Making Sense of the Big 12 Title Race: Is This the Year Kansas’ Streak Finally Ends…and Who Ends It? | Zagsblog
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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Saturday / December 14.
  • Making Sense of the Big 12 Title Race: Is This the Year Kansas’ Streak Finally Ends…and Who Ends It?

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    By: MIKE McCURRY

    The last time Kansas did not win at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title, Tony Allen was the league’s Player of the Year, Eddie Sutton the league’s Coach of the Year, and current Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm an assistant at Southeast Louisiana.

    Yes, the 2003-04 campaign was a long time ago. Since then, the Jayhawks have reeled off 14 straight Big 12 championships, setting a record for Division 1 men’s basketball in the process.

    Like clockwork, we perennially ask the question of whether or not this is finally the year in which The Streak ends. And, like clockwork, we perennially look foolish when Bill Self and his men hang yet another banner in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse.

    OK, but, for real: Is this finally the year in which The Streak ends?

    Following Kansas State’s 65-51 win at West Virginia on Big Monday, and prior to Baylor-Iowa State on Tuesday, here is how the top of the Big 12 currently stacks up:

    Kansas State              10-3

    Texas Tech                 9-4

    Kansas                       9-4

    Iowa State                  8-4

    K-State not only controls its own destiny by being a game ahead of its fellow three contenders in the loss column but also is projected to finish 13-5 in league play per KenPom (based on cumulative probabilities of winning each game), a full game ahead of its trailing triumvirate.

    Of course, if everything went as planned in the world of college basketball, Ochai Agbaji would still be sitting out via redshirt.

    In an 18-game round robin conference slate, the following three showdowns may very well wind up deciding the Big 12 champion (or, much more likely, multiple champions):

    • Kansas at Texas Tech: Saturday, 8:00 PM ET
    • Kansas State at Kansas: Monday, 9:00 PM ET
    • Texas Tech at Iowa State: March 9, 2:00 PM ET (regular-season finale)
    Here’s a breakdown of the four contenders, how they’ve gotten to this point, and what lies ahead.

    Kansas State (10-3 in Big 12)

    Remaining schedule: vs. Oklahoma State, at Kansas, vs. Baylor, at TCU, vs. Oklahoma 

    The collective gasps at Bramlage Coliseum upon Dean Wade limping off the court on Saturday reverberated from Manhattan, Kansas all the way to Manhattan, New York, and for good reason. For one, the senior has a well-documented history of foot issues, sidelining him not only for mostly all of Kansas State’s NCAA Tournament run to the Elite 8 last year but also six games earlier this season. For another, Bruce Weber’s offense, already occasionally an eyesore, tends to understandably suffer mightily without the services of Wade, the preseason Big-12 Player of the Year.

    Which is why Wade playing 32 minutes (10 points, 6 rebounds) in Monday’s triumph at West Virginia despite an ominous pregame outlook was so important to Kansas State’s title hopes, particularly after six-man extraordinaire Cartier Diarra (11.3 PPG, 52% FG in his last four games) was relegated out of commission until at least the Big 12 Tournament after undergoing surgery on his left ring finger just last week.

    Kansas State is 9-1 in Big 12 games when Wade suits up. When he doesn’t? 1-2.

    Blend a healthy Wade with fellow senior Barry Brown (18.5 PPG in his last 12 games) and a vintage Weber defense that ranks 8th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and you could certainly talk yourself into a repeat deep March run for the Wildcats.

    The more pressing question in the meantime: Do they have enough bucket-getting power to complete the Sunflower Showdown season sweep at Kansas next Monday?

     

    Texas Tech (9-4)

    Remaining schedule: vs. Kansas, vs. Oklahoma State, at TCU, vs. Texas, at Iowa State

    It’s by no means crazy to proclaim that the Red Raiders, despite losing last year’s two leading scorers in Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith on a team that advanced all the way to the Elite 8, are a better collective unit this season. That’s the product of Chris Beard’s status as a Top-10 coach in the sport, Jarrett Culver’s sophomore leap to an All-American stratosphere, and the seamless insertion into the starting lineup of a pair of grad transfers in point guard Matt Mooney and center Tariq Owens.

    Texas Tech, who boasts the single stingiest defense in the land according to KenPom—possessions not ending in turnovers or blocked shots constitute moral victories for opposing offenses—hit an offensive wall of such epic proportions that it would satisfy Donald Trump back in mid-January (0.87 points per possession), resulting in three straight losses.

    All the Red Raiders have done since is win six of seven. Their only loss in that span? A 79-63 setback at Kansas. They have a golden opportunity to avenge that defeat this Saturday in Lubbock.

    My best advice to Davide Moretti, Brandone Francis and friends would be to stay hot from the perimeter. Texas Tech has made at least ten three-pointers in three straight games, matching the total from their initial 23 contests.

     

    Kansas (9-4)

    Remaining schedule: at Texas Tech, vs. Kansas State, at Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, vs. Baylor

    That the Jayhawks almost assuredly will not be either a 1-or-2 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008-09 does not preclude The Streak from discontinuing. After all, it bears repeating that KU has won 14 straight Big 12 titles. The other three contenders have won three total. Until Kansas officially doesn’t win the Big 12, they cannot be unaccounted for in the race.

    OK, now that we got that out of the way, does someone want to volunteer and tell me how Self and his staff are pulling this off? Lagerald Vick (14.1 PPG, 46 % 3FG), KU’s second-leading scorer on the season, recently took a leave of absence to deal with family matters. Udoka Azubuike (13.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 71% FG), KU’s third-leading scorer and stable paint enforcer, is out for the year after undergoing wrist surgery. Silvio De Sousa is serving an NCAA suspension. A bum ankle has caused Marcus Garrett to miss the past five games.

    This probably sums it up best: The Jayhawks are starting four freshmen, one of whom is Agbaji, a sub-100 freshman who was all set to redshirt this season before Self, out of pure necessity for bodies, threw him into the fire shortly after the new year.

    Aside from probable Big 12 Player of the Year Dedric Lawson and his lethal iso production, the key has been the improved play of speedy freshman point guard Devon Dotson, who in his last five games has averaged 18.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.0 steals on 56% shooting (including 9-of-18 from distance).

    While it won’t be easy to waltz into United Supermarkets Arena and steal a victory this Saturday, Kansas winning at Texas Tech in a year like this would be precisely the improbable result we’ve all come to expect—and maybe even take for granted—in the era of The Streak.

     

    Iowa State (8-4)

    Remaining schedule: vs. Baylor, at TCU, vs. Oklahoma, at Texas, at West Virginia, vs. Texas Tech

    No, individual game predictions on KenPom should not be confused as gospel, but it’s interesting nonetheless that Iowa State should be favored in each of their six remaining games, beginning with Baylor on Tuesday. Boasting easily the most prolific offense that the Big 12 has to offer, the Cyclones possess three guys capable of going off for 25 every night in Marial Shayok, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Lindell Wigginton.

    Wigginton’s return to form is one of the more underrated narratives in all of America. Last season as a freshman, the former Oak Hill product averaged 17 points while starting all 31 games. A strained left foot suffered in this year’s season opener, however, cost him ten games along with a spot in the starting lineup. After acclimating slowly to his relegated role—he’s also playing much more off-the-ball compared to last year—Wigginton has thrived of late. He was the best player on the floor in Saturday’s 78-64 win at Kansas State, dropping 23 points in 24 minutes. So what if he’s not starting games? He’s finishing them.

    Not unlike any other year, Iowa State features more hyphenated names and impact transfers than any other program in the Big 12. Unlike any other year, though tilts at TCU, at Texas, and versus Texas Tech will not be equivalent to walks in the park, the Cyclones have a clear path to running the table and winning the conference outright, thus ending the streak.

    HOW WILL IT GO DOWN?

    My projected final Big 12 standings (The Streak ends!):

    Iowa State                   14-4

    Kansas State                13-5

    Texas Tech                  13-5

    Kansas                         12-6

    Photo: @KStateMBB

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    Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle. A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.