Now that we are finally recovered from a football and barbeque hangover in Memphis, it is time to focus on the round-ball. Fred Hoiberg’s bunch enters Big 12 play after wrapping up a temperamental non-conference slate at 10-3. The Cyclones navigated through some uneven play and although they lost a few of the marquee games (Cincinnati, UNLV, Iowa), the good guys are still in a favorable position as they embark on the 18 game conference meat-grinder. Believe it or not the Big 12 tournament begins a mere 10 weeks from now.
The conference is set up to be a curious adventure once again. November and December gave us a glimpse into what we can expect. It appears the Big 12 has one premiere team, two bottom of the BCS barrel teams, and a jumbled mess in-between.
Let’s get reacquainted with our cast of characters as we fire up the Bulletin for the first time in 2013.
Kansas the clear front-runner….Again
What Bill Self has done in Lawrence hasn’t received near enough national attention as he deserves. The Jayhawks have won or shared eight straight Big 12 titles. In his nine years at KU, Bill Self has more conference titles (8) than he does losses at home (7). While other blue-bloods like UNC, Duke, UCLA and Kentucky have had some growing pains in recent years, Kansas reassembles and attacks. The one national title may not be good enough for the nonsensical members of the KU fanbase, but Bill Self may be the best all-around coach in America in my mind and he is proving his worth again this year.
Kansas lost consensus 1st-team All American Thomas Robinson and All-Big 12 point guard Tyshawn Taylor to the NBA, yet the Jayhawks may be even better than they were at this time a year ago. They are headlined by the best defensive big-man in the nation in Jeff Withey, who is blocking an absurd amount of shots (4.9 per game) which coupled with Kansas’ patented half-court pressure, makes scoring on the Jayhawks a futile experience.
On offense, Kansas has balance and depth, but get used to the name Ben McLemore. McLemore is a freshman who had to sit out a year ago due to eligibility issues. At 6-4, he is a freak of an athlete who is already one of the best players in the conference and playing himself into a top 10 NBA pick. He gives KU their best wing threat since Brandon Rush left Lawrence. Mix him in with Withey and steady guard play from Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford and this is a very salty team that will be tough to topple off their perch. The Jayhawks showcased their potential with an impressive 74-66 win at 7th ranked Ohio State two weeks ago.
TCU and Texas Tech have a long way to go
The Billy Gillispie era at Texas Tech was a fiasco from the get-go and ended in spectacular flames. They appointed Gillispie assistant, Chris Walker, as the interim head coach this fall. As expected, the Red Raiders have struggled against any semblance of competition. They are 0-3 against other BCS schools, including a 30 point drubbing to Arizona in Lubbock. Tech forward Jaye Crockett has been good and fellow forward Jordan Tolbert is an above average Big 12 player, but they have little help. Tech is shooting an abysmal 26 percent from three.
Speaking of scoring problems, I bring you the 2013 TCU Horned Frogs! TCU has played 13 games this year and has been held under 50 points in FIVE of those contests. They hit rock-bottom scoring a dismal, middle-school like 31 points in a loss to Northwestern in a Thanksgiving tourney in South Padre. New coach Trent Johnson is playing at a deliberate tempo to make up for a talent deficit and it is resulting in hard to watch basketball. Sophomore point guard Kyan Anderson and senior forward Garlon Green are the only real threats the Frogs have to put up a large volume of points. It will be a forgetful first year in the conference for the Horned Frogs. The rest of the Big 12 will target going 4-0 against Tech and TCU if they want to make the NCAA tourney.
Good wins, bad losses for the "7-Pack"
It is hard to disseminate the rest of the Big 12. The non-conference saw a veritable potpourri of encouraging potential and bad basketball for these schools.
Baylor: Good Win: 64-55 at then No. 8 Kentucky. Bad Loss: 63-59 vs. College of Charleston. Our favorite Cyclone Fanatic phrase, "Baylor is Baylor is Baylor is Baylor," was never more evident than a stretch in late November when they lost to College of Charleston at home, went on the road and handled defending champ Kentucky (albeit significantly less potent this year), and followed a big win over UK with a home loss to Northwestern. Baylor has talent to finish second in the league, but Scott Drew and company have done less with way more in the past.
K-State: Good Win: 67-61 vs. No. 8 Florida in Kansas City. Bad Loss: 68-52 @ Gonzaga. Truth be told, the loss to an elite Gonzaga team isn’t "bad," but the Zags exposed K-State’s question mark: consistent offense. The Wildcats under new coach Bruce Weber have the same cast of characters as last year: Rodney McGruder, Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez and Jordan Henriquez. They can guard to the gills, compete like all get-out, but when push comes to shove, they struggle to find buckets (7th in Big 12 in FG percentage).
Oklahoma State: Good Win: 76-56 vs. then No. 6 NC State in Puerto Rico. Bad Loss: 81-71 @ Virginia Tech. The Cowboys are a dynamic squad with three of the Big 12’s best athletes in junior Markel Brown, sophomore LeBryan Nash and freshman Marcus Smart. Smart in particular is extremely entertaining to watch, but the future first round pick is still a bit spotty in his consistency. But when he is going, he rivals any player in the Big 12 in talent. Everyone keeps waiting for Nash to become more of a steady threat as well. The skills are evident, but he is shooting just 42 percent from the floor and 25 percent from three. The Cowboys can compete against anyone, but depth is a HUGE concern. With a knee injury to Jean-Paul Olakemi, the Cowboys are realistically only eight deep.
Iowa State: Good Win: 83-62 vs. BYU. Bad Loss: 80-71 @ Iowa. The Cyclones are eighth in the country in scoring at 82 points per game and are one of few teams to score 70 or more points in every game this year. Fred Hoiberg is sticking to his guns and thus his gunners — Iowa State is eighth in the nation in most 3-point attempts at 25 per game. The Cyclones are making a respectable 36 percent from that distance, that makes them a very scary match-up. Yes, turnovers have been an issue at times for Lucious and Clyburn, but the bigger concern in my opinion is defending Big 12 size. Booker, Gibson, Niang and Ejim (to a lesser extent) have to defend without fouling or else expect teams to go at the rim with reckless abandon.
Oklahoma: Good Win: 77-70 win vs. West Virginia in Orlando. Bad Loss: 56-55 vs. Stephen F. Austin. Bizarrely, OU played fellow Big 12 member West Virginia in a November tourney, but the result doesn’t count in the Big 12 standings. I keep waiting for OU to put it together. They have some solid weapons with gunner Steven Pledger, big man Romero Osby and Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year Amath M’Baye, yet the Sooners look uninspired at times. Senior post Andrew Fitzgerald appears to have regressed, his production down from 12 points last year to six this season and his minutes are being gobbled up by M’Baye. They inserted freshman point guard Buddy Hield into the starting lineup this week in hopes of adding some fire. Weird aura around this squad, they will have some great wins and troublesome losses.
West Virginia: Good Win: 68-67 vs. Virginia Tech Bad Loss: 60-56 @ Duquesne. Bob Huggins’ team is a poor man’s version of K-State. Both are rugged outfits that go through some scoring droughts. West Virginia has one guy who has made more than 10 3-pointers this year and they shoot just 27 percent from three. Sophomore Juwan Staten is a good lead guard, but teams will back off him all year until he makes a shot from outside (he is 0-6 currently.) Junior Aaric Murray has been a good surprise in the post, but the Mountaineers need more from Deniz Kilicli if they want to compete in the upper tier of the Big 12.
Texas: Good Win: 85-67 vs. then No. 23 North Carolina. Bad Loss: 86-73 @ Chaminade! Texas’ season started in disastrous fashion, losing in Maui to Chaminade is an awful omen. They have slowly started to put the pieces back together and looked much improved in a win over UNC and a competitive loss at Michigan State in recent weeks. But this is a disjointed team without point guard Myck Kabongo (who is suspened until mid February by the NCAA). They really labor on offense to find good looks. Leading scorer Shelden McClellan, who many expected to be a 1st team caliber guy, is shooting a paltry 36 percent from the field. Give Rick Barnes’ team some credit for this though….they will defend the heck out of you for 40 minutes. They are first in the Big 12 in FG percentage defense and will make you earn every bucket.
Oklahoma State @ K-State – Great first match-up will gauge which of these upper tier programs makes first statement.
Texas @ Baylor – Baylor should take care of business, but there is a reason Scott Drew is the Hugh Hefner of college basketball–he doesn’t always perform with talent.
Oklahoma @ West Virginia – If WVA wants to be in conversation with rest of the "7 pack", need to protect home floor against OU.
Texas Tech @ TCU – Whoever loses will be in the basement for foreseeable future.
Temple @ Kansas – Good test for KU against a Temple team that beat Syracuse. Clones go to KU on Wednesday.