The first installment of this series looked at Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State. This part looks at the next four teams in the Big 12: Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia.
I probably should have put Baylor with the teams in the first article, but my Kansas write up ended up a bit wordy, which bumped Baylor to this group. Baylor looks to be a bit better than OU, UT, and WVU; right now the Bears are ranked No. 26 in the Pomeroy ratings, whereas the Sooners, Horns, and Mountaineers are rated Nos. 64, 53, and 60, respectively.
The Bears currently hold an 11-1 record, with one game remaining against Savannah State before conference play begins. Scott Drew's team has wins against Kentucky, Colorado, and Dayton, with their single loss coming in a neutral site matchup with Syracuse. After losing his best player Pierre Jackson to the NBA, Drew went out and found another junior college point guard to replace him. Jackson's replacement, Kenny Chery, has been outstanding.
What I like: Isaiah Austin's emergence as an impact defender. A season ago, one of the oddities of Baylor was that 7-1 center Austin wasn't blocking very many shots. This season he is, blocking an estimated 13 percent of opponent twos while in the game. Austin and Cory Jefferson have so far protected the rim well; Baylor opponents have made only 49 percent of their layups and dunks.
Another thing to like about the Bears is that as a team they are currently shooting 41 percent from three point range. Most of these shots have been taken by Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin, who have both been excellent.
What worries me: Kenny Chery's shot distribution. Chery has been rather efficient on offense, with a true shooting percentage 0.598, in spite of the fact that nearly half of his shot attempts are two point jumpers. So far this season, Chery has made 60 percent of his two point jump shots, which is the fifth highest percentage nationally among players with more than 100 total field goal attempts.
I just don't think that is likely to hold up. A lot of those shots that Chery has made are tough shots off the dribble, the sort of shots that the defense probably wants him to take. While it is possible that Chery is among the best mid-range players in recent basketball history, I think it is far more likely that he won't continue to hit these shots at his present pace.
Should Oklahoma be ranked ahead of Texas, West Virginia, and Kansas State on this list? Prior to the start of the season, I would have said "no." And the current Kenpom.com ratings also say "no." Although it isn't a particularly strong no, as OU, UT, WVU, and K-State all rate as very closely matched in Pomeroy's system.
Prior to the season, there were two things that worried me about Oklahoma. One was size, which I still think is a problem. The other was that coach Lon Kruger was going to have to put the ball in the hands of unheralded freshman point guard Jordan Woodard. Woodard has played very well, though, much like fellow unheralded freshman Isaiah Taylor at Texas. (The two players even have similar games. Like Taylor, Woodard is best at attacking the basket, and draws fouls at an even greater rate than the Texas guard.)
Through the non-conference season, Oklahoma has performed well, finishing with an 11-2 record. Oklahoma's best wins have been against Alabama and Mercer, while the two loses were to quality opponents in Michigan State and Louisiana Tech.
What I like: The Sooners like to run, getting up 31 percent of their shots in transition, the 13 highest rate in D-I (hoop-math.com). And OU can really shoot, connecting on 38 percent of their threes, 39 percent of their two point jump shots, and 73 percent of their free throws. Even better, they haven't fallen in love with the jump shot; unlike Kruger's previous OU teams, this iteration of the Sooners is taking 39 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is right around the NCAA average.
6-7 senior Cameron Clark is having a spectacular season so far, with a true shooting percentage of 0.600 that is partly boosted by 18-36 shooting from beyond the arc. But the success is due to more than just Clark; across the board, virtually every Sooner has shown well on offense so far this season. Buddy Hield, who struggled last year as a freshman, is starting to show why people had such high hopes for him.
What worries me: Size. This team is really small. The tallest player who earns regular minutes is 6-8 sophomore Ryan Spangler, who is the team's best rebounder. OU's uptempo small-ball lineup plays well on offense, but it costs them on defense. Against a schedule that has frankly been sort of weak, Kreuger's team has only blocked 12 percent of opponent attempts at the rim. Now, over an entire season, that would not be a bad total, but during a non-conference schedule of mostly over-matched opponents, it is not an encouraging sign.
Unlike a team like Iowa State, OU doesn't play defense in a way that covers for its lack of size. Opponents have attempted 39 percent of their shots at the rim, and 38 percent of their attempts from three. That is a bad shot distribution that has been partly masked by the fact that opponents have not hit quite as many threes as you would expect. OU has the worst defense in the conference, and it is cause for concern.
The Texas Longhorns should probably be ranked ahead of OU on this list, but since this is a Texas blog, and I watch this team a lot, I am cautious about overrating the Longhorns right now.
Texas finished the non-conference season with an 11-2 record, which included road wins against North Carolina and Temple, as well as a home win against Mercer. Texas' two losses were against BYU and Michigan State.
After an ugly season and a turmoil-filled off-season, not much was expected of Texas. But Rick Barnes' team has played well, and is now in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid. A fifth or sixth place finish in the Big 12 conference will probably do it.
What I like: Size. Unlike the Sooners, the Longhorns are big. That size shows up in several critical ways. It shows on defense; per the kenpom.com ratings Texas currently has the fourth best defense in the Big 12. The Longhorns have blocked 19 percent of opponent attempts at the rim (13th highest rate in D-I) and 16 percent of opponent two point jump shots (7th highest rate in D-I). Only St. John's and Mississippi block a higher percentage of opponent two point attempts than Texas.
This size also shows up on both the offensive and defensive glass. Texas is ranked in the top 40 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Jonathan Holmes, and Connor Lammert are all eating well on the glass. As a team, Texas has put back 69 shots immediately after offensive rebounds, which is the tenth highest total nationally. 23 of Ridley's 86 shot attempts are putbacks of offensive rebounds; only 13 other players nationally have put back more offensive rebounds than the Texas center.
What worries me: Texas' shot distribution. The Longhorns 48 percent effective field goal percentage leaves something to be desired, but it is less an issue of poor shooting than one of a poor shot distribution. Texas' location specific shooting percentages are more or less average; the Horns have converted 60 percent of their layups and dunks, 34 percent of their two point jump shots, and 35 percent of their threes. These are not bad shooting numbers.
The problem lies in the distribution of these shots. 38 percent of Texas' shot attempts have been two point jump shots. Only 38 teams in D-I take more mid-range attempts. Texas is shooting these at the expense of threes; 323 teams across D-I shoot a higher percentage of their shots from beyond the three point line.
7. West Virginia
After an ugly season and a turmoil-filled off-season, not much was expected of
Texas West Virginia. But Rick Barnes' Bob Huggins' team has played well, and while their non-conference record is going to inhibit their chances of landing an NCAA bid, West Virginia basketball is at least good again.
The Mountaineers enter conference play with an 8-5 record. Five losses is a lot, but four out of the five have been at the hands of quality teams. The losses came against Wisconsin, Missouri, Gonzaga, Purdue, and Virginia Tech.
What I like: Huggyball, with the added benefit of outside shooting. For years, Bob Huggins' teams have protected the rock, crashed the glass, and missed a ton of shots. Last year, things fell apart when the turnovers increased and the shooting got particularly ugly.
But that was last year. This year, West Virginia is back to valuing the basketball, turning it over in less than 14 percent of its possessions (the 9th lowest rate in the nation). Juwan Staten, a one time Dayton transfer, currently sports an individual turnover rate of under 12 percent. That is just a staggering number for a point guard. And he manages that low turnover rate while also attempting half of his field goals at the rim, getting to the free throw line a lot, and setting up approximately one out of every three teammate baskets while on the floor. Marcus Smart and DeAndre Kane will probably keep Staten from making the All-Conference team, and with the way he has played so far that really is a shame.
The other thing that West Virginia has done well is bury threes. Huggins' team is shooting just under 40 percent from beyond the arc. Eron Harris, Remi Dibo, Gary Browne, and Nathan Adrian are going to cause some heartburn for opposing coaches this season.
What worries me: Interior defense. 39 percent of opponent attempts have been layups and dunks, which is right at the NCAA average. West Virginia has only blocked 9 percent of these attempts, which ranks 231st nationally. That will catch up to the Mountaineers, as it did when Missouri beat them shooting 17-23 on layups and dunks.
The series will conclude with a look at Kansas State (who I am likely badly underrating for the second year in a row), Texas Tech, and TCU. The conclusion will likely run either Thursday or Friday.