With the Big 12 conference season starting today, it's time to carry on a tradition from last year: the Big 12 stock report.
So which teams does KU need to look out for? And which teams are due for quite a few losses in conference play?
The following is my list of sleepers, busts and contenders in the Big 12 from this point in the season forward. All advanced stats are from KenPom.com. Sleepers
http://www2.kusports.com/photos/2010/feb/06/186196/ Current record: 12-2
Preseason Big 12 coaches poll rank: 10th
Current AP/Coaches poll rank: Unranked
Reason to believe: So far, Doc Sadler's team has been spectacular defensively.
The Cornhuskers are ninth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving them the third-best defense in the conference behind Kansas and Texas. In its first 14 games, NU has allowed 60 points or more in just two of its games.
Though Nebraska has been known as a short team in the past, this year's squad is defined by its height.
NU's Jorge Brian Diaz (6-11), Andre Almeida (6-11) and Brandon Ubel (6-10) have made it nearly impossible for opposing players to get decent shots inside. The Cornhuskers' two-point percentage defense is first in the nation (38.2 percent) and add that to an impressive three-point defense (27.6 percent, ninth nationally) and you have the recipe for a team that should surprise in the Big 12.
Reason for concern: Nebraska has played one of the worst schedules in the nation so far, as Kenpom ranks it 324th out of 345 teams. The 'Huskers have been blowing out most of their weak opponents by a wide margin, but sometimes blowing out bad opponents and beating good ones are two different skills entirely.
NU also has a tough opening to its Big 12 schedule, hosting Iowa State before playing at Missouri and Kansas. An 0-3 start would kill a lot of the positive momentum that the Huskers have built up.
Fearless Prediction: Nebraska goes 9-7 in conference play and earns its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since the 1997-98 season.
Reason to believe: Much like Nebraska, Iowa State has gotten off to a strong start because of its defense.
Right now, the Cyclones' adjusted defensive efficiency is 22nd nationally, which gives them a better defense than Texas A&M, Kansas State and Baylor — three teams that were known for their defenses a year ago.
Iowa State forces a lot of turnovers (23.8 defensive turnover percentage, 44th nationally) and also rarely fouls, giving up only 0.25 free throws per field-goal attempt (ninth nationally). Six-foot-11 Jamie Vanderbeken gives the Cyclones a shot-blocker inside, and he's a big reason that ISU ranks in the top 10 nationally in two-point defense (40.1 percent, ninth nationally).
Reason for concern: Iowa State, like Nebraska, has feasted on some cupcakes early, playing the 321st-toughest nonconference schedule according to KenPom.
ISU also has the third-worst offense in the conference according to adjusted efficiency numbers, though that number is a bit misleading. The Cyclones play a risky offensive style, jacking up a lot of threes while trying to keep their turnovers to a minimum.
That kind of high-risk, high-reward offense should lead to inconsistency, but it also could lead to an upset or two if the Cyclones heat up against a better opponent in Big 12 play.
Fearless Prediction: Iowa State — the unanimous pick for last in the Big 12 — will finish the conference season 8-8 and pull off two Big 12 upsets against ranked teams.
http://www2.kusports.com/photos/2010/jan/30/185767/ Current record: 12-2
Preseason Big 12 coaches poll rank: 1st
Current AP/Coaches poll rank: 17th AP/17th coaches
[Not basketball-related I know, but have you guys seen this video? Tough crowd.]
Reason to believe: Kansas State was the pick to win the league a few months ago and hasn't been at full strength for most of the year. The Wildcats now have preseason first-team all-Big 12 selection Jacob Pullen back from a three-game suspension, and fellow first-teamer Curtis Kelly will be back from his six-game suspension on Jan. 15. KSU also has been playing better as of late, with 34- and 31-point blowouts in its last two games.
Reason for concern: The Wildcats, even with Kelly and Pullen on the floor, haven't performed nearly as well as they did a year ago. Pullen is not as efficient without the graduated Denis Clemente, as his three-point percentage has dropped from 39.6 percent last year to 34.2 percent this year.
KSU is still a good offensive rebounding team, but doesn't get to the free-throw line nearly as often as last year. Even when the Wildcats are fouled, they're only making 56.6 percent of their free-throws, which is the third-worst mark in the country. The result is a team that has dropped 43 spots (13th to 56th) in adjusted offensive efficiency from last year to this year.
Fearless Prediction: The 'Cats are saying all the right things and still claiming that their goal is still to win a Big 12 title, but that won't happen this year. KSU will finish 9-7 in conference (tying with Nebraska) before picking up an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Reason to believe: Colorado has two of the best guards in the conference: likely future first-round pick Alec Burks (22nd in the latest 2011 mock draft on Draft Express) and potential pro Cory Higgins. Because of this, CU was a popular darkhorse pick by analysts to challenge the top teams in the Big 12.
Reason for concern: Colorado is the worst defensive team in the Big 12, and it's not close. Though the Buffs' pace is barely above NCAA average, they still have allowed 80 or more points in six of their 15 games.
CU isn't big inside, and the Buffs have been giving up too many offensive rebounds to opponents. Burks and Higgins haven't guarded on the perimeter well either, as opponents are shooting 36.7 percent from three-point range against Colorado this season. That number looks worse when you consider that the Buffs' opponents have included Idaho State, Alcorn State, Texas Pan American, The Citadel, Longwood, Maryland East Shore, Cal State Bakerfield and Western New Mexico.
Fearless Prediction: The Big 12 North — though it doesn't technically exist in basketball — looks to be stacked this year. All those teams play each other twice, and it appears Colorado is the worst of the bunch. The Buffs will go 4-12 in their final year in the conference.
Reason to believe: Texas, more than any other Big 12 team this year, has proven it can beat good teams. The Longhorns have a neutral-court win over Illinois, an away victory against North Carolina (in Greensboro, N.C.) and a 33-point stomping of a good Arkansas team at home.
UT's strength is defense. The Longhorns' two-point defense ranks third nationally (38.6 percent) and their adjusted defensive efficiency ranks seventh. Texas doesn't get a ton of steals, but it does force teams to be selfish in their sets. UT allows assists on just 39.7 percent of its field goals allowed — the second-best mark in the country.
Reason for concern: Texas has talent, but it is still not an elite team offensively. The Longhorns don't shoot it particularly well, ranking 162nd in two-point percentage (47.9 percent) and 266th in free-throw percentage (65.1 percent). Texas has a great player in sophomore forward Jordan Hamilton, but as of now, the Longhorns don't have another player who can step in as an efficient, high-volume scorer. Freshman guard Cory Joseph could be the guy if he asserts himself a bit more.
Fearless Prediction: Texas will go 12-4, dropping a game it shouldn't somewhere along the way.
http://www2.kusports.com/photos/2010/jan/25/185522/ Current record: 14-1
Preseason Big 12 coaches poll rank: 5th
Current AP/Coaches poll rank: 9th AP/8th coaches
Reason to believe: The Tigers might have the conference's player of the year in Marcus Denmon. He has posted 1.35 points per possession used, which is the second-best mark in the country among players who end at least 20 percent of their team's possessions. Denmon, who is averaging 17.2 points per game, has shot 86 threes this year and made exactly half of them (43).
MU continues to cause problems defensively with its pressure defense, forcing turnovers on 26.8 percent of its opponents' possessions (fifth nationally).
Reason for concern: Because pressing is such a high-risk, high-reward proposition, teams that use it often aren't as consistent with their performance from game to game. This could leave the Tigers open to some unexpected losses, especially on the road, where they lost four games in Big 12 play last year.
MU has some good size, but it still isn't a good defensive rebounding team. The Tigers also have put their opponents on the free-throw line quite a bit, which is one of the risks with going to an extreme pressure defense.
Fearless Prediction: After going 10-6 in conference last year, Missouri improves a game and goes 11-5 this year to finish in third.
KansasCurrent record: 14-0
Reason to believe: The stats are on the Jayhawks' side. Ken Pomeroy recently ran simulations for each conference, and KU won the Big 12 in 8,352 of his 10,000 simulations.
The Jayhawks have changed their image drastically from a year ago. Following a season when KU relied on center Cole Aldrich to alter shots in the middle (KU was first in defensive two-point percentage last year), the Jayhawks have succeeded defensively this year by pressuring the opponent into mistakes. After finishing 198th in defensive turnover percentage last year, the Jayhawks are 38th nationally in the stat this year. KU also has the second-best three-point defense in the nation (25.7 percent). Add it all up, and KU is leading the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency at this point in the year.
Offensively, KU is a great shooting team, partly because it is a great passing team. The Jayhawks lead the nation in two-point field-goal percentage (59.8 percent) while also making 40.2 percent of their threes. They have posted assists on 62 percent of their field goals, which ranks 31st nationally.
Reason for concern: The Jayhawks have had their best games against their weakest foes. KU squeaked out a one-point home win against UCLA and a two-point home victory against USC, and while those two teams aren't bad, one wouldn't expect them to have a chance to win at Allen Fieldhouse. Though KU's turnover percentage number isn't horrible (19.2 percent, 96th nationally), the Jayhawks have some wild guards in Josh Selby and Tyshawn Taylor that are sometimes careless. The potential is there in any game for KU to struggle because of its own mistakes.
Fearless prediction: KU wins the Big 12 outright with a 14-2 record.