Big 12 Preview (A novel)

Whatever they call what’s going to become of the Big 12, it’s going to be one helluva basketball conference.

Iowa State is relevant again because of Fred Hoiberg and will only get better in the next couple years; Oklahoma is awful this year but has too much history in basketball to be down for too long; despite K-State’s letdown start, Frank Martin is building a program in Manhattan; Scott Drew is one of the best recruiters in the country; Texas A&M has become a consistent NCAA tournament team; Texas is always talented; Mizzou and Oklahoma State have been strong historically and recently; and KU is KU. All that leaves is Texas Tech, which has declined since Pat Knight took over for his old man, but if Texas Tech makes a good hire after they most likely fire Knight (Billy Gillispie is available and would be a brilliant hire), this could be the best top to bottom conference in the country.

In its final year, in fact, the Big 12 team might already be the top conference top to bottom. Other conferences (Big East and Big 10) might be better at the top, but the Big 12 has a higher percentage of its teams in the AP Top 25 (5 of 12) and there are 10 legit teams in this conference. Legit, as in there are 10 teams that could make the NCAA Tournament. Most years Nebraska and Colorado (the Benedict Arnolds of the conference) are usually bringing the conference down, but both schools have their best teams in years and could even sneak into the NCAA Tournament.

So here’s my rankings of the conference (with a little help from what has happened already) and more words on the Big 12 than you’ll read anywhere else. We’ll start with the worst and work our way to the best. (All stats are through Tuesday, Jan. 11. For an explanation of some of the statistics used, read this.)

12. Oklahoma (8-8, 0-2 Big 12)

Ranked 135th in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Oral Roberts, 73-60

Worst loss: vs. Chaminade, 68-64

It’s kind of sad what’s happened to Jeff Capel at Oklahoma. Two years ago he had the best player in college basketball, Blake Griffin, and his team nearly made the Final Four before falling to eventual National Champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Capel followed that run with a solid recruiting class that included big man Tiny Gallon and Tommy Mason-Griffin. He also had Willie Warren returning, and Warren had been one of the best freshmen in the country the previous year.

Unfortunately, Warren, Gallon and Mason-Griffin were head cases, OU went 13-18 last year, all three declared for the NBA draft, and the scraps Capel has left aren’t much of a basketball team. The Sooners are so bad this year that they might be capable of going winless in the Big 12, which would probably result in Capel losing his job.

The Sooners do not do much of anything well, but they are a pretty good shooting team. They have an effective field goal percentage of 53.5 percent, which ranks 40th in the country. That might give them a chance to win some games, but they really miss Mason-Griffin (even if he was a cancer), because the Sooners are turning it over on 22.8 percent of their possessions without a solid point guard.

Cade Davis is the only recognizable player on this year’s roster (although not sure I can respect a guy with this haircut), and Davis is having a decent season, averaging 13.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Sophomore big man Andrew Fitzgerald is the team’s leading scorer at 13.5 points per game. Other than that, Oklahoma does not have Big 12-caliber talent and all OU has to look forward to is two games against Texas Tech.

11. Texas Tech (8-9, 0-2 Big 12)

Ranked 113th in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Stephen F. Austin, 70-58

Worst loss: vs. TCU, 81-77

Speaking of coaches on the hot seat, Pat Knight said before this season that this was a make or break year for him, knowing he needed to start putting up some results to keep his job.

Knight said that knowing his three best players returning this season were seniors, and I even picked Texas Tech as a sleeper coming into the season. Mike Singletary has always been one of the toughest covers in the Big 12 and blew up a couple years ago in the Big 12 tournament. John Roberson is a solid scoring point guard, and Brad Reese is one of those rare prototypical 6-foot-6 athletic swingmen who can shoot the 3-ball in college basketball. That’s three nice pieces.

But Texas Tech has been extremely disappointing, losing two head-scratchers to North Texas (team KU beat 93-60) and TCU. With a team lucky to win three Big 12 games, Knight is probably a lame duck coach.

One guy who doesn’t want to see Knight go (probably because it’s two guaranteed wins on his schedule every year) is Texas coach Rick Barnes. Barnes was gushing about how great of a coach Knight is earlier this week before his team smoked Tech 83-52 on Tuesday night on the road.

Some of what Barnes had to say is true – other than that part about Tech being able to beat anyone on its schedule. Tech has always run an enjoyable offense to watch and has good balance with every player a threat to score. All five of Tech’s starters are averaging better than 9 points per game with the three seniors leading the way. Tech also takes decent care of the basketball – turning it over 18.1 percent of the time. And as all Knight-coached teams have been (father and son), Tech is disciplined in taking shots inside the arc – 59.2 percent of Tech’s baskets are 2s, compared to just 19.8 percent 3s.

Maybe it’s not embracing the 3-point shot and not recruiting enough talent to run the Knight system that has led Tech into the gutter. Whatever it may be, this is not a good basketball team and will struggle to beat any of the top 10 teams in the league.

10. Oklahoma State (13-3, 1-1 Big 12)

Received 71 votes in AP poll, 17 in coaches poll; ranked 46th in Pomeroy’s ratings

Best win: vs. K-State, 76-62

Worst loss: vs. Gonzaga, 73-52

So far this season Oklahoma State looks like it’s going to be a pretty good team at home and a pretty mediocre team on the road.

The Cowboys are undefeated at home with wins against Missouri State (probably the best team in the always-solid Missouri Valley), Stanford, Alabama and K-State. In its only three true road games, OSU has lost two (Gonzaga and Texas A&M) and the Cowboys took two overtimes to get their only road win against LaSalle. OSU also has a loss on a neutral court to Virginia Tech.

Such a big drop off away from Stillwater is not all that unusual for the Cowboys. Last year, OSU went 15-1 at home and 3-7 in true road games. That was good enough to get OSU into the NCAA tournament and a similar performance could do the same this year.

Oklahoma State has all the pieces to finish in the top-half of the conference. Marshall Moses has gone from role player to go-to scorer this year and is averaging 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. Moses is one of the strongest – strong as in strength – post players in the league and is tough to guard because he’s a lefty. He does a good job of posting up and working angles.

Kenton Page, as KU learned last year, is a streaky shooter and can catch fire at any point. Page is shooting a mediocre 32.9 percent from beyond the arc, but expect that number to go up.

J.P. Olukemi could potentially be Oklahoma State’s best player by the end of the year. Olukemi is a tough matchup as a 6-7 swingman. He is a great driver and does an awesome job absorbing contact and finishing. He draws 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes. He is also very efficient when he has the ball, shooting 58.3 percent. He’s averaging 10.3 points, and his average should keep inching up with more playing time, which he’s earning.

Oklahoma State’s other important piece is Darrell Williams, who has sort of taken Moses old role of doing all the dirty work in the post. Williams is one of the best rebounders in the country, pulling down 16.6 percent of available offensive rebounds and 27.9 percent of defensive rebounds.

If the Cowboys can find a way to win some games on the road and continue to hold serve at home, they could easily finish in the top-half of the conference. For now, their road woes are too much of a red flag to put them any higher.

9. Iowa State (13-3, 0-1 Big 12)

Ranked 42nd in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: at Iowa, 75-72

Worst loss: at Northern Iowa, 60-54

Fred Hoiberg is a favorite from the Big Eight days. That dude could stroke it, and apparently he’s a damn good coach.

Hoiberg inherited a roster that lost an NBA draft pick in Craig Brackens and its second best player in Marquis Gilstrap, and somehow the Cyclones are better this season. I thought Hoiberg, who had zero coaching experience, was a brilliant hire because his last NBA franchise, the Minnesota Timberwolves, thought so much of him that they put him in the front office when he finished playing. Check out this Wall Street Journal feature for more on Hoiberg and how he ended up back at Iowa State.

As for Hoiberg’s team, he doesn’t have a ton of talent, but he’s making the most out of what he has. Point guard Diante Garrett has emerged as the team’s best player after just being a role player the last few years. (He took 17.7 percent of his team’s shots last year, and he’s taking 30.3 percent of the shots this year when he’s on the court.) Garrett has always had a nice handle and been a slithery slasher. As he showed against KU, he’s a great shot maker and can score from anywhere on the court. He’s averaging a team-best 17.1 points and leads the Big 12 with 5.8 assists per game. His assist rate* of 34.3 percent is good for 38th in the country.

*That’s assists divided by the field goals made by teammates when a player is on the court.

Garrett’s sidekick in the backcourt is Scott Christopherson, who is a great spot up shooter and fits in well with the penetrating point guard. Christopherson might be the best 3-point shooter in the league. He’s shooting 50.5 percent from beyond the arc and 48 of his 77 field goals have been 3-pointers. He’s averaging 14.5 points per game, one of five Cyclones averaging double figures (they don’t have much of a bench).

The improved play of the backcourt is reason 1A for Iowa State’s improvement, and reason 1B would be its improvement on the defensive end. Iowa State is holding opponents to a KenPom-adjusted 87.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 19th in the country. What makes the Cyclones’ defense so effective is they’re forcing tough shots, and holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 40.9 percent, which ranks sixth nationally.

In most conferences, Iowa State could probably finish middle of the pack. The Big 12 is so deep that it’s going to be difficult for the Cyclones to break into the top-half of the conference, but after Kansas, the next nine teams could finish in just about any order and I wouldn’t be that surprised.

8. Colorado (12-4)

Ranked 67th in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Missouri, 89-76

Worst loss: at San Francisco, 83-81

Colorado has shocked everyone by starting 2-0 with wins against Missouri and K-State. The Buffs were not all that impressive early in the season with losses at San Francisco and Harvard, but they’ve won 11 of their last 12 with wins over Colorado State (98th in Pomeroy), Indiana (78th in Pomeroy) and then of course the Tigers and Cats.

I think the Buffs caught Mizzou by surprise and it’s always a tough adjustment going to play in the altitude in Boulder, and K-State is falling apart, but it’s still a win take note of and proof Colorado is much improved two years after winning just one game in the Big 12.

The Buffs won six in the Big 12 last year, and the main reason for the improvement last year and this year is sophomore guard Alec Burks. Burks, who is from Grandview, somehow didn’t receive any interest from the local Big 12 schools, and Mizzou was certainly regretting that on Saturday when he scored 36 points.

Burks, who averages 20.1 points per game, and senior point guard Cory Higgins, who averages 15.4 points, form the best backcourt in the Big 12 (yes, you read that correctly). No duo is more important to its team. They combine to take 58.1 percent of Colorado’s shot attempts when they’re on the court, and that strategy has worked really well. The Buffs score a league-best 85.1 points.

Colorado scores 115.9 points per 100 possessions, and by playing through the two heady guards, they take great care of the ball, turning it over just 15.4 percent of their possessions (third-best in the country). Colorado also takes advantage of its trips to the free throw line, shooting 78 percent as a team. Burks is a great driver and draws 7.2 fouls for every 40 minutes played, and he is an 82.9 percent foul shooter. Higgins, who gets to the line the second most, shoots 89.7 percent.

A couple years ago after covering a CU game, one of my coworkers at the Denver Post came back to the office and said if you took away Colorado’s best player (Richard Roby at the time), our sports staff could give them a good game. Translation: they had crap talent. Now with Burks and Higgins, they have two studs and they also have a couple nice complementary pieces. Marcus Relphorde is a versatile 6-7 senior forward and averages 11.5 points per game, and spot-up shooter Levi Knutson averages 11.9 points and knocks down 50 percent of his 3s.

Don’t expect the Buffs to be better than Missouri (maybe K-State even though I have them ranked lower), but they could pull off a couple more upsets this year and are no longer a gimme win.

7. Nebraska (13-3, 1-1 Big 12)

Received four votes in this week’s Coaches poll; ranked 37th in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. USC, 60-58

Worst loss: vs. Davidson, 59-54

Since losing two in a row to Vanderbilt and Davidson, Nebraska reeled off 11 straight wins before losing at Mizzou and is a legitimate contender for an NCAA tourney bid.

The Huskers will have to prove me a smart man and finish at least seventh to make the tournament for the first time since 1998. They at least have a team that’s going to be very difficult to beat.

Just like Iowa State, Nebraska is one of the toughest teams in the country to score on. The Huskers lead the country in effective field goal percentage, holding opponents to 40.1 percent. They also hold opponents to an adjusted 86.3 points per 100 possessions.

Nebraska also has some great individual defenders. Senior guard Lance Jeter averages 2.1 steals per game and has a takeaway 4.7 percent of the defensive possessions he’s on the court (29th in the nation). Inside, Nebraska has benefited from the presence of junior college transfer big man Andre Almeida. Almeida is a load (he really fills up a uniform) at 6-foot-11 and 300-plus pounds. He not only takes up space, but he’s been a great shot blocker, blocking 1.7 shots per game and blocking a shot in 13.3 percent of the possessions he’s on the court (10th-best in the country).

Offensively, Nebraska is extremely balanced. The Huskers’ averages are eye-poppingly rare. They have two guys average double figures, but those two guys – Jeter and Brian Jorge-Diaz – average just better than 10 points per game. They also have nine guys* average more than 15 minutes per game. As I pointed out with KU earlier this year, that sort of minute distribution is extremely rare.

*They have 10 guys averaging 15-plus if you count Uncle Jesse (Christian Standhardinger). Standhardinger left the program after six games, because of (shocker here) playing time. Doc apparently played too many guys for his liking, and he’s transferring to LaSalle.

Nebraska, like Texas Tech, scores most of its points (59.9 percent) inside the arc and does so extremely effectively, making 57 percent of its 2s (fourth-best nationally). With Almeida, Jorge-Diaz (6-foot-11) and Brandon Ubel (6-10), Nebraska works to get the ball in the post.

In the final year of the Big 12, this is a team that I’m more interested in seeing how they do more than any other. After all, 11 straight wins is something to be impressed about – even if only three of those wins (USC, Creighton and Iowa State) are against teams in Pomeroy’s top 100. The Huskers could be the surprise team of the year, or they could be what they’ve always been, somewhere between the eighth to 10th best team in the Big 12.

6. K-State (12-5, 0-2 Big 12)

Ranked 21st in AP poll, 20th in Coaches poll, 40th in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Virginia Tech, 73-57

Worst loss: vs. Colorado, 74-66

Does this seem low for the team picked to win the Big 12 in the preseason? After the Cats’ start, I nearly dropped them to 10th. I’m going to give Frank Martin the benefit of the doubt and I think Curtis Kelly will return from his suspension on Saturday extremely motivated.

Kelly had been sort of disappointing before his suspension. After averaging 11.5 points and taking 20 percent of the shots when he was on the court last year, his usage has gone up this year (he’s taking 24 percent of the shots) but he’s averaging only 10 points per game.

Kelly is a talented post player and has enough game to make an impact, and I believe he is the key to the rest of the season. Pullen has started to play better, but he needs some help and K-State does not have another player who is skilled enough to be a go-to scorer other than Jamar Samuels, and Samuels is kind of a cry-baby.

If Martin does not try to work Kelly back in the rotation or he does not come back strong, this could be a really tough season for K-State. Heck, it’s already been rough.

I already broke down what’s the matter with K-State earlier this week at Basketball Prospectus. What has stood out to me more than anything else is the void Denis Clemente has left in the lineup.

Without another point guard ready to plug in and be a starter, Martin was forced to move Pullen over to the point and he’s just not meant to play there. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote in my story:

Specifically Jacob Pullen has had problems as a scoring point guard. His turnover rate has ticked up from last year, while his shooting numbers have dropped without his speedy sidekick Clemente setting him up. Pullen’s effective FG percentage is 47.2 (down from 53.3 last year), and he’s shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc (down from 40).

Meanwhile Pullen’s usage numbers are similar to last year. In other words he’s not shooting much more often, but the type of shots he’s taking are different. Pullen excels playing off the ball and using screens to get open. He’s also a great face-up shooter out of the proverbial triple-threat position, but this year Pullen has had to create for himself off the dribble.

Martin would love to move Pullen off the ball, and he’s tried to get freshman Will Spradling more minutes, but Spradling just isn’t ready to be a major contributor yet.

Clemente, as wild as he was, did not turn the ball over much and K-State is turning it over on 22 percent of its possessions, which ranks 254th nationally. K-State needs to figure out a way to get its turnovers down and get more scoring out of Kelly and Samuels to help out Pullen. The Cats also need to figure out a way to get back on track with their schedule about to get brutal.

After a road game at Texas Tech on Saturday (that has to be a win), K-State is at Missouri, at Texas A&M, home against Baylor and at KU. The Cats could very easily be 1-6 in the Big 12 in a few weeks and Martin might stare a hole right through the forehead of one of his players. Still, I think this team will find a way to finish around .500 in the conference and make it into the tourney.

5. Baylor (12-3, 2-0 Big 12)

Received 111 votes in AP poll, 58 in Coaches poll; ranked 31st in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Texas Tech, 71-59

Worst loss: vs. Florida State, 68-61

Baylor probably has the second-most talented roster in the Big 12 (behind only Kansas), but the Bears have the least impressive resume of the top 10 teams in the conference thus far.

Baylor does not have one win against a top 100 team in the Pomeroy ratings and is 0-3 against teams in the top 100. Baylor’s three loses (Gonzaga, Washington State and Florida State) have all come on a neutral court, and the Florida State loss looks a little better after FSU knocked off Duke.

Even without a marquee win, the Bears have so much talent that they could finish second in the Big 12 and no one would be shocked. They are already off to a nice start thanks to two wins against the bottom feeders.

Now about that talent, Scott Drew sure can recruit. LaceDarius Dunn is still around (he’s finally a senior) and he’s the team’s go-to guy. Dunn leads the Big 12 in scoring at 22.5 points per game and takes 33.1 percent of the shots when he’s on the court.

Dunn is surrounded by some other nice offensive pieces but not guys who are really dominant scorers. Freshman Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy are both pretty good scorers in the post, both averaging better than 13 a game. Jones III and Acy, as well as junior Anthony Jones, are all guys that Jay Bilas would fall in love with (they’re long) and fit really well in when Drew uses his zone defense. It’s as if Drew is modeling his team after Syracuse with all the length and pogo-stick jumpers.

Baylor used to be terrible defensively, but it’s almost impossible with this roster to be poor defensively. The Bears are giving up 89.5 points per 100 possessions.

Jones III will most likely keep improving throughout the season and is regarded as one of the best NBA prospects in college basketball and projected as the No. 1 pick by some scouts.

Unlike K-State, Baylor has found a viable replacement at point guard* in A.J. Walton. Walton is averaging 5.3 assists and has an assist rate of 28.7 percent.

*I miss Tweety Carter. One of my all-time favorite players in the conference. Plus, it was always fun to yell out: “Tweety!”

Baylor might have the most to prove because of its play in the nonconference, but if this team gets some confidence – possibly with a win at home against KU on Monday – they could have a great conference season and make another run in the tournament after making it to the Elite Eight last year before losing to Duke.

4. Texas A&M (15-1, 2-0 Big 12)

Best win: vs. Washington, 63-62

Worst loss: vs. Boston College, 67-65

Ranked 14th in AP poll, 13th in Coaches poll, 27th in Pomeroy ratings

Every year, I feel the same way about Texas A&M. The Aggies don’t have otherworldly talent*. Looking at their numbers, nothing is all that eye popping. They are pretty good on the boards (outrebounding opponents by 12.1 boards per game and pulling down 41.6 percent of their own misses). Even though they may not past the eye test and they are not the most entertaining team to watch, every year the Aggies play smart basketball and they keep winning and making NCAA tournaments.

*Khris Middleton might be the one exception here. He’s a 6-7 athletic swingman who can shoot the 3 and take the ball to the basket. That’s rare.

What this proves is that Mark Turgeon is a really good coach, and he finds a way to get the most out of his players. For example, Nathan Walkup has always been a guy who is just in there to do the dirty work, and he’s averaging 10.3 points per game.

As I said earlier, Middleton is a talented player and he leads the team in scoring at 15 points per game. Just a sophomore, Middleton could end up being a player of the year type guy later on in his career. David Loubeau gives A&M a solid scorer in the post. Loubeau is averaging 11.4 points per game.

The Aggies do not have enough talent to win the league, but they are going to be one of the most difficult teams to beat and will end up somewhere in the top four of the conference and once again in the NCAA tournament. I’ll go ahead and copy and paste this preview for next year.

3. Texas (13-3, 1-0 Big 12)

Ranked 12 in AP poll, 14th in coaches poll, 9th in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Illinois, 90-84, OT

Worst loss: at USC, 73-56

Remember this time last year for Texas? The Longhorns were 17-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. Then some chemistry and identity issues made the wheels come off and UT finished with seven Big 12 losses and lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

So is this team different? I think so.

The Longhorns might not have figured everything out yet – they’re young – but they at least have a better idea of roles than last year’s team. Jordan Hamilton is unquestionably the alpha dog, and he’s taking 33 percent of the shots when he’s on the court and averaging 19.4 points. Granted, he’s a chucker, but he’s not as wild as he was last year and is one of the toughest covers in the country.

Hamilton also has some talented offensive players around him and guys who aren’t going to mope when they don’t get shots. Tristan Thompson is the second-best freshman big man in the country (behind Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger). Thompson has a huge wingspan – he looks bigger than 6-8 – and finishes well around the rim. He’s averaging 12.7 points and 7.8 rebounds. Gary Johnson is averaging 11.9 points and 7.4 rebounds and is one of the most improved players in the conference. Johnson has always been a decent role guy, but he looks like he’s moving a lot better this year and has developed a handle that allows him to step out and take big men off the dribble.

Rick Barnes’ best teams have always had good point guard play (T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustine) and Barnes again has a talented point guard in freshman Cory Joseph. Joseph, unlike Dogus Balbay, is a threat to score at the point – he’s averaging 11.3 points – and is also a good distributor. Balbay has moved over to the two-guard spot and typically guards the opposition’s best perimeter player. He’s a pest defensively and a good enough penetrator to not hurt the team too much on offense. When Barnes wants offense, he goes to the best sixth man in the conference, J’Covan Brown. Brown is averaging 9.5 points per game and is a shot maker. If the Horns need a basket late in the shot clock, he’s their man.

I might start to sound like a broken record, but just like many other teams in this conference, what makes Texas really good is its defense. The Horns have a lot of length and are tough to shoot over. They are sixth in the country in adjusted defense, giving up 84.7 points per 100 possessions, and they rank second in effective field goal percentage defense (40.3 percent). It’s tough not to put this team at No. 2, and their inexperience is the only reason I don’t have them second.

2. Missouri (15-2, 1-1 Big 12)

Ranked 15th in AP poll, 12th in Coaches poll, 28th in Pomeroy ratings

Worst loss: at Colorado, 75-64

Best win: vs. Illinois, 75-64

Yes, I am a KU grad. And because I’m a KU grad, I’m not supposed to say what I’m about to say (I may be shunned), but I really, really enjoy watching Missouri play this year.

It’s always fun to watch a team that play fast (as Missouri always does), but what makes this Missouri team so much fun to watch is its guards. Marcus Denmon has gotten some love lately and some are saying he’s the Big 12 player of the year to date. I’m not ready to go there, but Denmon is a KC kid who is hard to root against after what his family has been through.

Denmon, sort of surprisingly, has become Mizzou’s go-to scorer and not Kim English, who was expected to be the go-to guy. Denmon is averaging 17 points per game and shooting 48.9 percent from beyond the arc. He is the best shooter in the league off the dribble. His ability to rise up and take a jumper at any point and his improved ability to take the ball to the basket makes him really tough to cover.

Point guard Michael Dixon is also fun to watch, although he’s also frustrating if you’re a Tiger fan because he takes a lot of ill-advised shots. Dixon is super quick and is not afraid to take a big shot (probably also why he forces some dumb ones). Where Dixon really excels is on the defensive end, where he averages 2.3 steals per game and gets a steal 4.9 percent of the possessions he’s on the court. Denmon is also quite the thief, averaging 2 steals per game.

Backing up Dixon and Denmon are the Pressey brothers, Matt and Phil, who also provide plenty of speed and continue to get better.

With all that speed, you would think it would fit perfectly in Mike Anderson’s full-court press, but there have been some games when the Tigers give up too many easy baskets using their press and have been better when they fall back into a halfcourt man-to-man defense. That was the case in a 111-102 overtime loss to Georgetown, a game Mizzou had won and chocked away in the final minutes of regulation.

The guard play has definitely made Mizzou better this year, but the reason I expect them to finish so high in the conference is their improved play in the post. Last year, Mizzou did not have a true post guy and got exposed against teams with legit big men (like KU). Junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe has given Mizzou a legit big body. Ratliffe is averaging 11.4 points and 7 rebounds per game. Junior Laurence Bowers is also much improved and has been a surprise this year. Bowers is averaging 12.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and is one of the best shot blockers in the league with 2.4 blocks per game.

The one area where the big men and the entire team need to improve is rebounding. Mizzou is outrebounding opponents by just one board a game (a low margin for this time of year when teams have played a lot of cupcakes). Against Colorado, Mizzou got beat on the boards 45-32.

The CU loss was a bad one, but Mizzou proved in the nonconference that it is one of the best in the league and I expect they’ll bounce back. And I’ll be watching – albeit with a semi-guilty conscience.

1. Kansas (16-0, 1-0 Big 12)

Ranked 3rd in AP and Coaches polls; ranked 3rd in Pomeroy ratings

Best win: vs. Arizona, 87-79

Worst loss: NA

Did you really expect me to pick anyone else? It’s tough to pick another team when Kansas is undefeated and has won six straight Big 12 titles. To get perspective on how freaking incredible it is to win six straight conference titles, check out Sam Mellinger’s column in today’s Kansas City Star.

I got in a twitter debate with Jason King on Tuesday after King said KU was the second or third best team in the Big 12 right now, and I wrote this in response to what I thought was a short-sighted declaration. Of course, King’s point was that his rankings are right now and not what he believes will ultimately happen (he too thinks KU will win the Big 12). My point: KU might be doing just enough to win (see Sunday’s overtime win against Michigan), but the Jayhawks are still winning every game and no matter who they play right now, I think they would do just enough to win. That was again true at Iowa State.

That’s not to say that I think the Jayhawks are going to continue this trend of just getting by when they play legit competition, which is pretty much all they’re going to face now that the conference season has begun. Bill Self’s teams always get better in conference play, and this team has already proven when you look at the whole body of work that it has the potential to be great.

Just look at these numbers (before Wednesday’s game):

  • By Pomeroy’s calculations, Kansas is the 12th-best offensive team in the country (117.2 points per 100 possessions) and the best defensive team (81.5 points per 100 possessions).
  • KU leads the country in 2-point shooting (59.3 percent) and is second in effective field goal percentage (58.6 percent).
  • KU is beating opponents by 24.6 points per game.

King and anyone else who questions the legitimacy of KU’s start will obviously point to KU’s margin of victory against BCS teams (5.4), but the numbers that matter more than that are 6 and 0, as in KU is 6-0 in those games.

The Jayhawks certainly need to get better, but the talent is there. What’s more encouraging to me than anything else is KU plays a style that Self wants them to play – a style similar to the 2007-08 championship team. The Jayhawks are unselfish and do not care who gets the credit for winning or who takes the shots. They work every possession to get the best shot, and that’s why their shooting percentages are so high. Even Josh Selby, the super-hyped freshman, has bought in to this philosophy. Selby got to watch for nine games how efficient KU’s offense is when working for the best shot and playing inside-out, and he hasn’t tried to change that.

The Jayhawks need to start playing with the intensity and step-on-the-throat mentality that the championship team eventually developed, but they have close to as much talent and this team is unquestionably the best in the conference – even if they keep playing at the level where they are at right now. Obviously, they are going to get better, and they could be good enough to get back to the Final Four and win another championship.

After going through a tough Big 12, as deep as the conference has ever been, the Jayhawks will certainly be ready for the tourney.

About The Author

C.J. Moore is the Lead College Basketball Writer at Bleacher Report. He is a University of Kansas grad and a basketball nerd. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

4 Comments

  1. RC says:

    Well done.

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