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Big 12 reset: Who makes a run at Kansas?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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 recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

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

MIDSEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

Losing Keenan Evans, who averaged 17.6 points per game, and Zhaire Smith, who went one-and-done as the 16th overall pick in June’s NBA draft, should have been a major setback for Texas Tech, but instead the Red Raiders are 11-1 and ranked 11th in the AP poll thanks in large part to Culver’s emergence as dominant force.

The 6-foot-5 sophomore has seamlessly moved into Evans’ role as the engine of Texas Tech’s offense, averaging 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 56.3 percent overall and 45.2 percent from 3-point range. He’s got an offensive rating of 124.8 with a usage rate of 30 percent. He’s high-volume and high-efficiency while also getting his teammates involved with a 31.8 percent assist rate. If Texas Tech is the team to finally stop Kansas’ run atop the league, Culver will be a massive reason why.

THE ALL BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • JARRETT CULVER, TEXAS TECH
  • MARIAL SHAYOK, IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are a surprising 10-2 while weathering injuries and suspensions, and the Virginia transfer has played a big part. He left Tony Bennett’s program searching greener offensive pastures, and he’s now leading the Big 12 in scoring with 20.1 points per game.
  • DEDRIC LAWSON, KANSAS: The Memphis transfer has been as good as Kansas could have hoped as he’s averaging a double-double of 19.6 points and 10.8 rebounds while also dishing out 2.5 assists per game and shooting 51.8 percent from the floor.
  • LAGERALD VICK, KANSAS: Just a few months removed from essentially being cast out of the Jayhawk program, Vick has at times been a savior this season for Kansas. He’s single-handedly won them a couple of games, and is averaging 15.8 points while shooting 46.8 percent from 3-point range.
  • ALEX ROBINSON, TCU: The Horned Frog guard is averaging an eye-popping 8.6 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from 3-point range to average 13.1 points.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Kansas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia
  • NIT: Texas, Baylor
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Oklahoma State
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THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. KANSAS HAS COMPETITION

Kansas is probably going to win the league because that’s what they do every year, but it may not be as easy as it looked back in October. Texas Tech is thoroughly legit, having racked up 11 wins and pushing Duke to the brink on a neutral floor. The Red Raiders are, at the moment, the clearest and best threat to the Jayhawks’ supremacy in the Big 12 thanks to Jarrett Culver’s emergence and Chris Beard continuing to prove himself one of the country’s most capable coaches.

The Red Raiders aren’t alone, though. Kansas State hasn’t been great, but if Dean Wade comes back from a foot injury sooner than later, the Wildcats have experience, continuity and talent. Jamie Dixon has TCU rolling, and the Horned Frogs are better than most think while Oklahoma looks surprisingly strong. Then there’s Iowa State, which has been really good despite Lindell Wigginton playing in essentially just one game, and has Hilton Coliseum homecourt advantage to lean on.

Sure, Kansas is going to win, but it might be pretty interesting along the way.

2. CHRIS BEARD HAS TEXAS TECH IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Situated out in west Texas in Lubbock, Texas Tech is a helluva tough job. There’s little-to-no tradition, little natural recruiting and a landscape whose most interesting feature is often tumbleweeds (and I mean this very literally). Chris Beard, though, seems built to make it a winner. He calls that part of the world home and was a part of Bob Knight’s staff when Knight had the Raiders rolling.

He won big in his one season at Arkansas-Little Rock and then had Texas Tech in the tournament in Year 2. His teams are defensively elite, something that seems ideal for keeping Texas Tech relevant year in and year out. Maybe they can’t get guys like Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith every year – or maybe they can – but you can bet they’re gonna defend. Beard is the real deal.

3. TEXAS CONTINUES TO HAVE ISSUES

Shaka Smart waited out a job for Texas for four years after taking VCU to the Final Four, and the idea would be he’d instantly take his career to the next level at a Power 5 school, especially one with the resources likes Texas. It, uh, hasn’t gone like that.

Texas has unquestionably underachieved, and this year is shaping up to be the same. The Longhorns showed some promise with wins over North Carolina and Purdue, but those seem to be outweighed by losses to Radford, VCU and Providence (all three at home). Maybe the Longhorns figure it out and act like the team beating the likes of the Tar Heels and Boilermakers, but multiple bad losses like that make you wonder.

There is no wondering about what the problem is as it’s been the issue for much of Smart’s tenure in Austin. THe offense is ranked 100th in KenPom a year after slotting 89th and two years removed from registering 177th (they were 49th in Smart’s first year with Rick Barnes’ players). The defense has been very good, but if Texas can’t field a good-to-quite-good offense (which isn’t exactly asking a lot), it’s hard to see them breaking through in a meaningful way.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW GOOD IS KANSAS?

The thinking coming into the season was that Kansas was the best team in the country. They had returning contributors, top-flight transfers and top-rated recruits coming in. That cocktail of talent and experience in Lawrence usually means a special season is in the offing.

And the Jayhawks have really done nothing to dispel that notion, but…they haven’t exactly looked as good as you’d expect. They sleep walked through a game against Vermont, needed overtime to beat Stanford and had close calls against New Mexico State and VIllanova before losing at Arizona State. They’re 11-1 with some nice wins, but…something seems underwhelming. Maybe it was the high expectations. Maybe it’s Duke looking dominant from the start or Michigan being great or Gonzaga and Virginia looking awesome, too.

The Jayhawks are probably fine, but maybe they’re not great? Who knows? We’ll probably get an idea of it quickly in the Big 12, though.

2. IS OKLAHOMA FOR REAL?

Normally, you don’t lose a lottery pick – the nation’s leader in scoring and assists – and get better, but that may be the case for Oklahoma. Trae Young looked to be a generational player for the Sooners, a Norman native whose game was creative and dynamic, but Oklahoma faltered down the stretch, with that very style Young played taking much of the blame.

It’s probably not fair, but those detractors may have some evidence in their corner as the Sooners are suddenly thriving with an 11-1 record with Wisconsin on a neutral the only misstep. They’re doing it with defense and just enough offense while playing with pace. Maybe it’s a mirage, but the evidence is mounting that Lon Kruger’s team is for real.

3. HOW STRONG IS THE BOTTOM?

What’s separated the 10-team Big 12 from some of the country’s other top conferences in recent years is that the bottom of the league has been unlike other conferences – it’s been pretty good. As cliche as it sounds, there just haven’t been nights off in the Big 12.

Is that the case this year again?

Baylor has a couple nice wins, but some disconcerting losses as well. Oklahoma State looks like the likeliest culprit to drag down the league-wide RPI, though as they’ve already lost to the likes of Charlotte and Tulsa with Charleston and LSU their top-100 wins. As strange as it sounds, you’ve got to keep an eye on West Virginia as well given how uneven they’ve looked, though it’s hard to picture Bob Huggins’ program faltering quite like that.

Still, as far as cellars go, it could be rather formidable.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. THEY’LL GET EIGHT BIDS

Yeah, I know, I only picked the league to get seven teams up above, but let’s get bold here. Assuming West Virginia gets things squared away and Texas starts looking more like a blue blood, there’s strong shot the conference gets 80 percent of its membership into the Big Dance. That’ll probably come on the heels of a lot of conference records hovering around .500, but the conference has built enough of a reputation that it wouldn’t be punished for mediocrity but rather for high-level parity.

2. KANSAS STATE UNDERWHELMS

Expectations were probably over-cooked for Bruce Weber’s team given they got to the Elite 8 largely thanks to a friendly path – shoutout to UMBC – after a so-so regular season. The Wildcats lost to the best team they’ve played – Marquette – and struggled against the likes of Southern Miss and George Mason (while losing to Tulsa). If Dean Wade missing a ton of time, Kansas State could tumble down the standings.

3. KANSAS’ STREAK FINALLY ENDS

No, it won’t. Maybe next year, everybody.

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

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KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.