Most of the men’s basketball teams in the Big 12 will be making up missed games next week. Not Kansas.
The Jayhawks proved to be the only program in the league fortunate enough amid a season marred by COVID protocols and even severe weather postponements to enter this week having already played 16 conference games — the exact number that every Big 12 team would have been at, if not for the pauses and rescheduling and general calendar chaos.
Quick. Knock on some wood or partake in your personal superstitious act of preference. We don’t want to jinx anything. We want to see Kansas play Baylor on Saturday.
OK, now that we’ve absolved ourselves of any wrongdoing, take a second to appreciate what KU’s players and staff have done (with some luck along the way). The No. 17 Jayhawks (17-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) have made it to the final week of the regular season without having to “pause basketball activities” or miss a string of games because of positive COVID cases. KU had a meaningless nonconference game against Tarleton State wiped out during an already busy week in December because of issues with the opponent. Even better, the Jayhawks encountered just one Big 12 postponement (because of Iowa State’s protocols at the time), and they already played the makeup game and won it.
When this week’s slate of games began, Baylor — one of the two best teams in the country this season, but apparently one of the worst at managing pandemic life — had only played nine Big 12 games. Nine. Half the league schedule. In late February. As in March is almost here.
Kansas State got in 15 of its 16 league games ahead of this final stretch. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State all entered the week with 13 Big 12 games behind them. West Virginia, Texas and Texas Tech each had played 12. And TCU got in 11.
Even though the past several weeks haven’t always been pretty for the Jayhawks on the court, they do have to consider it opportune that the schedule broke the way it did for them and they were able to keep working through their struggles.
Can you imagine how the season might be playing out if KU also had to stop playing or practicing in recent weeks, not getting the chance to grind their way out of a slump and come out on the other side?
Sophomore guard Christian Braun appreciates that the Jayhawks have reached this stage of the season without any major interruptions.
“I think there’s advantages to it. We went through a tough stretch,” Braun said, referencing KU’s 3-5 January. “So shutting down during that stretch would’ve been tough to come back from. But we’ve all done a really good job staying safe, staying away from everybody. And that’s really important for any team — especially now, this late in the season.”
If ever there was a time for the Jayhawks to become lax with health and safety guidelines, it was while stumbling through January, when even playing basketball on a national stage for a storied program wasn’t feeling especially fun for anyone.
As Braun said, though, they just kept isolating and working at getting back to what they came to Kansas for in the first place — winning basketball games. It paid off, too, and the Jayhawks’ arrow is pointing upward again with March and all of its accompanying Madness just around the corner.
Even so, KU is playing its final week of the regular season with NCAA Tournament seeding at stake. What if the Jayhawks also had to play two or three more games next week, and against the top teams in the Big 12, not the bottom feeders? That’s a scenario in which they could not only potentially suffer more losses and hurt their seed line, but also end up with further fatigued players heading into the postseason, with so many games on the schedule in such a small window.
It’s not likely for Baylor, even after going three full weeks without a game, to fall out of its position as a No. 1 seed in the next two weeks. BU and Gonzaga clearly have established themselves as the title favorites for 2021. But what’s ahead of the Bears, after some tinkering at the Big 12 offices, is five games in 13 days.
KU coach Bill Self, who like many of us thought BU would have to play three games both this week and next, said Monday during his video press conference that would be “a lot for anybody to play.”
Unlike KU, which will conclude its Big 12 slate on Saturday, when the Bears visit Lawrence (again, fingers and toes crossed and all of that), these teams that have more games unplayed than time to play them didn’t even know until Tuesday which opponents they would have waiting for them during the conference’s built-in makeup week.
Texas coach Shaka Smart said Monday during his video press conference that Big 12 decision makers told the Longhorns that league administrators planned to plug a formula into a computer to determine the makeup schedules for teams such as the Longhorns and Bears.
The Jayhawks don’t have to worry about any such headaches. All they have to do is play the games that were already on the schedule and keep taking the pandemic seriously during what has to seem like a never-ending cycle of mundane downtime.
Braun stressed it would be important for the Jayhawks to remain “locked in” — and he just as easily could’ve mean that literally about KU players in McCarthy Hall — and not have any setbacks in terms of COVID testing.
“No team can afford to get shut down,” Braun said of this late stage of the season. “The guys have done a great job.”
David McCormack is in a tough spot, which is a strange thing to say about a big man who starts for the No. 3 college basketball team in the country.
It’s just that the Kansas sophomore never knows from game to game how much playing time will be coming his way.
The Jayhawks, of course, open up against their opponents with an imposing frontcourt tandem in the 6-foot-10 McCormack and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike. However, KU often turns to four-guard lineups quickly, making it hard for McCormack to find minutes behind the team’s primary low-post player, Azubuike.
In the past two games, his 11th and 12th starts of the season, McCormack logged 11 minutes at Stanford and just 10 minutes — his fewest this year — against West Virginia.
Theoretically, it seemed KU might be able to get away with playing both of its big bodies versus WVU because the Mountaineers also start two behemoths, with 6-9 Oscar Tshiebwe and 6-10 Derek Culver. It turned out Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse wasn’t McCormack’s day, though.
“David got off to a terrible start,” head coach Bill Self said after KU beat WVU. “I don’t mean to be negative, but he got off to a terrible start. And then we put him back in there and he gambles (defensively) and misses on a guy who isn’t going shoot the ball from outside of 4 feet and gives him a dunk and it’s like he was just too sped up. He wasn’t himself.”
As a result, KU didn’t turn to the potentially powerful McCormack when the second half began, and he finished the Big 12 opener with 2 points and three rebounds. Those were actually an improvement on his scoreless outing at Stanford on Dec. 29, when he recorded two rebounds and turned the ball over three times.
Nevertheless, the former McDonald’s All-American didn’t leave the win over WVU without showing a positive sign for the future. McCormack only played three minutes in the second half, at one point giving Azubuike a breather and later on allowing KU to play in a tight game without its worst free-throw shooter, Azubuike, on the court.
Fewer than 3:30 remained on the clock when McCormack, with KU up 6 points, delivered a critical and impressive sequence. McCormack first skied over Culver for a defensive rebound, then headed down to the offensive end, where his activity and instincts led him up to the rim to finish off a lob from Marcus Garrett for a slam, as well as what was KU’s largest lead of the game up to that point.
“David is usually the kind of guy with poise, and when he went back in the game down the stretch, he was great,” Self said. “And he went and got that ball, he went and got that rebound and Marcus made a perfect pass to him when we set something up for (Garrett) to drive it downhill.”
Those plays in crunch time by McCormack proved he can come through even when he’s had a subpar outing or he’s not playing 20-plus minutes like he did against Duke, BYU and Villanova.
McCormack’s only playing 16.5 minutes a game. More often than not, KU (11-2) will need him to do his best Azubuike impersonation as the No. 2 center for the Jayhawks’ four-guard lineups.
The physically gifted sophomore is capable of performing that role well this season. Set high ball screens and roll or slip for lobs. Post up and score from the blocks when defenses aren’t doubling KU bigs inside. And, of course, defend and rebound.
He could even turn into a more effective scorer by taking Azubuike’s approach to shot attempts when McCormack is in for the 7-footer. Per hoop-math.com, Azubuike attempts 75.8% of his shots at the rim (with dunks and layups). McCormack has only taken 39.7% of his shot attempts in that high percentage portion of the paint. On his 31 tries to date on layups and dunks, McCormack is converting 74.2% of the time, second among Jayhawks only to Azubuike’s 87.5%.
A starter and a role player all at once, McCormack has the right attitude and skill set to pull it off, difficult as it may be. The more effective he can be when it’s his turn to be KU’s only big on the floor, the better the Jayhawks will be overall.
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self was in the middle of describing how his team, now ranked No. 1 in the country, needed to improve in “a lot” of areas when he raised eyebrows with a statistical tidbit.
“We're leading the league in 3-point field goal percentage,” Self disclosed.
Wait a minute. What?
No, Self didn’t misspeak. Nor was he attempting to speak into existence some implausible goal for his team.
The very same Jayhawks who have connected on four or fewer 3-pointers in four of their 10 games so far and shot below 35% from long range in two other outings are the Big 12’s most consistent shooting team — at least as of mid-December.
KU (9-1) is shooting 37.3% from behind the arc to date, not an impressive number by any means. Self’s recent teams hit better than 40% from 3-point range three seasons in a row during Devonte’ Graham’s sophomore through senior years, for example.
As of games played on Sunday, KU ranked 51st nationally in 3-point percentage. Good. Just not great. And, most of all, surprising. Maybe it’s just the hangover from KU’s 35% 3-point shooting season a year ago, but this year’s KU team doesn’t seem like one that can deep-six opponents with deep 3’s.
The Jayhawks’ strength would appear to be its still improving defense, which is limiting opponents to 38% shooting overall (33rd nationally) and 29.9% on 3-pointers (74th). KenPom.com ranks KU as the No. 9 team in the country in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency.
So what if, on top of that and the presence of 7-foot Udoka Azubuike, who is making 83.1% of his shot attempts in the paint, KU also can maintain its spot as the best 3-point shooting team in the Big 12?
Well, for one thing this won’t be much of a race for the conference title. That’s one significant “what if,” though. Every Big 12 team except for West Virginia is attempting more 3-pointers a game than KU’s 20.1. And the Jayhawks are averaging 7.5 made 3-pointers per outing, trailing TCU (9.4), Texas (9.1) and Baylor (8.8) in that category.
KU could separate itself from the rest of the conference quickly by getting rid of the long-range shooting discrepancies that have characterized its first 10 games on the schedule. After KU’s drubbing of Kansas City on Saturday, Self only referred to KU’s current standing as the Big 12’s best 3-point shooting team to bring up that the Jayhawks actually need to be better.
“You've got to be able to stretch the defense in order for this team to be as good as we can be. And we’re so inconsistent,” Self said.
While the Jayhawks made 10-plus 3-pointers against four outmatched opponents — UNC Greensboro, Monmouth, Chaminade and Milwaukee — against three of their toughest foes to date, they were 4-for-9 in a loss to Duke, 4-for-11 against Dayton and 6-for-13 versus Colorado. They also easily survived a 1-for-14 performance against East Tennessee State and a 4-for-18 night versus BYU.
“We have to be the most inconsistent 3-point field goal percentage team around,” Self said. “And so we’ve got to get more consistent in that area.”
The Jayhawks need that stability in their outside scoring, as Self knows, because they haven’t even played a true road game yet, and they won’t be able to clank their way to wins at No. 18 Villanova (8-2) or Stanford (9-1) in the next couple of weeks, nor in Big 12 arenas in January and February.
KU’s best 3-point shooter, graduate transfer Isaiah Moss, is making 1.8 of his 4.2 3-point tries per game. The Jayhawks need to be creating even more catch-and-shoot opportunities for the 6-foot-5 Moss, their ultimate floor spacer, in his 22.6 minutes per game.
Hitting 42.1% from distance in his nine games, Moss (16-for-38) as a sixth man has the potential to be as effective in his role as the Big 12’s current batch of gunners: Baylor’s Jared Butler (28-for-63, 44.4%), Oklahoma State’s Thomas Dziagwa (25-for-62, 40.3%) and Texas’ Jase Febres (30-for-78, 38.5%).
When Ochai Agbaji (21-for-51, 41.2%) is locked in and taking rhythm 3-pointers, he’s a reliable second option, as well. And Devon Dotson (14-for-44, 31.8%) only gets himself in trouble when he forces the issue from downtown.
The whole point of any season is finding ways to maximize your team’s potential, and KU becoming a steady 3-point shooting team — with the help of some more shots for Moss — would allow the Jayhawks to play to their offensive ceiling.
They don’t have to rely upon 3-pointers as much as some other Big 12 teams this year, but the Jayhawks can make their games away from Allen Fieldhouse a little more manageable by knocking down a high enough percentage from outside that defenders can’t afford to pack the paint.
Big 12 3-point shooting numbers
(Through games played on Monday)
Kansas (9-1): 75-for-201, 37.3%; 7.5 makes per game on 20.1 attempts
Baylor (8-1): 79-for-220, 35.9%; 8.8 makes per game on 24.4 attempts
TCU (8-2): 94-for-274, 34.3%; 9.4 makes per game on 27.4 attempts
Texas (9-1): 91-for-267, 34.1%; 9.1 makes per game on 26.7 attempts
Oklahoma (7-2): 64-for-190, 33.7%; 7.1 makes per game on 21.1 attempts
Texas Tech (7-3): 69-for-213, 32.4%; 6.9 makes per game on 21.3 attempts
Kansas State (6-4): 70-for-216, 32.4%; 7.0 makes per game on 21.6 attempts
West Virginia (9-1): 55-for-176, 31.3%; 5.5 makes per game on 17.6 attempts
Oklahoma State (8-2): 66-for-214, 30.8%; 6.6 makes per game on 21.4 attempts
Iowa State (6-4): 72-for-246, 29.3%; 7.2 makes per game on 24.6 attempts
At no point in the past couple of weeks did Bill Self give his team a directive to shoot more 3-pointers.
But since the calendar flipped to February, the Jayhawks have definitely been more ready and likely to fire away from beyond the arc.
On the season, KU is averaging 20.7 3-point attempts per game with a 35.9% success rate. Through 12 Big 12 games, the Jayhawks are averaging 21.4 3-point tries and hitting 35.8%. But in the past four games, KU is hoisting 27.3 per game from downtown and connecting on 36.7% of those looks.
The upward trend began after Kansas only took 18 3-pointers in its double-digit loss at Texas. As Self pointed out during his weekly press conference on Thursday, the escalation in attempts wasn’t as much a shift in philosophy as it was a byproduct of another type of adjustment.
“We will shoot more 3’s if Dedric plays away from the basket,” Self said, “because that’s another guy that can shoot a 3 away from the basket. We’ve shot more. But I do believe that Dedric has contributed to that, because he’s probably shooting four or five a game himself, where he was probably averaging one a game before that. That could be it.”
Indeed, since Self tweaked the offense to relocate Lawson to the perimeter, the redshirt junior big man has shot 9 for 19 from 3-point range in the past four games. In the 21 games before that Lawson went a combined 11 for 39, attempting only 1.9 3-pointers a game.
With Lawson providing No. 14 Kansas (19-6 overall, 8-4 Big 12) with a new offensive wrinkle, the Jayhawks made a season-high 13 from deep in beating Texas Tech, and with 11 makes against Oklahoma State, KU hit double figures in 3-pointers for just the fifth time this season.
Obviously Lawson hasn’t done this all by himself. As the Jayhawks also have adjusted to playing without Marcus Garrett (injured ankle) and Lagerald Vick (leave of absence), Lawson and three oh his teammates have put up between four and five 3-pointers apiece during the past four games:
Lawson, 9 for 19
Ochai Agbaji, 8 for 19
Devon Dotson, 8 for 17
Quentin Grimes, 7 for 21
Rest of the team, 8 for 33
Self isn’t complaining about his team’s increased reliance on the 3-point arc. Even though freshman guard Grimes, as KU’s coach put it, “hasn’t really gotten on a roll yet offensively,” Grimes took a team-high eight 3-pointers at TCU earlier this week.
It was the second-most long-range attempts in a game for Grimes this season, a campaign that began with him going 6 for 10 against Michigan State.
“But they were good looks,” Self said of Grimes’ 1-for-8 night at TCU. “They were open.”
In that same Big Monday victory, Dotson delivered a career-high four 3-pointers on a career-high seven attempts. And the third freshman guard in the starting lineup, Agbaji, went 2 for 6.
Overall, KU went 9 for 30 from distance in Fort Worth, Texas. It was just the second time this season the Jayhawks attempted 30 3-pointers, and the other came three games earlier, in a home win over Texas Tech (13 for 30).
“Maybe confidence with the young guys is probably a reason why,” Self hypothesized of another factor in KU’s 3-point attempts being on the rise. “But I also think Dedric playing away from the basket.”
Perhaps the Jayhawks are just riding the wave created by a pre-game video message from Devonte’ Graham, who told them before the Texas Tech win something along the lines of, “I don’t care what coach says. Shoot the ball.”
Whatever it is, it seems to be working for these Jayhawks. As they head into the home stretch of the regular season, while they’ll need to connect at a better clip than the 30% that they shot in their win at TCU, the absence of their best 3-point shooter, Vick (66 for 145), hasn’t led to a noticeable dropoff in productivity in that category.
In part, that’s because KU’s other 3-point threats are more likely to take open looks now than they were earlier in the season.
“I feel like everybody’s getting a lot more comfortable with the offense,” Grimes said, “and what we can do out there from a standpoint of what coach wants, and then from an individual standpoint of what we can do out there on the court.”
Grimes, who is 33 for 100 on the season and 17 for 53 in Big 12 play, said the Jayhawks just need to take good shots. That means not rushing their 3-pointers, or taking them early in the shot clock, or when two defenders are closing and an extra pass is available.
“I feel like all the shots that we’ve been taking have been pretty good shots, even if they’re misses,” Grimes said of KU’s recent 3-point shot selection.
His teammates have said all season that Grimes is one of the best shooters on the team. And he may in fact prove himself to be one in the weeks ahead.
In the meantime, with no timetable for Vick’s return in place, it is becoming clear that KU has other reliable shooters. As Nick Schwerdt, host of KLWN’s “Rock Chalk Sports Talk” recently pointed out, Vick isn’t the only Jayhawk ranked among the Big 12 leaders in 3-point shooting during conference play.
Three active Jayhawks, in fact, are shooting 40% or better in league games:
Dotson, 13 for 30 (43.3%)
Agbaji, 14 for 33 (42.4%)
Lawson, 14 for 35 (40%)
With or without Vick, Kansas has capable 3-point shooters. And, more importantly, they are more comfortable and confident in taking those shots now.
When Dotson, Agbaji and Lawson are open beyond the arc, consider it a successful offensive possession every time they shoot.
And remember: open 3-pointers for Grimes are good shots, too. KU needs to get the freshman into a groove sooner rather than later, and he’s never going to get there without being assertive.
The Jayhawks are going to need 3-pointers to peak offensively, so they may as well embrace the concept of taking them when they’re open.
Norman, Okla. — When taking into consideration all that led to Kansas suffering a Tuesday night road loss at Oklahoma, certain factors loomed much larger than others.
The dawning of the Hack-a-Dok era notwithstanding, some numbers other than sophomore center Udoka Azubuike’s 1-for-8 free-throw shooting stood out in the defeat.
Here are five statistics that shaped an entertaining evening of Big 12 basketball that ultimately cost Kansas a game’s worth of cushion in the league standings.
Leading by 6 points on the road with 7:03 left in the second half, KU picked a bad time to hit an offensive funk.
After freshman Marcus Garrett drove in for a layup to give KU a 76-70 lead, the Jayhawks tailspun down the stretch, as Oklahoma implemented a Hack-A-Dok strategy that at the very least ravaged KU’s offensive flow.
From that point on Kansas made just 2 of 10 field-goal attempts, went 0-for-6 at the free-throw line — all six misfires by Azubuike — and turned the ball over once.
The Sooners finished the victory on a 15-4 run, as Trae Young went 6-for-8 at the foul line down the stretch and 3-pointers by Christian James and Brady Manek assured OU of a victory.
Off night for Graham
KU’s best player, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham, wasn’t able to replicate his typical scoring production. Graham entered the anticipated matchup at OU averaging 20.4 points in Big 12 play, but matched his lowest output of conference action to date, with 11, equalling his total in a win over Iowa State.
Graham — a 42.7% shooter on the year — went 4-for-19 (21.1%) at Oklahoma. It was his second-lowest field goal percentage of year (1-for-8, 12.5 % in a loss to Washington).
A 41.7% 3-point shooter this season, Graham connected on just 1 of 9 (11.1%) against the Sooners. It was his least successful 3-point showing of his senior year.
Of course, Graham did plenty to help KU, too, with 9 assists and only 2 turnovers in nearly 40 minutes — not to mention the task of chasing around Young (26 points, 9 assists) much of the night.
Out-rebounded yet again
The Jayhawks’ losing streak on the battle of the boards continued in Norman.
Oklahoma’s 40 rebounds outnumbered KU’s 35, marking the ninth consecutive game KU has come up on the losing end in that category.
Indicative of the guard-heavy Jayhawks’ struggles on the glass, senior guard Graham (7 boards) led the team in rebounding for the second straight game.
KU has not had a double-digit rebounder since Azubuike grabbed 13 in the Big 12 opener at Texas.
For the second time this season Kansas didn’t even make half of its foul shots. Thanks in large part to OU fouling Azubuike and the big man going 1-for-8 on the night at the line, Kansas hit just 6 of 15 (40%).
KU actually fared even worse at the line at home against Iowa State two weeks earlier, when the Jayhawks shot 5-for-13 (38.5%) in a win. Azubuike wasn’t great that night either, going 1-for-4, but his teammates helped out — even Svi Mykhailiuk went 1-for-3.
At OU, though, only two other Jayhawks shot free throws: Graham went 2-for-4 and Malik Newman (20 points) made all three of his tries.
In the meantime, Oklahoma hit 20 of 25 in the win, led by Trae Young’s 10-for-12 night. The Sooners made 13 of 17 in the second half.
Svi’s second half
The Jayhawks might not have ever looked capable of winning at OU Tuesday night had it not been for Svi Mykhailiuk’s second-half scoring.
Mykhailiuk began cranking up his offense after intermission. The senior from Ukraine looked like one of the most experienced players on the floor nearly every time the ball reached his hands in the first portion of the second half, which he opened for KU with a 3-pointer, providing the Jayhawks their first lead since the midway point of the first.
Every spurt KU made during the opening 10 minutes of the second half featured either a Mykhailiuk drive and layup or 3-pointer, as he put up 13 of his 24 points during that post-halftime stretch.
Mykhailiuk accounted for five of KU’s first 13 second-half baskets, went 5-for-10 from the floor, made 3 of 7 shots and looked — per usual — like every shot that left his hands had a better shot of falling than rimming out. The 6-foot-8 shooter reached 20 points for the seventh time in his senior year.
He missed a potential go-ahead 3 with 0:52 to play and another that could’ve cut OU’s lead to 2 with 0:15 left, but Mykhailiuk was hardly to blame for the loss that snapped a five-game KU winning streak.
The Lagerald Vick who scored 20 or more points six times during the season’s first two months has yet to be seen in the Kansas basketball lineup so far in January.
After opening Big 12 play with a bang on Dec. 29, scoring 21 points and shooting 5-for-8 on 3-pointers in the Jayhawks’ win at Texas, Vick’s scoring impact has suffered a severe drop-off.
KU coach Bill Self used three words to describe the difference in Vick’s contributions of late, compared to the impact he was making before: “not even close.”
In non-conference play, Vick averaged 17.1 points on 56.1% shooting and made 46.8% of his 3-pointers, in 33.2 minutes a game.
In the Jayhawks’ past five games, the 6-foot-5 junior guard has broken into double digits once — 10 points against Kansas State — and averaged 7.4 points on 37.5% shooting, while going 5-for-20 from 3-point range (25%), in 32.2 minutes.
Self reached a point with Vick earlier this week, ahead of KU’s Big Monday showdown with West Virginia, that the coach decided not to start the athletic guard from Memphis for the first time this season — not because of his plummeting numbers, but due to Vick’s perceived lack of focus during Sunday’s practice; a decision Self later described as “rash.”
A sixth man in name only for what proved to be a crucial KU road win, Vick played 36 minutes off the bench against the Mountaineers. But his production matched his recent trend: 9 points, 4-for-12 shooting, 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
Self at least saw Vick contributing in other ways for No. 10 KU (15-3 overall, 5-1 Big 12).
“I did against West Virginia. To be honest with you, I hadn’t in games prior to that,” Self said. “You know, K-State he stepped up and made two big 3’s and scored some baskets when we had to have them, late-game situation. But his activity level hasn’t been good at all there for about a week-and-a-half stretch, three-game stretch.”
Most of the offensive positives Vick provided at West Virginia came in the first half, when he shot 4-for-8, and scored all 9 of his points. Vick hit a 3 less than a minute after checking in. His second basket came shortly after a Mitch Lightfoot steal. He scored a layup off a Svi Mykhailiuk pass in response to the Mountaineers taking their largest lead of the game (16). Later, Devonte' Graham set him up for his fourth basket. In his 19 first-half minutes he also secured all three of his rebounds.
In the second half, though, Vick shot 0-for-4 and contributed no points or rebounds. He stole the ball twice in one 45-second stretch midway through the half. Vick also set up Mykhailiuk for a 3-pointer that cut WVU’s lead to 57-51, and assisted a Graham 3 to narrow the margin to one with 4:54 to play.
“I thought against West Virginia it was a lot better,” Self assessed of Vick’s activity level. “I thought he made winning plays throughout the game that gave us a chance, and that doesn’t always translate to scoring, but I certainly thought he was more aggressive.”
Although Vick has proven to be a proficient 3-point shooter this year (32-for-75, 42.7%), he likely settled too much in the second half at WVU, when he missed three 3-pointers. He’s shooting 58.3% inside the arc this season. Per hoop-math.com, Vick makes 71.8% of his attempts that come at the rim and shoots 41.1% on 2-point jumpers.
It’s clear Self wants Vick making more of an impact in the scoring column. The coach offered a recommendation for how the junior can get back on track in that category while becoming more impactful overall.
“If he’s our best athlete, play to your athletic ability,” Self said. “And I thought he did a little bit better job against West Virginia.”
In the first half at WVU at least, Vick attempted four shots in the paint. Kansas needs him scoring easy points inside either by driving it, crashing the offensive glass or getting out in transition, where he can soar for dunks that should energize both the slumping guard and his teammates.
As for that athletic ability Self referenced, the Jayhawks will benefit as well if Vick uses his speed and explosiveness to hound opposing guards defensively and attack the glass, as well.
Obviously, Vick doesn’t have to score 20 points a game. But Kansas does need him “turned up,” as Self has been known to say. An energetic, locked-in Vick can provide KU with a little bit of everything: scoring, passing, rebounding and defense.
Thus far in Big 12 play, the springy junior guard is averaging 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks and 1.5 turnovers, in 33.2 minutes, and shooting 42.6% from the floor, 35.7% on 3-pointers, and 40% at the free-throw line. Vick’s next chance to start improving those statistics comes Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, versus Baylor (12-6, 2-4).
Human nature used to lead Bill Self to look ahead — at least for a little peek — when it came to Big 12 play.
Of course the Jayhawks’ head basketball coach and his staff prepared their players as if the next game on the schedule was the only one left. But Self inevitably found himself thinking three steps ahead, as well.
An expert at winning conference championships, Self simply got in the habit of mapping out the exact route Kansas needed to navigate in order to win its next league title.
Until this year.
Self revealed a shift in his philosophy shortly after his Jayhawks eked out a one-point home victory over rival Kansas State this past Saturday. The coach said at the time he knew KU’s next game would be at West Virginia and the following matchup would be with Baylor, at Allen Fieldhouse.
“And I have no idea after that,” Self claimed.
The coach’s disclosure spoke to the turbulent nature of the Big 12 this year, when no outcome can be assumed and even a victory over one of the league’s lesser teams is valued more than ever before.
Texas Tech was humming along, before losing, 67-58, at Texas on Wednesday night — a loss that provided KU (15-3 overall, 5-1 Big 12) a one-game lead and sole possession of first place headed into this weekend.
The Red Raiders (15-3, 4-2) are now in a three-way tie with West Virginia and Oklahoma for second place a third of the way through conference action. Often over the first couple of weeks of league play, Texas Tech won convincingly, with three Big 12 victories by double digits — including one in Lawrence. Even so, the Red Raiders haven’t been invincible. Tech lost by 10 at Oklahoma just over a week before their road setback at UT.
Sure, Kansas is off to a 5-1 start in the ruthless league, but none of its wins have been by more than six points. And Self predicted bluntly before the start of league play that KU would lose back-to-back games at some point between now and the end of the regular season.
The high-scoring Sooners already have topped 90 points three times against Big 12 competition, but currently sit a game behind KU in the standings after their trip to Kansas State this week ended with a 22-point defeat.
Four of West Virginia’s six league games have been decided by six or fewer points, including both of its losses, consecutive setbacks at Texas Tech, 72-71, and to Kansas, 71-66.
The conference’s new reality has forced Self, the man who has guided 13 Kansas teams in a row to regular-season titles, to be a little less forward-thinking in terms of the calendar. In past years, he would study KU’s schedule and always know the identity of the Jayhawks’ challengers during an upcoming two-week span.
“‘These are our next four’ or whatever,” he explained. “I haven’t done that at all.”
His players, Self insisted, have “no idea” on one Saturday who they will be playing seven days from then.
“It’s just what’s in front of us,” Self said. “And it’s not a knock to anybody (upcoming foes), because they’re not looking ahead at all. They’re not at all.”
The 10th-ranked Jayhawks (15-3 overall, 5-1 Big 12) must know that after Saturday’s home matchup with Baylor (12-6, 2-4) they have another massive road game this coming Tuesday, at No. 4 Oklahoma (14-3, 4-2). But, to Self’s point, thinking ahead any further than that is only safe for fans and observers; not those actively trying to win the league.
Because we’re not in the same boat as Self and his players, here’s a rundown of the next four league games (plus the Big 12/SEC Challenge matchups) for each of the conference’s top four teams, all of which seem capable of winning the Big 12 crown this year.
No. 10 Kansas (15-3 overall, 5-1 Big 12)
Saturday vs. Baylor
Tuesday at No. 4 Oklahoma
Jan. 27 vs. Texas A&M
Jan. 29 at Kansas State
Feb. 3 vs. Oklahoma State
No. 4 Oklahoma (14-3, 4-2)
Saturday at Oklahoma State
Tuesday vs. No. 10 Kansas
Jan. 27 at Alabama
Jan. 30 vs. Baylor
Feb. 3 at Texas
No. 8 Texas Tech (15-3, 4-2)
Saturday at Iowa State
Tuesday vs. Oklahoma State
Jan. 27 at South Carolina
Jan. 31 vs. Texas
Feb. 3 at No. 24 TCU
No. 6 West Virginia (15-3, 4-2)
Saturday vs. Texas
Monday at No. 24 TCU
Jan. 27 vs. No. 18 Kentucky
Jan. 31 at Iowa State
Feb. 3 vs. Kansas State
Thanks to Oklahoma freshman Trae Young’s somewhat unexpected sensational play and hot starts for both West Virginia and Texas Tech, the rest of the college basketball world has been forced to pay attention to Big 12 teams not named Kansas this season.
The conference appears in great shape as of early January, with five programs currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 and seven teams in position to land NCAA Tournament invites.
These developments — as well as the ongoing waiting game KU is going through regarding the eligibility of freshmen Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa — have made the Jayhawks’ chances of winning their 14th consecutive Big 12 title appear anything but concrete.
While the regular-season championship is one intriguing plot, so is the potential for numerous Big 12 teams to make serious March Madness runs toward the Final Four, in San Antonio.
It’s that big-picture, end-of-the-season, how-many-nets-can-you-cut-down potential that we hope to examine by checking out the résumés of the league’s 10 teams in the first installment of Big 12 Power Rankings.
Each team’s best victories and its losses — good, bad and in between — were considered, using KenPom.com’s ratings, to classify the league’s most and least impressive squads to date.
With so many quality lineups in the conference this season, the rankings are bound to fluctuate between now and the Big Dance. We will monitor it all each week in order to attempt to have a better grasp come March on which teams are best qualified to survive the coming madness.
Big 12 Power Rankings — Jan. 9, 2018
No. 1 - West Virginia (14-1)
Kenpom ranking: No. 10
Top-50 wins: No. 44 Missouri, No. 3 Virginia, at No. 43 Kansas State, No. 13 Oklahoma
Loss: No. 26 Texas A&M
No. 2 - Texas Tech (14-1)
Kenpom ranking: No. 4
Top-50 wins: No. 31 Nevada (OT), No. 36 Baylor, at No. 7 Kansas, No. 43 Kansas State
Loss: No. 18 Seton Hall
No. 3 - Oklahoma (12-2)
Kenpom ranking: No. 13
Top-50 wins: No. 47 USC, at No. 11 Wichita State, at No. 23 TCU
Losses: No. 29 Arkansas, at No. 10 West Virginia
No. 4 - Kansas (12-3)
Kenpom ranking: No. 7
Top-50 wins: No. 22 Kentucky, at No. 23 TCU, at No. 37 Texas, No. 50 Syracuse
Losses: No. 109 Washington, No. 20 Arizona State, No. 4 Texas Tech
No. 5 - TCU (13-2)
Kenpom ranking: No. 23
Top-50 wins: No. 34 SMU, No. 31 Nevada, at No. 36 Baylor (OT)
Losses: No. 13 Oklahoma, No. 7 Kansas
No. 6 - Baylor (11-4)
Kenpom ranking: No. 36
Top-50 wins: No. 19 Creighton, No. 37 Texas
Losses: at No. 21 Xavier, No. 11 Wichita State, at No. 4 Texas Tech, No. 23 TCU (OT)
No. 7 - Texas (10-5)
Kenpom ranking: No. 37
Top-50 win: No. 38 Butler
Losses: No. 6 Duke (OT), No. 9 Gonzaga (OT), No. 32 Michigan, No. 7 Kansas
No. 8 - Oklahoma State (11-4)
Kenpom ranking: No. 55
Top-50 wins: No. 24 Florida State
Losses: No. 26 Texas A&M, No. 11 Wichita State, No. 10 West Virginia, No. 13 Oklahoma
No. 9 - Kansas State (11-4)
Kenpom ranking: No. 43
Top-50 wins: N/A [Best win = at No. 84 Vanderbilt]
Losses: No. 20 Arizona State, No. 121 Tulsa, No. 10 West Virginia, at No. 4 Texas Tech
No. 10 - Iowa State (9-5)
Kenpom ranking: No. 104
Top-50 wins: N/A [Best win = No. 54 Boise State]
Losses: at No. 44 Missouri, No. 200 Milwaukee, No. 43 Kansas State, No. 37 Texas (OT), at No. 55 Oklahoma State (OT)
On its climb to the No. 1 ranking in the nation, the Kansas basketball team hasn’t played perfectly over the past several weeks. Even so, at times it seems as though Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas and company are just genetically predetermined to win.
The Jayhawks’ penchant for overcoming even the grimmest scenarios reinforces the team’s bravado. They may lack the depth and the rim protector of Bill Self teams of the past, but the more often they scrap their way out of a jam, the less such situations worry them.
Through 30 games, KU (27-3 overall, 15-2 Big 12) has fallen behind by double digits in eight games. But the Jayhawks’ interminable resolve allowed them to escape seven of those with a victory.
“You know, I don’t know if I’ve been a part of a team that’s done it this many times and has been so consistent at it,” fifth-year senior center Lucas said. “And I would really just say each time it happens it gets more and more comfortable with us. I think the first couple of times it was just because we had good experience, good leadership, want-to and toughness. And then the more we do it the more it becomes kind of, ‘All right. This is nothing new,’ and we’re very capable of doing it.”
There’s a part of Self that loves seeing his players master the art of the comeback. But KU’s tough-minded coach isn’t about to throw a party for them.
“It's good. I mean, it's good that no matter what happens, you know, the guys haven't panicked,” Self said on the subject of KU winning after trailing by double figures. “It's bad that we’ve put ourselves in a position to be behind in some of those deficits, but when you're playing in a league that is as balanced as our league, I don't think that's totally unusual.”
The coach on Thursday then guessed aloud the Big 12’s other top teams — West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa State — had most likely experienced similar ups and downs during the courses of individual games.
“You know, Iowa State, a 10-point lead at Iowa State means nothing, nor does a 10-point deficit,” Self explained. “And I think offenses have changed so much and defenses and rules and everything's changed so much, it's easy for an offensive team to get on a little bit of a roll — especially early in the game, because you play a little defensive on defense and that kind of stuff.”
In fact, ISU, Baylor and WVU have combined to win eight games in which they trailed by double digits this season (see list below).
KU DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Dec. 30 at TCU: 10 | Final: 86-80
Jan. 14 vs. Oklahoma State: 11 | Final: 87-80
Jan. 28 at Kentucky: 12 | Final: 79-73
Feb. 6 at Kansas State: 12 | Final: 74-71
Feb. 13 vs. West Virginia: 14 | Final: 84-80 (OT)
Feb. 18 at Baylor: 12 | Final: 67-65
Feb. 27 vs. Oklahoma: 12 | Final: 73-63
IOWA STATE DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Dec. 30 vs. Texas Tech: 14 | Final: 63-56
Jan. 21 at Oklahoma: 19 | Final: 92-87 (2OT)
Feb. 4 at Kansas: 15 | Final: 92-89 (OT)
BAYLOR DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Nov. 24 Battle 4 Atlantis vs. Michigan State: 10 | Final: 73-58
Nov. 25 Battle 4 Atlantis vs. Louisville: 22 | Final: 66-63
Jan. 28 at Ole Miss: 15 | Final: 78-75
WEST VIRGINIA DOUBLE-DIGIT DEFICITS OVERCOME THIS SEASON
Dec. 3 at Virginia: 11 | Final: 66-57
Feb. 20 vs. Texas: 10 | Final: 77-62
Ten times during Big 12 play alone Kansas has trailed by nine or more points, posting a 9-1 record. The Jayhawks’ only loss in those games came at West Virginia, when they fell behind by 19, on Jan. 24.
On the season as a whole, KU has trailed by eight or more points 12 times, with an 11-1 record.
“But we've gotta correct it,” Self said of falling behind and putting themselves in such tough spots, what with the postseason one game a way.
Lucas, as well, said he hopes the Jayhawks don’t have any more mega-recoveries in their immediate future.
“But we do understand if that is the situation in any of the games,” the senior added, “that we’re very capable.”
When No. 3 Kansas plays at No. 4 Baylor Saturday in Waco, Texas, the nation will be able to tune in (noon, CBS) and check out not only the top two teams in the Big 12, but also two potential No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, KU coach Bill Self doesn’t want those unfamiliar with the conference to get the idea the Big 12 is top-heavy. Ahead of the marquee meeting at Ferrell Center, Self shared Thursday afternoon he thinks “the strength of our league is the middle of our league.”
To his point, the five teams trailing the Big 12’s top three — KU, Baylor and West Virginia — in the standings all have a shot at making The Big Dance in March, too.
“The difference between the middle and the teams that are perceived to be at the top is not very much at all,” Self said, “as evidenced by (Baylor’s) scores and also by our scores.”
Baylor just lost at Texas Tech this week, and in February one-possession games dropped one at home against Kansas State and beat Oklahoma State, in Stillwater.
KU, as you’ll recall, only won by a single point at Texas Tech this past Saturday, clawed its way to a three-point victory at rival K-State and suffered a rare Allen Fieldhouse defeat at the hands of Iowa State during the past couple of weeks.
“I do think it’s a monster league,” Self said, “because 18 games, round-robin, and even home games, as you guys well know with us, they’re not a cinch by any stretch.”
The overall quality and depth of the Big 12 could get as many as eight teams into the NCAA Tournament in March, depending on how the next few weeks play out. As of Thursday, ESPN’s Bracketology projected seven Big 12 teams in the tourney:
Kansas: 1 seed in Midwest region
Baylor: 1 seed in South
West Virginia: 4 seed in West
Oklahoma State: 8 seed in East
Iowa State: 9 seed in West
TCU: 10 seed in East
Kansas State: 11 seed in South
Texas Tech: “Next four out,” behind “first four out”
The NCAA Tournament selection committee identified Kansas and Baylor as No. 1 seeds (as of Feb. 11), this past Saturday. Self said, in the case of this year’s Big 12 makeup, there isn’t a “bottom-heavy” factor, where teams such as Kansas and Baylor can pencil in three or four automatic victories.
Coach Socrates — oh, sorry, Coach Self, that is — said the Big 12 may be undervalued by outsiders because “the appearance of parity breeds the thought of mediocrity.” In the conference KU calls home, though, nothing comes easily this season. Just look at the average margin of victory for the top two teams in the league: Kansas (11-2 in Big 12) is at +4.1 and Baylor (9-4) at +3.9.
“But having two teams this late in the year,” Self said, “that are projected as one seeds — and even though we KNOW that that’s gonna change from week to week — I think speaks well for our league.”
BIG 12 STANDINGS — As of Feb. 16
1. Kansas, 11-2 (23-3 overall)
2. Baylor, 9-4 (22-4)
3. West Virginia, 8-5 (20-6)
4. Iowa State, 8-5 (16-9)
tie-5. Oklahoma State, 6-7 (17-9)
tie-5. TCU, 6-7 (17-9)
tie-7. Texas Tech, 5-8 (17-9)
tie-7.Kansas State, 5-8 (16-10)
9. Texas, 4-9 (10-16)
10. Oklahoma, 3-10 (9-16)