Baylor has been up and down, but Pierre Jackson is playing well. - Cooper Neill
The first month of the college hoops season is finished. In some cases, early games are starting to reveal things about the strengths and weaknesses of Big 12 teams. But other teams remain a mystery.
Let's check in with the teams of the Big 12.
It should come as no surprise that the Jayhawks look to be the class of the Big 12 again this year. It is also no surprise that the Jayhawks are hard to score on. Bill Self's team currently leads the nation in shot block percentage, sending away an estimated 24 percent of opponent two point attempts. The Kansas defense blocks 30 percent of opponent attempts at the rim (No. 1 in the hoop-math.com ratings), and as a result Jayhawk opponents only make 42 percent of their attempts at the rim (also No. 1 in the nation). Jeff Withey is doing just as he was expected to do.
Freshman Ben McLemore is as good as was advertised before the start of the season. The 6-5 guard is efficient on offense because he gets to the rim and finishes. 38 percent of his shot attempts are layups or dunks, and he has made 72 percent of these shots from in close. Topping the freshman is 6-6 senior Travis Releford, who has gotten half of his attempts at the rim, and has connected on 76 percent of these attempts. Program player Elijah Johnson is as dangerous of an outside shooter as ever, going 15-39 from downtown to start the season.
Kansas' lone loss was a close one against Michigan State. Their best win was against St. Louis. The remaining games before conference play include home contests against Belmont, Richmond, and Temple, and a road trip to Columbus to play the Buckeyes.
Oklahoma State (7-1)
Oklahoma State started off the season on a roll, beating Akron, Tennessee, and North Carolina State in November. After that, their schedule softened up considerably, although they did drop a game on the road at Virginia Tech. Le'Bryan Nash is having an outstanding sophomore season. He still isn't a great shooter, but he is getting to the rim more this season, with 40 percent of his attempts coming at the tin. That aggression has also landed him at the free throw line more this year as well. Freshman Marcus Smart's shot is still a work in progress, but he has played well, posting a respectable for a freshman 22 percent turnover rate. And Smart gets after it on defense.
Speaking of defense, the Cowboys have defended much better than I anticipated going into the season. They are starting to make me a believer, particularly with Kamari Murphy and Philip Jurick on the inside. One factor that gives me pause is that OSU opponents are only making 57 percent of their unblocked shots at the rim. This is one of the lowest totals in my database, and is the reason why the Cowboys are the No. 13 team in the country in opponent shooting percentage at the rim, despite being good, but not great, at blocking shots. I don't know if this result is a fluke or not -- I simply have not looked into it -- but I do wonder.
The Cowboys schedule is pretty soft until conference play, with one notable exception. Travis Ford's team gets a home game against Gonzaga on New Year's Eve.
Kansas State (7-1)
Rodney McGruder is in a shooting slump. His current true shooting percentage is 0.468. His mid-range shots are going down close to their historical rates, but McGruder has only hit 55 percent of his shots at the rim and 26 percent of his threes. Don't expect for this to hold. As a team, Kansas State struggles to put the ball in the basket -- their team true shooting percentage of 0.491 is even behind that of the bricklaying Longhorns -- but Kansas State does enough other things well on offense to cover for it. One of the great mysteries coming into the season was if the Wildcats would continue to go to the offensive glass, or if new coach Bruce Weber would prefer to drop his team back in transition D, as he did with some of his more recent Illinois teams. Well, K-State is still going to the glass, and is currently the No. 3 team in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. So I guess that settles that.
The Wildcat's lone strong opponent so far this year was Michigan, who tore them apart the day after Thanksgiving. The schedule now gets much tougher, with games against Gonzaga and Florida.
It isn't even worth trying to figure these guys out. Baylor's resume so far this year includes a nine point win on the road in Lexington against the Kentucky Wildcats. That is a hell of a win. But Baylor's resume also lists home losses against the College of Charleston and Northwestern. This is why this stuff can be really hard to figure out.
In that Baylor win against UK, Kentucky shot 4-22 from three point range and went 9-18 from the free throw line. Maybe that helps to clarify things.
Pierre Jackson has cut way back on the turnovers this year, which was his single weakness as an offensive player. His turnover rate is currently at 17 percent, down from 26 percent last season. He still gets to the hoop and the free throw line, hits threes, and sets guys up. He remains the most terrifying player in the conference.
Baylor's non-conference schedule includes upcoming games with Gonzaga and BYU. Gonzaga, apparently, is playing for the Big 12 championship, having already beaten West Virginia and Oklahoma.
Iowa State (6-3)
So far, Iowa State's lone win against a kenpom.com top 100 team came against BYU. The Cyclones three losses all were against good teams in Cincinnati, UNLV, and Iowa. Iowa State continues to play Fred Hoiberg's peculiar brand of basketball. On offense they push the ball and jack threes, taking nearly 40 percent of their attempts from long range. On defense they do everything in their power to prevent opponents from getting to the basket. The Cyclones' opponents only have attempted 19 percent of their field goal attempts at the rim this season, which is the sixth lowest total in D-I. They also do not foul, and do not allow their opponents offensive rebounds; Hoiberg's squad is currently the No. 15 team in the country in defensive rebounding percentage.
Iowa State's toughest remaining non-conference game is against Drake, so expect the Cyclones to be 10-3 when the conference season starts against Kansas on January 9.
I have already written plenty about the Longhorns.
Oklahoma's best win so far is against West Virginia, a rare non-conference game against a conference opponent. Although in the era of realignment, it is less rare than you would think; Xavier and Butler also played a non-conference game against each other this year. The Sooners are yet another Big 12 team that has played Gonzaga, with the Zags stomping Lon Kruger's squad 72-47 on a neutral floor.
Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye has been a nice addition for OU, joining familiar faces Romero Osby, and Steven Pledger. I don't know what to make of this team yet, so for now I will stick with my preseason view that the Sooners will just be OK.
Oklahoma has a couple of moderate tests coming up, with games against Texas A&M and Ohio, but we won't know much about Kruger's team until conference play starts.
West Virginia (4-4)
The Mountaineers one good victory was a one point home win against Virginia Tech. They were blown out by Gonzaga, and have losses against Davidson, Oklahoma, and Duquesne. The Mountaineers are shooting the ball even more poorly than Kansas State and Texas. On the plus side on offense, WVU has the classic characteristics of a Bob Huggins team: a low turnover rate and a high offensive rebounding rate. But this is simply one of the worst shooting teams in America.
Transfer Aaric Murray has blocked a few shots, which has improved the Mountaineer defense some compared with last season. But the real issue for this team is that they don't really excel at anything on defense. They are more or less average in most of the important defensive categories. Murray is also Huggins' best player on offense. West Virginia looks like they are in real trouble.
West Virginia's lone remaining tough match up before conference play starts is this Saturday's game against Michigan.
Texas Tech (5-1)
Chris Walker's team has spent the start of the season beating up on the dregs of college basketball, including a 91-56 thumping of America's Worst Team, the Grambling State Tigers. The Red Raiders have not yet beaten a team in the kenpom.com top 200, with their best win a six point home victory against Division I newcomer Northern Kentucky. This non-conference schedule is softer than a pillow.
Well, if this schedule is a pillow, it is a pillow with an ax blade in the pillowcase. The Red Raiders hosted Arizona on December 1, and were defeated 85-57.
Jaye Crockett has been making the most of the weak competition, posting the No. 4 per possession offensive rating in all of Division I. Jordan Tolbert has picked up where he left off during his excellent freshman season, and York University (Canada) transfer Dejan Kravic has added some helpful size inside.
Look for Texas Tech to continue to rack up wins before conference play begins. The Raiders have one likely loss against Alabama, and a game that looks to be a tossup against Arizona State.
There are going to be some low scoring games in the Big 12 this season. There are several teams (Texas, Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas Tech) that will struggle to put the ball in the basket, but none will struggle like the Horned Frogs. Coach Trent Johnson's team dropped 44 on Prairie View A&M, then followed that up by laying 47 points on Navy. The following game, they burned the nets with 31 points against Northwestern. The Horned Frogs do play some D, so look for them to participate in games that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas likes to call, "rock fights." When TCU plays West Virginia on January 23, I recommend that you do not tune in.
TCU finishes up non-conference play with games against Southern, Rice, and Mississippi Valley State.