2.15.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:33PM

West Virginia Mountaineers (15-10 overall, 7-5 Big 12) at #19/19 Texas Longhorns (19-5, 8-3)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT | TV: Longhorn Network
Vegas: Texas -6 | KenPom: Texas, 81-74 (73%)

Join me in my time machine, as we go all the way back to January 8th. The Longhorns were heading to Stillwater to take on Oklahoma State in their second Big 12 game, having just let a prime opportunity slip away at home against Oklahoma in the conference opener.

“Texas was already going to have a hard time reaching .500 in conference play, and in turn getting to the magical 20-win plateau, especially in such a deep league,” a wise UT basketball blogger wrote. “Losing a home game against another mid-tier team makes those goals even tougher for Texas to achieve, and it means that an extra win is going to have to be picked off on the road at some point.”

Here we are, just five-and-a-half weeks later, with seven games still left on the schedule. Texas is now just one victory away from the 20-win plateau and .500 in league play. In this week’s mock bracket exercise in Indianapolis, the Longhorns were one of the early locks in the field, and are currently a 5-seed in The Bracket Project’s bracket matrix.

Bob Huggins wasn’t buying the pre-season Big 12 poll
(Photo credit: Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

There are hits and there are misses, and then there are misses. Yours truly, along with essentially every other expert out there, was way off on this team. The Longhorns are still just one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 race, although next Saturday’s matchup with the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse tilts the title odds strongly in KU’s favor.

While the Longhorns have been quite the surprise this season, so have the West Virginia Mountaineers. Predicted to finish seventh by league coaches in October, WVU is now tied for fourth and is just 1.5 games behind the second-place Longhorns. For a team that scuttled through non-conference play and looked rather underwhelming in the first few weeks of Big 12 play, the turnaround has been remarkable.

That turnaround was punctuated on Monday night, as West Virginia destroyed Iowa State at home, winning by a lopsided 102-77 count. The quality victory actually put the Mountaineers on Joe Lunardi’s Thursday bracket, squeaking into the “Last Four In” category. To say that West Virginia would greatly benefit from a road upset in Austin tonight would be drastically understating the situation. For a team that is now squarely on the bubble, a win tonight would carry quite a bit of weight on Selection Sunday.

Meet the Mountaineers

For an in-depth look at the West Virginia roster and a look at the team’s four factors, check out LRT’s preview of the game in Morgantown between these two teams.

The First Meeting

Holmes and the Horns owned the glass in Morgantown
(Photo credit: Andrew Ferguson/Associated Press)

The Longhorns dominated the glass and forced the Mountaineers into taking — and missing — a bunch of challenged threes when the teams met at West Virginia last month. Texas used a 27-11 run over the final 12 minutes of the first half to open up a big lead, and the team never looked back. Although the Mountaineers clawed to within 11 points by the final buzzer, the game was never in doubt in the second half, and Texas cruised to an 80-69 win.

Cameron Ridley was dominant inside for Texas, posting 12 points and 12 boards for what was then his fourth double-double of the season. The Longhorns reclaimed more than 34% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, while limiting WVU to contested one-shot possessions. Texas locked down the defensive glass, allowing the Mountaineers to win back just 22% of their own misses.

Texas did a good job limiting open looks on the perimeter, something that opponents often find difficult to do against the spread attack and driving ability of West Virginia. The Mountaineers made just 16% of their three-point attempts on the night, shooting 4-for-25 from long range. Point guard Juwan Staten went off for 23 points and added five assists, while freshman forward Brandon Watkins had a nice performance off the bench, logging five blocks and snagging six boards in just 14 minutes of action.

Since Then…

Staten had entered the game with Texas as the team’s second-leading scorer, but his offensive explosion against the Horns was just the beginning. The former Dayton Flyer has averaged 20.6 points per game over the team’s last nine outings, a stretch that started with the first Texas game. Even more impressive is the fact that he’s lighting up the scoreboard while also filling up the rest of the stat sheet. During the same nine-game stretch, Staten has also averaged 5.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game, making him a leading candidate for post-season All-Big 12 honors.

The Mountaineers have also caught fire from behind the arc in recent weeks. Although they followed up the Texas game with another disappointing 26.7% three-point mark in a blowout loss at Kansas State, the ‘Eers have been lights out since. In the team’s last seven games, its three-point percentage is a scorching 40.1%, and triples have accounted for 33.1% of the team’s scoring. For comparison’s sake, Division I teams average just 26.6% of their scoring from long range.

West Virginia has won four of its last five games, including home victories against Kansas State, OU, and Iowa State. An ability to force mistakes has been a big part of the team’s success, with its defense causing turnovers on 19.3% of opponents’ possessions in Big 12 contests. While the Mountaineers are stealing possessions from their opponents, they are also protecting their own, turning it over on just 14.2% of their Big 12 possessions. The team’s turnover rates on both ends of the court are tops in the Big 12 heading into today’s action.

Keys to the Game

1) Lock down the perimeter – There’s no way to shut down Staten and his driving ability for an entire game, but staying home against perimeter shooters will certainly limit the damage he can do on the drive-and-kick. Texas has to stick with Eron Harris, Terry Henderson, and the floor-stretching Rémi Dibo when they are waiting behind the arc, or else dribble penetration by the other WVU guards will lead to wide-open looks from long range.

Texas will find it tough to slow down Juwan Staten
(Photo credit: Andrew Ferguson/Associated Press)

2) Avoid foul trouble – The Longhorns have a strong interior defense that can frustrate Staten when he gets to the rim, if they play vertically and avoid fouls. With Jonathan Holmes working his way back from a knee injury, Texas can’t afford to let the slashing ability of the West Virginia guards cause foul trouble in the frontcourt. The Longhorns have a distinct advantage inside in this game, but picking up silly fouls would erase that edge quickly.

3) Clean the glass – The Longhorns dominated the glass in the first meeting between these teams, and they should be able to do the same again tonight. West Virginia’s defense has improved greatly over the last few weeks, so earning second and third chances will be key to keeping the offense going. On the other end of the court, if Texas can stop penetration and force the Mountaineers into contested jumpers, the team has to take advantage by closing out the possessions with solid board work.

4) Hang on to the ball – Texas turned it over 18 times against West Virginia in the first meeting, which equated to more than 24% of the team’s possessions wasted. In last week’s blowout loss to Kansas State, the Longhorns again struggled with the same demons, turning it over on more than 28% of their possessions. West Virginia’s defense is the best in the Big 12 when it comes to forcing mistakes, so the Longhorns have to avoid falling into that same trap tonight. If they don’t, the Horns could become the second-straight Top 25 opponent to fall victim to the Mountaineers.

2.11.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:28PM

Oklahoma State Cowboys (16-7 overall, 4-6 Big 12) at #19/19 Texas Longhorns (18-5, 7-3)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
Vegas: Texas -4.5 | KenPom: Texas, 77-75 (59%)

By 2 P.M. on Saturday, it was clear that the Texas Longhorns were having an awful day. The team looked good on its first two possessions in a road game against Kansas State, but the wheels came off quickly after. Texas dug itself a quick hole against a hot-shooting Wildcat team, as KSU freshman Marcus Foster lit up the scoreboard and repeatedly crushed the Longhorns’ hopes any time they showed signs of life. When all was said and done, K-State whipped the Longhorns by a 75-57 count, ending a seven-game Texas winning streak.

Although Texas had an awful Saturday, it wasn’t the worst in the conference. If you haven’t been sleeping in a cave for the last 72 hours, you’ve seen exactly what happened — Marcus Smart, frustrated by his team’s losing streak and impending defeat at Texas Tech, took offense to heckling by a mouthy Red Raider fan. Having just fallen in front of the baseline stands, he popped up like there was Flubber on his ass, spun around, and shoved now-infamous superfan Jeff Orr as the man tried to stammer a last-second apology.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media, the event was analyzed to death within hours. But while pundits and Twitter experts focused on Smart, his draft stock, fan and player safety, and even how the event represented the decay of modern society, the one thing most often overlooked was how dire the situation at Oklahoma State had become. With the Cowboys already on a four-game losing streak, Smart was handed a three-game suspension, leaving coach Travis Ford without a leader and cutting even further into his short bench.

On February 3rd, the Cowboys had finally dismissed backup point guard Stevie Clark after his second brush with the law. The freshman had previously been suspended twice — for his first arrest and for another violation of team standards. According to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, sources said that Clark’s first suspension was related to marijuana, the same drug he was allegedly found with during his January legal tangle.

Prior to that, an injury to Michael Cobbins gutted the OSU frontcourt, forcing them to go small just before Big 12 play began. The team’s rebounding numbers, which were already pretty poor, suffered even more. The team has reclaimed just 27% of their own missed shots in league games, while allowing opponents to win back 32.1% of their own.

Although Texas will be without forward Jonathan Holmes in the frontcourt, the Horns still enjoy a sizable advantage inside. Factor in Oklahoma State’s lack of a true point guard, and it seems like Texas should easily win the matchup. But the Cowboys are still very talented, and very desperate. There’s some sort of quote about being cautious around an injured animal that would likely work here, but I don’t know it and don’t feel like looking it up. It probably goes something like, “A wounded tiger is most dangerous because Phil Forte can make 13 threes in one half.” I feel like that’s wrong, but you get the idea.

For a quick look at some of the best players still left on the Oklahoma State roster (and some stuff about that Smart dude, too), click on over to LRT’s preview of the first meeting between these two teams this season.

Keys to the game

1) Dominate the paint – The Longhorns did a fantastic job cleaning the glass in the first meeting with Oklahoma State, and they need to do the same thing tonight. They also need to feed the post early and often, not only to exploit their advantage inside, but also in an effort to get Kamari Murphy and Le’Bryan Nash on the bench in foul trouble. There is a massive dropoff in talent when OSU has to plug in frontcourt reserves, which generally means that Coach Ford just goes even smaller with the lineup. If Texas can commit to playing this game in the paint, another big home win should be in the books.

2) Extend defensive pressure – When Oklahoma beat Oklahoma State on Big Monday two weeks ago, Smart spent much of the game on the bench due to foul trouble. At the time, the Cowboys still had Clark as a point guard option, but he also had his playing time limited by fouls. That left Phil Forte to run the point for extended stretches, and the sharpshooter looked like a deer in the headlights when the Sooners rolled out full-court pressure and rushed ballscreens on the perimeter. OSU turned the ball over and frequently settled for jump shots, so if Texas utilizes the same approach tonight, the Cowboys could find it tough to get on the scoreboard.

3) Settle down in the backcourt – The Longhorn guards had an especially tough time against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, repeatedly turning it over. Isaiah Taylor had one of his worst outings on the year, and although Demarcus Holland had some nice assists to pick up the slack, the Longhorn offense still suffered. Taylor and Javan Felix need to play with composure tonight, as Markel Brown and Brian Wiliams still provide a ton of length for OSU’s defense on the perimeter. The Texas guards should still be their natural, aggressive selves, but have to avoid making mistakes against a very talented defense.

2.08.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:15PM

#15/18 Texas Longhorns (18-4 overall, 7-2 Big 12) at Kansas State Wildcats (15-7, 5-4)
Bramlage Coliseum | Manhattan, KS | Tip: 12:45 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3

The Texas Longhorns have hit the halfway point of the conference season, sitting in a comfortable position as they head down the homestretch towards March. In his latest projections, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has pegged the Longhorns as a 5-seed, slotted 17th overall on his S-curve. Although the Big 12 is a very deep league and every game is a challenge, it would take a monumental meltdown for Texas to miss the tournament at this point.

Of course, there’s now also the additional goal of a Big 12 title. With Kansas one game ahead of Texas and three games ahead of Oklahoma and West Virginia, it’s already turned into essentially a two-team race. KU enjoys one of the nation’s best home-court advantages, while the Longhorns still have to tackle the league’s toughest road tests, so the odds are heavily in favor of the Jayhawks. Still, everything about this Texas season has been surprising, so battling Kansas down to the wire for a league title would fit perfectly into the crazy narrative.

The first of those tough road tests comes today for Texas, as the team travels to Manhattan to take on Kansas State. The Longhorns have lost in their last three trips to Bramlage Coliseum, but they aren’t alone in their struggles in the Little Apple. Over the last two seasons, the Wildcats are 12-1 at home against conference foes.

By the numbers

Kansas State’s calling card under head coach Frank Martin was always its defense and its toughness on the offensive glass, and those two qualities have carried over into the Bruce Weber era. This year’s Kansas State squad is currently ranked 13th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.931 points per possession.

The Wildcats do a great job extending pressure, and they position themselves well off from the ball to discourage passes. They work together very well as a unit, shading over to help off of their own man when possible and limit penetration opportunities. K-State has the nation’s 11th-best three-point defense, limiting opponents to just 28.9% from behind the arc. With that excellent perimeter pressure, sometimes the interior D is slow to react when dribble penetration gets inside. Typically, though, opponents get so frustrated by having to start their offense further out that they settle for jump shots and don’t attack that weakness.

On the other end of the court, Kansas State is not a great shooting team. Their own three-point percentage is nearly as low as the one their defense allows, with the team making just 31.4% of their long-range attempts. Last year, the Wildcats would frequently free up their shooters for 15 to 18-foot jump shots coming off of curls. This year, there is more spreading of the floor, and the motion away from the hoop doesn’t normally result in canned jumpers. Instead, the Wildcats are patient enough to let their movement and motion throw the defense off-balance for just a second, then attack with their quick guards or hit their dominant big man in great post position.

When Kansas State does settle for jump shots, their excellent offensive rebounding makes up for the misses. The Wildcats have reclaimed 35.6% of their missed shots, with many of those offensive boards coming in the form of short, weakside rebounds that lead to easy putbacks. Although it’s become cliché to say that K-State’s best offense is missed shots, that’s still accurate this season.

Meet the Wildcats

The player that Texas fans already know very well is Cedar Hill product Thomas Gipson (No. 42), a tank of a man that performed well against his home-state Longhorns in their last meeting. When these two teams squared off on January 21st, Gipson dominated Texas inside, scoring 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting. He’s a very strong interior player, but still has smooth post moves, and has even started working on a mid-range jumper. Although he prefers living on the blocks, that extra little wrinkle to his game has made him even tougher to gameplan for.

On the perimeter, the addition of freshman point guard Marcus Foster (No. 2) has given the Wildcats another weapon. Hailing from Wichita Falls, Foster has a very quick first step, allowing him to blast right through the cracks in the defense when K-State’s perimeter passing shifts opponents from side-to-side. On a team that isn’t very accurate from long range, his three-point shot is one of the best, and he doesn’t need much time or space to get it off.

Joining him in the backcourt is senior Will Spradling (No. 55), a spot-up shooter who has seen his three-point accuracy decrease during his time in Manhattan. After knocking down 37% of his threes during a solid freshman campaign, the word got out about Spradling, and he has found it tougher to get space on the perimeter. This year, he’s only knocked down 34.4% of his threes, but is still dangerous when he camps out in the corner and the other K-State guards start driving to the rack.

The team’s best shooter is its do-everything senior Shane Southwell, a 6’7″ player who can handle the rock, bang inside against bigger opponents, knock down jumpers with little space, and find teammates for open looks. Southwell is very accurate with his mid-range shot, but even when he has a good look, he’s ready to defer to teammates. When opponents scramble to challenge his shot, Southwell frequently passes up the opportunity and makes laser-like feeds to the post after he’s already airborne. His 23.4% assist rate is actually tops among the team’s starters, and ranks him just inside the Top 300 nationally.

Rounding out the starting five is a second freshman, Wesley Iwundu (No. 25). With both Iwundu and Southwell checking in at 6’7″, the Wildcats have a lot of length on defense, and Iwundu is constantly frustrating opponents on the perimeter. On offense, he’s a good slasher and can get to the rim in just a few seconds, but that isn’t his primary role in the KSU game plan.

Although Iwundu doesn’t usually shoot the three, he’s made 5-of-11 on the year, and his long-range bombs were a big reason why the Wildcats knocked off Oklahoma at home last month. At this point, his biggest weakness on offense is an inability to read the situation, which leads to him overplaying his hand and turning it over or getting called for a charge. With great driving ability and a good outside shot already in his repertoire, once the freshman can add in a pull-up jumper and a floater, he’s going to be a nightmare to contain.

The best option off the bench for the Wildcats is freshman guard Jevon Thomas (No. 5), who joined the team at midseason after eligibility issues were finally cleared up. Like Foster, he is an incredibly quick guard with excellent driving ability, but he is always looking to set up his teammates to score. His ability to find seams in the defense, attack with the bounce, and draw defensive attention is key on an offense that can sometimes stagnate.

The Wildcats also get contributions from Nino Williams (No. 11), D.J. Johnson (No. 50), and Omari Lawrence (No. 12). Williams is a 6’5″ wing, but he is a fantastic rebounder, especially crashing the offensive glass. Johnson has proven to be a serviceable backup for Gipson, although he doesn’t have the same post skills and tends to get called for offensive fouls when trying to set high ball screens. Lawrence is a senior who has never played major minutes, and is only averaging about 11 per game this year.

Keys to the game

1) Make Gipson work for his points – The K-State big man is very hard to slow down, but he completely manhandled the Longhorns in the paint just a few weeks ago. The Texas bigs need to prevent him from getting such deep post position this afternoon, and they cannot fall for his very good shot fakes near the rim. Giving up another 24 points to Gipson in Manhattan would make a road win very difficult.

2) Eliminate penetration from the guards – Keeping Foster and Thomas from driving into the heart of the defense will take away a huge piece of the Kansas State offense, but that’s easier said than done. K-State’s quick ball movement exposes gaps in opposing defenses, so it will take a team effort for the Longhorns to keep dribble penetration to a minimum. If they can do it, though, the Wildcats will likely have to knock down jumpers, something that they have struggled to do this season.

3) Strong presence on the glass – Although Texas has done a very good job rebounding the ball this season, the Horns struggled on the defensive glass against Kansas State in Austin. The Wildcats won back 43.2% of their misses in the first game, erasing Texas’ good defensive possessions with second and third chances. If Texas wants to end its losing streak at Bramlage Coliseum, the team has to close out defensive stops with solid rebounding not just from the bigs, but the wings, as well.

2.04.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:59PM

#15/18 Texas Longhorns (17-4 overall, 6-2 Big 12) at TCU Horned Frogs (9-11, 0-8)
Daniel-Meyer Coliseum | Fort Worth, TX | Tip: 7 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court/Watch ESPN

The Super Bowl is over — although Denver apparently never received the memo that it was starting — which means that most of the sports world finally turns its attention to college basketball. If you haven’t been along for the ride over the last three months, you might be surprised at what is going on in Austin.

In the offseason, Rick Barnes had his name on every Hot Seat countdown list, having just struggled through the program’s first losing record in his tenure. Texas also missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in his in 15 years on the Forty Acres, and a mass exodus of players left the Longhorns with no seniors and only one junior on the 2013-14 roster.

To say that expectations were at an all-time low was an understatement. After nail-biting wins against solid mid-major competition in Mercer and Stephen F. Austin, it seemed like it could be a very long season in a stacked Big 12 Conference. Instead, these young Longhorns have played with a chip on their shoulder and a physical nature that has served them well in a defeat of Kansas and key road wins against North Carolina, West Virginia, and Baylor.

Now, the Longhorns sit just three wins away from the magical 20-win plateau and the .500 conference record that seemed like a pipe dream a few months ago. Texas is now feeling very comfortable with its NCAA tournament chances and finds itself just one game behind Kansas as the conference race reaches the halfway mark.

There are still a multitude of tests awaiting the Longhorns. Road trips to Kansas State, Kansas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma are still to come, while home games against Baylor, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia should all prove challenging, as well. The Horns will likely find it difficult to keep up their current success rate the rest of the way in the Big 12, but it’s still hard to believe that the team should comfortably finish with a winning conference record.

After pulling a clean sweep against four consecutive ranked opponents, the Longhorns have the prototypical trap game at TCU tonight. The Horned Frogs are down to just seven or eight scholarship players, depending on whether starting center Karviar Shepherd plays with the broken hand he suffered two weeks ago. If he isn’t able to go, TCU will not only have a seven-man rotation, but will also be severely undersized against the Texas frontcourt. The Horned Frogs have nothing to lose at this point, so the Longhorns can’t afford to look ahead to their road trip to Kansas State on Saturday.

TCU is not a good shooting team, and the offense often relies on point guard Kyan Anderson creating dribble penetration to make anything happen. Although the Horned Frogs burn a ton of clock in half-court sets and keep the number of possessions low, they still look for opportunities to score in transition, where Anderson is particularly dangerous leaking out on the perimeter.

Although Anderson often has to carry the offense on his back, there are other options for TCU. Freshman Brandon Parrish has shown some promise as an outside shooter and slasher, but against pressure he often will dribble the air out of the ball and put up challenged midrange Js that just clank off the iron. Amric Fields — who will be the lone big if Shepherd is out — is a 6’9″ guy with a solid outside shot and face-up ability to go with his post skills.

We’ll have more pregame thoughts on the Horned Frogs and provide Texas’ keys to the game on Twitter in the hour leading up to the game. Keep your eyes peeled to the Longhorn Road Trip timeline for the rest of our preview tonight. And if for some reason you feel like reading the same tweets twice, they will be archived here sometime tomorrow.

2.01.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:01AM

#6/7 Kansas Jayhawks (16-4 overall, 7-0 Big 12) at #25/ARV Texas Longhorns (16-4, 5-2)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN

The Big 12′s two hottest teams meet at the Frank Erwin Center this afternoon, as the Jayhawks and Longhorns put their seven-game and five-game winning streaks on the line. Texas is returning to action after a week off, and is looking to notch its fourth consecutive win over a ranked opponent. It was a feat that had not been seen since North Carolina ran a four-game gauntlet in 1996-97, until Kansas did it just a few weeks ago. With seven different Big 12 teams bouncing in and out of the polls in conference play, the tough tests come often, but only Kansas and Texas have managed to string together lengthy winning streaks in the country’s top conference.

Texas’ streak has propelled the team from a spot on the bubble to being safely in the NCAA picture — for now. With the Big 12 schedule providing a stiff test night after night, and with the league’s three toughest road tests still to come for the Longhorns, there’s still the danger of a losing skid that could muddy Texas’ NCAA picture. Another win this afternoon over a ranked opponent — and the No. 1 team according to RPI — would give Texas even more insurance against any late-season stumbles.

Bill Self is fired up about his team’s 7-0 Big 12 start
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, Kansas is in the hunt for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and is already getting close to running away with another Big 12 title. With Allen Fieldhouse providing the league’s strongest home-court advantage, challengers to the throne have to pick off wins when the Jayhawks hit the road. Kansas has avoided two potential potholes already, surviving road tests in both Norman and Ames, and the team still has five games left against Texas Tech, TCU, and West Virginia.

The number of good opportunities left for Big 12 contenders to trip up the Jayhawks are dwindling, with this afternoon providing one of the best chances remaining. Considering that KU already leads Oklahoma by 1.5 games and Texas by two full games, another Jayhawk win today could make that conference lead insurmountable.

By the numbers

Kansas has the nation’s fourth-best offense when it comes to offensive efficiency, and the team does it by destroying opponents in the paint. The Jayhawks score an adjusted 1.201 points per possession, a number that has actually gone up against tougher Big 12 competition. In conference games, KU has scored 1.214 raw points per possession. On the year, Kansas averages 37.5 points per game in the paint, which makes up 46.8% of its scoring.

Kansas has an impressive frontcourt that can easily score at the rim, plus guards and wings that can get a piece of the paint. While that all leads to quite a few points in the lane, Kansas’ excellent offensive rebounding numbers also play a role in the team’s interior scoring. The Jayhawks reclaim 36.6% of their missed shots, and frequently have a player snatching up a weakside board for the easy putback.

If keeping up with that kind of offensive efficiency wasn’t tough enough for Jayhawk opponents, they also find it very difficult to score against a stout Kansas defense. KU allows 0.953 adjusted points per possession, a defensive efficiency mark that ranks 28th in the nation. That defensive dominance is thanks in large part to a block percentage of 15.8%. With a 7-foot freshman man-child starting at center, and quality depth in the KU frontcourt, opponents find it tough to score inside for the entire 40 minutes.

One area of concern for the Jayhawks is their trouble hanging on to the basketball. On the year, Kansas has coughed it up once for every five possessions, a turnover rate that is among Division I’s bottom third. In conference play, the problem has become worse, with Kansas losing the ball on 21.1% of its possessions. Against Baylor’s zone, the Jayhawks repeatedly made poor passes, and second-half backcourt pressure from Oklahoma State led to KU unraveling and a Cowboy comeback.

The fact that Kansas can give up so many possessions and still have the fourth-best offense in the country is downright frightening. If and when the Jayhawks can manage to clean up their passing, it’s hard to imagine any team being able to keep pace with their scoring.

Meet the Jayhawks

On a team with three recruits who played in the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic, Andrew Wiggins (No. 22) stands out as the freshman who arrived in Lawrence with the most hype. Although he hasn’t wowed in every single game, he has had numerous plays in each one that underscore the athleticism and talent he possesses. Wiggins has a strong, quick first step that helps him blast past defenders when he slashes from the wings, and he seems to hit another gear when he runs the open floor in transition. The freshman also loves to spin like a top when he drives from the perimeter, slipping past defenders that thought they had contained his penetration.

Wiggins has certainly struggled with his turnovers in conference play, and had a very tough time against Baylor’s zone. He looked afraid to shoot against the closing length of the Bears, and passed up numerous opportunities to drive and attack the gaps. Instead, he tried to make passes that teammates weren’t expecting, or decided to dish in midair. He coughed it up four times against Baylor, and has lost it on 21.1% of his possessions against Big 12 opponents.

Defenses have a hard time slowing down Joel Embiid
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

While Wiggins was the biggest freshman name for KU in the preseason, 7-foot center Joel Embiid (No. 21) has quickly become the team’s biggest star with his incredible performances. The big man only started playing basketball two years ago, but already has impeccable, smooth footwork and a variety of post moves. He understands how to get good position and take the right angles, so most defenders are beat before the entry pass is even made.

Teams have repeatedly tried to double and triple team Embiid on the catch, but he keeps the ball high and passes well against the pressure. He also uses those passing skills to his advantage in one-on-one situations, making hard pass fakes to get defenders off-balance before he moves to the rack.

Defensively, Joel has become a monster. His block rate of 12.2% ranks him 13th in the country, and he’s logged ridiculous seven and eight-block performances against UTEP and Oklahoma State. When he’s not blocking shots, he’s forcing opponents to take tough ones, and he’s constantly cleaning up the glass. Embiid is ranked in the Top 75 in both offensive (13%) and defensive (24%) rebounding percentages.

The biggest knock on Embiid’s game right now is how often he gets called for fouls, especially for throwing elbows. He was ejected for sizing up Kansas State’s Nino Williams on a rebound and popping him in the face, then earned technicals in each of the team’s next two wins, against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. While the latter two weren’t nearly as egregious as his cheap shot on Williams, Embiid now has the attention of officials, and that is going to make things a little tougher on him.

The third stud freshman is Wayne Selden, Jr. (No. 1), an excellent shooter and slasher who has been content playing sidekick to his star teammates. Coach Bill Self wasn’t as happy with that deferential attitude, and he has implored Selden to be more aggressive and take his open looks. The message finally sunk in as the calendar turned to conference play, with Wayne scoring 44 points in the team’s first two conference games, while posting an effective field goal percentage of 74.1%.

After those two solid performances, Selden went through a mini-slump. He shot just 33% from the field in the team’s next three games, including a 21.4% mark behind the arc. The cure, as it is for many teams and players, was a game against TCU. Selden shot 55.6% from the field against the Horned Frogs, scoring 12 points, while logging four assists. He followed that up with another solid outing against Iowa State on Wednesday night and seems primed to once again fill the role Coach Self envisioned for him.

At the point, senior Naadir Tharpe (No. 10) is making things click. Jayhawk fans have always been tough on the point guard, but this year he seems to be providing the quiet, steady leadership that a team of young stars needs. Tharpe’s assist rate of 30.3% is tops on the team, but he’s not simply a pass-first point guard. The senior is deadly coming off of high ball screens, as he loves to pull up and drill 18-footers.

Tharpe is also incredibly dangerous behind the arc, where he’s hit 43.8% of his long-range looks. The Jayhawks move the ball very quickly and take advantage of opponents who sell out to try to stop KU’s interior threat. Often that means swinging the ball around and hitting opposite post when teams double on the block, but it also leads to quite a few open looks for Tharpe and others waiting on the perimeter.

The fifth starter for Kansas is sophomore Perry Ellis (No. 34), a Wichita product who finally emerged as a big-time threat in last year’s Big 12 tournament. Ellis carried that momentum into this season, and he’s flourishing in the frontcourt as teams struggle to slow down Embiid. Perry has a good midrange jumper and an excellent face-up game from about 15 feet and in, plus great passing ability from the block and high post. Teams have not only tried doubling Embiid in the post, but have also thrown pressure at Ellis to try to force mistakes. Like Embiid, Ellis is able to find open teammates and get them easy looks.

While it’s tough to match the size and skillset of Kansas’ 7-foot Cameroonian center, the Jayhawks do have the luxury of a pair of solid frontcourt reserves. Jamari Traylor (No. 31) and graduate transfer Tarik Black (No. 25) are two imposing figures at 6’8″, 220 pounds and 6’9″, 260 pounds, respectively. Traylor has a really nice face-up game for a guy his size, and he also can whip some impressive passes when he puts the ball on the court and draws defensive attention with his drives.

Tarik Black would be in the starting five for most teams
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Black turns into a wall when he sets ball screens and is a tough defender in the paint. In addition to blocking shots and cleaning up the defensive glass, he has also proven capable of planting his feet and drawing the charge, as he did three times against Kansas State earlier this year. Getting tagged with an offensive foul and turning it over is bad enough, but you have to imagine running into someone built like Black probably makes it even worse.

Unfortunately, Black sprained his ankle in a Big Monday win over Baylor and has missed the team’s last two games. He is expected to play this afternoon against Texas, but his mobility could understandably be limited. The outlook is not as good for freshman guard Conner Frankamp (No. 23), who will likely miss his second straight game due to a knee injury.

With Frankamp out, that leaves Kansas with Frank Mason (No. 0) and sparingly-used gunner Brannen Greene (No. 14) as the bench options in the backcourt. Mason, a freshman, has come on strong in recent games after struggling a bit as the team’s backup point. The 5’11″ guard has a great first step and can penetrate at will, and his solid performances in Big 12 play have earned him even more playing time. Recently, Kansas has frequently put both Mason and Tharpe on the floor at once, giving the team two good ballhandlers to go with Selden or Wiggins on the wing.

Keys to the game

1) Limit offensive rebounds – Texas has done a phenomenal job on the glass this season, but the Horns have yet to face a frontcourt like this. The home loss to Oklahoma was due to Texas’ inability to clean up the defensive glass, and the team also struggled against a good-rebounding Kansas State team. The Jayhawks are already very tough to slow down, so the Longhorns must limit the number of second chances and easy putbacks that KU earns today.

2) Rotate quickly – Kansas moves the ball quickly and takes advantage of opponents who elect to double team. Cameron Ridley might find it difficult to keep up with the slippery Embiid, which means that Texas may have to risk using a second defender. If the Horns do, they will have to rotate quickly to keep up with KU’s ball movement and prevent wide open looks or easy cuts to the rim.

3) Take advantage of mistakes – The young Jayhawks have turned the ball over frequently this season, although many of their turnovers tend to be of the dead-ball variety. With Kansas boasting a strong interior defense, the Longhorns need to get as many points as they can in transition and on the secondary break. The Jayhawks gave up quite a few hoops to Oklahoma State off of turnovers, and they repeatedly lost Baylor’s Brady Heslip on the break, allowing open threes. If the Longhorns can get a nice chunk of points in the open court this afternoon, they should keep themselves in position to pull off the upset.

4) Stretch the floor – With the Jayhawks so strong inside, teams have found the most success when they can stretch the floor and pull the KU bigs out of the lane. Kansas typically rushes the ball screens with their posts, because their defense rotates well and eliminates easy buckets at the rim. However, this does leave them exposed to the pick-and-pop, something that Baylor and Isaiah Austin took advantage of last Monday. Both Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert have a nice three-point stroke, so the Longhorns need to exploit that tendency and have the bigs knock down a few triples after setting high ball screens.

1.25.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 10:13AM

Texas Longhorns (15-4 overall, 4-2 Big 12) at #24/23 Baylor Bears (13-5, 1-4)
Ferrell Center | Waco, TX | Tip: 12:45 P.M. CT
TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3

The Texas Longhorns took care of business at home over the last week, knocking off back-to-back ranked teams in Iowa State and Kansas State. The wins propeled Texas from the “First Four Out” of Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology to an 8-seed playing in San Diego on the tournament’s opening weekend. The Longhorn performances also shifted the projections from Ken Pomeroy, making 10-8 the most likely Big 12 finish for Texas.

With only one-third of the conference race finished, Texas still has work to do. The Horns need to avoid losses against teams it should beat — namely West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech — and pick up a few more quality wins along the way. Today’s road game in Waco provides Texas yet another chance to log one of those quality wins and further increase the odds that the Horns will reach the magical 20-win plateau.

Scott Drew finally watched The Sixth Sense
(Photo credit: LM Otero/Associated Press)

The Longhorns aren’t expected to win the game, with Pomeroy giving them a 34% chance to win and projecting a four-point final margin. However, an upset this afternoon would give Texas some more breathing room in terms of bubble talk, and also give the program its first streak of three consecutive victories against AP Top 25 opponents.

The Bears, meanwhile, are in desperate need of a win. After being tabbed as a potential challenger to Kansas’ Big 12 supremacy in the preseason, Baylor has dropped four out of its first five league games. The losses at Iowa State and Kansas didn’t help Baylor’s conference title chase, but they weren’t surprises. The road loss to Tech and a home loss to Oklahoma are what has the Bears reeling, already making them an afterthought in the Big 12 race after just three weeks.

The Bears aren’t in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but they do need to right the ship quickly and start defending their home court. The Longhorns will not only be trying to beat a good Baylor team on the road today, but they’ll be trying to beat a good Baylor team desperate to prove something and get back on track.

By the numbers

Pace is going to be the biggest clash in this game, with the Longhorns coming in at an adjusted 71.4 possessions per game and the Bears averaging just 63.8 adjusted possessions. Baylor’s slow pace makes them even tougher to beat when you take a look at just how good their offensive efficiency numbers are. The Bears have posted an adjusted OE of 1.147 points per possession, the 29th-best mark in the country. With fewer possessions in the game and an offense that scores so frequently, it only takes a few stops by the Baylor defense to create an edge.

That defense isn’t spectacular, as it allows 1.005 points per possession, which ranks just inside the top third of D-I teams. Baylor’s D has stumbled through conference play and is ranked 7th in the league, allowing 1.133 points per possession against Big 12 foes. The Bears have a ton of length that typically makes their zone defense very tough to beat, but they have reacted slowly in recent conference games, allowing opponents far too many open looks.

Baylor usually runs a 2-3 or an extended 1-3-1, and most defensive possessions they appear to seamlessly transition between both looks. With 7’1″ Isaiah Austin (No. 21) patrolling the paint and the length of Cory Jefferson (No. 34) and Royce O’Neale (No. 00) on the wings, passes are more difficult for opponents, shots are usually challenged, and Baylor has some leeway to be able to recover from mistakes.

On the offensive end, Baylor’s strengths are reclaiming missed shots and knocking down long-range looks. The Bears are ranked third in the entire country with an offensive rebounding rate of 43%, and have posted an even higher mark against conference opponents. In Big 12 games, Baylor has won back 43.9% of its misses, making it very hard for opponents to slow them down. With the Bears already posting an effective field goal mark of 52.4%, it’s absolutely crippling when an opponent actually makes a stop, only to see a neon jersey swipe the ball and put it right back in the bucket.

Brady Heslip is unconscious behind the arc
(Photo credit: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

Behind the arc, the exploits of sharpshooter Brady Heslip (No. 5) are well documented. With the Canadian product making more than 47% of his threes, it should come as no surprise that the Bears have an impressive 38.8% team three-point percentage. However, he is not the only accurate long-range shooter, as both Austin and Jefferson can spread the floor and have knocked down 40% of their rare three-point attempts. The wings, O’Neale and Taurean Prince (No. 35), can also hit from long range, with both hovering around the 37% mark. Baylor doesn’t actually take that many threes, but they have enough accurate shooters that opponents have to pay attention to everyone around the arc, not just Heslip, and that can open things up elsewhere on the floor.

Meet the Bears

The man that makes everything click for Baylor is juco transfer point guard Kenny Chery (No. 1). Coming to Waco from State Fair CC in Missouri, Chery is an incredible leader that simply knows how to get his team on the scoreboard. He’s not incredibly quick, but he takes good angles, uses hesitation dribbles, and has the strength to repeatedly get into the paint for easy looks or to set up teammates by drawing the D. Watching Chery, you will often think that he’s driving into a set defense or that his man has him easily guarded, but a few seconds later he’s at the rim or dumping off to a Baylor big down low.

Joining him in the backcourt is senior Gary Franklin (No. 4), an excellent defender and good shooter. Although Franklin has seen his shooting numbers dip in his final season, he’s still a threat to get hot from long range. Texas fans may remember his 3-for-3 performance behind the arc in Austin last year, so they know that he’s always capable of turning in some solid numbers.

Baylor runs an eight-man rotation where everyone gets quite a bit of playing time, so although Franklin is a starter, he eats up only 54.6% of his available minutes. Heslip is team’s other backcourt option, and although he comes off the bench, he actually plays just a slight bit more than Franklin. In addition to Heslip’s incredible 47.3% mark behind the arc, he’s also worked on his midrange game the last two seasons. Now, when opponents chase him off the perimeter, he can put the ball on the floor and connect on floaters or pull-up jumpers. The biggest knock on Heslip’s game is his defense, as he often struggles to contain dribble penetration and will get caught falling asleep when he should be providing help.

On the wings, O’Neale and Prince both offer the ability to face up and drive to the bucket, and can both knock down the three. Prince has been especially hot from long range in Big 12 play, having made 5-of-11 three-pointers in the last four games. He is also one of the many excellent offensive rebounders on the team, crashing from the wings to reclaim more than 9% of his offensive rebounding opportunities. His size and length have also provided mismatch opportunities in a Big 12 where many teams are opting for smaller lineups or three-guard looks. Baylor has taken advantage of those situations against man defenses, posting Prince up against smaller guards.

Jefferson and Austin also provide a ton of offensive rebounds for the Bears, snagging 10% and 9.5% of their chances, respectively. Although neither is exceptionally smooth with the ball, they both have serviceable handles and can face up opponents near the perimeter and get to the rim. Against Oklahoma, Austin even took one defensive rebound and brought it all the way up the floor before being rejected by Ryan Spangler at the rack.

Isaiah Austin has focused on his inside game this season
(Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Last season, Austin tended to hang out around the arc and settle for long jumpers or threes. Early this year, he still took his share of long jumpers, but was completely ignoring the three-point shot. It seems that the Baylor coaching staff recently asked him to start taking advantage of those opportunities, as he has suddenly committed to taking — and making — long-range shots in his last two games. After going just 1-for-7 on threes in the team’s first 16 games, Austin has taken 11 threes in his last two games and made six of them (54.5%).

The final piece of the core rotation is Rico Gathers (No. 2), an absolute tank of a man who leads the nation in individual offensive rebounding. At just 6’8″, Gathers has reclaimed 22% of the offensive board opportunities when he’s on the floor, repeatedly breaking the will of defenses by getting an easy putback after they had worked so hard to force a missed shot. That rebounding acumen allows Baylor to keep their length on the wings even when Austin goes to the bench, as Gathers typically guards the lane in their zone in those situations. Although that eliminates the shot-blocking threat down low, being able to leave Jefferson and Prince or O’Neale on the wings limits open threes and makes it harder to get the ball into the paint.

Keys to the game

1) Clean up the defensive glass – Baylor is not only the best offensive-rebounding team in the Big 12, but also one of the best in the nation. Although Texas has generally been very strong on the boards, the team will have its hands full trying to keep the Bears off the glass. The Longhorns were undone by Oklahoma’s offensive rebounding in their home loss to the Sooners, and a similar performance on the boards will spell disaster in Waco this afternoon. While Texas isn’t going to be able to dominate the defensive glass against this Baylor team, the Horns need to limit the number of second chances, especially when it gets down to crunch time.

2) Stick to Heslip like glue – Brady Heslip needs very little time or space to get off a shot behind the arc, and the Bears do a good job consistently running him off of screens to get him that little bit of separation. The Horns have had their struggles limiting damage from good three-point shooters this season, and they simply cannot afford to let Heslip go crazy today. The Bears are going to run the Longhorn defense ragged with staggered screens off the ball, so Texas has to communicate and offer help when the defenders inevitably get hung up.

3) Don’t let the ball stick – The Longhorns will have to be patient against the Baylor zone, but patience doesn’t equate to waiting. Texas needs to keep the ball moving and use dribble penetration to attack the gaps. The Baylor defense has sprung some leaks in Big 12 play, with Texas Tech exposing their weaknesses in a phenomenal performance up in Lubbock. The Red Raiders moved the ball quickly, passed it well out of the high and low post, and made good cuts off the ball. Baylor’s zone not only has the usual gap right in the middle, but also has a ton of space about twelve feet out on the baseline. If the Longhorns can avoid their bad habits of dribbling the ball too much beyond the arc and passing without purpose, there are points to be had against the Bears.

1.24.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:16AM
TEAM W L THIS WEEK NEXT WEEK
Kansas 5 0 W vs. Baylor, 78-68
Sat at TCU
Wed vs. Iowa State
Sat at Texas
Kansas State 4 2 L at Texas, 67-64
Sat at Iowa State
Tue vs. Texas Tech
Sat at West Virginia
Oklahoma 4 2 W vs. TCU, 77-69
Sat at Texas Tech
Mon vs. Oklahoma State
Sat at Iowa State
Texas 4 2 W vs. Kansas State, 67-64
Sat at Baylor
Sat vs. Kansas
Oklahoma State 3 2 Sat vs. West Virginia Mon at Oklahoma
Sat vs. Baylor
West Virginia 3 3 W vs. Texas Tech, 87-81
Sat at Oklahoma State
Tue at Baylor
Sat vs. Kansas State
Iowa State 2 3 Sat vs. Kansas State Wed at Kansas
Sat vs. Oklahoma
Texas Tech 2 4 L at West Virginia, 87-81
Sat vs. Oklahoma
Tue at Kansas State
Sat vs. TCU
Baylor 1 4 L at Kansas, 78-68
Sat vs. Texas
Tue vs. West Virginia
Sat at Oklahoma State
TCU 0 6 L at Oklahoma, 77-69
Sat vs. Kansas
Sat at Texas Tech

The big picture

Before conference play began, conventional wisdom held that Kansas was still the favorite in the Big 12, but that the Jayhawks could face stiff tests from Baylor and Oklahoma State. Even Iowa State emerged as a contender with its undefeated start, which included a win over Michigan and a road victory against BYU. With Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Texas all exceeding pre-season expectations, the league appeared to be deeper than ever, one in which the teams would beat each other up all season long.

The league certainly has proven to be a meat grinder, with every road win a valuable commodity. But while Oklahoma State and Baylor have both suffered losses in the first weeks of conference play, and Iowa State has stalled in a three-game losing streak, the Jayhawks have once again risen above the fray. With the teams now one-third of the way through the Big 12′s double round-robin, Kansas has a 1.5-game lead over its closest competitors, and Ken Pomeroy’s computers predict that KU will finish the season a full three games ahead of Oklahoma State.

At nearly this exact same point in last year’s conference race, I wrote about how Kansas had already turned it into a three-team battle. The Jayhawks were favored to win every game from that point on, and I even suggested that, “with odds like that, it’s hard to believe that KU could drop three games down the stretch.” Just four games later, I was already wrong, as the Jayhawks went on an unprecedented three-game skid that had Coach Bill Self saying his team that lost at TCU “was the worst team Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there.”

In the spirit of learning from past mistakes, I won’t go so far as to make any bold predictions about the Jayhawks in late January of this year. But, I will point out that any team that wants to catch Kansas will have to make up quite a bit of ground. Not only has Kansas already built a 1.5-game lead, but the Jayhawks have done it while also surviving two of the league’s tougher road tests at intimidating Hilton Coliseum and against a very OU team in Norman. The Jayhawks have also dispatched two of the presumed contenders at home, knocking off both Oklahoma State and Baylor in the last week. While road games in Manhattan, Austin, and Stillwater could still prove to be stumbling blocks, unless the Jayhawks trip up in all three of those games, somebody is going to have to defy the odds at Allen Fieldhouse.

Today’s games

Texas at Baylor; Saturday, 12:45 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN3)

LRT’s full preview of the Texas/Baylor game will be available on Saturday morning.

Kansas State at Iowa State; Saturday, 12:45 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN3)

On January 6th, Iowa State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin had a perfect combined record of 43-0. Over the following week, each of the teams finally fell from the ranks of the unbeatens….and they just kept losing. The three teams combined to lose 10 straight games once their unblemished marks disappeared, with Ohio State’s victory against Illinois on Thursday night finally breaking the group’s slide.

Since losing at Texas last Saturday, Iowa State has enjoyed an entire week off to refocus their efforts. Already in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the Cyclones are about to embark on a very tough four-game stretch against ranked opponents. Fortunately Iowa State is at home for two of those games, in an arena where they have posted a 17-3 record in conference play over the last two-plus seasons.

On paper, Saturday’s matchup with Kansas State seems to favor the Cyclones. Kansas State struggles to score outside the paint, while Iowa State’s interior defense is one of the best in the country. The Wildcats get most of their points from offensive rebounds or dribble penetration by Jevon Thomas and Marcus Foster. Unfortunately for K-State, the Cyclones actually rebound very well on the defensive end, and their length on the perimeter allows them to play conservatively and stifle dribble penetration.

The Wildcats have kept themselves in games all season long with a tough defense that keeps scores low enough for their average offense to keep up. In Iowa State’s high-powered offense, KSU is going to find one of its toughest tests yet. The Wildcats have to eliminate transition opportunities for Iowa State and hope that Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams can reclaim enough missed shots on the other end to keep them in the game.

West Virginia at Oklahoma State; Saturday, 1 P.M. CT (ESPN2)

The Mountaineers have yet to beat a team that isn’t below them in the standings, but they did give the Cowboys a scare when these two teams met in Morgantown just a few weeks ago. Terry Henderson went crazy from behind the arc in that game, knocking down five of his seven three-point attempts. In the end, it was a last-second three from Oklahoma State’s Markel Brown that sealed the deal, keeping the Cowboys from a crippling 0-2 start.

Henderson wasn’t able to recapture the magic from that performance in West Virginia’s next two games, but he game back with a vengeance earlier this week. In a sharpshooter’s battle with Texas Tech’s Dusty Hannahs, Henderson drilled 5-of-6 from long range in an 87-81 WVU win on Wednesday. The Mountaineers will need another solid performance from their X-factor to win in Stillwater, and they must maintain their Top 10 turnover percentage against an OSU team that repeatedly forces mistakes by visiting teams.

Oklahoma at Texas Tech; Saturday, 3 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3)

The Baylor Bears were given a reminder just how hard it can be to win on the High Plains when they fell victim to Texas Tech in Lubbock last week. Although United Spirit Arena hasn’t been full in years, the students still show up for big games and that energy has proven useful in some massive upsets over the last few seasons. Add in the experience of new coach Tubby Smith, and the road trip to Tech is going to be a much dicier proposition for Big 12 opponents this year. The fans are planning a “White Out” to greet Oklahoma in this one, but the Sooners have already proven to be road warriors in victories at Texas and Baylor.

The Sooners will have to prevent Tech from dominating the offensive glass and they will have to lock down Hannahs, who is 9-for-9 on threes in his last two games. The Red Raiders, meanwhile, will have a hard time slowing down an OU offense that seems to have a different hero step up every night. Cameron Clark gets most of the pub, but it’s been Buddy Hield who has emerged as the Robin to his Batman in Big 12 play. The sophomore from the Bahamas is averaging more than 18 points per game against Big 12 opponents and posted offensive ratings over 118 in four of the six contests.

Kansas at TCU; Saturday, 8 P.M. CT (ESPNU)

Kansas fans remember the team’s most recent visit to TCU all too well. The Horned Frog victory in 2013 was probably the most unexpected upset of the year in college hoops, and it became the second defeat of a three-game losing streak, something that had not been seen in Lawrence since 2005. You can be sure that Coach Self and the upperclassmen will have the Jayhawk freshmen ready for this one.

That’s an unfortunate thing for a TCU team that is already slogging through a terrible Big 12 campaign. The Horned Frog offense is ranked 292nd out of 351 Division I teams in adjusted efficiency, and it’s only been worse since stepping up to face conference foes. TCU ranks dead last in league games for offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, and they rank seventh in offensive rebounding percentage. The only offensive mark that even puts them in the top half is their free-throw rate, which measures how frequently they get to the line. Unfortunately, even though TCU is fourth-best in conference play when it comes to earning free throws, they are again dead last in actual free-throw percentage, making less than 60% of their attempts.

If one paragraph of awful stats wasn’t enough, I leave you with one final number regarding TCU’s nightmare season. With 12 games still left to go, Pomeroy already gives the Horned Frogs a 20% chance to finish winless in the Big 12. Their best opportunities to steal a victory come in home games against Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma, all contests in which TCU still only has a 23% chance to win.

1.21.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:38PM

#22/NR Kansas State Wildcats (14-4 overall, 4-1 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (14-4, 3-2)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 6 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2

The Texas Longhorns took a major step towards the NCAA tournament with Saturday afternoon’s win over Iowa State. With the victory, the Horns finally have the kind of win on their résumé that will hold cachet with the Selection Committe roughly two months from now. Even with Iowa State now on a three-game losing streak, the Cyclones are still ranked 10th in the all-important RPI. The victory was the first for Texas against the RPI Top 50, a data point that the committee weighs heavily when comparing Team A to Team B in order to dole out bids and nail down the S-curve.

One win, however, does not make a tournament-worthy team. The Longhorns will have to snag some more quality victories to keep themselves in the discussion, but fortunately will have numerous opportunities, as they compete in the nation’s top RPI-rated conference. Texas is in the midst of a four-game stretch against ranked opponents, all of whom are currently slotted 36th or better in the RPI. With the conference so deep this season, those types of schedule stretches are the norm rather than the exception; Kansas and Oklahoma both just completed their own streaks of four games against ranked opponents, as well. While the Longhorns could earn some of those quality wins on the road, the nature of home court in college basketball means that it will be decidedly easier for them to score some scalps at home.

Tonight, Kansas State provides yet another opportunity for Texas to pad its portfolio. The matchup is practically even, with Ken Pomeroy’s computers giving the Horns a 67-64 edge on their home floor. Texas let a golden opportunity slip away when Oklahoma escaped the Frank Erwin Center with a three-point win on the opening night of conference play. If the Horns want to keep their bubble prospects strong, they cannot afford to let another quality win slip away tonight.

The preview

I’ve toyed with the idea of a Twitter preview a few times this season when real-life time crunches pushed back my publication times much later than I preferred. Tonight, I’m going to give it a whirl and see how it goes. I could write a few thousand words on these K-State Wildcats, and I’ll do exactly that when the Longhorns face them on February 8th, instead of posting the usual, abbreviated preview that I typically use for the second half of the Big 12′s double round-robin. For tonight’s game, however, check out the Longhorn Road Trip Twitter timeline during the five o’clock hour for pre-game numbers, keys, and player notes. For posterity’s sake, I’ll embed them here on the website after the fact.

Until then, amigos…

1.18.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:19PM

#8/10 Iowa State Cyclones (14-2 overall, 2-2 Big 12) at Texas Longhorns (13-4, 2-2)
Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 3 P.M. CT | TV: Big 12 Network (Affiliate list)/ESPN3

Texas is back in action this afternoon, hosting a Top 10 opponent at the Drum. The Horns are coming off one of their most impressive performances of the season, a convincing road win in which they stifled the West Virginia offense and scored at will on the other end. UT’s defense held the Mountaineers to their lowest offensive efficiency mark of the season, allowing just 0.936 points per possession.

The Texas defense will need another strong performance this afternoon against an Iowa State squad that has the 26th-most efficient offense in the nation. The Cyclones get down the court in a hurry and find open shooters with just one or two passes, often scoring before their opponents even know what’s happened.

This game is an important opportunity for the Longhorns, who will likely be battling on the NCAA bubble all season long. In Joe Lunardi’s Thursday Bracketology update, UT was the last team left out of the field of 68. The bubble is just a bit smaller this season, as the formation of the American Athletic Conference means that there’s one less at-large bid available.

Fred Hoiberg is a little confused about today’s game
(Photo credit: Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Texas is currently ranked 46th in the RPI, but are lacking any wins against teams ranked in the RPI Top 50. Thanks to North Carolina’s swoon in ACC play, the Tar Heels have slid to 53rd, leaving Texas with an 0-4 mark against the RPI Top 50.

Fortunately, the Big 12 is the top league as ranked by RPI, and the Horns will have an additional 10 chances to knock off a team in that important Top 50 group. Obviously, it’s easier to upset any team at home than on the road, and that’s especially true when talking about teams like Iowa State, Kansas State, and Kansas, who have tremendous home-court advantages. If the Horns want to finish at least .500 in league play and maintain an NCAA-worthy résumé, they will have to earn some wins at home against the Big 12′s top teams.

By the numbers

Iowa State’s aforementioned efficient offense is a quick-strike unit that can easily exploit even the smallest mistakes made by opposing defenses. The Cyclones play at the 16th-fastest tempo in Division I, and they boast the 7th-quickest offensive possessions, averaging just 14.7 seconds on the offensive end. Iowa State not only attacks in transition, but also repeatedly scores on the secondary break by finding open men when the defense does manage to stop the ball. The Cyclones are very disciplined when they run the floor, staying in their lanes and getting to spots where they can wait for open looks, or cutting to the rim on the weak side.

Defensively, Iowa State’s numbers are even better. The Cyclones have the 18th-most efficient defense in the country, allowing just 0.929 adjusted points per possession. They have a lot of length on the perimeter, which allows them to sag off and defend the interior, while still being able to close out on shooters for contested jumpers. As a result, Iowa State has a fantastic two-point defense and hardly ever sends opponents to the line. With the Cyclone D already set inside, driving guards have to pass it off, take a contested shot, or barrel forward and draw offensive fouls.

In Big 12 play, Iowa State’s defense has also started forcing mistakes. The Cyclones hardly ever forced turnovers in the non-conference slate, but are tops in the conference with a 23% defensive turnover percentage in four league games. That increase in turnovers has helped to offset a decrease in defensive rebounding, as the smaller Cyclone roster has given up more second chances now that they are battling the size of Big 12 teams.

Meet the Cyclones

An Iowa State name that most Big 12 fans will already know is that of Georges Niang (No. 31), a matchup nightmare that could best be described as a point forward. Although Niang doesn’t run the point, he has the ballhandling skills to do so, is an excellent passer, and can get to the rack by driving from the perimeter.

Niang doesn’t have the speed to blow by defenders, but he can pull opposing forwards away from the bucket, put the ball on the floor, and use smooth spin moves to beat them to the rim. When faced with smaller defenders, Coach Hoiberg loves to isolate him on the block, where Niang can easily score over both shoulders.

Defenses have a tough time slowing down DeAndre Kane
(Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

If Niang wasn’t already enough of a matchup problem for opponents, the Cyclones went and added graduate transfer DeAndre Kane (No. 50) to run the point. A 6’4″ guard, Kane has an aggressive streak that gets him to the rim repeatedly and makes him a handful on the glass. Kane always has a head of steam in transition, where his speed and strength make him tough to slow down. Even when he’s stopped on the break or on the drive, he makes excellent passes to set up teammates. And if opponents sag off to take away his driving ability, Kane can knock down the three, as his 35.9% success rate proves.

The former Marshall player has been putting up ridiculous numbers all season, but he has earned a lot of attention with his stats in Big 12 play. Through four games, Kane is averaging 22.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 3.5 steals. While Iowa State’s pace means that he has a few more possessions to earn those stats, the numbers are still staggering.

Freshman Matt Thomas (No. 21) had started every game this season before coming off the bench in Monday’s loss to Kansas. Thomas came to Ames with the reputation of a sharpshooter from his high school days in Wisconsin, but he has not taken too many shots in his first year at ISU. He’s only used 16% of the team’s shots when he’s on the floor, but is reliable enough as a spot-up guy, having knocked down 33% of his threes.

Sophomore Naz Long (No. 15) is the man who took Thomas’ starting spot on Monday night, and he’s the team’s only lights-out option from beyond the arc. Under Hoiberg, Iowa State has historically been a team that can bury you with threes, but this year’s team is only average with a 34.3% mark from long range. Long is the main reason that percentage isn’t worse, as he’s leading the team in both three-point attempts (72) and percentage (44.4%).

On the wing, senior Melvin Ejim (No. 3) is a good shooter and quick slasher who can be tough to stay in front of. His 35% three-point mark keeps defenders honest and helps him use head fakes to get space for drives to the lane or one-dribble pull-up jumpers just inside the arc. Ejim posted some phenomenal rebounding numbers as a junior, stats that were made even more impressive when considering he’s just 6’6″. This year, those numbers have been cut nearly in half, with Melvin’s rebounding percentages not even cracking the Top 500 on either end of the court.

Although Dustin Hogue (No. 22) is also 6’6″, his mindset is more consistent with that of a power forward. Hogue is always scrapping inside for boards, and his 22.6% defensive rebounding rate ranks him in the Top 100 nationally. He is also the team’s best offensive rebounder and boasts a nice shooting percentage because of how many easy looks he earns for himself with hard work on the glass. Even when he’s not getting second-change points, he has the skills to get good opportunities inside, despite being undersized.

The Iowa State bench is very short, with no options to back up Niang, Ejim, or Hogue. Freshman guard Monte Morris (No. 11) is the final player in the core, seven-man rotation, and he averages just over 22 minutes per game. Morris has speed and good handles, but can sometimes look a little too hyped-up and jittery when he’s trying to dribble penetrate. Morris also appears to have a pretty nice three-point stroke, but doesn’t have much of a sample size on which to judge. The freshman has made nearly 39% of his threes, but is averaging less than one make per game.

Keys to the game

1) Dominate the glass – Iowa State’s defense forces opponents into taking contested jumpers, which typically means a lot of missed shots. Texas has done a good job reclaiming their misses this year and turning those into points, while the Cyclones have struggled on the defensive glass in conference play. If the Longhorns aren’t exploiting that advantage and earning second chances against an ISU team that will force a lot of misses, they will have a hard time keeping up on the scoreboard today.

Iowa State’s interior defense can frustrate opponents
(Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

2) Knock down threes – With the Cyclones sagging into the paint and taking away Texas’ interior game, it means that the Longhorns are going to have to knock down their open threes. Oklahoma found a lot of success with the drive-and-kick in their win over Iowa State last Saturday. The Longhorns need to do the same this afternoon, with Damarcus Croaker and Martez Walker playing the role of spot-up shooter. Texas can also probably find some success with Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert utilizing their pick-and-pop skills.

3) Don’t over-penetrateJavan Felix and Isaiah Taylor have both made their share of mistakes this season by driving against set defenses and getting themselves into trouble. While Texas will need both Felix and Taylor to be aggressive this afternoon, they have to be smart about reading what the defense is giving them. If not, it will result in senseless turnovers that will fuel Iowa State’s transition game.

4) Maintain poise – In Iowa State’s 14-0 start, eight of those wins came after the Cyclones dug out of a hole of at least seven points. Thanks to their ability to score in a hurry, it doesn’t take long for the Cyclones to steal momentum and erase deficits. The Longhorns are going to have to weather a few runs from Iowa State today if they want to pull off the upset, so they have to maintain composure when the Cyclones inevitably get on a roll.

1.13.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 6:04PM
TEAM W L LAST WEEK THIS WEEK
Kansas 2 0 W at Oklahoma, 90-83
W vs. Kansas State, 86-60
Mon at Iowa State
Sat vs. Oklahoma State
Iowa State 2 1 W vs. Baylor, 87-72
L at Oklahoma, 87-82
Mon vs. Kansas
Sat at Texas
Kansas State 2 1 W at TCU, 65-47
L at Kansas, 86-60
Tue vs. Oklahoma
Sat vs. West Virginia
West Virginia 2 1 W at Texas Tech, 89-86 (OT)
L vs. Oklahoma State, 73-72
Mon vs. Texas
Sat at Kansas State
Oklahoma 2 1 L vs. Kansas, 90-83
W vs. Iowa State, 87-82
Tue at Kansas State
Sat at Baylor
Oklahoma State 2 1 W vs. Texas, 87-74
W at West Virginia, 73-72
Wed vs. TCU
Sat at Kansas
Baylor 1 1 L at Iowa State, 87-72
W vs. TCU, 88-62
Wed at Texas Tech
Sat vs. Oklahoma
Texas 1 2 L at Oklahoma State, 87-74
W vs. Texas Tech, 67-64
Mon at West Virginia
Sat vs. Iowa State
TCU 0 3 L vs. Kansas State, 65-47
L at Baylor, 88-62
Wed at Oklahoma State
Sat vs Texas Tech
Texas Tech 0 3 L vs. West Virginia, 89-86 (OT)
L at Texas, 67-64
Wed vs. Baylor
Sat at TCU

The big picture

The Kansas Jayhawks took care of one challenger to the throne in convincing fashion on Saturday, walloping their in-state rivals by 26 points. Although the victory sent a clear message as to who reigns supreme in the Sunflower State, Kansas will have to survive a tough eight-day stretch to claim the same dominance in the Big 12. Over their next three games, the Jayhawks will travel to Iowa State before hosting Oklahoma State and Baylor at raucous Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma remained just a half-game behind the Jayhawks by posting big wins in their Saturday games. The Cowboys needed a last-second three from Markel Brown to escape Morgantown with a victory, yet another reminder that every road win will be precious in a loaded Big 12 this season.

Oklahoma gave Iowa State the same memo in Norman, knocking the Cyclones from the ranks of the national unbeatens with an 87-82 win. The Sooners were given a dangerous five-game stretch to open conference play, but have so far navigated the minefields to a 2-1 start. Two tough road tests await OU at Kansas State and Baylor this week; survive those, and the Sooners will have proven to be legitimate contenders for a conference crown.

Weekday games

Texas at West Virginia; Monday, 6 P.M. CT (ESPNU)

LRT’s full preview of the Texas/West Virginia game is available here.

Kansas at Iowa State; Monday, 8 P.M. CT (ESPN)

Tonight, fans at Hilton Coliseum will have revenge on their minds as the Kansas Jayhawks visit the Iowa State Cyclones. Last year, the teams played a thrilling overtime classic that was ultimately won by KU, but the victory was overshadowed by a late game no-call that Cyclone fans won’t soon forget. With Iowa State ahead by two and just five seconds left in the game, Elijah Johnson collided with ISU’s Georges Niang while trying to drive to the hoop for a tying bucket. The play didn’t result in a whistle, although fans wanted a charge call. Instead it was Niang who was whistled when he held Johnson while trying to rebound the missed shot, and EJ sunk the ensuing free throws to force an extra period.

Two days later, the conference office “acknowledge[d] that officiating errors were made at the end of regulation.” The damage was obviously done by that point, and Kansas went on to share the league crown with Kansas State. Even though the result didn’t prevent Iowa State from competing for the title — they finished three games behind the Jayhawks and Wildcats — the memory still stings the Ames faithful. With Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane reportedly ready to play after injuring his ankle at the end of Saturday’s loss to OU, the Cyclones should give KU and the scorching-hot Wayne Selden quite a battle.

Oklahoma at Kansas State; Tuesday, 6 P.M. CT (ESPN2)

The Sooners were one of the surprise teams in the Big 12 during non-conference play, and they’ve continued to surprise in league play. Although OU couldn’t pull off the home upset against Kansas, they were able to hold serve against Iowa State and are now right in the middle of a very deep Big 12 pack.

Buddy Hield has emerged as an unstoppable force for the Sooners as Oklahoma’s opponents focus their energy on containing senior Cameron Clark. The sophomore from the Bahamas went medieval on Iowa State from long range, knocking down 6-of-12 during a 22-point performance. In three Big 12 contests, he’s averaging 20.7 points per game and finished just shy of a 62% effective field goal mark.

With Hield on fire and the Sooner offense clicking along at 1.177 adjusted points per possession, the stout Kansas State defense will have its hands full. The Wildcats currently boast the 13th-best defense in terms of adjusted efficiency, but their offense has lagged behind for much of the year. With newly-eligible freshman Jevon Thomas injecting a spark from the bench and Marcus Foster slicing through opposing defenses, Kansas State might finally be putting it together on that end of the court.

TCU at Oklahoma State; Wednesday, 7 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3)

Teams often have to avoid falling into the trap of looking ahead to huge games, but that probably won’t be a problem for Oklahoma State against TCU on Wednesday night. The Cowboys will face a massive test when they travel to Lawrence on Saturday, but should first get a chance to rest their small core rotation in an easy home game against TCU.

Baylor at Texas Tech; Wednesday, 8 P.M. CT (ESPNU)

While TCU is still the league doormat, Texas Tech is much improved, despite returning almost all of the team that went 3-15 in the Big 12 last year. Baylor still shouldn’t have major problems against the Red Raiders, but many league foes have been surprised in Lubbock over the last few years.

Tech has done very well on the offensive glass this season, but could find that difficult against a formidable Baylor front line. However, if the Red Raiders can manage to hold their own and extend some possessions with offensive boards, they might be able to keep things close enough to make it interesting down the stretch. With Baylor playing at a glacial pace of just 64.1 possessions per game, it certainly increases the odds that lesser teams can hang around for longer than expected.

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