Heartbeat of the Heartland: Big 12 Basketball is Full of Surprises

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We have reached the point of the Big 12 season where you must expect the unexpected but then you’re still surprised at the outcome. In truth, it happens every year when the calendar nears February. The league is as mysterious and hard to fathom as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. Night to night, game to game, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.

Allow Your Veteran Scribe to buttress that opinion with examples from last week.

Wednesday night in Fort Worth, Iowa State was rocked and rolled by TCU. The Horned Frogs had learned the previous day that sophomore starting point guard Jaylen Fisher (who injured his knee in practice the day before) would be out for the season. Junior Alex Robinson stepped in and set a school record with 17 assists. TCU shot 60.3 percent and got a much-needed 96-73 victory.

The Cyclones provided little resistance. Games are rarely determined in the opening minutes but Cyclones coach Steve Prohm could tell that his team was not ready to play. Just over eight minutes in, Iowa State trailed by 17. “When it was 4-2 I should have called a timeout then,” he said. “You could see it right away in our attention to detail. You have to have a tough mentality when you play on the road and we had that I the last two road games. It was disappointing because we had been making some strides.”

That same night, Texas Tech traveled to Austin seeking the program’s first victory in the Texas capitol since 1996. The Red Raiders were coming off a significant upset of No. 2 West Virginia and appeared prime to stay near the top of the Big 12 standings. Instead, the Longhorns stifled Texas Tech’s offense and posted its best shooting effort in Big 12 play and posted a 67-58 victory.

So, Iowa State hosted Texas Tech Saturday. The Cyclones were about to sign a long-term lease on the Big 12’s basement and surely the eighth-ranked Red Raiders would recover and somehow find a way to win a road game.

Nope. The lack of engagement and energy evident at TCU did a full 180. Iowa State jumped to a 13-point first half lead and when Texas Tech rallied early in the second half to take a one-point lead, the Cyclones responded with a runaway 70-52 victory. That’s the biggest winning margin against a top 10 team in program history.

“When we gave them our best punch in the second half — they got back up,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “Iowa State can beat a lot of people in college basketball, the way they played. They shared the ball. They defended.  They played spirited.”

There is no sensical explanation for the results in Big 12 basketball. Iowa State played spirited and won. Baylor played spirited at Kansas and lost. Texas Tech played spirited in two losses; it just couldn’t make shots (more on that later). One definition of “spirit” is “the nonphysical part of a person.” Ephemeral, in other words. And in even more other words, figuring out the Big 12 is like trying to catch smoke.

We should all have such a bad week

Oklahoma lost road games at Kansas State and at Oklahoma State. Freshman guard Trae Young averaged 34 points in both games and continues to lead the nation in scoring (30.5) and assists (9.7). But after two months of being lauded and praised for his incendiary play, the analysts/experts/critics sharpened their knives and decided to carve up this year’s presumptive player of the year.

In Saturday’s overtime loss in Stillwater, Young tied the Big 12 basketball record with 48 points. To many, that was countered by his 39 shots – a conference record, surpassing the 36 launched by Missouri’s Clarence Gilbert in 2001. Young made 14 of those shots; his teammates combined to make 14 of 43 shots. Also, in those two losses, Young committed 19 turnovers; he’s averaging 5.2 turnovers per game.

Young’s other worldly numbers have made everyone ga-ga but now some of those numbers are making some gag. Had Oklahoma won Saturday to sweep Bedlam, Young’s box score line would have earned praise. Instead, now that football has nearly faded away and college basketball is moving to the forefront, the spotlight can either illuminate or eliminate. ESPN’s talking heads and debaters had great fun campaigning for the nation’s leader in assists to be less selfish.

Kansas plays in Norman Tuesday night – even you haven’t noticed, ESPN has turned the hype volume up to 11 – and Young has a chance to either climb back on the podium of praise or face more criticisms if has another “clunker.”

“Nobody has shut him down,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “What makes basketball unique is you can do a great job guarding somebody and he still hits a shot, or you can guard him poorly and he misses it. You can say Oklahoma State didn’t do a great job on him because he got 48. But a couple of years ago when we played Buddy (Hield) and I thought we did a great job on him. He gets 48. If we hadn’t done a great job, he might have got 56.

“Anybody can lose two games in a week. We all know that. The league is so good. But the reality of it is, they’ve got a top-10, top-5 team in the country that wasn’t that … until Trae got there.”

An ugly and needed victory

For the first time, TCU hosted a Big Monday game. The school promoted it incessantly with coach Jamie Dixon – a former child actor – appearing in a number of videos that appeared on social media. The hype had the desired effect as a sellout crowd filled Schollmaier Arena for the game with No. 7 West Virginia.

As Dixon has tried to gin up enthusiasm for a program that has a history of under promising and under delivering, TCU has fell short of signature home-court victories. With a national TV audience and a stoked crowd, the Frogs finally delivered. They defended and rebounded their way to an 82-73 victory.

“We’ve lost so many of these close games and we didn’t get it done,” Dixon said. “I’m excited for the fans, they’ve been unbelievable. And I told our guys we needed to win ugly. We haven’t won an ugly game this year. Rebounding, defending and not shooting well. That’s what we did. Everybody played good.”

TCU came into the game with a 14-5 overall record and 2-5 in Big 12 play. The five losses were all by less than five points. While the Frogs pass the eye test of an NCAA Tournament team, they couldn’t afford to fall farther under .500. Dixon tried to pump some sunshine in his pre-game message to his players.

“This is the story: we’ve had a tough stretch here where we haven’t finished off some games,” Dixon said. “But we’re 21 in the RPI, West Virginia is No. 18.  we’ve got Big Monday coming in. Yeah, we’ve lost a lot of close games, but you’ve done a tremendous amount this year (to get where we are). Know that we are good, now go play like it.”

Layups

  • At one point in nonconference play, Kansas ranked last in Division I in free throw rate, per KenPom.com. The Jayhawks have improved to rank … 340th, up from 351st. But in Big 12 play, the Jayhawks rank first in the conference. Sophomore Malik Newman, expected to make a major impact after transferring from Mississippi State, went six consecutive games without getting to the line. But he’s 21-of-26 on free throws in his last seven games including going seven-for-seven as he helped the Jayhawks overcome a late six-point deficit to beat Baylor Saturday. 
  • Kansas has won six Big 12 games and five of those victories have been by five or fewer points. The Jayhawks won seven league games decided by five or fewer last season so that’s 12 of their last 22 decided by that margin. From 2004 through 2016, KU won 179 games and 27 of those were decided by five or less. 
  • Texas Tech is averaging 77 points a game but could only muster 58 and 52 points – back-to-back season lows – in road losses at Texas and Iowa State. The Red Raiders were a combined 41-of-114 (35.9 percent) from the field and 13-of-53 (24.5 percent) in the two losses. 
  • Five of TCU’s first six losses in Big 12 play came by five or fewer points (a total of 16 points). The Frogs’ last three regular-season losses came by five or fewer so that’s eight of nine by the five-or-less margin. In 78 Big 12 losses prior to this season, TCU had 10 games that were decided by five or fewer points. 
  • Kansas State’s 74-68 victory over No. 24 TCU Saturday was a significant follow up to its 87-69 of No. 4 Oklahoma last Tuesday. It was the first time since late February 2015 that the Wildcats posted consecutive home victories over ranked teams (No. 8 Kansas, No. 12 Iowa State). Under Bruce Weber in Big 12 play, K-State has gone 9-5 in games after posting an upset. 
  • Historical note clarification. The NCAA started tracking stats for the 1983-84 season and since then no player has led Division I in scoring and assists in a single season. Oklahoma’s Trae Young is on pace to do that but during the 1951-52 season Duke’s Dick Groat averaged 26 points and 7.6 assists. No other player topped those numbers but based on NCAA record keeping, it’s not an official “national record.”

Coach speak

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team played at home Saturday against Texas and was at TCU for ESPN’s Big Monday about 48 hours later:

“When we were in the Big East, there were some younger (coaches) complaining their teams didn’t play on Big Monday. (Notre Dame coach) Mike Brey said, ‘You can have all mine. Look at our record on Mondays after a really hard game on Saturday.’ I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Should I want ‘Big Monday’ games or do I really not want ‘Big Monday’ games?’ We’re on TV so much now… I mean, we’re on TV more than Homer Simpson.”