Dancing with the Conferences: Big 12 Edition

by Gio Insignares (Guest Columnist)

When it comes to identifying teams that can make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, it can sometimes be easy to forget that the Big 12 is a premiere conference in the country.

Overall, the Big 12 is arguably the deepest and toughest conference in the country, with hard-nosed teams that are full of talent and pedigree. According to CBSSports.com, the Big 12 has the highest RPI of any other conference in the country and a winning record against teams from every other conference in the nation. With all of the schools having a successful non-conference run, seven schools put themselves in a good position to hear their name on Selection Sunday.

It might be easy to write in Kentucky as the champion, but this year’s champion will have to go through at least one Big 12 school. As we have seen in past upsets, it only takes one game, one shot, to change the course of history. These schools are capable of doing just that.

#9 Kansas Jayhawks

  • Record: 24-6
  • RPI: 2
  • BPI: 8
  • Strength of Schedule: 1
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 2-seed, Second Round loss to 10 seed Stanford.
  • Projection: Sweet Sixteen
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

This is the weakest Kansas team I’ve seen in recent years. Their ranking is arguably more about their past success, rather than any rational belief that they are a top ten team in the country. I’m not saying that this is a BAD team; it’s just that when compared to the other top ranked teams in the country, I don’t believe they can stand up against Kentucky, Virginia, Duke or Arizona. I watch them, and never have I come away saying, “That’s a national title team.”

Perry Ellis is the superstar for Kansas. He averages 14 points, 7 rebounds and 47.7 percent shooting. The junior can go beast mode at any given moment, as evidenced by his most recent 28 points, 13 rebounds, and three blocks against Texas. He’ll be an absolute nightmare for anyone to guard come March. Ellis was injured in the Jayhawks Big-12 clinching win against West Virginia, but is only expected to miss a week according to Coach Bill Self.

However, the problems for Kansas go beyond Ellis. Besides him, the Jayhawks don’t have a dominant scorer. Only Frank Mason Jr. averages over double-digit points. The lack of a legitimate second or third option for this team could spell serious trouble come tournament time against a hard-nosed defense. If Ellis gets bottled up or has an off shooting night, which Jayhawk is going to carry the load and propel this team forward? At this point, no player has proven consistently capable of that.

Despite my relatively low thoughts on the Jayhawks, what could easily happen is Bill Self likely finding a way to make things click, Perry Ellis absolutely dominating the opposition, and the team riding a wave of momentum that crushes all others in their path. Kansas is still absurdly talented, incredibly well coached, and battle-tested for the big moments that will come during March Madness. However, since their last title in 2008, Kansas has only made one Final Four, while exiting before the Elite Eight in four of the last six tournaments.

If Kansas makes a deep run, I’ll be ready to eat my own words.

#17 Iowa State

  • Record: 21-8
  • RPI: 14
  • BPI: 18
  • Strength of Scehdule: 16
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, as a 3-seed. Loss in the Sweet Sixteen to eventual champion UConn.
  • Projection: Elite Eight
Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to advance in March, stay away from Iowa State.

Six players average at least 10 points a game, while only guard Monte Morris averages over 30 minutes played a game. Head coach Fred Hoiberg has developed a deep team that stays fresh and plays a style that will make it difficult for most in the country to keep up.  They play fast, pass fast and most importantly, the Cyclones score fast.

Iowa State ranks top ten in the country in assists per game and puts up a whopping average of 79.4 points a game. Iowa State commands the tempo of the game and shoots the ball at 48.2 percent, good for 18th in the nation. The only concern with the Cyclones, however, is their lack of size. Only one player is over 6’9”, making them vulnerable to a team with a strong post player. Despite the lack of size, the Cyclones still average more than 36 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, that is only good enough for seventh in the Big 12.

The Cyclones, especially power forward Georges Niang, are hoping for redemption after last year’s loss to Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen. Niang missed the game with a broken bone in his foot.

#15 Oklahoma

  • Record: 20-9
  • RPI: 18
  • BPI: 15
  • Strength of Schedule: 21
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 5-seed, First Round loss to 12-seed North Dakota State.
  • Projection: Round of 32
Photo Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma is a baffling case study. So far this season, the Sooners are 10-4 against RPI Top 50 teams.  The only other program with more wins against top teams this season than them? That’s right, undefeated No.1 ranked Kentucky. It’s great company to be in.

But on the flip side, Oklahoma has some ridiculously head-scratching losses. The Sooners have lost to a 13-15 Creighton team, a Washington Huskies squad that fumbled its 11-0 start into a middling 15-12 current record. The Sooners were also swept by the 14-15 Kansas State Wildcats. It is not all bad for Sooners fans, as Oklahoma was won 8 of the last 10 games.

Guard Buddy Hield leads the Big 12 in scoring by averaging 17 points a game, while three other starters on this very talented Oklahoma roster average over double figures. Oklahoma can rely on multiple scoring threats, but Buddy Hield is the undoubtedly the first scoring option for the Sooners.

One problem that could prove detrimental to the Sooners chances is their lack of bench production. No bench player for the Sooners averages more than five points a game, and more often than not, the starting five for the team is relied upon to score almost all of the points. When it comes to dealing with fatigue and battling it out with the toughest teams in the country, Oklahoma is going to need its reserves to perform well above expectations if they want to make a deep run.

Oklahoma is more than capable of playing like a high-caliber team. They have the potential to wreak a lot of havoc in people’s tournament brackets. They’re peaking at the right time, and if that bench can figure it out, watch out for the Sooners.

#14 Baylor

  • Record: 22-8
  • RPI: 10
  • BPI: 17
  • Strength of Schedule: 2
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 6-seed, Lost in Sweet Sixteen to 2-seed Wisconsin.
  • Projection: Sweet Sixteen
Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The ascension of the Baylor men’s basketball program the past decade is nothing short of magnificent. Head coach Scott Drew has done an unbelievable job of taking a program that was in tatters and building it into a formidable opponent year in and year out. Since the 2007-2008 season, Drew has taken his teams to two Elite Eights, won an NIT championship and had a Sweet Sixteen appearance just last year. This year, the Bears look ready to make a similar run based on their improvement throughout this season.

Rico Gathers will be the difference maker in the tournament for the Baylor Bears. The junior forward averages just over 11 points and 11 rebounds a game, and he is clearly one of the top rebounders in the nation. His outstanding efficiency is the primary reason Baylor has an offensive rebounding rate of 42.3 percent–which is top in the country—and why the team is 5th in the nation in total rebounds with 40.2 a game. When March games come down to the wire and every shot and rebound matters that much more, Gathers’ rebounding ability will become that much more important.

While Baylor looks much improved from where they started the year, there free throw shooting could be the Achilles heel. When compared to the other Big 12 teams, Baylor is at a significant disadvantage by shooting only 66.4 percent from the line.. Only two players with at least 50 attempts are shooting above 70 percent.  Just as rebounding can win the game, poor free throw shooting can lose a game.

#20 West Virginia

  • Record: 22-8
  • RPI: 23
  • BPI: 22
  • Strength of Schedule: 47
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2012, 10-seed, First Round loss to Gonzaga
  • Projection: First Round Exit
Photo Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia, despite the ranking, is a team with a serious amount of flaws. The Mountaineers only shoot 41 percent from floor, 31 percent from three and 66 percent from the free throw line. Not to pile onto West Virginia’s woes, its two best players went down with injuries and their status is uncertain. Seniors Gary Browne and Juwan Staten are the cogs of this squad both in terms of performance and leadership. Without Staten’s team leading 14.5 points per game, the Mountaineers are lost. Not to mention that Staten Browne are the two senior leaders for West Virginia.

If Browne and Staten are indeed healthy come March Madness, this team has a chance, but nothing significant. WVU leads the nation in steals a game with 11.3 a game, and it’s that ball pressure and penchant for opportunity that will keep them in games; however, it’s not something that can totally be counted on. The Mountaineers have proven they can take down tough teams, as evidenced by their wins against Kansas and Oklahoma, but they’re not consistent enough from the floor and the line to keep that up. West Virginia also doesn’t rebound well, making them vulnerable for a beat down on the boards.

The Mountaineers aren’t a bad team, but they’re still about another year or two away from making any sort of deep run. I’m willing to bet that West Virginia doesn’t make it further than the round of 32, with a first round exit totally plausible.

Texas

  • Record: 18-12
  • RPI: 47
  • BPI: 28
  • Non-Conference SOS: 87
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 7-seed, Second Round loss to 2-seed Michigan.
  • Projection: Won’t make the tournament
Photo Credit: Tim Heitman- USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Tim Heitman- USA TODAY Sports

Texas clearly has the talent to make a deep tournament run. The Longhorns were ranked No. 10 in the country during the preseason and believed to be the biggest contenders to Kansas’ long-term hold on the Big 12. However, injuries and under production has plagued Texas all year and now they sit firmly on the tournament bubble. Texas ended their 4-game losing streak on Monday with an overtime win over Baylor.

Texas’ length in the lane makes driving guards feel like running into a brick wall. The Longhorns lead the nation in blocks per game and are a top-five rebounding team.

Texas has a recipe for success, but they have yet to really have it come together. If they can find a way to sneak into the tournament, there’s no doubt they’ll be an incredibly tough out. However, with the season slipping away, there might not be enough good fortune left for the Longhorns to grab and then make their presence felt in the field of 68.

Oklahoma State

  • Record: 18-11
  • RPI: 42
  • BPI: 44
  • Non-Conference SOS: 134
  • Last Tournament Appearance: 2014, 9-seed, First Round loss to Gonzaga
  • Projection: No tournament appearance
Photo Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports
Photo Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Like Texas, Oklahoma State is another school hit with some bad luck, despite talent on the roster. Oklahoma State also just ended a 4-game losing streak this week with a win over TCU.

Every time the Cowboys get back in the rankings, they lose it just like that. It’s clear that Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte III are the two offensive threats, but both lack the consistency needed to win games for Oklahoma State. Forte is the better shooter of the two, especially from three, but it’s becoming clear that the 5’11” 185 lb. guard is getting worn down by the attention he is drawing from opposing defenses.  Nash, on the other hand, is a beast, but he can’t carry the team on his own. Without both players on their A-game every night, they lose.

Nothing particularly impresses me when I watch the Cowboys play. Unlike some other teams in this conference, the Cowboys don’t have a third piece to the puzzle. Instead, they look as if they rely solely on two players, and that won’t be enough. As of now, I’d predict they don’t make the tournament. Like the trend of their ranking, as quickly as the Cowboys get into the tournament, they will be walking out before anyone notices they are there.

Note: All numbers and statistics as of 12:00 A.M March 7, 2015