With the start of Big 12 conference season only days away, it is time to start taking a look at the league.
It is a pretty strong league, ranked second only to the Big Ten in the Kenpom.com ratings. Seven or eight Big 12 teams are currently contemplating the possibility of an NCAA tournament trip, and while these teams won't all make the post season, which ones will and will not remains to be decided.
When we look at the Big 12 this season, only one team appears to have taken a significant step backwards. Kansas State is not going to share in a league title this season; the Wildcats seem far more likely to finish eighth than in the top five.
But aside from Kansas State, every other team seems to be at least as good as it was a season ago. Kansas is still strong, although the Jayhawks will be relying on many freshman this season, and unusual position for Bill Self.
Oklahoma State returns nearly everyone, and is playing exceptional ball right now.
Iowa State seems to have taken a big step forward, while Baylor seems to have found a suitable replacement for Pierre Jackson.
Oklahoma is probably not as good as they were last year, but the drop-off is small.
Texas and West Virginia have both recovered after miserable seasons last year, followed by a wave of transfers. Both teams turned over significant portions of their rosters, and both are hunting an NCAA invite.
Even Texas Tech and TCU are better. A number of good teams are going to lose games in Lubbock, and some may lose even in Ft. Worth.
Over a series of several posts, I will dive into each of the teams in the conference, presented in the order of my subjective ranking of how I think they will finish up. But just to summarize the overall order:
Title contenders: Kansas and Oklahoma State. I like Kansas better, but not by much.
The second tier: Iowa State and Baylor. I don't think either one of these teams is quite good enough to challenge for the league title.
The NCAA bubble: Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, and Kansas State. These teams look dead even right now. I am not a believer in Kansas State over the long haul, but they have a decent kenpom.com rating and picked up a nice non-conference win against Gonzaga.
The bottom: Texas Tech and TCU. Tech is greatly improved, but they won't catch the OU/UT/WVU group for at least another year.
So let's dive into it.
Kansas is perhaps the most talented team in the country. All that talent has rattled off a 9-3 record against a fairly demanding non-conference schedule. Two of the three Jayhawk losses came during true road games at Colorado and Florida, while the third Kansas defeat was a neutral site loss against a strong Villanova team. Bill Self's team has logged victories against Duke, New Mexico, Georgetown, and Toledo. Kansas' remaining game before the start of conference play is against San Diego State, yet another strong non-conference opponent.
Kansas has been on top of the Big 12 so often that it is hard to imagine another team taking them down. But this could be a year where it happens, as Oklahoma State appears to be an even match for the Jayhawks.
What I like: The front court is unbelievable. Jamari Traylor and Memphis transfer Tarik Black would probably start for many of the teams in the conference, but on Kansas they just provide depth. It is entirely possible that Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins will be the first two picks in the upcoming NBA draft, and Perry Ellis is a possible All-Conference player.
Wiggins was the most hyped college freshman since Harrison Barnes (recall that Barnes was an AP preseason All-American going into his freshman year), and so far Wiggins has shown a much more diverse game than I expected. While he isn't a spectacular shooter (Wiggins is not as polished of a player as either Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony were at this point), Wiggins does shoot well enough from the perimeter to make you take his shot seriously. And when he puts the ball on the deck, he has shown an ability to get to the rim and free throw line. The only disappointment so far for Wiggins is that he has not finished at the rim as well as you would expect for a player of his ability; so far on the season Wiggins has made about 60 percent of his attempts at the rim, which is more or less the NCAA average.
As good as Wiggins is, Joel Embiid is even more important to the Jayhawks. Regular readers of this blog know the importance that I place on a team's ability to protect the rim. Otherwise championship worthy teams without a rim protector typically have an uphill battle. With the departure of Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks had a big hole to fill on the defensive interior, and Embiid has filled it nicely. Embiid is currently blocking just under 12 percent of opponent two point attempts while in the game. Kansas opponents are currently converting on just 51 percent of their layups and dunks, per hoop-math.com. And Embiid is more than just a defensive presence; he can score a little as well.
With so much talent, it would be easy to overlook Perry Ellis. Prior to the season, before I had seen Wiggins and Embiid play, I though there was a possibility that Ellis would emerge as Kansas' leading scorer, and take the traditional spot reserved for a Kansas post player on the All-American team. I didn't know that Wiggins and Embiid were as polished as they are, and I figured that Ellis might have to carry more of the scoring load. While that hasn't been needed, Ellis is still Kansas' second leading scorer and most efficient player on offense. Ellis' main gift is that he knows how to play around the basket. In the half-court, he is perhaps Kansas' best offensive option, currently averaging an effective field goal percentage of 59 percent on non-transition shot attempts.
What worries me: The Kansas defense is yet to really dominate teams in the way that we have come to expect. While Embiid has been solid and the team rebounding is outstanding, the Jayhawk perimeter defense has not lived up to recent high standards. This manifests itself statistically in two ways. The first is turnovers. Kansas opponents currently turn the ball over in 16 percent of their possessions, which is the 311st highest rate in the nation. While there are outstanding defenses each year that don't force many turnovers, having an abnormally low opponent turnover rate is a big hurdle to overcome. Not forcing turnovers is in large part what sent Kentucky to the NIT last season.
Also discouraging for the Jayhawks is just how many opponent attempts at the rim they are allowing this season. A year ago, Jayhawk opponents took 28 percent of their shot attempts at the basket, while this season that percentage is 40 percent. Part of this is a national increase in attempts at the rim this season; overall shots at the rim are up from 34 percent of all FGAs last season to about 38 percent this season. But part is also some less than stellar team defense. A season ago, Kansas ranked in the top 50 nationally in the percentage of shots at the rim allowed. This season, the Jayhawks rank #250.
2. Oklahoma State
When Marcus Smart decided to skip the NBA draft and return to college, it put Travis Ford's Cowboys right in the middle of the Big 12 title race. A 12-1 non-conference record gives little reason to doubt OSU's chances; the Cowboys' sole loss was a neutral site game against Memphis, a team that OSU has already played twice. Ford's men have logged quality wins against Memphis, Purdue, Butler, Louisiana Tech, and Colorado. But a recent injury possibly hurts their chances to challenge Kansas for the conference title.
What I like: Offensive improvement. Oklahoma State's defense was outstanding last season, and has maintained its effectiveness so far this year. But the offense last season wasn't always so pretty. A year ago, the Cowboys managed a true shooting percentage of 0.54. This year, OSU's true shooting percentage is 0.60. That is a substantial improvement.
This improvement has come from many places, but the single biggest source has been three point shooting. Travis Ford's team is hitting 39 percent of their threes, compared with less than 32 percent a season ago. Phil Forte is burning up the nets, hitting 49 percent of his threes, while Marcus Smart is at a respectable 33 percent from long range. Markel Brown continues to shoot the ball well this season. And Le'Bryan Nash, a career 24 percent three point shooter, has stopped taking them.
What worries me: Reversion to the mean. Oklahoma State was, just a season ago, a team that couldn't shoot. Forte and Brown are both good shooters, but will this team improvement hold? Will Forte really go all season hitting one of every two looks from deep?
Another worry is depth. Michael Cobbins is likely done for the year. The tandem of Cobbins and Kamari Murphy inside for OSU has been outstanding, particularly on defense. The Cowboys have blocked 22 percent of opponent attempts at the rim, where opponents have only converted on 49 percent of their layups and dunks. But with Cobbins out, it puts a lot of pressure on Murphy to find a way to stay out of foul trouble and on the floor, something that his foul rate suggests could be a struggle.
So what is likely to become of the Cowboy D when Murphy cannot be on the floor? So far, Murphy and Cobbins have accounted for slightly fewer than half of OSU's blocks at the rim. Soaking up some of the lost minutes from Cobbins will likely be freshman Leyton Hammonds. Hammonds hasn't played enough yet to tell for sure, but so far in limited minutes he doesn't look like a rim protector.
Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that with no Cobbins and no Murphy, OSU's shot block rate at the rim drops by about seven percentage points. That should lead to about a seven percentage point increase in opponent shooting percentage at the rim, which would boost opponent effective field goal percentage by 2-3 percentage points. That is a big shift. If Cobbins is done for the season, Travis Ford will need to figure out a way to keep Murphy out of foul trouble, and on the court.
3. Iowa State
The Fighting Hoibergs are 11-0, and are the best Iowa State team in over a decade. Led by bulldozing point guard DeAndre Kane, Fred Hoiberg's latest transfer pickup, the Cyclones are the second highest scoring team in the nation. Their non-conference record includes victories over Michigan, BYU, Iowa, and Boise State.
What I like: Nearly everything. This is about as good of a team as you can construct without a dominant defensive center. Hoiberg's offense is undeniably great. Players like Kane (a 6-4, 200 lb point guard with a questionable perimeter shot), Georges Niang, and Melvin Ejim could easily be spare parts in the wrong hands, but Hoiberg turns them into match-up nightmares. Not many big guys are eager to try to defend Niang and Ejim 20 feet from the rim, and most 5-11 guards struggle against a physical player like Kane. (For Texas fans, Kendal Yancy's future could look a lot like Kane's present.)
But Hoiberg's offense is always good. What sets this Iowa State team apart from its predecessors is defense. The Cyclones are currently the No. 38 ranked defense nationally per the kenpom.com ratings. They limit penetration better than nearly any other team in the nation, they rebound, and they seldom foul.
What worries me: Hoiberg constructs his defense to expertly cover for the fact that he doesn't have a rim protector, but it is still a key missing piece. The Cyclones' exceptional 2 point shooting defense may be hard to sustain against the better teams in the Big 12.
And part of Iowa State's defensive success may be a mirage. On the season, the Cyclones have allowed opponents to score 0.92 points per possession, which is an outstanding number. But a decent chunk of this is due to poor shooting from both three point range and the free throw line by Iowa State opponents.
Ken Pomeroy has presented data that suggest that defenses don't have all that much control over opponent three point shooting percentage. Over time, opponent three point shooting percentages tend to revert to the national mean. Now, some teams might actually have the ability to reduce opponent three point shooting percentages (I suspect Syracuse might, for instance), but we need to see some pretty compelling evidence before we assign this trait to a particular team.
There is some support for the argument that Iowa State is among the rare exceptions to the principle that opponent three point shooting percentage is mostly random. Over the last three seasons, the Cyclones have ranked in the top 50 nationally in opponent three point percentage. But if I flip a coin three times, and the coin lands on heads all three times, it doesn't tell me much about my coin flipping ability.
As for opponent free throw percentage, if you believe that the Iowa State defense is having a big effect on that, then we are going to have a hard time having a rational discussion.
If opponents had instead shot an NCAA median level percentage on threes and at the free throw line, the Iowa State defense would have given up 0.96 points per possession. This is, to be clear, still a good result, but not as good as what the Cyclones have done so far.
In the next instalment of this preview series, we will look at Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia.