- From league leaders Texas Tech and West Virginia, to the country’s must-see player in Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young and the historical dominance of Kansas, the Big 12 is delivering compelling, unpredictable basketball.
- Getting to know Marquette's sharpshooting sophomore Markus Howard, who's all-time favorite movie may surprise you.
- Five teams and five players on the rise this week, including Colorado after its sweep of Pac-12 frontrunners Arizona and Arizona State.
You’d think Chris Beard would have been feeling pretty good Sunday evening. Some 24 hours earlier his Texas Tech team had dispatched Kansas State, four days after going into the Phog and upending Kansas by a dozen. Now the Red Raiders sit atop the Big 12 as one of two teams 3-0 in league play, one year after a 6-12, eighth-place finish and less than three months after being pegged to finish seventh this time around. But Beard knows the Big 12 too well to get too high. Last season his team followed every conference win with a loss. He knows what lurks around the schedule’s every turn.
“Life in the Big 12,” Beard said by phone from Lubbock. “It’s like a good friend of mine texted me this week: Prince today, frog tomorrow.”
What makes for a coach’s grueling challenge makes for a viewer’s delight. Although it’s been, according to KenPom.com, the country’s strongest overall conference for four years running, this season few would dispute the Big 12 has become its buzziest and most compelling as well. Not only does it have four of the top 13 teams in KenPom.com’s efficiency ratings, but it also has the country’s must-see player in Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, who leads Division I in points and assists and jaw-dropping highlights per game; perhaps the country’s most intimidating and aggressive defense in West Virginia; a Texas Tech squad that may be the season’s breakout team; a Texas defense anchored by a shot-blocker ticketed for the NBA Draft’s top five in Mo Bamba; and, of course, Kansas, which is Kansas. The Jayhawks have won at least a share of 13 straight regular-season Big 12 titles, but now a conference synonymous with one team’s annual success is being defined by its wide-openness.
“This is a unique year,” says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, who’s been covering the Big 12 since 2004. “At this point in time, I don’t think there’s a legitimate Final Four team, but what we have in this league from one to 10 is easily the most competitive, balanced grouping that I think I’ve seen probably since the league was formed in 1996.”
To wit: road teams won eight of the first nine games of conference play, which speaks less to the hosts’ inability to defend their home court than the sheer volume of high-quality visitors. Collectively, the Big 12’s 10 teams had an .864 winning percentage in non-conference play, the best of any league in the country. And it's not just guaranteed games and top-heavy dominance. Oklahoma State, the league’s second-lowest ranked team on KenPom (55th), won a semi-road game against previously undefeated Florida State last month. Big 12 teams can also boast wins over Virginia, Wichita State, Creighton and Kentucky.
“There’s no bottom teams in our league,” Beard said Sunday, adding: “Every night it seems like I’m coaching against a Hall of Fame coach.”
That feeling helps explain some of the league’s quality. Half of the Big 12’s coaches have led a team to at least one Final Four: Bill Self (Kansas in 2008 and ‘12), Lon Kruger (Oklahoma in ‘16 and Florida in 1994), Bob Huggins (Cincinnati in 1992, West Virginia in 2010), Shaka Smart (VCU in 2011) and Bruce Weber (Illinois in ‘05). Elsewhere in the league, you have the coach with the best winning percentage in Big East history (Jamie Dixon, who came to TCU from Pittsburgh two years ago) and the steady hand atop one of the sport’s most impressive rebuilds ever (Baylor’s Scott Drew). The league’s other three coaches are all rising talent under 45: Beard, Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton and Iowa State’s Steve Prohm.
That’s part of why, Beard says, “a two-game winning streak in the Big 12 feels like you’ve won eight or nine games in some other leagues I’ve coached in. It’s really that daunting.” And with a true home-and-home round-robin schedule, there’s no place for any team to hide; everyone has to play everywhere. If you flip on a Big 12 game—be it Oklahoma at West Virginia or Texas at Iowa State—there’s a good chance you’re going to see some entertaining and unpredictable basketball.
If it’s your job to navigate that gauntlet, well, that might not quite be fun. But for those of us observing, there’s nothing better to watch.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to laugh with me like a five-year-old at this painting, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
Everybody lost. At least it felt that way. Over the past four days, four of the top five teams in last week’s AP poll fell. No. 3 Arizona State lost at Colorado on Thursday. Providence took down No. 5 Xavier by nine on Saturday. North Carolina State beat No. 2 Duke by 11 that night. And No. 1 Michigan State closed the weekend out on the wrong side of an 80-64 game with Ohio State. And that’s not to mention LSU knocking off No. 11 Texas A&M on the road thanks to a wild buzzer-beating three from freshman Tremont Waters, Colorado also ending No. 14 Arizona’s nine-game winning streak, Georgia Tech beating No. 15 Miami, No. 12 North Carolina losing both its games, and sub-.500 Stanford and Vanderbilt topping fringe Top 25 teams UCLA and Alabama, respectively. In all, 14 of 25 ranked teams suffered at least one defeat in the last seven days.
What on Earth is going on? College basketball, for one. This is a sport defined by its upsets and played by late teens and early 20-somethings who must do so while also ostensibly functioning as students. Volatility is built into the game. But it’s also becoming increasingly clear that this is one of those years devoid of dominant teams, and where even whichever ones end up looking great retroactively will not be anywhere close to invincible along the way. Villanova will reclaim the No. 1 spot a week after losing it, but the same defensive cracks that Butler busted open can come back at any time. West Virginia and Texas Tech are hot and rising but no one’s making it through the Big 12 without getting knocked down. Duke is loaded with talent on offense but young and defends poorly. Virginia will still struggle for points. And so on.
Some of these are mere blips that, through coincidental timing, amplify their impact on the perception of the sport as a whole. (Michigan State will be fine; Arizona is too good for a close road loss to truly derail their turnaround.) Some are corrections after scorching hot starts. (Maybe Arizona State isn’t quite top-five good after all.) Some great teams are chugging back toward recognition as such after early losses. (Wichita State and Purdue look better than their hype levels would suggest.) And some of this very paragraph will look laughable a week from now.
But in the meantime, what all of it is is pretty fun, right? Unless, I suppose, you’re a fan of one of like half the Top 25 teams. At least then you’ve got company.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting five teams on the rise. Here’s who stood out over the past week.
1. Colorado: How about the Buffaloes? After being swept on a two-game trip to Oregon the week before, Colorado defended its home court by sweeping Arizona State and Arizona, the two Pac-12 frontrunners. Junior wing Namon Wright (16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds last week) should stick back in the starting lineup.
2. Ohio State: What a debut season for Chris Holtmann so far. Sunday’s decisive win over Michigan State moved the Buckeyes to 4-0 in the Big Ten a year after they finished 7-11 in the league. With zero bad losses so far, this is looking every bit like a tournament team.
3. Texas Tech: In keeping with Beard’s point about how easily things can turn in the Big 12, the Red Raiders have to travel to Oklahoma and then host West Virginia this week. Even splitting those dates with top-10 teams would be impressive. If they go 2-0 again, the rest of the league will be put on notice.
4. Virginia: Tony Bennett just keeps doing it. The Cavaliers smothered North Carolina in a 61-49 win and now have the most efficient defense in the country. It’s early, but given Duke’s slow start to conference play, Virginia could be the ACC champ virtually no one saw coming.
5. Notre Dame: First the Irish beat North Carolina State by 30 in their first game without star forward Bonzie Colson. Then they lose their next best player, Matt Farrell, and grind out a 51-49 win at Syracuse. Mike Brey’s team won’t quit.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Darius Thompson, Western Kentucky guard
The Virginia transfer posted perhaps this season’s most impressive triple-double when he scored 33 points to go with 10 assists and 10 rebounds in the Hilltoppers’ win over Marshall on Saturday. After the game, Thompson said that when he read Orlando Mendez-Valdez had recorded the school’s first triple-double in 2009, “I was like, ‘I’m going to be the second one. Watch."
Junior: Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State forward
The Normal, Ill., native was anything but this week, following 27 points and 13 rebounds in a win at Iowa and 32 points to go with seven boards in a win over No. 1 Michigan State. His 135.5 offensive rating in Big Ten games ranks fourth in the league, and in league play he’s second in defensive rebounding rate and third in true shooting percentage.
Sophomore: Markus Howard, Marquette guard
The second-year marksman, who we will get to know better in a moment, had the offensive explosion of the season when he scored 52 points (including 11-for-19 three-point shooting) in a win at Providence last Wednesday. Three days later he scored 37 at Villanova. What a week.
Freshman: Deandre Ayton, Arizona forward
Ayton did what he could in Saturday’s loss to Colorado, scoring 26 points on 11/17 shooting while his teammates shot 17/56. Two days earlier, at Utah, Ayton had 24 points and 14 rebounds; in both games he blocked two shots.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Marquette guard Markus Howard, who is averaging 23.5 points while shooting 40.1% from three. So, Markus, tell us about the best ...
...place to visit back home in Chandler, Ariz. “My favorite food is pizza and in my opinion there’s the best pizza place in the world there. It’s called Venezia’s. It’s been a place my family has gone to ever since I was little. It’s the thing I crave every time I go back home. If you ask anyone in my family what my favorite thing to eat is, it’s pizza and wings from Venezia’s. It’s kind of a running joke in my family. Just cheese pizza and wings. That’s my favorite meal. It reminds me of East Coast pizza. I was born in New Jersey so I’m kind of used to that type of pizza. Venezia’s is in the East Coast style.”
...meal that you can make. “My pasta. My mom’s a great cook and she taught me how to cook a lot of different things, but my pasta’s really good. I like doing a penne with cream sauce and I put different herbs in it. It’s hard to cook here because we don’t have a stove, but when I’m back home I like to cook a lot. I make a lot of breakfast food. Me and my brother [Jordan, a guard at Central Arkansas] will switch off and take turns cooking. My go-to is either pancakes and bacon or eggs and waffles.”
...heckle you’ve heard. “That’s easy. Last year at the Big East tournament before we played Seton Hall, we were walking onto the court and I had really long hair back then, so one of the fans said I looked like a Chia Pet and [was] doing the jingle for it. I was standing next to Sam [Hauser] and he was dying.”
...movie you’ve seen. “My favorite movie of all time—people are gonna think this is weird, but it’s been my favorite movie since I was little kid—is The Wizard of Oz. It’s still my favorite movie to this day. A lot of people when they ask me that and I say The Wizard of Oz, they go, what? I just love the movie. I really don’t know why. It’s my favorite movie. It’s not even close. Growing up I would watch it religiously.”
As the scandal turns ...
In the wake of the string of arrests related to the FBI’s investigation into fraud in college basketball recruiting, there was a common refrain in media coverage and discussions of the subject: Coaches around the country must be shaking in their boots. But this past week made it clear many of them had another reaction: They were ticked off.
First came Pittsburgh’s trip to Louisville last Tuesday, when Panthers coach Kevin Stallings was heard by reporters responding to a hectoring fan by quipping, “At least we don’t pay our guys $100,000.” After the game, Stallings confirmed and explained his comments. “Probably said the wrong thing, but I’m not gonna let people talk crap about my players,” Stallings told reporters.
Four days later, after Colorado upset Arizona, which was also implicated in the scandal, Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle was asked whether Arizona’s connection to the FBI probe added extra satisfaction to the win, Boyle responded, “Hell yes.”
With the way tensions ratchet up in the sport this time of year, it’s hard to imagine this is the last time the subject is broached publicly as fodder for competitive banter. As if weathering the calamity of the probe wasn’t difficult enough, it’s now clear the teams involved will have to deal with some extra motivated opponents as well.
Social Media Post of the Week
The Pac-12 Mountain Trip is the second-most terrifying thing in college basketball behind the FBI.— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) January 5, 2018
Assigned Viewing: Texas Tech at Oklahoma, Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
After all that up top, did you expect anything else? The Red Raiders opened a lot of eyes with a road win last week and they’ll get the chance to repeat the feat in Norman on Wednesday and try to follow West Virginia’s lead in (relatively) slowing down Trae Young. One imagines that after the frustration of going up against the Mountaineers, the Sooners will be raring to go on their home floor, especially with the opportunity to pick up such a high-quality win while avoiding a two-game skid. While all eyes will understandably be on Young, don’t miss a chance to take in the talents of Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans, who’s having his own stellar season.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• We mentioned it earlier, but the broken foot suffered by Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson is one of the season’s most disappointing pieces of news. Colson was a frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year and likely All-America selection leading the Irish in points, rebounds, blocks and steals at the time of his injury, which is a huge blow to Notre Dame’s season. The Irish, particularly T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger, have picked up the slack in their first week without him, but the ACC is only going to get harder from here. There’s a chance Colson returns in March, but Brey has said he’s not going to risk Colson’s health before the spring’s NBA tryouts. It would be a shame if this is how Colson’s time as a college player ends, but he’s had a heck of a career.
• You may not see a crazier finish this season than this back-and-forth between USC and Stanford on Sunday night. Wow.
• After Arizona’s loss to Colorado on Saturday, Sean Miller said his players “really struggle playing for me” and that he has “a hard time reaching our guys.” The Wildcats had seemingly recovered from their disastrous 0-3 trip to the Bahamas in November and it’s obvious Miller doesn’t want to risk a minor setback becoming a prolonged one.
• Minnesota forward Reggie Lynch was suspended indefinitely in relation to an investigation into an alleged sexual assault that occurred in April 2016. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Lynch has been under investigation since October. (He was previously arrested and investigated for a separate alleged sexual assault in 2016, but charges were dropped.) Minnesota AD Mark Coyle said Lynch was allowed to play because school policy allows athletes to play while under investigation by the school as long as there is not a corresponding criminal case. Whatever the policy, it didn’t mandate that coach Richard Pitino let Lynch play. But he chose to.
• Everyone’s ragging on how the wax statue of Tom Izzo at the Breslin Center doesn’t look like him. My biggest takeaway is that it looks so much like a real person, but not really Izzo, and man, wax statues must be
• After he catching a ton of grief for aggressively turning his back on North Carolina’s Joel Berry II when Berry tried discussing a call late in Wednesday’s game, referee Ted Valentine told The Athletic’s Seth Davis that he is considering retiring. “I’m tired of being cut on,” Valentine said. Here’s an alternative suggestion: just ... don’t do that kind of thing in the first place.
• It may not have had the stakes of last March’s Sweet 16 dagger over Wisconsin, but Florida’s Chris Chiozza had one of this season’s more unusual game-winners when he picked off a pass in the backcourt and broke away for a layup to beat Missouri.
• Shoutout to Grambling State’s Shakyla Hill for a quadruple-double against Alabama State last Thursday. She finished with 15 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds and 10 steals, and made LeBron take notice in the process.
• You’re not going to find many acceptance speeches better than Oprah’s at last night’s Golden Globes. If you didn’t watch it then, do it now.