There is a pretty solid case to be made that the Big 12 is the best basketball conference in the NCAA through the early part of the season. The league's record so far is a combined 90-15, and no team in the league has more than four losses. While the top of the Big 12 is not as good as the top of the ACC (Duke, Virginia, and Louisville are all outstanding), the depth of the Big 12 is not matched by any conference. It is a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament last year, and can expect to send a similar number this season.
With conference play less than two weeks away, I thought it would be a good time to catch up on the teams of the Big 12, to see how they have been doing. Teams are listed below in order of their current ranking at Kenpom.com.
After being ripped to pieces by the Kentucky Wildcats a month ago, the Kansas Jayhawks have won eight straight games against a tough schedule. Bill Self's team has a true road win at Georgetown, and home victories over Michigan State, Florida, and Utah. Winning on the road always impresses me.
With so many young players, the playing rotation is still being sorted out in Lawrence. But one surprise is that highly regarded freshman Kelly Oubre hardly saw the floor for the first month of the season. There has been a lot of discussion about Oubre's early season struggles in the college basketball media. Some of this may be premature, as he did log 25 minutes and score 23 points in last Saturday's blowout of Lafayette.
Kelly Oubre would be far from the first highly regarded wing to get lost in the Kansas offense, which can make it hard for athletic perimeter players to find their way to the rim. Thus far, only 10 of Oubre's 38 shot attempts have come at the rim, meaning that 28 of 38 attempts have been jump shots. Half of these layups and dunks came in the Lafayette game, when Oubre helped himself by going to the offensive glass. Oubre's jump shot has looked fine -- he shoots the ball quite well -- but playing as a spot up shooter is not what earned him the high regard he had coming out of high school.
Fellow top freshman Cliff Alexander has played, splitting time with Jamari Traylor at center. The duo has fared reasonably well, particularly Alexander, but neither player distorts the floor defensively in the way that previous Kansas centers have.
This looks like a team that will continue to look to Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, and Frank Mason for offense, with Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (just call him Svi) and Brannen Greene providing shooting off the bench.
This is a Texas blog, and we write plenty about the Longhorns. Texas has gone 10-1, and prepares for a game against Stanford tomorrow.
The Bears are off to a strong start to the season as well. They picked up a quality road win at South Carolina (a team that is playing some nice basketball for Frank Martin), and their sole loss is a neutral court defeat by Illinois in a game where the Bears just didn't shoot the ball very well.
The Baylor defense has been excellent. Yes, I wrote that. Baylor is currently ranked at No. 17 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defense statistic.
I frequently like to use waterfall charts to better understand what a team's strengths and weaknesses are. Waterfall charts compare a team to a hypothetical team that scores 1.04 points per possession by achieving the median in seven different statistical categories. Each step in the waterfall shows how the team is either better or worse in each of the seven categories, and how this difference affects the points scored per possession.
The waterfall chart shows how opponents have fared against the Baylor defense. Note that the Bear defense has done well in every statistical category.
The question with something like this is, just how sustainable is it? Can we continue to see Baylor play as one of the 20 best defenses in the country?
To the extent that Baylor's defense is helped by poor opponent free throw shooting, we cannot really expect it to hold up. The lousy free throw shooting by Baylor opponents is costing them roughly 2.5 points per 100 possessions.
While it is certainly possible over the course of a season to hold opponents to a low three point shooting percentage, history has shown us that there is a lot of noise and randomness in this number. Baylor opponents so far have connected on 26 percent of their threes -- it is just hard to see that holding up over an entire basketball season, as it would have rated number one in the nation last season by a substantial amount. The difference between 26 percent three point shooting and a more typical 34 percent three point shooting is worth around 5 points per 100 possessions.
But even if the Baylor D suffers a total reversion to the mean in these two highly unpredictable categories, Scott Drew's defense still has a lot of other things going for it. I am particularly interested to see if the Bears will continue to rebound (something Drew's teams have not historically done well on the defensive end of the floor).
The Sooners have played a reasonably tough schedule so far, narrowly losing to Washington and Creighton, and getting handled by Wisconsin. OU has logged quality wins against UCLA and Butler.
6-8 Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas was granted his waiver by the NCAA, and has been playing heavy minutes for OU. He and Ryan Spangler both have logged significant minutes on the floor together, and it has changed the nature of the Sooner approach. Like Baylor, the Sooners are much improved defensively, currently holding the No. 10 overall rating in the kenpom.com adjusted defense metric.
But at least so far, the OU offense is not as dynamic as last season. In large part, this is attributable to the struggles of sophomore point guard Jordan Woodard, who has struggled with turnovers and his shot (he is 2-21 from three point range so far this season).
If Woodard can get going, Lon Kruger's team has the potential to be even more dangerous on offense this year, as Thomas gives them an inside scoring option that the Sooners lacked a year ago.
Iowa State (9-1)
The players change, but nothing really changes for the Cyclones. Iowa State is off to a strong start that includes beatdowns of Arkansas and Iowa. ISU's only loss was on a neutral court against Maryland, in a game where the shots just weren't falling.
Fred Hoiberg's latest transfer Jameel McKay is now active, and it will be interesting to see what impact he has on the Cyclone interior defense, which is clearly this squad's biggest weakness. As a junior college player he showed ability as a rim protector, but it will be interesting to see if that skill set translates to the Big 12. If it does, it raises the ceiling for a team that offensively does pretty much everything you can ask for.
When not causing trouble for his neighbors, Bryce Dejean-Jones has been murdering opposing defenses as Hoiberg's newest power guard. At UNLV, Dejean-Jones displayed questionable shot selection, but Hoiberg's reputation with these sorts of players remains unblemished. Dejean-Jones is now mostly taking good shots, and his overwhelming size and ball handling combination makes him a major pain for opponents.
Oklahoma State (9-2)
I remain skeptical of Oklahoma State -- I think the world remains skeptical of Oklahoma State -- but the fact is that OSU has started off the year 9-2 and has been blowing teams out. The two losses were against South Carolina and Maryland, both solid teams. The Cowboy's best win was on the road against a really shaky Memphis team that has people calling for Josh Pastner's job. (I suspect Pastner has earned a mulligan, but Memphis fans are crazy, and frankly have never really cared for him.)
Coach Travis Ford's offense is built around Le'Bryan Nash, Phil Forte, and LSU transfer point guard Anthony Hickey. It is strange but it works. And Ford has always gotten his teams to defend.
I will be surprised if OSU ends up as one of the six best teams in the Big 12. But I have been surprised before.
West Virginia (10-1)
The Mountaineers are 10-1, and came within a one point loss to LSU to being undefeated. Bob Huggins' squad has picked up its best wins against UConn and North Carolina State.
Do you remember when West Virginia used to play defense? For the last few years the Mountaineer defense has been less then stellar. This season, Huggins' D is back. West Virginia is currently forcing the highest rate of turnovers in all of D-I, inducing an opponent turnover in an amazing 32 percent of possessions.
West Virginia is pressuring the ball over the entire court, and attempting to deny every pass. The result of this approach is a lot of turnovers, but also a lot of layups for opponents, who have logged 45 percent of their attempts as layups and dunks, which is the 29th highest rate in the country. 6-7 Jonathan Holton has certainly helped the WVU defense -- it is hard to imagine just how many layups the Mountaineers might have given up without him.
Games against the Mountaineers have been interesting affairs. They simply boil down to a single question: can you beat their pressure?
Say what? The Horned Frogs are currently the Big 12's only undefeated team. They haven't exactly played a tough schedule, but they did manage to win on the road against Mississippi.
TCU is not going to be awful this year, in part because they are healthy, in part because they have a number of decent young players, and in part because the Kyan Anderson / Trey Zeigler backcourt is one of the better ones in the league.
Anderson was the lone bright spot in a miserable season in Fort Worth last year, and he continues to play exceptionally well. He is a strong outside shooter, effective in the open floor, and is good enough off the dribble to punish a closing out defender. And fouling him is a terrible idea -- he is currently 32-35 from the line this season.
Zeigler is a different sort of guard. He is physical and athletic, attacks the rim, but cannot really shoot.
Additionally, coach Trent Johnson has four capable sophomores. Karviar Shepherd, Chris Washburn, and Kenrich Williams form an athletic front line, while Brandon Parrish is a versatile wing with size who can shoot the three.
Kansas State (7-4)
The biggest mystery of the season is this: what the hell happened to the Kansas State defense? Last season, K-State's D finished the year in the top 20 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. This season they are currently ranked No. 130.
Bruce Weber's defense has actually forced more turnovers and is rebounding better than a year ago. Kansas State's defense is giving up a few more layups, but the difference is pretty small.
The biggest difference is how opponent jump shots are fairing. Last season, opponents connected on 33 percent of their two point jump shots and 29 percent of their threes. This season, opponents have hit 41 percent of their two point jump shots and 37 percent of their threes.
Video tracking service Synergy Sports keeps track of how many "guarded" and "unguarded" jump shots opponents make. This season, K-State opponents have connected on 50 percent of their unguarded jump shots, which is much higher than the typical 37 percent success rate for these sorts of shots. The Wildcats are not giving up an unusually high number of open shots, and their opponents' results on guarded jump shots is exactly as you would expect.
Part of the problem for Kansas State is their schedule has contained a healthy number of teams that can really shoot the ball. Even the cupcakes on the schedule, teams like Utah State, can shoot the three. So my hypothesis is that a decent portion of the problems with the Kansas State defense is due to catching some bad breaks.
Texas Tech (9-1)
The Red Raiders took LSU to overtime on the road, but eventually lost. This loss is the only thing currently preventing Tubby Smith's squad from being 10-0. It is otherwise a soft schedule, but still.
Texas Tech right now appears to be the worst team in the Big 12, but they still look to be a decent squad. This is a little surprising, given that Tech lost several key players off of last season's team, and is one of the youngest teams in the country. A lot of minutes are going to freshman right now, and I suspect Smith's team is going to have a hard time in conference play.
But I won't be the least bit surprised if in one or two years the Red Raiders are really good. This team is already guarding the way that Smith's teams usually do; last season's poor defensive team was probably just an aberration.
The best player so far has been junior college transfer Devaugntah Williams, who has hit 20-38 from three point range. Guard that man.