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JSR Big XII Preview

As the holidays wind down the conference season is rapidly approaching. JSR is taking this time to do a recap of the Big XII as it stands today and give you an idea of what to expect as Kansas attempts to make its way to a ninth consecutive conference title and 56th overall conference title. All thanks are given to Ken Pomeroy who graciously allows articles such as this. We start at the bottom of the league…

This thing is named Raider Red and he wants you to turn away from Tech basketball before you get hurt.

The Garbage

Texas Tech

Current Record: 5-3

KenPom Big XII Projection: 3-15, 238th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: Nothing. This is an awful team and you should not watch them more than twice unless you are a hardcore hoops junkie. Texas Tech started out the season with some level of promise other than a drubbing at the hands of a talent-rich Arizona team. But after dropping a game against McNeese State and responding well by putting a scare into a decent Alabama team they once again rolled over for the Pac-12 and let projected bottom feeder Arizona State whip them by 15 at home.

Tech decided that the best preparation for the rigors of the road in the Big XII was to one up Jim Boeheim and confine its student athletes to Lubbock for the duration of the non-conference season. Despite the inclusion of Arizona this was the second weakest non-conference slate played by any team in the nation. Perhaps the coaching staff was hoping that no one noticed what was going on there (and judging by the attendance not many have) and they could spring a surprise or two on the league. Alternatively they may fear that once outside of their austere confines of Lubbock their players will abandon a lost cause and defect. Whatever the reason for this scheduling oddity they have two awful non-conference games left before they open in a pillow fight with Texas Christian for their first road contest of the season.

Texas Christian University

Current Record: 8-4

Next time your conference wants to add a coach to its ranks just hire the guy coaching a mid-major football team rather than add the whole school.

KenPom Big XII Projection: 3-15, 229th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: TCU got busy proving that it belongs in a power conference by scheduling the 9th worst non-conference schedule in the nation to this point. The highlight of their non-conference was probably squeezing out a road win against Rice (307th nationally) by 2 points. TCU will duke it out with Tech to see who can finish at the bottom of the league.

Those who elect to follow the Horned Frogs should take note of TCU’s quest towards a Big XII record. They are currently on pace to be the worst offensive team (national offensive efficiency by KenPom) on record. Those records go back 10 years and TCU’s 304th rating puts them just in front of last year’s Tech squad that finished 296th in that regard. At least Tech can say that they are young. TCU checks in 53rd nationally for experience. TCU can’t shoot and puts up an awful percentage from short and long range. They complement that by shooting free throws poorly and turning the ball over a lot. This team would have been an embarrassment in its old conference. Sadly they have a chance to finish better in the Big XII than they would in the Mountain West because Texas Tech is equally as awful.

The Disappointments

West Virginia

Current Record: 6-5

KenPom Big XII Projection: 7-11, 86th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: West Virginia held a lot of promise to be a good basketball addition to the Big XII. Big things were rightly expected of a team that had finished rated in the top 10 twice and the top 25 once (KenPom) in the last 4 years. The Big XII thought it was getting a solid top 25 type team. Instead it has gotten a team that appears destine to struggle to finish outside of the bottom half of the conference standings. And yes, the above could be taken to apply equally to the WVU football team as well. Hurray for conference realignment.

The empty air in between Bob Huggins hands represents exactly what West Virginia has brought to the Big XII so far.

West Virginia is a pretty mediocre team overall. Their overall ranking of 86th is pretty indicative of an unspectacular offense (106th) and defense (93rd). Offensively the team can’t shoot the ball, particularly from deep where they are knocking down just 28% of their shots for the year. Defensively there is just nothing outstanding they can rely upon to get the job done. In typical Huggins fashion they are a stout offensive rebounding team but there if one can keep them off the glass they are likely to struggle to score. This is easily Huggins worst team since getting to West Virginia.

Texas

Current Record: 7-5

KenPom Big XII Projection: 10-8, 50th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: Oh Rick Barnes…you trickster you. Somehow, someone took a stab at defending Rick Barnes here as the season got underway. Perhaps it was his unthreatening, milkman like looks. Perhaps it was the continual stream of highly rated recruits that have cycled through Texas. Perhaps it was the booze talking. It is best not to dwell on these things.

Despite a big win over North Carolina (another team clearly burdened with unfair expectations given the dearth of talent they are suffering) Texas has been an embarrassing train wreck for the Big XII this year. The horror show raised the curtain with a loss to Chaminade and followed that with a rousing encore in a loss to USC (131st nationally) the next day. The remainder of UT’s losses have been to teams you know (Georgetown, UCLA, Michigan State) and the rest of their wins are against teams you have never heard of. The North Carolina game featured big offensive performances out of two players (Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes) that are huge outliers on their performances the rest of the season. It might be a sign that these players are simply developing as the season goes on but forgive us for not trusting Rick Barnes anymore.

Getting Myck Kabongo back would be a lift to this team but expectations seem to be getting a bit out of line for a guy who averaged 9 points, 5 assist and had a 1.72 assist to turnover ratio last year. It will help to settle down what has been a woeful offense (200th nationally) that can’t hold onto the ball (309th in turnover percentage) but after sitting for 23 games it seems ambitious to expect him to turn that all around on his own. Texas is a salty defensive team (4th nationally but 3rd in the Big XII, go figure) so they have a chance to really frustrate the bevy of Big XII teams that struggle to score the ball. And with the Big XII only having 3 teams in the top 50 for offensive efficiency UT seems to have a better chance than WVU of turning its season around in conference and making the NCAA’s (having a signature win against UNC will help tremendously with that).

The Renovation Projects

Lon Kruger grimly surveying the wreckage of OU's program left behind by the latest flame out from the Duke coaching tree

Oklahoma

Current Record: 7-3

KenPom Big XII Projection: 7-11, 85th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: Last year Lon Kruger joined the proud ranks of those who get to clean up latest swath of devastation left behind by the Kryzewski coaching tree when Jeff Capel was chased out of town and ran back home to mama. Kruger has a long and successful coaching track record and there are a couple of ways to look at this season so far for OU.

OU has really only been blown out in one game when they lost by 25 to Gonzaga (who has shamefully been the bane of the Big XII beating KSU, OU and WVU by an average of 25 freaking points). There is no shame in losing by 3 on the road at Arkansas for a program in OU’s state. Losing by 1 at home to Steven F. Austin is not welcome but is the kind of thing that happens to a rebuilding program. One could say that OU is 6 points from having just one loss…

Then again one could also say that OU is just a few points from having a really awful record. If you take out the blowout win against Louisiana Monroe and the big loss to Gonzaga OU’s other 8 games have been decided by an average of 4.6 points. They have wins against West Virginia (who is not that good) and Texas A&M (who is worse than WVU…man I love conference realignment) which are at least names one recognizes. A win against Ohio (58th nationally) would be big for this squad as it heads into conference play. Really though one should expect to see a team that pretty much is what it is. Much like West Virginia it is not any one thing that is holding the Sooners back. Their offense (104th rated) and defense (88th) are pretty reflective of their overall ranking nationally. OU simply does not have the talent to do a lot more right now.

Iowa State

Current Record: 9-3

The "Mayor" will have work to do if ISU is to stage a repeat visit to the NCAA's this year without Royce White in the lineup

KenPom Big XII Projection: 10-8, 44th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: Fred Hoiberg inherited an Iowa State program in chaos. His solution early on has been a bevy of transfers and reclamation projects. To his credit it worked well enough last year to earn the team a tourney birth and revitalize a program that had been dormant for some time. The early departure of Royce White change the makeup of this Iowa State team substantially but on the surface they have put in a solid record so far this year.

The fundamental issue for Iowa State at this point is that their non-conference schedule only featured three real games (Cincy, UNLV and Iowa) and ISU went 0-3 in those games. Their best win is against BYU who is not having a great year. For ISU to have any chance of going to the NCAA’s they are going to have to win a few marquee games and post a solid record in the Big XII. They might be helped, as many teams will, by the overall weakness of the field this year. Somehow the Big XII is the 4th best conference in the nation this year (according to KenPom) even with all of its problems.

As has been the case recently Iowa State will be a dangerous team primarily because they shoot a lot of 3’s. They are 47th in the nation in the percentage of their shots taken from deep and they shoot a respectable 36% from distance. They have been surprisingly stout on the glass this year as well. But much like OU and WVU (and unlike Texas who should be better offensively than they are) there does not seem to be a lot ISU can do (other than getting hot from deep for an extended stretch) to really change their overall trajectory for this season.

The Pretenders

Kansas State

Current Record: 9-2

KenPom Big XII Projection: 11-7, 35th Ranked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: Kansas State’s recent win over Florida probably did more to change the narrative of their season than any win by any team in the Big XII. It propelled Kansas State up into the rankings (coaches and AP) and, if you are an optimist, provided a glimpse into what many think Bruce Weber’s motion offense can do for the Wildcats.

Bruce Weber brings an underserved reputation as an offensive coach to the Big XII. Can he fool KSU into granting him a second contract? Stay tuned.

If one is pulling for Kansas State the best way to look at the season is that the Florida game was a natural evolution and shows growth for the team. That one win pulled KSU’s rankings from 52nd to an area around the mid-thirties. Given the fact that KSU has a new coach and is installing a new offense there is every reason to believe that might be the case.

The other way to look at the situation is that KSU has played 3 legit teams in the non-conference (Florida, Michigan and Gonzaga) and lost two of them by an average of 15 points while playing tight games against Delaware and George Washington. The Florida game is just an exception where one team played up and the other played down.

The truth most likely is somewhere in between. KSU has enough residual toughness (as evidenced by 7th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage) left over from Frank Martin’s tenure that they are not to be taken lightly. The college basketball media is laboring under the conception that KSU is going to get better offensively as it picks up Weber’s motion offense. This is most likely a bunch of nonsense. At Illinois Weber inherited a young team that had finished 14th in offensive efficiency under Bill Self in 2003. One can argue if his coaching improved that team offensively or not, but over the next three years they would post finishes of 6th, 3rd and 16th nationally.

However since 2006 Weber as only had one team finish in the top 50 for offensive efficiency and his average finish has been 86th. This year’s edition of the Wildcats sits at 58th nationally on offense (Frank Martin’s five years produced four performances better than this). Hell, even last year’s version of KSU with pretty much the same players finished 53rd so Weber has hardly brought huge improvement at this point. In fact his squad is shooting the ball at an atrocious 45.2% eFG% (effective FG percentage) which is good for 262nd nationally. The only thing keeping KSU respectable on offense is the offensive rebounding mentioned above. In fact of the 16 teams both have coached since 2003 this is the worst shooting team either Weber or Martin has put on the floor. If one can keep KSU off the offensive glass they are going to struggle to score unless something really changes on offense.

Defensively this squad is not terribly different from last years. The teams hope for contending has to hinge on the offense building off the game against Florida and making a lasting change that pushes them into the top 20-30 for offensive efficiency. There are mountains of evidence out there that would argue against Weber being able to coach this particular group of players to that kind of performance but expect the media to continue the drumbeat of this team having a learning curve for his motion offense for the remainder of the year. KSU looks like they should fall short of competing for the conference crown because of their inability to put the ball in the hoop against teams that won’t allow them to dominate the offensive glass.

Baylor

Current Record: 8-3

KenPom Big XII Projection: 11-7, 31st Ranked Team Nationally

"Ok, we really need a defensive stop so I want you all to stand around passively in a zone before giving up a lob or backdoor cut for an easy basket. Just like we did in practice boys."

Things you Ought to Know: Scott Drew is their coach. Moving on….

Ok, there are a few more things but none are more important than the above fact. Baylor under Drew could charitably be described as inconsistent and they have done nothing to shed that label in the first third of this season. Only Baylor could manage to sandwich a fairly convincing win at Kentucky with home losses to College of Charleston and Northwestern.

This Baylor team looks a lot like most of Drew’s Baylor squads but does not really have the same level of shooting ability. It is the worst 3 point shooting team Baylor has put on the floor since 2004. Overall the offense is a slight step back (22nd nationally) from what people have seen out of Baylor the past few years (if we ignore the coiled pile of stink Drew left in the corner in 2011) when Baylor was generally within the top 15. The defense has not yet shown signs of being any better checking in at 68th nationally.

All told Baylor has looked like what most Scott Drew teams look like. They are talented enough to beat just about anyone. But dropping games to teams ranked 45th, 81st and 151st only 11 games into the season seems to indicate they could lose to about anyone not named TCU or Texas Tech as well. There is a chance that the talent at Baylor could come together and they could put on a run but there is no evidence out there that Drew can coach defense at the level necessary to win the Big XII. In the end Baylor’s defense probably keeps them from being a serious player for the title.

The Contender

Oklahoma State

Current Record: 10-1

KenPom Big XII Projection: 13-5, 19thRanked Team Nationally

Marcus Smart is the key to Oklahoma State's season as he can make things happen on both ends of the floor for the Cowboys.

Things you Ought to Know: In many years in the Big XII this Oklahoma State squad would find itself down in the muck trying to fight its way to 3rd, 4th or 5th in the league. Checking in nationally at 19th on KenPom has typically not been the gateway to conference championships. But with a down league this year and a very stout defense Oklahoma State is the odds on favorite to be the biggest challenge for Kansas in the Big XII this year and should not be underestimated.

The biggest surprise with Oklahoma State, and the biggest reason to think that they could be a legit conference title contender, is their defense which checks in 4th nationally (2nd in the Big XII). That level of defensive performance is impressive for a team that is fairly young at this point. Marcus Smart has proven to be the defender that many expected to this point. When a team features two players as talented as Smart and Nash on the perimeter and can hold the other teams scoring down they should have a chance to compete against just about anyone. Oklahoma State can support those two with reasonable talent elsewhere on the floor.

There are two main causes for concern. For as much talent as it seems OSU has the offense has just not clicked. It checks in 76th nationally and 5th in the Big XII. Nash and Smart have started the year ice cold from long range (a combined 20 for 75 to this point) and that has driven the team to sit at 221st nationally from three. Beyond that statistic there is no one area of major concern for OSU but in almost all major areas of offensive measure OSU sits right around 100th nationally. If the offense does not improve it seems likely that OSU, while being capable of beating just about anyone, will be susceptible to another loss like it suffered against Virginia Tech (110th nationally).

The second major reason for concern is a very weak non-conference slate. Checking in at 255th nationally it just has not been a rigorous test to this point for OSU. An upcoming game against Gonzaga (who seems to be looking to join the Big XII as they already have 3 wins against the league and still have Baylor and OSU to play in the next 10 days or so) will give OSU a chance to validate what they did against North Carolina State early in the year. They have played only one team in the top 100 since November 18th so the difficulty will ramp up quickly with Gonzaga at home and Kansas State on the road.

For the Cowboys to be serious contenders they are going to need Smart and Nash to carry the water offensively. If Smart can create more easy shots for his teammates and Nash can start to be more efficient offensively Oklahoma States defense has a chance to carry them into contention.

The Favorite

Kansas

Current Record: 10-1

Bill Self hopes to engineer a return to the Final Four with his latest edition of the Jayhawks.

KenPom Big XII Projection: 15-3, 5thRanked Team Nationally

Things you Ought to Know: Kansas comes into the conference season as the eight time defending champion of the Big XII and looks to have the inside track on defending its title once again. Kansas enters the Big XII season as the best offensive and defensive team in the conference and is projected a full 4 games clear of everyone not named Oklahoma State over whom the Jayhawks have a 2 game advantage in projections.

Looking across the board at the Jayhawks there are not a whole lot of weaknesses on either side of the ball. The team is not a great three point shooting team (it is better than last year’s squad and looks to be improving after a slow start) but it certainly an average team in that regard. Defensively KU won’t force a lot of turnovers which would be a cause for concern if Self coached teams had ever relied upon that before, which they really have not.

The team is an elite defensive team in the paint, blocking the 2nd highest percentage of shots in the nation and holding teams to the 3rd worst 2-point FG percentage. This has been one of Self’s better defensive teams against three point shooters as well which is hardly a surprise given the presence of Travis Releford and the overall length of KU’s perimeter defenders. On the offensive end of the floor KU is efficient in the paint, does not turn the ball over very much and is generally efficient from the line.

Statistically it would be a surprise if a healthy KU team did not win the Big XII fairly handily. KU has a 70% or so chance of winning 15 plus games in the Big XII. OSU at present is only given a 15% or so chance of cracking the 15 win barrier with Baylor and KSU checking in around 10%. The usual clichés of course apply. KU can’t afford to take anything for granted and the first stumble (there always is one) will bring out doubters. But the fact is that most of KU’s close competitors are likely to stumble as much if not more over a long 18 game stretch of Big XII play.

KU under Self has a track record of for the consistency that is necessary to win a conference title and the early results from this season indicate that other programs are going to have to come get the title from the Jayhawks rather than see it simply given over by default. Bill Self has a team admirably equipped for the task of gaining conference title number 9 in his tenure at Kansas.

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