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
(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

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.