With the Big 12 season entering its final week of the regular season, let’s virtually raise a glass to some absent friends. While the last two months produced the same champion as the previous 13 years and the conference again earned hosannas for its competitive depth, there was plenty missing.
Each of the 10 teams were left with what-might-have-been. Not from that questionable call in a key moment or that great shot that rimmed out. All of the Big 12’s teams were incomplete due to injuries or suspensions. The teams’ accomplishments came without an intact roster from the season opener until now. Here’s the breakdown:
Senior forward Terry Maston missed six games in December with a broken right (shooting) hand. The first game he missed was a 69-62 loss to Wichita State in Waco. If the Bears fail to make the NCAA Tournament, that’s a game where the 6-8 Maston could have made a difference and perhaps helped Baylor add a resume-enhancing victory. When he returned to action, he helped fuel a five-game winning streak.
The Cyclones’ streak of NCAA Tournament appearances was likely ended before the injury bug hit. Iowa State was in a transition season and trying to replace four players who were the foundation of recent success. Junior point guard Nick Weiler-Babb had an outstanding first half of the season but missed six games with knee tendinitis. He and starting center Solomon Young were shelved at the end of the season due to knee problems. They accounted for 21.1 percent of ISU’s points, 30.1 percent of rebounds.
It has been well-documented that this team that’s responsible for KU’s 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title is significantly flawed. ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said Monday night that Bill Self should be the national coach of the year based on how he has disguised his team’s weaknesses and emphasized its strengths.
The Jayhawks’ season-long issue has been a lack of depth and size in the front court. That was due to the fact that Billy Preston never saw the floor. The 6-10 freshman forward was involved in a one-car fender bender on campus in late November. Questions arose regarding the car’s ownership and the NCAA opened a slow-moving investigation. In mid-January, Preston signed with a pro team in Europe. The mystery remains regarding what, if anything, the NCAA discovered regarding his eligibility. All that’s evident is that a talented 5-star power forward would have made KU a much different team.
When the Wildcats lost 6-foot junior point guard Kamau Stokes to a foot injury in early January, they responded by winning four consecutive games. After missing seven games, Stokes has returned on Feb. 3 and now Kansas State has a backcourt rotation of 6-3 junior Barry Brown and 6-4 redshirt freshman Cartier Diarra. “Kam’s not back to being 100 percent but he’s giving us more depth,” said coach Bruce Weber, whose team has won four of its last six. “We’ve got three versatile guards who all give you a bit of point guard. When you’ve got guys who can dribble and pass and shoot it, that makes it tough on the defense.”
The Wildcats will finish in the top half of the standings and – despite a woefully weak non-conference schedule – are inside the NCAA Tournament bubble. K-State benefitted and survived the absence of a starting point guard and leading scorer.
During last season’s 11-20 train wreck, Kristian Doolittle was a bright spot as a freshman. The 6-7 forward led the Sooners in 3-point shooting while averaging 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. While Trae Young Mania was sweeping the country in November and December, Doolittle was suspended by the school for the first semester due to academics.
When he became eligible in mid-December, it figured that Doolittle would contribute to a rotation that was already solid. Instead, it was subtraction by addition. Doolittle scored 18 points in 18 minutes against Texas on Feb. 7 but in his other 17 games he’s scored a total of just 40.
First-year coach Mike Boynton has done an admirable job in a fluid situation. Assistant coach Lamont Evans was fired before the season started because of his involvement in the FBI probe of college basketball recruiting. That investigation also led to senior Jeffrey Carroll to sit out the first three games of the season. Junior swing man Tavarius Shine has missed five games – four of which the Cowboys lost. In December, Boynton dismissed reserves Davon Dillard and Zack Dawson.
The Cowboys will likely miss the NCAA Tournament and will wind up in the final standings about as expected. But Oklahoma State has victories over five teams that were ranked at game-time – No. 19 Florida State, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 7 Kansas, No. 17 West Virginia and No. 6 Texas Tech. Their NCAA Tournament hopes were dashed by being swept by Kansas State, Baylor and TCU.
The Frogs are closing strong, having won four of their last five heading into Tuesday’s game with Kansas State. Last season, TCU flopped in February and failed to land its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. On Jan. 16, starting point guard Jaylen Fisher suffered a torn meniscus and was lost for the season.
With the roster down to eight scholarship players, the Frogs have gone 7-5 since losing Fisher. Junior Alex Robinson – who stepped in for Fisher when he suffered a broken hand and led TCU to an NIT title last season – has averaged nearly 37 minutes a game since Fisher suffered his knee injury.
Perhaps the best news of this disappointing season came Monday. Sophomore guard Andrew Jones, diagnosed with leukemia in early January, was released from the hospital and will continue out-patient treatment. Jones’ health is paramount, but his absence wrecked the Longhorns’ season of inconsistency. Texas hasn’t won back-to-back games since late December and four of its Big 12 losses have been by three or fewer points.
The Longhorns have lost five of their last seven, placing their NCAA Tournament hopes on life support. Junior Eric Davis Jr. has been suspended while the school investigates his alleged involvement in the FBI probe and freshman Mo Bamba missed Monday’s game at Kansas with an injured toe.
When senior forward Zach Smith – a pre-season All-Big 12 selection – went down with a broken foot in early January, the Red Raiders’ depth enabled them to go on a run that put them in first place with two weeks remaining.
Monday night in Morgantown, Texas Tech lost its fourth consecutive game. Senior point guard Keenan Evans, who was making a case for Big 12 player of the year and All-American honors, suffered a toe injury in the first half at Baylor. The Red Raiders lost that game as Evans sat out the second half. He played but was ineffective in losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas. Evans, along with versatile senior forward Justin Gray (concussion suffered in the first minute against KU) were MIA against the Mountaineers.
Smith returned to action against Kansas but didn’t play at West Virginia. The health of the three seniors will determine Texas Tech’s success in March.
The Mountaineers were No. 2 in the nation when 6-8 junior forward Esa Ahmad returned after an NCAA-imposed suspension. Ahmad, who averaged 11.3 points a game as a sophomore, was expected to bolster WVU’s front-court scoring. Instead, whatever chemistry the Mountaineers had attained became toxic and they lost five of their next six.
West Virginia has won six of its last eight and the issues that plagued the Mountaineers during the skid have been addressed. WVU’s half-court scoring has improved over the last eight games as the Mountaineers’ field goal percentage if 47.4 percent and they’re making 37.2 percent of their 3-pointers. Both percentages are above their season numbers. Creating points other than off the press and from offensive rebounding will be the deciding factor if West Virginia plays deep into March.