This should be a very exciting year for Big XII basketball. Along with the Big 10, the Big XII will likely be the toughest conference to play in this season. Note that I didn't say, "the best conference" but rather, the "toughest conference to play in." I will explain this difference after the jump. While Nebraska leaving the conference was a big blow to Big XII football, it is a huge win for basketball. Nebraska's exit benefits Big XII basketball in three distinct ways.
1. Nebraska probably wasn't as bad at basketball as their reputation would suggest, but they didn't add very much to the conference. In their entire 15 year history in the Big XII, Nebraska only won more conference games than they lost in two seasons. They had a single NCAA tournament appearance (in 1998), when they lost in the first round to Arkansas.
2. Nebraska's exit has paved the way for the elimination of conference divisions and a complete round-robin schedule. Each team now plays a home and home with every other team in the conference. With virtually every team in the conference being good, this means that everyone will face a tough schedule. It can't hurt the RPI to play two games against Kansas, Missouri, and Baylor. More importantly for fans, this will mean more good games to watch.
3. There are no longer any worries about that stupid inflatable Cornhusker mascot thing showing up at the games and blocking your view. And no concerns about other schools attempting to copy it. Texas briefly experimented with one during my college days, and brought it to a couple of basketball games. Nothing screams "football school" more than showing up to basketball games with a 20 foot tall inflatable mascot that obstructs the view of people sitting in the first 20 rows.
I think we will miss Colorado. They were generally good, and were perpetually snubbed by the NCAA tournament committee.
Why the Big XII actually might be the toughest conference to play in
Now, let's get back to that "toughest conference to play in" assertion. There are a couple of factors to support this. First, the Big XII is from top to bottom about as good as any other conference in basketball. The Big East seems to have the strongest basketball reputation in recent years. The Big East top teams are probably a little bit better than the top teams in the Big XII. But the Big East also has its share of teams that look to be bottom feeders this season (St. Johns, noted hoops power South Florida, Providence, DePaul, Rutgers, and probably Villanova). Only Texas Tech appears to be truly bad this season in the Big XII, although A&M should be put on the "bad team watch list" as well. And with 16 teams in the Big East, the schedules are pretty diluted. Just as one example, let's take a look at Seton Hall's schedule. If the top teams in the Big East are Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, and Connecticut -- Seton Hall only plays these top teams 6 times. Let's compare that with Texas' schedule. Texas plays 6 games against Baylor, Missouri, and Kansas. These teams certainly look to be in a similar class with the top Big East teams. So at the top end these schedules are similar. But at the bottom end? Seton Hall plays 8 games against the bottom feeders from my list above. Texas plays 2 games against Tech.
One other conference that we can compare with the Big XII is the Big 10. You can make a pretty solid argument that the Big 10 is the best conference in college basketball this season. But by having 12 teams in the conference combined with division play, the basketball schedule has now been significantly diluted. Let's take a look at the Purdue schedule. The power teams in the Big 10 appear to be Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Purdue has 6 games against these teams. Like the Big XII, the Big 10 has the advantage of not having very many bad teams. Penn State is probably bad, and I suspect Nebraska will wind up on the bad list as well. Purdue has 2 games against Penn State, and 1 against Nebraska. Purdue's schedule looks to be of similar difficulty to Texas' schedule.
I won't bore you by going through similar exercises for the ACC or the SEC. Instead, let's dive into some brief team previews. Teams appear in order of their SRS ranking as of January 2. I will emphasize the top teams a little more heavily, and will write almost nothing about Texas.
The top tier
So this is what a down year looks like? Kansas is currently the #7 team in the nation by SRS rating and the #6 team in the Pomeroy ratings. Kansas has a quality win against Ohio State, played competitive games with Kentucky and Duke, and has one head scratching loss against Davidson. Kansas is getting it done on defense, with the #3 rated defense in the kenpom.com ratings. The AP curiously has Kansas ranked at #17. This is probably an overreaction to the loss against Davidson, underrating their win against Ohio State in a game where Jared Sullinger was injured, and focusing more on their three losses than the quality of opponent that those losses came against. The lack of star power and the tendency of AP voters to underrate teams that play good defense also is part of this curious ranking. As always, my advice is to follow the lead of the tournament selection committee and ignore the AP poll.
What Kansas does well. Kansas is good at almost everything. On defense, the excel at basically everything that matters. They hold opponents to a low effective field goal percentage, force turnovers, and once again among the very best defensive rebounding teams in Division I. Thomas Robinson is a rebounding machine with a defensive rebounding percentage of 33%. Jeff Withey manages to pull down 20% of the available defensive rebound while also blocking 14% of opponent's two point shot attempts while on the floor.
On offense, Kansas is led by Robinson and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor. Robinson does most of his damage from in close, with around 60% of his field goal attempts coming at the rim. Robinson makes almost 70% of his attempts at the rim. Taylor is a dangerous three point shooter, but also isn't timid in taking the ball to the hole. Taylor also gets to the free throw line quite a bit (averaging 6.7 free throw attempts per game).
What Kansas struggles with. Kansas has struggled with turnovers on offense. They turn the ball over in about 21% of their possessions, which is near the Division I median rate. Taylor has struggled at times to protect the basketball. His 11 turnovers were a major factor in the Kansas loss to Duke (a game that Kansas probably should have won).
Missouri is currently the #9 ranked team by SRS, and the #10 team by kenpom.com. They don't have the toughest non-conference schedule, but they have just been destroying teams, with an average margin of victory of nearly 25 points per game.
What Missouri does well. Offense. Missouri has the #2 rated offense in the country in the kenpom.com rankings. They play at a fast pace (#39th highest adjusted tempo on kenpom.com) but also protect the basketball. They turn the ball over in 14.4% of their possessions (#2 in Division I). And they lead Division I in effective field goal percentage, at 58.8%. They get 42% of their field goal attempts at the rim, and convert on 72% of these attempts. This results in an average 57% field goal percentage on two point attempts. To add to this, they take around 36% of their field goal attempts from three point range and hit them 40% of the time. Missouri has a terrifying offense.
Missouri passes the ball pretty well. Phil Pressey is the key offensive trigger man, assisting on an estimated 31% of made field goal attempts when he is in the game. He does this while protecting the ball, keeping his turnover rate at 18% of his used possessions (a pretty good rate for a ball handler). Marcus Denmon and Kim English are both terrifying three point shooters. Neither of these guys are players that create their own shot with high frequency (both mostly score when someone else is setting them up), but both are among the best catch and shoot guards in the country. Both players take roughly half of their field goal attempts from three, and make roughly half of the three point shots that they take.
And then there is Ricardo Ratliffe. He is a terrific rebounder, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. He currently tracks down nearly 15% of the available offensive rebound when he is in the game. And he leads all of Division I in true shooting percentage (kenpom.com $) and effective field goal percentage (kenpom.com $). He does this by attempting 80% of his field goal attempts at the rim, and making 85% of these attempts. He is one of the best finishers at the rim in the entire country.
What Missouri struggles with. Missouri is not great defensively. They are currently ranked as the #51 defense in the kenpom ratings. This is not a bad rating, certainly, but it will limit their ability to go deep in the NCAA tournament. They have the second worst defensive rating in the top 25 teams in the kenpom overall rankings. Their primary defensive strength is forcing turnovers. They can potentially struggle against teams that can protect the basketball and force them to defend in the half-court.
Baylor is currently ranked #12 in Division I in SRS, and #12 by kenpom.com.
What Baylor does well. Baylor is pretty good on both ends of the court, ranked as the #28 offense and #13 defense on kenpom.com. Baylor's defense has been a bit of a surprise (to me at least), as Scott Drew's teams have historically not performed very well on defense (kenpom.com $). Some of Bayor's defensive success is a sample size anomaly, as they are currently the #5 ranked team in opponent free throw shooting percentage. Baylor's opponents have shot an average of 59.6% from the free throw line. This is simply good luck, rather than good defense. Setting this aside, Baylor has done some other good things defensively. Opponents have shot 39.3% on two point shots, which is the 8th lowest 2 point percentage in the country. Baylor has blocked 16.6% of opponent's two point shot attempts, which is a big part of their defense on opponent's two point shot attempts. Quincy Acy and Cory Jefferson are the main shot blockers for Baylor. Even if we take out the effect of blocked shots, Baylor has only allowed opponents to connect on around 47% of their unblocked two point shots. This indicates that Baylor is doing good work on defense. They are also forcing turnovers and avoiding fouls.
On offense, Baylor is the shooting the ball well (eFG%=54.6%) and crashing the offensive boards (36.4% ORB%). Despite all of their size inside, Baylor only attempts 35% of their shots at the rim. It is a little surprising that a player like Perry Jones only gets around 40% of his attempts at the rim (he makes 80% of these attempts). Baylor's offensive strength this year is probably the three point shot. As a team, they are shooting over 40% from the three point line. Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip are both shooting a tad under 50% from three point range. Pierre Jackson also is Baylor's primary ball handler.
What Baylor struggles with. Baylor turns the ball over a lot. While they are somewhat improved over last season, they still turn the ball over in nearly 22% of their possessions. And despite all of their size, they do not rebound very well defensively, pulling down 66% of the available rebounds when on defense. Baylor's struggles with defensive rebounding are pretty much the least surprising thing in the Big XII conference, as bad defensive rebounding has long been Baylor's Achilles heel. A combination of trouble protecting the rock and trouble holding down the glass makes Baylor a threat to self destruct at any moment. Combine this with their "success" at holding opponents to a low free throw shooting percentage, and I really wonder if their defense will continue to perform at this level all season. If their threes stop falling, they can be in big trouble.
The next tier
4. Kansas State
Kansas State is currently the #21 ranked team in both the SRS and kenpom.com ratings.
What Kansas State does well. Kansas State is sort of becoming the Michigan State of the Big XII. They really excel at two things (seemingly the same two things every year). They are great on the offensive glass (rebounding almost 42% of the available offensive rebounds), and play really good field goal percentage defense. They also get to the free throw line a lot. Despite having a little less offensive firepower than in previous seasons, this is probably Frank Martin's best defensive team. They are the #17 rated defense overall in the kenpom ratings, and are #5 in opponent's effective field goal defense.
What Kansas State struggles with. Kansas State has a decent offense overall, but their success seems to be mostly based on crashing the boards and getting to the free throw line. They are a little bit turnover prone (TO%=21%), and their effective field goal percentage is not particularly high (50.6%). Only 31% of their attempts have been at the rim, which is low for any team, and really low for a team that gets this many offensive rebounds.
Texas is currently ranked #27 by SRS and #26 on kenpom.com. Since this is a Texas blog, and I have written many thousands of words on this Texas team, let's just skip them and move on.
The good but not great
Oklahoma is currently ranked #35 by SRS and #49 at kenpom.com.
What Oklahoma does well. Oklahoma can really shoot the three. Only 25% of their shots come from three point range, but when they take them they hit them 41% of the time. They also are excellent on the offensive glass, rebounding 43% of the available offensive rebounds. They are the #62 ranked defense by kenpom.com, and they seem to do pretty much everything well defensively.
What Oklahoma struggles with. Oklahoma does not get to the rim. They get about 25% of their field goal attempts at the rim, and don't get to the free throw line very often. This limits how good they can be on offense, and probably means they will have some nights where they really struggle to score.
7. Iowa State
Iowa State is currently ranked #59 by SRS and #82 at kenpom.com.
What Iowa State does well. Iowa State is pretty good on offense. Kenpom.com has them as the #61 ranked offense in the country. Their style of play mirrors the style of play of their coach, retired NBA sharpshooter Fred Hoiberg -- they like to shoot the three. Nearly 43% of their field goal attempts are from beyond the arc. And they shoot around 38% as a team from three. Expect them to upset one of the conference big boys on a night where they can't miss. They also are solid on the defensive glass and manage to avoid fouling on defense.
What Iowa State struggles with. Iowa State isn't very good on defense. They have the #129 ranked defense in the kenpom.com ratings. They don't force turnovers, and their field goal percentage defense isn't very good.
8. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State is currently ranked #74 by SRS and #75 at kenpom.com
What Oklahoma State does well. Oklahoma State is very good defensively. They are the #37 rated defense in the kenpom.com ratings. They are good all around defensively, and have shot blocker Philip Jurick anchoring their defense. Who cares if he plays less than 20 minutes a game, for the half of the game that he does play, he blocks 13% of opponent two point attempts all by himself. Of course, Oklahoma State's defense is more than just Jurick. They also guard the three point line pretty well, allowing opponents to hit only 30% from three point range. In addition to good defense, Oklahoma State takes care of the basketball on offense. This is a team that won't often beat itself.
What Oklahoma State struggles with. Oklahoma State cannot shoot. About one third of their field goal attempts come at the rim, and they make about 65% of these shots. But the other two thirds of their attempts? Ugly. Oklahoma State shoots 27% on two point jump shots and 33% from three point range. They are ranked #256 in effective field goal percentage for a reason.
9. Texas A&M
Texas A&M is ranked #119 by SRS and #90 at kenpom.com. They haven't really lived up to their lofty expectations just yet, but there still is a lot of basketball to be played.
What Texas A&M does well. This is a really good defensive team. A%M is the #35 rated defense by kenpom.com, and is #4 in the very important category of opponent's effective field goal percentage. They play the game at a snail's pace, and really guard people. They can be a pretty good team if they fix their other problems.
What Texas A&M struggles with. They turn the ball over a lot, giving the ball away in 22% of their possessions. This is really a big concern going into conference play, particularly when you consider just how weak the A&M non-conference schedule has been. They also don't shoot the ball very well. When they can get opportunities at the rim (particularly with big men David Loubeau and Ray Turner), they do quite well. Otherwise, the Aggie offense has basically been bad.
10. Texas Tech
Texas Tech is ranked #188 by SRS and #207 at kenpom.com.
What Texas Tech does well. Tech actually shoots the ball pretty well. They make almost 40% of their three point shots, and the 22nd highest effective field goal percentage in the country. They also aren't terrible defensively.
What Texas Tech struggles with. Tech turns the ball over in 26% of their possessions. This is really bad. With all of these turnovers, it almost doesn't matter what else they do.
I think it is reasonable to suspect that the top 5 or 6 teams in the Big XII will go to the NCAA tournament this season. This is just my guess -- I am not a bracket prognosticator. I base this guess simply on my expectation is that 5-6 Big XII teams will be among the 30 best teams in Division I when the season ends.