Will anyone put an end to Kansas’s reign atop the Big 12?
Despite its reputation as one of the top conferences in the nation, the competition for the Big 12 regular season title was non-existent, as for the 13th consecutive season the Kansas Jayhawks were atop the Big 12 standings at the beginning of tournament play. In addition to top ranked Kansas (28-3,16-2), No. 9 West Virginia (24-7, 12-6), No. 11 Baylor (25-6, 12-6) and No. 23 Iowa State (20-10, 12-6) are the remaining ranked teams for the 10-team conference. According to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology, the Big 12 is expected to receive five bids to the NCAA Tournament, projecting each team in the AP Top-25, as well as Oklahoma State (20-11, 9-9) to make the field of 68, while Kansas State (19-12, 8-10) is among his “First Four Out.”
Best Team: Kansas
Is there any doubt? The Jayhawks run of success in the Big 12 under head coach Bill Self is tied for the longest era of dominance in any conference in NCAA history, as the 13th consecutive regular season title ties the UCLA record set from 1967-1979. Considered by many to be a shoe-in for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks have just three losses on the season, featuring two overtime defeats and a road loss to West Virginia.
The Jayhawks are a well-rounded team that ranks among Kenpom’s most efficient teams on both offense (fifth) and defense (26th). Two Jayhawks were selected to the first-team all-Big 12 roster, Mason and Jackson, with each garnering national attention among the top 10 of the Kenpom Player of the Year standings, which is based on the weighted value added to a team. In addition to this dynamic duo, junior guard Devonte Graham rendered second team all-conference acclaim. Averaging 50.1 points per game between the three, the Jayhawks rely on the standouts to provide a large portion of the scoring offense. At 82.7 points per game, Kansas ranks 17th in points per game, winning by an average margin of 10.8.
The Jayhawks await the winner of the Oklahoma vs. TCU game, having swept the season series against both teams, with a double-digit average margin of victory. Although Jackson will be suspended for this matchup due to traffic citations, the Jayhawks should have no trouble advancing. Since the Big 12 Tournament began in 1997, Kansas is 19-1 in the first round, 18-2 in the quarterfinals, 12-6 in semifinals and 10-2 in championship games.
Dark Horse: Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State has greatly exceeded expectations. Entering the season, three programs in the Big 12 had first year head coaches: Brad Underwood at Oklahoma St. (from Stephen F. Austin), Jamie Dixon at TCU (from Pittsburgh) and Chris Beard at Texas Tech (from Arkansas-Little Rock). Though Texas Tech (18-13, 6-12) and TCU (17-14, 6-12) have had some success, the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ turnaround is the most dramatic. After finishing 12-20 in the final year under Travis Ford, expectations of a quick rebuild were low, as the Cowboys’ were picked ninth in the preseason Big 12 poll. In the first six games of the Big 12 regular season, the Cowboys were 0-6, with five losses by single-digit margins. Yet, back-to-back wins over Texas Tech and TCU at the end of January kicked off a 10-3 stretch to close the season, which included a marquee 82-75 victory at West Virginia (Feb. 4).
The best player on Oklahoma State is sophomore guard Jawun Evans. The first team all-Big 12 selection is among the most important players in the tournament. The team’s leading scorer at 18.7 points per game, Evans leads the Big 12 in assists per game at 6.3 per game, which ranks 11th in the nation. This production has played a crucial role to Oklahoma St.’s offensive efficiency, which according to Kenpom, is the best in the country. On the defensive end, he ranks fourth in the Big 12 with 1.9 blocks per game. Evans’s well rounded game ranks him sixth in the Kenpom Player of the Year standings.
During the first weekend of the season, the three-year starter tallied 30 and 21 points in neutral site games against Indiana and Duke respectively. His heroics in those two games, punctuated by a step-back game-winner over Duke, burst Mason to the forefront of the National Player of the Year discussion. Mason led the Big 12 in points per game with 20.5, passing the 20-point plateau on 18 occasions this season. The senior guard’s efficiency on the offensive end ranks him among the Big 12’s top 10 in field goal percentage (eighth, .488), three-point percentage (first, .493) and free throw percentage (seventh, .776). In addition, he averages 5.1 assists per game (fourth in Big 12), and 4.2 rebounds per game. Considering Mason leads all players in the Big 12 with 36.1 minutes per game, his efficiency has played a huge part in Kansas’ ranking as the fifth most efficient offense in the country, per Kenpom.
One of the best players this year to garner a “He’s still around?” from casual college basketball fans is Kansas’s senior guard Frank Mason. The 2017 Big 12 player of the year, Mason is not the top NBA Draft prospect on the Jayhawks according to DraftExpress, a title which belongs to fellow first-team all-Big 12 selection Josh Jackson. Mason is, however, the most important player to the team’s success.
In Mason’s first two years on campus, the team failed to advance beyond the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After getting bounced by the eventual National Champions, Villanova, in the Elite 8 last season, Mason has returned with a vengeance. If the Naismith Player of the Year candidate can lead the Jayhawks to the second national title of the Bill Self era, Mason’s career arc sets up as a potential coronation as one of the Kansas all-time greats.
Player Who Can Win The Tourney by Himself: Johnathan Motley
Ranked No. 27 on the DraftExpress prospect board, Johnathan Motley has evolved into a force to be reckoned with. In his third season in Waco, the former three-star high school recruit has taken the reigns of the program, with an opportunity to create a lasting legacy of success within the program. Over his first two seasons on campus, Motley was not expected to shoulder the load, as front court mates Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers, and Isiah Austin each garnered significant playing time at Baylor. Now the only player in the Big 12 to average a double-double, the junior forward leads the Big 12 in both offensive and defensive rebounds per game, averaging 17.5 points and 10.0 rebounds. From his sophomore season, in which he averaged 11.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, the improvement shown by 6’10” Motley was surely a factor in his selection for the first team all-Big 12 roster.
As one of only two players to average double-digit scoring for Baylor, Motley is critical to the team’s success. According to the Kenpom Player of the Year standings, Motley is second behind only Villanova’s Kris Hart.
This year, a 15-0 start to the season saw Baylor rise to the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll for the first time in school history. Yet, since the calendar flipped to February, the Bears have come crashing back to reality, with a 5-5 mark to close the season. Scott Drew’s squad extended its losing streak against Kansas to 10 games, giving Drew more losses at Allen Fieldhouse than Bill Self. Moreover, first round exits in the NCAA Tournament against Georgia State and Yale the past two seasons have quelled the otherwise successful seasons. With the ghosts of past Marchs looming over the team’s fantastic success, the narrative surrounding Motley and Baylor would benefit greatly from a deep run in the Big 12 Tournament.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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