the second round in the East Region.

“To be able to play how many minutes I played last night was big for my team and big for my confidence,” Robinson said. “There were a couple of shots that I’d normally hit that I missed. I had four turnovers. That’s not like me. That’s something I’m not happy with. But being able to get out there and play again was big for me. Being able to get the rust off is something I can build on.”

The Hokies managed to go 7-5 in Robinson’s absence, beating perennial power Duke at home and losing only once to an unranked team in the process. But it didn’t mean his presence wasn’t missed.

Williams said he’s had few players better in his coaching career at translating his lessons to the players on the court to make sure the team operates at peak efficiency.

Robinson came into the game with 13:39 to play in the first half. He had a steal that led to a fast-break basket by Ahmed Hill and then made his first shot he took, a 3-pointer, prompting him to yell, “I’m back!”

He finished with 9 points and two assists in 27 minutes, but helped handle the pressure that kept Saint Louis at bay in the second half. He got a hug from Williams on the sideline after he came out of the game in the final minute.

“You almost feel the presence,” teammate Nickeil Alexander-Walker said. “We’ve had good starts offensively without him but you almost see glimpses of what we were in nonconference, how everything flows just a little bit better. You really feel a presence. Having an all-conference guy back just doing what he does, even if it’s just a little bit, it helps a lot to our offense. Now we add another weapon, another threat. … Just having him back was huge.”

Robinson is Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in assists and averaged 14.4 points and 5.5 assists per game before getting hurt at Miami in January. During his absence, Virginia Tech scored more than 12 fewer points per game and averaged more than four assists fewer per game.

His impact is no surprise to the Flames, who saw him up close back in November in a charity exhibition. Robinson led all scorers with 20 points that game as Virginia Tech won 86-70.

“I think he’s a pro. He’s got unbelievable vision. What he brings to Virginia Tech is a heightened sense of confidence,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “Obviously he’ll probably have to shake off some rust, but he’s a terrific player. He’s one of the best guards that we’ve faced all year. And we’ve faced some really good ones.”

Ja Morant’s thrilling season comes to an end in the second round

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Ja Morant, perhaps sensing this would be his last opportunity to score for Murray State, turned on the jets and darted through three defenders for a driving layup.

That gave Morant 28 points and Racers fans one final thrill in a season full of them. Moments later, with Florida State way ahead and about a minute and half left on the clock, Morant came out of the game. He received a warm ovation from the Murray State fans, took a seat on the sideline and draped a towel over his head.

As the clock wound down on Florida State’s 90-62 victory against 12th-seeded Murray State in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, Morant wondered what more he could have done for his team and what could have been.

“I was just hurt not being able to take the floor with these guys for the rest of this season, for another game or possibly two, three, four,” Morant said. “But it’s been a great season. I really was just thinking back on what all we have accomplished this year.”

Two days after Morant became the talk of the tournament with a triple-double that had NBA stars Steph Curry and Luka Doncic marveling at the sure-fire lottery pick, his breakout season ended with far less fanfare. He dazzled early, going 5 for 5 from 3-point range in the first half against the Seminoles, flashing his step-back and cross-over jumpers. He had 18 points at the half. But Florida State was winning everywhere else, forcing turnovers, getting into transition and knocking down 3s.

Morant had only four assists after notching 16 in the first round. He leads the country at 10 assists per game and the Seminoles were determined not to let Morant pick them apart. The 3-pointers looked good, but as far as Florida State was concerned that was a good sign.

“We knew that eventually that’s not the way they want to play,” Florida State’s Terance Mann said.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton chuckled at the suggestion the Seminoles did good job on Morant.

“Because to be honest with you, I’m still not sure that we stopped Morant, and I’m not sure anybody can,” Hamilton said.

Morant was 2 for 9 in the second half. His only other bucket was, of course, highlight-worthy. The lanky 6-foot-3 point guard drove right at 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and flipped in a layup while getting fouled.

“I’m really just hard on myself. I’m never no good. I feel like I could have done a lot of things better tonight. Just pick my teammates up,” Morant said.

Stopping Morant is probably not going to be a problem for college coaches anymore. After being lightly recruited out of high school, Morant ascended to stardom this season as a sophomore, and is now projected to be a top-three pick. In a quiet locker room after the game, Morant dutifully said he has not made up his mind about entering the draft and was not sure when he would.

“I’m not focused on that right now,” Morant said “I’m just trying to celebrate a wonderful season with my teammates.”

Teammate Darnell Cowart made it pretty clear he was not expecting Morant to be back.

“Would you leave?” Cowart asked reporters after the game.

Murray State won two straight Ohio Valley Conference championships with Morant and made the NCAA Tournament twice. Morant was a promising freshman role player on last year’s team, but this season he blossomed into a sensation. His tournament triple-double, just the ninth recorded by the NCAA, turned him into a celebrity.

“I thought he was able to really do a tremendous job of blocking out all the noise and just staying focused on becoming the best player he could be,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.

Saturday marked the end for Murray State’s season, but Morant’s story seems to be just getting started.