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Big 12 Hoops Roundup: RPI Monsters

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Big 12 men’s basketball is balanced and deep. Will it Matter in March?

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Media Day
The NCAA does not hand these out for December RPIs. Even if it did, K-State would be miles from winning one right now.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Since we last checked the progress of the Big 12’s men’s basketball programs, a few more teams have faced serious tests, with mixed results. Only one team, Texas Christian, remains undefeated, and no squad has more than two losses on the season. Add it all up, and the Big 12 sits where it has in December nearly every recent year: Near the top of the nation in conference RPI*.

As data points have filled in, RPI is becoming an increasingly valid measure, though results on any given night can obviously vary, as KU learned on Wednesday. When will the excellence the stat nerds perceive translate in to a championship for one of the league’s schools? (No, no. Not that school.)

Maybe it’s too early to worry about national championships. The Big 12 is balanced and deep. Surviving the conference gauntlet is the first order of business. There will be no automatic wins in league play; that much is clear.

*Full disclosure: When this post was started, the Big 12 was No. 1. It has since fallen to the second spot, behind—What? The SEC? How can that be?

Again, as there is no meaningful order in the league yet, read no meaning into the order of discussion. We’ll get organized a few weeks from now.

No. 20/20 TCU (9-0, RPI 11)

The Horned Frogs, as mentioned already, remain undefeated. On Tuesday night they beat SMU, a team that was 16th in RPI (now 72nd), 94-83. On Friday, TCU will play the Nevada Wolf Pack, the nation’s No. 22 team (No. 9 RPI), who was also undefeated until Texas Tech beat them earlier this week. Way to mess up a potential battle of undefeateds, Tech.

A skeptic might doubt the early season rankings of a couple of mid-major squads, and SMU’s precipitous fall may support the notion that order has yet to settle on the formula with respect to those teams. But if we’re going to crow about such systems declaring ours one of the country’s toughest leagues, we have to put some stock in what it thinks of SMU and Nevada, too. TCU is getting a couple of real tests at the end of non-conference play. So far, the Frogs have passed every test.

RV/RV Oklahoma (6-1, RPI 94)

Trae Young is the best freshman in the country. If he keeps up this pace, he may be the best player in the country. The superfrosh leads the nation in scoring at 28.7 points per game. He also tosses 8.7 assists, snares 4 rebounds, and swipes 2.4 steals. Can’t wait to see what he does against real competition.

Though the RPI is tepid on the Sooners’ work, their only loss was to Arkansas (RPI 36) by a count of 92-83, and they beat RPI No. 9 Oregon. They are second in the nation in scoring, at 94.4 per game. OU has bordered on abysmal defensively, however, surrendering just shy of 80 points per contest. I’m going to keep asking: Is Billy Tubbs haunting Lon’s office?

The Sooners have USC, Wichita State and Northwestern remaining on their non-con. Win those games, and they’ll crowd the top of the RPI heap with a handful of other Big 12 teams.

No. 18/16 West Virginia (8-1, RPI 13)

Remember when the Mountaineers lost—and looked awful doing it—to open the season against Texas A&M in Germany? Any snickering looks premature now. Texas A&M climbed to No. 7 before losing this week, and Huggy’s squad has run off eight straight wins since then, the latest coming at the expense of the No. 15 Virgina Cavaliers.

Senior Jevon Carter, who is showing us how the rest of the league must have felt about Jacob Pullen’s eternal run in college, leads the team at 19.4 points per game. He also grabs 5.3 rebounds, tosses 5.7 assists per night, and leads the nation with an absurd 4.2 steals per game. Stat stuffer, indeed. Daxter Miles, Jr. (14.6), LaMont West (11.8), and James Bolden (11.0) also score double figures. They’re balanced. They’re physical. They’ll beat you up and steal your girlfriend. And they’ll lose an inexplicable game somewhere to a softer squad that picks them apart and shoots forty free throws. We’ve seen this movie before.

RV/RV Kansas State (8-1, RPI 123)

In the, Oh-what-could-have-been! category, the ‘Cats let a lead slip away to lose by two against Arizona State in Las Vegas Thanksgiving night. The Sun Devils went on to crush a ranked Xavier squad in the championship game to vault into the Top-25, while K-State got no strength-of-schedule love for beating George Washington, a team that is now 5-4. Consequently, K-State holds the second most unsightly RPI rating in the league.

Bruce and the guys beat Vanderbilt in their gimmicky gym with team benches on the baselines Sunday. Though it is good to get any road victory, Vanderbilt is a middling team, at best, in a conference that doesn’t care much about basketball (current lofty RPI status notwithstanding). We learned this painful lesson in football, didn’t we? A loss in Nashville would hurt more than a win helps.

K-State fans have seen flashes of excellent play from Bruce’s boys, but really don’t know yet how the Wildcats will stack up in league play. Tulsa and Washington State may not yield great clues, either. If you believe in the transitive property in sports, this weekend’s Arizona State vs. KU match-up may furnish the best measure of how good the ‘Cats are. It may take 100 for either team to win that game.

No. 2 Kansas (7-1, RPI 12)

Since we’re on the topic of our evil stepsister, let’s take this fleeting opportunity to chuckle at them. In their annual December trip to Sprint Center, KU lost to Washington, a team picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12. Pregame statistical metrics gave the Huskies a 3.2% chance of winning. LULZ. The purple sled dogs controlled the game throughout by hounding Devonte Graham, blanketing the arc with four defenders, and daring LaGerald Vick to make enough shots to beat them. It worked, and Kansas City’s KU fans exited the arena muttering about an uninspired effort and a 74-65 loss.

Does this mean KU is finally vulnerable? Of course not. Bill Self is a hell of a coach, who has rolled out enough of these clunkers to make us wonder if he’s doing it on purpose. Remember 2013, when KU lost to a TCU team that would go on to finish last in the league, at 2-16? All Kansas did was finish 14-4 in league play and 31-6 overall. They shared a conference title with K-State’s shiny new coach, Bruce Weber. (LULZ, again)

The most bothersome thing about KU’s loss is how little KU fans are bothered by it. They know—and we do, too—that it’s a meaningless blip. An attention-getter for practice, and nothing more. Billy Preston will surely suit up by the time league play begins. Even without him, who would bet against Bill Self winning the league again? If you really want to put money on that proposition, I know a guy.... Wait—no. Don’t bet on sports, kids. Any money won on Jayhawk success will bring darkness and despair to your life, like Steinbeck’s Pearl, anyway.

RV/RV Texas Tech (7-1, RPI 30)

The Red Raiders’ biggest win is still that beatdown of Northwestern over Thanksgiving. Last week, they succumbed to Seaton Hall at Madison Square Garden, 89-79, for their only loss. Wednesday night they beat No. 22 Nevada 82-76 in overtime. Keenan Evans was lights-out, with 32 points.

Tech scores 82 per night, while giving up 62. Want to know whose profile is similar? K-State scores 79 and surrenders 61. K-State’s most important bubble competitor may be the team from Lubbock.

RV/— Oklahoma State (7-1, RPI 141)

These guys were supposed to be dreadful, right? Well, they have disappointed so far, if that was the expectation. The schedule has not been great, but they have won seven of eight and played well enough to receive votes from the reporters (but not the coaches). They lost to Texas A&M, but that loss looks completely excusable, at this point.

The Cowboys may wind up last in the league, as predicted. But with Jeffrey Carrol (14.6 ppg/6.4 rpg) back, and Kendall Smith and Thomas Dziagwa pitching in 10.8 and 10.5, respectively, Oklahoma State is not a team to ignore, especially in Stillwater. That place is always a trap for both squads from the state of Kansas.

RV/RV Texas (6-2, RPI 55)

There is a photo on the WWL’s Texas page of Mohamad Bamba dunking. The ball is about six inches shy of being above the backboard. His head is even with the rim. Dunks are still worth two points. For Bamba, they will eventually be worth millions of dollars, too.

Texas has beaten everyone it should, and lost to No. 1 Duke (85-78) and No. 17 Gonzaga (76-71). No embarrassment in those margins, against those teams. This week Shaka Smart took his current team on the road to visit his old arena at Virginia Commonwealth University. The Longhorns prevailed, 71-67, for a quality road victory. Stay tuned. This may be the year Shaka puts it all together.

No. 23/22 Baylor (6-2, RPI 99)

Baylor staked its 46-game nonconference home winning streak against No. 8 Wichita State on Saturday, and came out on the short end of a 69-62 score, thanks to a 7-0 closing run by the Shockers. Baylor also lost to then-No. 21 Xavier, 76-63, on the road in their previous game.

Like seemingly the entire league, the Bears appear capable of playing with anyone. Their field goal percentage defense has dropped to 52nd (39.4%) as competition has improved. They only run about eight deep, but that is typical of most rotations not in the eastern time zone of the Big 12. Lecompte and Lual-Acuil, Jr. are stars, and they have to be stars for the Bears to be competitive.

Iowa State (6-2, RPI 31)

Once a clear candidate for Big 12’s most disappointing team, Iowa State has rounded into form quickly after that disturbing home drubbing administered by Wisconsin-Milwaukee (6-3, Horizon League). The Cyclones are not the scoring juggernaut they once were, ranking 155th nationally in scoring offense, at 76.9 points per game. But in their past two contests, they beat Northern Illinois 94-80, and hated Big 10 rival Iowa 84-78.

The Cyclones have another in-state test coming up against Northern Iowa before league play commences. Donovan Jackson (16.4 ppg), Lindell Wigginton (16.3) and Nick Weiler-Babb (13.9) form a potent trio that will keep them in lots of games. Look at that RPI! The voters must not be believers, since Iowa State is the only Big 12 school that received no votes in either poll last week.

Next time: How stupid is the Big 12 for starting league play in December, when students are not on campus? (Sneak peak: It’s idiotic. Especially since the league does it only to accommodate a slate of out-of-conference “challenge” games in the middle of February.)