Five “Under-the-Radar” Mid-Major Teams You Should Pay Attention To…

Mid-Majors. They break a few hearts in the tournament, gain a cup of coffee of national spotlight come tournament time, and for the most part, fade out of the collective memory of college basketball fans by the following season. Oh sure. You have your Gonzaga’s, your Atlantic-10 and Mountain West Conference squads, but for the most part, it’s always  random when it comes to which Mid-Major squad comes into the national spotlight come tournament time.

Well, as the regular seasons wind down and as we lead up to conference tournament season, here are five “under-the-radar” Mid-Majors you should start paying attention to if you’re a college basketball fan and need something to watch on ESPN3.

South Dakota Coyotes and South Dakota State Jackrabbits

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On Thursday, the “Rushmore State” rivalry will be in full bloom as the first place SDSU Jackrabbits host the second place USD Coyotes in Brookings. Both teams have been excellent squads with sterling records (both 20-plus win teams) and some big wins (the Jackrabbits beat Iowa on a neutral court this year). However, the Summit is a one-bid lead, so unfortunately, one of these teams will be left out come Tournament time.

The Jackrabbits have been an underrated Mid-Major contender for almost a decade, starting with Nate Wolters, who’s small-town Jimmy Chitwood-esque style of play got the Jackrabbits onto the national spotlight. This time around, forward Mike Daum is the centerpiece of the SDSU offense, as he is a legitimate Summit Player-of-the-Year candidate. After helping lead the Jackrabbits to a Summit League Tournament Title a year ago, and a first-round matchup against National Runner-up Gonzaga, the Kimball, Nebraska native has continued to produce despite being the target of Summit league foes all year long. He’s not quite as effective offensively (his rating has dropped from 121 to 114), but he’s become a better rebounder, has continued to carry this offense, and more importantly has helped his team “win” more, as the Jackrabbits have more wins so far this year (23) than their tournament squad a year ago (18).

The rival Coyotes have been second-class citizens to the Jackrabbits since the Wolters-era. Since taking over in 2015, head coach Craig Smith has turned things around, as evidenced by a Summit regular season title a year ago, and a 24-6 mark so far this year. But last year, USD was upset in the conference tournament semifinals by their rivals from Brookings, something they hope to avoid this year. Guard Matt Mooney and Center Tyler Hagerdorn have been one of the best two-man combos in the Summit League this year, and Smith will need them to finish the season strong if they want to get over the hump and make their first NCAA Tournament since going Division 1 in 2010.

Loyola Chicago Ramblers

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The Missouri Valley has changed a lot over the past decade. Gone are the days when Creighton and Wichita State dominated the conference. Creighton left for the Big East a while ago, and Wichita State moved over to the American to battle it out with Cincy and Houston. So a lot of the “star” power that carried the conference in the past has been sorely missed this season.

While it’s nice to see Southern Illinois back in the MVC mix (Bruce Weber shout out!), the biggest surprise has been Loyola Chicago, a former member of the Horizon Conference who joined the MVC in 2013. Porter Moser has done a phenomenal job with this Ramblers squad, which not only has the history of being the only college in Illinois to win a national title in basketball, but has also been the most successful squad in Illinois this year as well as evidenced by their 23-5 record (DePaul, Illinois, Southern Illinois, and Illinois State eat your heart out).

Yes, the MVC without Wichita State has not been a strong as in year past, but that shouldn’t deter the accomplishment’s of Moser’s team this year. They have a big win over Florida on their resume, and their 13-3 mark in conference play show this team’s consistency. They are tough-minded bunch, not the most athletic team perhaps in the MVC, but fundamentally strong, and balance on both ends of the ball. Their effective field goal percentage is seventh best in the nation, and the effective field goal defense is also in the Top-40, a sign that the Ramblers can beat you if they’re not totally clicking on one side on a given night. The team has also been led by freshman post Cameron Krutwig, who is a beast on the glass, and has displayed soft and reliable touch around the rim, demonstrated by his 118.8 offensive rating and 63.2 true shooting percentage.

Moser is a coaching lifer, as he has a career 216-211 record over three stops in coaching career (Arkansas Little-Rock, Illinois State and Loyola Chicago). However, while he does have a CBI title (half-hearted yay), he has yet to make a NCAA Tournament berth as a head coach. If the Ramblers finish strong, not only may he end that personal streak, but he also may pull off an upset win or two in the big dance to boot.

Marshall Thundering Herd

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The Conference USA certainly has its more heralded favorites this year as the conference wraps up its regular season. Middle Tennessee State has entered the AP rankings, and has a tournament pedigree thanks to head coach Kermit Davis, who has spurned many openings at bigger schools to build something special in Murfreesboro. Furthermore, second and third place squads Old Dominion and Western Kentucky also have tournament history, albeit in difference conferences (CAA and Sun Belt, respectively).

But Marshall is probably the funnest team in the conference and solely due to head coach Dan D’Antoni. Yep, you heard that right. He’s the brother of Mike, the “Seven Seconds or Less” wizard who’s currently the head man of the Houston Rockets.

D’Antoni’s hire initially was met with some skepticism. While D’Antoni had plentiful experience as a high school coach and NBA assistant, and was a Marshall alum, he had no head coaching experience at the college or professional level. Many wondered if he’d be able to survive the grind of college recruiting, and if he could adjust his “NBA-offense” not just to the college game, but Mid-Major players who weren’t Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire or James Harden.

After a rebuilding first year (his team went 11-21), the Thundering Herd have improved steadily each season under the affable D’Antoni. They went 17-16 two years ago, and last year they went 20-15, the first time they had won 20 games since 2012. This year, the Herd seemed poised to surpass last year’s record, as they are currently 19-8 overall, 10-4 in conference and have won 5 straight games in C-USA play. And D’Antoni has done this without adjusting his philosophy much: his team has ranked in the top-10 in tempo every year in his tenure (including the 6th fastest this year), and they attempt a lot of three’s, as their 3-pt field goal attempts percentage ranks 32nd highest this year.

It will be a tough stretch as Marshall will be traveling to MTSU and UAB, two teams who are projected to beat the Herd, according to Ken Pom. However, D’Antoni’s teams have always finished the season strong, and his pick and roll heavy offense has been beautiful to watch as a fan (and infuriating to defend for C-USA squads). They may still be a year away thanks to MTSU and the C-USA being likely a one-bid lead, but the Herd made it to the C-USA title game a year ago, which they dropped to the Blue Raiders. They could make it back…only this time, the results may be different (they beat the Blue Raiders at home already this year).

Utah Valley Wolverines

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New Mexico State has been the class of the Western Athletic Conference since Reggie Theus was in charge almost a decade ago (in his “real” coaching debut after “Hang Time”).  Grand Canyon has gotten a bit of spotlight as well, thanks to Dan Majerle and a recent ESPN article highlighting their unique status as a “for profit” school playing D1 athletics (take a gander; it’s a good read). And Seattle U (in it’s never-ending quest to join the WCC) has been a nice surprise this year, which is great to see considering the history of the school (Elgin Baylor is an alum).

However, Utah Valley may be the one to emerge out of the WAC, which would be the first NCAA berth in school history after they became Division 1 in 2003. The squad is 19-8, 8-3 in conference play (which is currently tied for second with Seattle) and is coming off a big win over WAC juggernaut NMSU. Mark Pope, who is in his third year at the helm, is already coming off a CBI semifinal appearance last season. As of today, he is hoping that the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance is the next step.

Pope’s team plays incredibly efficient on the offensive end, as they rank 67th overall in the nation in offensive efficiency, and have posted the highest adjusted offensive efficiency in conference play. The Wolverines shoot well beyond the arc (highest 3-pt percentage in conference play) as well as overall (highest eFG% as well in WAC play), and don’t turn the ball over either (third-lowest turnover percentage) while playing a decent tempo (4th fastest tempo). They may not have the athletic depth of the Aggies or the NBA frills of Grand Canyon, but despite not being as flashy, the Wolverines still prove to be a solid basketball team, and in March, those kind of fundamentally sound squads can be more dangerous to a susceptible high-major team in the Tournament.

A key to Utah Valley’s success is Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang, who was originally a JuCo player who came off the bench at Oklahoma before getting kicked off the team after being arrested for aggravated battery. Despite his checkered history, he has been not just a solid citizen in Salt Lake state, but he also has been an All-WAC player and borderline NBA prospect. He has the ninth-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the nation as well as the 25th highest block percentage to boot. Add that with a long 7-foot frame and a 13.4 ppg/8.3 rpg/63 percent FG line, and it makes sense why the Wolverines are on the cusp of their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.

It won’t be easy. It’s New Mexico State’s to lose, as usual. But the Wolverines’ 7-point win on Feb. 15th was a step in the right direction, and should give them some confidence should they meet again in the WAC Championship game in Las Vegas.

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Wait? There are 3 Good Teams?: American Athletic Power Rankings

The American Conference to me has always been a “Conference USA-Plus” of sorts. It’s not a power conference, but there are some teams who are power conference worthy. UConn won a national title as a member of the American. Cincinnati probably should be in the Big East. Houston was a member of the SWC back in the day and had Phi Slamma Jamma, so they have tradition, but they have never seemed to get over hiring Clyde Drexler as head coach. To make matters worse, they don’t have the “factors” that make mid-majors special. They aren’t all Catholic schools like the Big East, WCC or MAAC. They aren’t really united by geographic proximity or natural rivalries (ask Bob Diaco about trying to manufacture rivalries). So the conference has really gone under-the-radar, especially since Louisville left for the ACC.

But, surprisingly, the American has been one of the best (if not arguably the best) non-power conferences this season (they are ranked the 7th strongest conference in the nation by Ken Pom). That is mostly due to three teams: Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston, who all have 20-plus wins, and are ranked in KenPom’s top 20 (5, 14, 19, respectively).

So let’s take a look at the American Athletic Power Rankings, this time starting from the bottom and finishing at the top, since it’s more interesting at the top and we like to save the best for last.

10. Tulane, 11. East Carolina, 12. South Florida

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All three programs have had recent coaching changes in the past couple of years. Tulane is in year 2 of the Mike Dunleavy era, which has been low on “Jail Blazer” antics and Clipper clubhouse chaos, but still high on big, 90’s esque suits. Surprisingly, they have taken a big step up from year 1, as the Green Wave has won 13 games this year after winning only 6 in Dunleavy’s college debut. Tulane was considered as a borderline NIT team earlier in the year, as they were 9-3 in non-conference play and were 13-8 at one point before losing 5 straight games. Tulane’s probably a .500 or slightly below team, but they play an up-tempo brand of basketball (highest tempo team in the AAC), and could get be more competitive in 2018-2019 if Dunleavy continues this trend and stays put (which is likely as I don’t think any NBA team will be calling for his mid-range, 90’s style of ball).

East Carolina and South Florida are going through typical first-year blues with new coaches Michael Perry, and Brian Gregory, respectively. Perry last coached at Georgia State and has done what is expected at ECU in basketball: play mediocre ball and get double digit wins (they are 10-15 so far). But, considering that’s the tradition for the Pirates, nobody can blame him. As for USF, it is weird that Gregory is still coaching a “somewhat” high level team. And much like his previous stop (Georgia Tech), he hasn’t found much success initially (they are 8-20 and 1-14 in conference). Did you know that in his 13 years as a head coach he has only made the Tournament twice? (Both with Dayton; no appearances with Georgia Tech). Not sure if Gregory is going to be the right guy in Tampa, but when you look at who’s been there (Seth Greenberg, Orlando Antigua, Ray McCallum, Steve Masiello for like a day), it looks likely that it’s more of a “program” rather than a “coach” thing.

7. Temple, 8. SMU, 9. UConn

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If I could categorize these three, I would label them as the “disappointment trio”. These are teams who should be better than what they have been in 2017-2018.

Temple has bee typical “Temple” this year. They have those “good wins” that make you think “Hey! They’re a good team! I can’t wait to see them in March!” In non-conference, they have beaten Auburn, Clemson, South Carolina (woo! They own South Carolina!), Wisconsin, Old Dominion and St. Joseph’s. In conference, they have beaten Wichita State at home. If you look at those wins, you would be tempted to think that Temple is in the top 4 of the conference and competing for an at-large spot.

But the losses? Oh boy they are bad. Losses to La Salle and George Washington, both mediocre teams in a mediocre Atlantic 10 this season. They also lost by 10 at home to Tulane, 21 on the road to UCF (where they scored 39 points), and in OT at home to Memphis, who may be the worst Memphis team since John Calipari’s first year. The lack of consistency has just haunted Fran Murphy in his tenure at Temple, and this year has been no different.

SMU has also been wildly inconsistent under Tim Jankovic, who is starting to see some of the luster wear off since Larry Brown bolted/got pushed out of Dallas. Much like Tulane, SMU had an impressive 10-3 mark in non-conference play, and were 15-7 going at the end of January. However, 5 straight losses in February has sunk SMU from possible bubble tournament team to possible bubble NIT team. Injuries have hurt this squad for sure, but it’s sad to see that SMU, which a couple of years ago looked like they were rising as a program, stagnate so sharply over the second half of the season.

As for UConn, it’s only  a matter of time before the Huskies let Kevin Ollie go. This team has just played uninspired ball all season, and that’s evident in their 13-14 record with its best win over a down Oregon team. Yes, he has a national title, which at UConn is no easy matter (it took Jim Calhoun a while to get his first one). But look at the whole profile: Ollie has only made the tournament twice in his tenure in Storrs, and his team has steadily declined since winning the title (they ranked 96th according to KP last year and are an abysmal 169th this year). I like Ollie, and think he probably will be in the NBA coaching sometime next year, but I think he’s a dead man walking, and it will only be a matter of time before we see someone else in the UConn driver’s seat. Tom Crean, perhaps? Maybe Rick Pitino?

4. Tulsa, 5. UCF, 6. Memphis

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We’re now in the “NIT-bubble” zone. These teams have been competitive and have showed glances of promise throughout the year. But let’s face it: nobody is considering these squads for Tournament berths.

Frank Haith has basically been the Bruce Weber of the AAC. His Golden Hurricane has performed better than the numbers say they should. They are fourth in the AAC, even though they rank below three teams according to Ken Pom (they are 119th). They aren’t a great offensive team, not a great defensive team. There best win is over K-State (Irony!!) and they don’t really have a star player. But damn, the Golden Hurricane and Haith just win baby. They’re 16-10 now, and should be favored in 3 out of 4 games down the stretch (the lone one is Cincy), so it’s not out of the question that Tulsa can win 20 games this year (including AAC Tourney play) even though they won’t get any serious consideration for an at-large Tournament berth.

Johnny Dawkins has taken over UCF and given them an identity: which is boring, defensive-oriented basketball which he was known for at Stanford. (It’s so weird that he’s like this considering he’s a Dukie…oh wait!) According to KP, UCF is the fourth best defensive team in the nation according to defensive rating. Yes, you read that right. Dawkins has turned UCF into Charlottesville-South, but replacing the protesting White Supremacists on their campus with gorgeous co-eds. So there’s a lot to like from Dawkins’ first year. A good record (17-9), an identity as a team (though on the flip side, their offense is ranked 279th in the nation…yikes), and co-eds! Way to bounce back after the Stanford fiasco Johnny!

As for Memphis, I can understand why the Tigers would settled on Tubby Smith, who’s in his second year as the Tigers’ head coach. Smith is a “grandpa” sorts of coach. He does things the right way. He gets good, not great talent, though sometimes he’ll luck out with a recruit here and there. (Rajon Rondo, Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince, Saul Smith…wait Saul Smith wasn’t highly recruited?) After living through the ups and downs of two hucksters (Calipari and Josh Pastner) I can imagine why the athletic department would go this route. Tubby is safe and after recruiting violations and vacated Final Fours, safe is what they maybe needed for the time being. But damn…Memphis is boring…and mediocre. 16-11, 7-7 in conference, 159th in Ken Pom, and their best win is over 76th ranked SMU. Remember Derrick Rose? Remember Tyreke Evans? Remember Joey Dorsey? Hell…remember Dajuan Wagner? We haven’t see any of those flashes this year Tiger fans, and it’s not going to be like that either for a while as long as Tubby is the coach.

3. Houston

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Let’s just say we shouldn’t be surprised. Yes, their loss to a 263rd rated Drexel team wasn’t good, and may have gotten college basketball fans off the scent of this Cougars team early. And yes, all the basketball noise in Houston centers on James Harden and Mike D’Antoni and “seven seconds or less Morey-ball”. But this is Kelvin Sampson, who is arguably one of the most successful coaches in Oklahoma history. This is Kelvin Sampson, who knows how to get talent, and turn around programs. This is Kelvin Sampson, who won 20 plus games the last two years with the Cougars leading up to this season.

Maybe we should have seen this coming.

At 21-5, Houston has the profile of a dark horse Sweet 16 contender. They have the 14th best defense according to Ken Pom, and a good overall rating (they are rated 19th). They have a senior point guard in Rob Gray who is a dark horse for AAC player of the year. They have quality wins over Arkansas, Wichita State, Providence, and Cincy.

Don’t fall asleep on them any further. Good Kelvin is back (just waiting for the shoe to drop on Bad “recruiting violation maestro” Kelvin). And Houston is dangerous, not just for the rest of the year in the AAC, but in the Tournament as well.

2. Wichita State

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Gregg Marshall continues to be atop the coaching game in college basketball, and the Koch brothers continue to shell out big bucks to keep him there, winning games in Wichita, where Shocker basketball is the biggest, baddest (and only) thing to do in Southeast Kansas. Marshall continues to attribute his team’s success to his “Shaka Smart” style: a gritty underdog team who will play hard for 40 minutes on the court, especially against bigger team with bigger name recruits. That was especially clear on Saturday, as the Shockers went on the road, and beat a much more heralded Bearcat team (though the game wasn’t played at their usual home court, so I’m sure Cincy fans will complain about that).

The ironic thing about the Shockers this season though is statistically, this is one of the weaker defensive teams in Marshall’s tenure. Their 75th ranked adjusted defensive rating is the lowest for Marshall since 2009 when Wichita State’s defense was ranked in the 100’s and went 17-17. That’s not a ding on this team. They’re good, have a legitimate player of the year candidate in Shaq Morris, and still follow for the most part the mold of what a successful Shocker team looks like (their defense is not mediocre, but more just inconsistent). But it does make you wonder about this team, and if they are as ready for March as some of the Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early-led teams of the past. Teams with huge differences in offensive-defensive ratings tend to be vulnerable in the Tournament (either offense goes south or defense gets exposed), and unfortunately the Shockers fit that type this season.

It may be easy to jump on the Shockers to the Final Four bandwagon after their win over the Bearcats. But I would cool the jets just a bit. They have a serious shot to win the American regular and/or Tournament title. But serious NCAA run? That’s a little harder to predict with this atypical Marshall squad.

1. Cincinnati

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It’s Cronin-ball per usual, and unlike Marshall (where what we see on the court doesn’t necessarily match up with the numbers) the stats ring true with Cronin. Cronin’s teams are known to be physical and defensive-oriented with just enough offense to win. Cronin’s team once again is one of the top defensive squads in the nation (no. 2), and actually is better than usual on offense (51). Thus, it makes sense that Cincy is a borderline Top-10 team to most experts.

Cincy probably has the most star power in the conference, with three great players in Gary Clark, Jacob Evans and Kyle Washington carrying this Bearcats squad. Cincy also has good wins, as they obliterated UCLA on the road, and beat a “better than you think” Mississippi State team (coached by Ben Howland who has rebounded since he fizzled out at UCLA). So, Cronin has the production. He has the star power. He has the big game experience. Will this be the year he gets Cincy over the hump and into the Final Four?

It’s still a question mark with Cronin at the helm. Cronin’s a solid coach and has emerged from Bob Huggins’ shadow. However, he is a fiery dude, and isn’t surprising that his fieriness gets in the way of Cincy’s success at times. It feels like Cronin loses his composure in big moments, and his team feeds off that and loses theirs as well. You could argue that was the case against Xavier, as JP Macura seemed to get under the skin of Cronin (though many would argue that wasn’t until the end of the game, I guarantee you Macura was goading Cronin and the Bearcats frequently during the game). It took a while for Huggins to manage his composure and not let it get the best of him, both at Cincy and at WVU. Cronin will need to do the same, especially important considering Cincy is coming off two straight losses to Houston and Wichita State, with aspirations still to compete for a 2 seed in the Tourney or higher. They need to finish strong both in the regular season and AAC Tournament to make that happen, and a composed Cronin is a step in the right direction to making that happen.

It’s the Jayhawks’ to Lose (as usual) : Big 12 Power Rankings

I know it’s contrite and generic, but I think the best way to get going again on this blog will be through conference power rankings. This works a few ways in mine and potential readers’ favor:

  1. I don’t have to go into crazy detail into posts, which is fair because I don’t have a whole lot of time to commit on these posts.
  2. I can still satiate my own opinions about college basketball while still opening it up to debate from other college basketball fans.
  3. I can discuss many different aspects of college basketball, from the “power” conferences to the “mid-majors” without pretending to be an expert in a “specific” field (which will not be possible due to my limited time…as after-mentioned in point 1).

So, for my first power rankings, I’m going to stay local (as I live in Kansas City) and will go with the conference I have the most direct knowledge of: the Big 12. Again, I am not a college basketball expert or John Feinstein or Andy Katz (is he employed by the way? It’s been nice to not see his articles on ESPN anymore), but just an opinionated college basketball fan with his own passionate and strong takes.

All right, here we go.

Big 12 Power Rankings (as of 2/20)

1. Kansas, 2. Texas Tech

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I know some people will argue that Tech should be no. 1 and Kansas should be No. 2. And to be frank, I understand their argument. This Texas Tech team is a legitimate team, as head coach Chris Beard has done more in two years than the tenures of Tubby Smith, Pat Knight, and the last three years of Bob Knight combined. Tech is in the Big 12 driver’s seat, as they host Kansas in Lubbock down the stretch, and have a bonafide Big 12 player of the year candidate in Keenan Evans, who should probably get the award, but won’t because the writer’s blew their collective wad on Trae Young being the next Stephen Curry too early. Tech also has not lost at home, which bodes well for them in their upcoming matchup this weekend with the Jayhawks.

But…let’s face it. This is KU. They know how to win the regular season, and they know how to bully Big 12 players, coaches, officials and opposing fans when it counts. Udoka Azubike is starting to give Kansas the semblance of a post game as of late, as he has put up big numbers in the last three games after the Baylor loss in Waco. And Tech feels like the kind of game where Devonte’ Graham  and Svi will go nuts and silence a rabid, and maybe closet racist, Lubbock crowd. Beard has been in some big games, but Bill Self has been in more , and Tech seems due for a let down this weekend, especially after they blew one on the road at Baylor as well (making the KU loss not so bad…hey maybe Scott Drew can coach after all).

And because of all those factors, I give KU the edge…barely. But if Tech knocks off the Jayhawks this weekend…well…

Let’s just wait and see.

3. West Virginia, 4. Baylor, 5. Kansas State

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West Virginia and K-State are tied at 8-6 in conference and Baylor is creeping behind barely at 7-7. Baylor is probably the hottest team of the trio, which is why I gave them the fourth spot over K-State even though technically they are behind the Wildcats in the standings. They have big wins over KU and Texas Tech on consecutive Saturdays, and are suddenly in the tournament “should be in” mix after hovering on the “probably out” bubble for weeks. Just think: on January 30th, Baylor was 12-10 and 2-7 in conference after a 2-point loss to Oklahoma. Since then, Baylor has won five straight (including another notable win over Texas), while Oklahoma has dug themselves a deeper and deeper hole in the Big 12. Baylor’s always been a good defensive team, as Drew recruits tall, long guys who can clog up the paint, and force teams to shoot from the outside. Now, they’re getting some semblance of offense, mostly thanks to senior forward Terry Maston, who has scored 20-plus in three out of five games this February. I don’t know if Baylor will do much in March (I don’t think Maston is the kind of scorer who can carry them in big games in the Tournament), but they look primed for a strong finish leading up to the Big 12 Championship.

West Virginia is the typical Huggy Bear team. They’re tough defensively, they have some athleticism, they’re physical, but they really don’t have the kind of standout player that really scares you in the games waning moments. In fact, it’s kind of been like that the past few years for West Virginia: be above average all year, showcase good depth without star talent, put up a good record, probably get a 3-6 seed in the tournament, but really finish the year without a standout victory. If you look at the profile, the Mountaineers just don’t stand out as a real serious Final Four contender compared to KU or Tech: two losses to KU, a loss to Tech, and a loss to a Kentucky team that’s not as powerful as past UK squads. Yes, they have a sweep over Oklahoma, but this is an Oklahoma team that could be a Session 1 Big 12 Championship team, not the Final Four dark horse experts touted a few weeks ago. Don’t get me wrong: I love Huggins and “Press Virginia”. I love that they provide entertaining games, and really put teams on the edge each and every game. But are they going to rise above third in the Big 12 at this point in the year? Most likely not. Get ready for that 5-12 matchup Morgantown (against Marshall perhaps?)

At five, I have K-State listed, and I was tempted to put them down lower. If West Virginia’s resume is unimpressive, K-State’s is downright laughable. Their best win is a road win over Baylor, which was during a run where Baylor was looking at a bubble NIT berth rather than a NCAA one. They also have no good non-conference wins (sorry Vandy), and their KenPom rating (47) would be third-worst in the Big 12 (above only Oklahoma State and Iowa State). I still give the Wildcats the nod at fifth though because they have taken care of business in the Big 12: they beat everyone they’re supposed to, even if they don’t pull off the upsets. Bruce Weber is the Al Davis of the Big 12. For all his faults, he just wins, baby.

However, K-State will have a tough stretch to finish Big 12 play, as they play on the road against desperate Oklahoma and TCU teams, and at home against Texas and Baylor, two teams who are trending upward. Logic tells us that this Bruce Weber-coached team will probably split by some miracle of God (or Weber-esque magic), but it’s not out of the question that they finish 0-4 either, and are playing on Day 1 of the Big 12 Championship, not necessarily a badge of honor.

6. Texas, 7. TCU, 8. Oklahoma

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This is such a weird Shaka Smart team: they play one of the slowest paces in the nation (296th to specific), they have some really good wins (Tech at home, Butler in the PK80), and a lot of not-bad losses (Gonzaga, Duke, Michigan in non-conference). This team doesn’t press much (if at all…what happened to “Havoc“?) and depends on their height, especially freshman center Mohamed Bamba, something Smart teams weren’t really known for at VCU. However, this Texas team does share something in common with Smart’s past teams: defense (though more of a half court, non-pressure type). Texas is ranked 3rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, which is a big reason why they are still in the Tournament talk even though they don’t have much consistent offensive firepower. I don’t know if Texas will get out of the middle-of-the pack range in the Big 12, but they have some weapons, they are playing harder than they did a year ago (I saw them at the Big 12 Tournament and was thoroughly unimpressedI saw them at the Big 12 Tournament and was thoroughly unimpressed), and they are trending in a better direction than some other squads in the Big 12 (cough…Oklahoma…cough), which is a good sign for Shaka after such a disappointing campaign last year.

TCU has been an interesting team to watch, and it’s sad that Jaylen Fisher went down, which I think hurt their chances from being a NCAA Tournament lock or higher up in the Big 12 standings. The Slovakian center Vladimir Brodziansky has been a beast this year as his 128.0 offensive rating is 26th best in the nation (plus I’m privy to European players, especially European big men). And let’s face it…Jamie Dixon is a hell of a coach. Just look at TCU now compared to the Trent Johnson days, and look how far Pitt has fallen under Kevin Stallings. And lastly, don’t forget that TCU made a run to the Big 12 Championship last year, nearly getting the auto bid into the Tournament. If they can make a similar run, they’ll lock up their first tournament berth in quite some time. They have some problems defensively, but TCU has the coaching chops and offensive firepower to finish the season strong.

Oklahoma has been the biggest head scratcher this year. Accomplished coach? Lon Kruger, so check. Star, Naismith-candidate player? Trae Young, so check. Big wins? Oregon, USC, Wichita State, sweep over TCU, and over Tech. Oklahoma should not be this far down on the power rankings, but February has not been kind to the Sooners. Kruger’s team is 0-6 in games in February so far, and Big 12 defenses have adjusted to Young, and the rest of OU’s team hasn’t done diddly. If there’s one major difference from college and pro ball, it’s that complementary players struggle stepping up when opposing teams shut their star player down. That has been the case for OU, as they have been reliant on Young for so long that they have no idea what to do when he’s not clicking on all cylinders. That was incredibly evident as KU thumped OU 104-74 and held Young to 3 of 13 shooting on Monday night. Will OU miss the tournament? I don’t think so. They have too many good wins, and the media have been on him for so long this season that the tournament committee would be amiss to leave him and the Sooners out. However, they have fallen from grace quickly and they look like a one and done team, not just in the Tournament, but in the Big 12 Championship perhaps as well.

9. Oklahoma State, 10. Iowa State

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It’s been a rebuilding season for both squads, and it’s tough to say much about either. Oklahoma State has surged a bit as of late, with a big upset on the road over KU, but it’s obvious that they’re still in the 8-10 range in conference (a Session 1 Big 12 Tournament team) and smarting from Brad Underwood bailing for Illinois after one year. After two good initial years, Steve Prohm from Iowa State is trying to prove his chops as a coach, and that he’s not just living in Fred Hoiberg’s shadow, and that’s hard to prove in year 3 and you have no shot of making the big dance. That being said, if you look at the whole picture, the Cyclones beat in-state rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa, so they at least have something to hang their hat on this year, even though this Big 12 campaign for them has been a disappointing slog.

There is nothing for fans of both teams to be worried about really when you think about both squads in the long run: nobody really had them as real contenders in the Big 12 in the preseason anyways. Furthermore, while they’re records aren’t great, they aren’t “Pitt-Level” bad by any means. However, it’ll be interesting to see if a good Big 12 Championship run from either squad in a couple of weeks can parlay into some success in 2018-2019 much like TCU a season ago.

What Exchanges Do I need to Know about on the Stock Market?

When we talk about the stock market, usually we are talking about exchanges. Exchanges are where stocks are bought, sold, and traded.

We have three main kinds of exchanges. Here are the pros and cons of each one.

New York Stock Exchanges Time

Pros:

  • Biggest stock exchange
  • A lot of well-known companies are on it like McDonald’s and Nike.
  • It is easy to make a trade there because there are so many traders who work there and because the companies are so big.
  • Because the companies so big, there is less risk than other exchanges.

 

Cons:

  • Because the companies are big, stocks are higher in price.
  • There’s less risk, which means less chance for big profit gains.

An outsider’s recap of session one of the Big 12 Championship

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I am not going to pretend by any means I am an expert on Big 12 hoops. Growing up in the West Coast, it was primarily a diet of Pac-12 (then Pac-10) and WCC basketball, and if I got up early enough in the mornings, it would be Big East or Atlantic 10 basketball on ESPN (oh the Marcus Camby UMass, Ray Allen UConn, Allen Iverson Georgetown, and Kerry Kittles Villanova days). The Big 12 (or Big 8 in its prior existence)? Eh…I haven’t really cared or paid all that much attention to it. Kansas? I would have rather seen them upset in the tourney than win a national title (wasn’t the biggest Roy Williams guy). Texas? They were cool when they had Kevin Durant…I guess (I did see him play against a Nick Young-led USC team my sophomore year in college when the NCAA Tournament held games in Spokane; somehow, they played some of the most uninspired basketball ever; this Texas team was led by Durant and DJ Augustin and somehow they looked like a NIT team that day). Everybody else? Sans a brief love affair with a Frank Martin and Michael Beasley-led Kansas State team (mostly to combat Tyler Hansbrough apologists), I have developed an apathy for Big 12 hoops over my nearly 30 years of existence on this earth.

However, the past four years, I have lived in the heart of Big 12 country (Kansas City). No longer are UCLA, or USC, or Cal, or Gonzaga, or UW gear the norm, but rather Jayhawk, Wildcat, and Cyclone apparel instead. When people bring up Kirk Heinrich, and Nick Collison, and Georges Niang, they don’t highlight their middling careers as NBA bench players, but rather their hey-days as Midwestern college basketball legends. It’s been an adjustment. In some ways, I enjoy all the attention on college basketball from January-to-April (College football dominates November and December) that is for the most part ignored in the West Coast until conference tournament time. (The NBA is king in the West Coast, and with the Warriors, Lakers, Blazers, Kings, Clippers and Suns, can you blame them?)

On other occasions though, I find the adjustment to Midwestern D1 hoops difficult, as I find the average Big 12 basketball fan views basketball in the most “Gene Hackman-from-Hoosiers” fashion possible. Certain guys are loathed (Andrew Wiggins) while other guys lauded (Wayne Selden) because the average Big 12 fan mistakes supreme individual skills for “showboating,” or “declaring for the draft early” not as an “exceptional opportunity” but “as selfish.” (Yeah, I would play basketball for free and risk millions of dollars so I can eat at a campus cafeteria 5 days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. too). Crappy, low-scoring, shitty shooting performances are seen not as “dogshit basketball” (like it should be), but “defensively driven, gritty contests”. And the NBA in the average Big 12 fans’ mind is seen as “boring” while a 54-52 game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is characterized as “the right way to play the game.” (even if those teams shoot around 30 percent and each turn the ball over 20 times…but hey! Fundamentals, right? Whatever those fundamentals are.)

But I get it. The name on the front matters more than in the back, and that makes sense at any college, let alone Big 12 country. These people aren’t necessarily basketball addicts like myself, but just college sports fans, so I can understand the misinterpretations and heavy “college-is-better-than-the-NBA” bias (I certainly used to be that way for a period of time…than I graduated college). So, this year, instead of just hating the Big 12 like I have done most of my tenure here in Kansas City, I decided to see what Big 12 basketball really was all about, and what better way to do it than to go to the first session of the Big 12 Championship at the Sprint Center.

Pregame

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The Power and Light district is probably the biggest entertainment district in Kansas City. In most instances, it sucks. It feels very manufactured, and overly caters to a “just out of their fraternity and sorority” crowd. Everything tends to be overpriced, and ruckus usually happens because Mizzou frat boy can’t stand that his KState sorority girlfriend is talking to that KU dude from a rival frat. (Can you tell that I wasn’t in Greek life in college?) I feel like for a Friday night in Kansas City, there are way more authentic places to go to, especially off the strip in Westport (the main strip has become P&L lite), in the Crossroads or even the Strawberry Hill area of Kansas City, Kansas (though to be frank, those places are more for “hanging out” rather than “partying” or “clubbing” like P&L).

However, to it’s credit, the P&L exhibits the “Big 12 aura” of the Championship week. The main concourse area of the P&L is decked out with Big 12-basketball themed regalia, and legions of basketball fans are supporting their schools in appropriate colors. Whether it was Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas, Texas Tech, etc. every patron that late afternoon in Power and Light with a beer or mixed drink in hand seemed to have some kind of vested interest in a particular school participating over the four-day affair. To be honest, I was impressed. I don’t think the WCC Tournament in Vegas or Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles would have that kind of school gear-to-fan ratio. At those tournaments, it would be common to see some NBA stuff or some other school stuff. But Wednesday evening? It was strictly Midwestern college apparel only. Nothing else allowed.

The downside of the pregame festivities? Prices. 14 dollars for a Blue Moon. Yeesh…I thought the cost of living was supposed to be less in the Midwest?

Game 1: TCU (8 seed) vs. Oklahoma (9 seed)

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After a Final Four appearance a year ago, this season has been the polar opposite for Lon Kruger and the Sooners. I knew the loss of Buddy Hield would hurt, but holy smokes…OU cannot shoot at all. In both halves, the Sooners got off to decent starts, using their length and size to get easy buckets around the paint. However, that all changed when Jamie Dixon got his TCU to switch to a 2-3 zone. Somehow, the Horned Frogs’ 2-3 chewed up the Sooners like a Kansas class 6 school chewing up a class 4A-II one on the high school boys basketball court. Because TCU took away the paint with their 2-3, the Sooners settled for mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper (the most inefficient shot in basketball…ask Marshall’s Dan D’Antoni). And one shot after another just clanked off the rim. And from beyond the arc, they weren’t much better, as they shot 4-18, good for 22.2 percent. There are many ways to beat a zone beyond shooting, of course (ball movement; smart screens; getting it in the middle; attacking the baseline, etc.). However, outside shooting is the easiest ways to exploit zone-defenses, and lacking the ability to shoot (as Oklahoma has displayed all year by their 47.4 effective field goal rate, which ranks 300th in the nation) made it that much harder for the Sooners to score buckets. Add that with the fact OU was careless with their skip passes (they turned it over 10 times), and it makes sense that they lost by nearly 20 in the 82-63 first round contest. Granted, this was a young and injured OU team, so expectations were low going into the tournament (even with a win over TCU, they had a date with Kansas in the next round; and at 11-19 going into the game, they weren’t going to any postseason whatsoever). Hence, judging from the body language of Kruger (Kruger didn’t even stand up from his seat until the first media timeout), the bench, the cheerleaders, band, and the fans decked in Sooner gear in the stands, it was obvious that they were just ready to get this miserable season over with.

TCU on the other hand, may have been the most impressive team of the night. Though they lost 7 straight to finish the year (hence, killing any at-large potential they may have had) and finished 17-16 and 6-12 in conference, this is a vastly improved TCU team from years past. And why? Dixon. I don’t think Dixon was given enough credit in his tenure at Pitt. He had them regularly competing for Big East championships and had them competitive in the ACC when they arrived, not easy to do considering the pedigree of the other programs in the conference (Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, etc.). The biggest knock on Dixon was that he never made it to the Final Four, even though he had teams with enough talent to do so…allegedly. After all, how many Pitt Panthers that Dixon coached are playing in the NBA? Eh…not many (I can’t name any off the top of my head). That just goes to show you how Dixon maxed out their potential when they suited up for him in Pittsburgh.

The energy the Horned Frogs brought to the court in this Big 12 first round game proved to be impressive, and by the end of the first half, it was obvious that TCU had the Sooners whooped. TCU basically owned the Sooners on the little details: 50-50 balls, jumping the lanes on skips, energy off the bench. etc. Yes, this TCU team is probably hoping for a NIT berth (at best). But the attitude displayed on Wednesday night stemmed directly from coaching, and Dixon has this team playing with a moxie and a confidence that wasn’t really seen under Trent Edwards. (Then again, Edwards was a horrifically overrated coach; he had one good year at Nevada where he upset a Gonzaga team that probably was over-seeded and he had a couple of good years when he had the Lopez twins at Stanford; other than that though, his teams at Stanford, LSU and TCU have been crap, and I’m surprised he lasted as long at TCU as he did).

But while Dixon deserves credit, make no mistake, this TCU team is talented. I haven’t watched a lot of them this year (well…to be honest, not at all, because I watch a combo of NBA, Euroleague and WCC primarily), but they certainly are a team capable of playing above their seed and record. Though inconsistent, Jaylen Fisher is a talented floor leader who can go off when he’s feeling it, both with his strong dribble drive as well as his pull-up jumper (though he really wasn’t on tonight, as evidenced by his 90 offensive rating for the game, highlighted by 3-of-12 shooting overall). Slovakian center Vladimir Brodziansky, certainly lived up to All-Big 12 honors hype, as he went for 20-6 on 10-of-13 shooting from the field, dominating the Sooners bigs with a trio of strength, soft touch around the rim and footwork in the block. Considering my affinity for European players in college, the NBA and abroad, I was surprised Brodziansky had been off my radar for so long. He absolutely made mince meat of the Sooners, and I look forward to his matchup with Landen Lucas of Kansas Thursday.

However, one of the biggest stars of the game proved to be Kenrich Williams, KenPom’s MVP for the game with an offensive rating of 140 on only a usage rate of 21 percent. Williams went for 19 and 9 on 8 of 10 shooting from the field, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. He also had 3 steals (initiating the Horned Frogs fast break off lazy skip passes by the Sooners) and 3 assists as well. While talking with a couple of KU fans during the Texas-TTU game, he seemed to be a focus point, especially considering Josh Jackson is suspended for the first game, and it is debated whether anyone else on the Jayhawks will be able to step up in response to that defensive assignment on Williams.

While the Jayhawks will be able to weather Brodziansky with Lucas and Fisher with Mason, it will be interesting to see who Bill Self will match up on Williams with Jackson out. While the Jayhawks should be heavy favorites, another big game by Williams could make this 1-8 second round Big 12 Championship game a lot closer than expected, and in single-elimination competitions like the Big 12 Championship “closer than expected” can lead to an upset if the chips fall right (bad shooting night from the Jayhawks, foul trouble, etc.)

Game 2: Texas Tech (7 seed) vs. Texas (10 seed)

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I was looking forward to this game more than the TCU-OU contest because I had a strong interest in both of the coaches. I have always had an affinity for Shaka Smart back to his VCU days: he’s a fiery coach, and I loved the “Havoc” style they put on teams on a nightly basis. As for Tech, while I know what Chris Beard did at Little Rock and currently at Texas Tech, I was interested to see what his teams looked like? Were they scrappy? Were they tough? Could they handle the athleticism and size of Texas? Were they like his Little Rock team last year or a whole different animal all together?

That being said, at the end of the game, I came away disappointed in both teams. Now, that’s not to say I think any less of the coaches. I think they are excellent in their profession, and it’s difficult to do consistent damage in a conference like the Big 12 where there are so many accomplished coaches (seriously, Oklahoma State and TCU lost Travis Ford and Edwards and replaced them with Brad Underwood and Dixon, respectively…that’s like upgrading from a Honda Civic to a BMW Z4). However, it was obvious after Wednesday’s night games that they still have a long way to go and some adjustments to make if they want to really challenge the league’s upper half of Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor.

At the start, it looked like Tech was going to make this a blowout. They got off to a 23-11 lead, and the Red Raiders just seemed to out-hustle the more highly-recruited Longhorns. McDonald’s All-American Jarrett Allen kept getting pushed around on the block like a timid high school kid, and the Longhorns kept settling for crappy, contested shots. Furthermore, Tech pounced after loose balls in the first half, as well as 50-50 balls on the offensive glass. The “Havoc” I expected to see from Smart’s Texas team was non-existent in the first 20 minutes. They didn’t communicate on defense. They didn’t play together. They didn’t press. It was as if Rick Barnes was still coaching the Longhorns, not the plucky Energizer bunny who led a Mid-Major team to the Final Four. My thinking midway through the first half was “Hey, maybe Tech can make a run and get that at-large tourney berth after all, especially if they carry this momentum into the West Virginia game next round.”

But after the Longhorns got a tip in at the buzzer of the first half to make it 26-20, things changed. Tech seemed less cohesive on offense. Texas turned up the pressure on defense, throwing full court and half court presses that were non-existent in the first half. While Tech in the first half looked like the team desperate to keep their season alive, it was the Longhorns in the second half that had taken that mantle. Make no mistake: this was not a good basketball game, and the Longhorns, though they won 61-52, did not play well at all. They scored 1.00 per possession this game (compared to Tech’s 0.85 mark), but that spiked up at the end during a frantic 28-10 run during the last quarter (i.e. 10 minutes) of play. They only shot 5-23 from beyond the arc, but they started the game 1-of-13 or 1-of-14 (I’m too lazy to check; either way, it was shit). And Allen, who did receive All-Big 12 honors and scored 10 points, did so on 2 of 9 shooting with only 3 rebounds. The Longhorns certainly have potential, and when they’re clicking, they show glimpses of the team that had so much promise in the preseason. But to think they got a shot against West Virginia? Neigh way, Jose.

As for Tech, I wondered if something happened that just sapped their energy and momentum. At the end of the first half, I noticed a player went down hard at the buzzer, and that appeared to be a sign of things to come. Tech looked slower, which is not surprising considering they play one of the slowest paces in the nation (they rank 328th in pace). But slow can be a good thing if a team is crisp and clicking in the half court and making teams work. However, more often than not in the second half, it proved to be the opposite. It was a bit sad to see, because there were definitely more Tech fans in the building, and it’s always nice to see obnoxious Longhorns fans be put in their place, no matter what the sport. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the Red Raiders’ half and hence, night. They couldn’t handle the Longhorns’ speed and athleticism, and that will be a major building block for Beard this off-season: getting his team bigger and faster to match up better with the big boys of the Big 12.

Postgame

I hopped on the streetcar at the station across from the P&L around 10’ish, when the game finished. It was packed like a New York subway train during Friday morning rush hour, but it was worth the inconvenience, as I had to take it back to Union Station to pick up my car (I parked in that area to avoid the expensive parking; I’ll take 5 buck parking over 30 any day). Most of the conversations i overheard stemmed on how Kansas would fare against TCU. Most were pretty positive, most felt confident, though the questions surrounding the loss of Jackson for the first game certainly came up on occasion in the sardine-crammed car more than once.

Kansas City probably will never get a NBA team (again) in my lifetime. I won’t be able to afford tickets for the remainder of games this week, but I do hope one day to get session tickets for the first two days of the tournament, mainly because I’m a basketball junkie and spending dozens of hours watching hoops is heaven to me.

Is the Big 12 Championship a hoops heaven? Maybe not mine exactly. I don’t really understand the Big 12 like some fans in this area. Basketball is different for me than it is for them. I associate Keith Langford more with UNICS Kazan or Paul Pierce with the Celtics than the Jayhawks, and I understand that’s sacrilege in these parts. It’s why the Big 12 Championship won’t be the kind of hoops heaven for me as it is for someone who went to school in Lawrence or Manhattan or Ames, Iowa.

But it IS a kind of hoops heaven, and that’s worth experiencing, especially when its in the city that you live in.

Just make sure you come with a lot of cash.