In the space of 28 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Big 12 showed us who their Top 4 teams are in men’s basketball — at least for right now.
Four of the Big 12’s ranked teams — No. 2 Baylor, No. 7 Kansas, No. 11 West Virginia and No. 17 Texas — were playing in classics and tournaments in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Asheville, North Carolina, all against ranked teams. The final tally? Big 12 with 3 wins, the rest of them with 1 win.
But the impression, to me, went beyond that. We usually get a slate of Big 12 games against ranked teams. But, thanks to some COVID-19 shuffling, we got four of the best Big 12 teams going up against some of the best teams in the country, including two of the Top 5 teams — No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 5 Illinois.
It left me thinking that this could be one of those years where we see three or four Big 12 teams make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, and perhaps multiple teams in the Final Four.
These teams are THAT good.
Wednesday’s nightcap between No. 2 Baylor and No. 5 Illinois was an immense statement of just how good the Bears can be, as they defeated the Illini, 82-69. The leading scorer was Adam Flagler, a transfer who sat out for a year after earning Big South Freshman of the Year honors two years ago at Presbyterian. He had 18 points. Three other Bears were in double figures, including Davion Mitchell with 15 points, Jared Butler with 12 points and MaCio Teague with 11 points. So, yes, the guards came to play. But that doesn’t mean the inside game isn’t coming around.
Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, a 6-foot-8 forward, had another great game off the bench, scoring 9 points and grabbing 9 rebounds.
The Baylor Bears need more from Flo Thamba, of course, and maybe it’s time to flip him to the bench for Tchamwa Tchatchoua to see how that might work. But the Bears should have an inside rotation with enough heft to support their incredible guard play by the time Big 12 play rolls around in a couple of weeks.
Before that, No. 11 West Virginia more than held its own against Gonzaga, losing 87-82, with the loss in part because two of the Mountaineers’ inside options — Oscar Tshiebwe and Gabe Osabuohien — fouled out. Without the interior depth, the Mountaineers finally saw the Bulldogs pull away.
Gonzaga was never fully in control, though. The Bulldogs only grabbed for good in the final few minutes and struggled to put West Virginia away. The Mountaineers played great. Five different players hit double figures, as Derek Culver had a 18 point-15 rebound double-double (and had Tshiebwe not fouled out, he would have hit a double-double, too. He finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds). After a slow start, guards Miles McBride (10 points) and Taz Sherman (12 points) came around, and Osabuohien ended up with 10 points.
Plus, West Virginia (3-1) shot better than 80 percent from the free throw line. Emulate that every night and the Mountaineers are going to win a lot of games, even if the other shooting hashes (.379/.294/.818) are off for the night. And don’t forget — West Virginia got this game late last week after the Jimmy V Classic doubleheader had a cancellation. This was the perfect early-season test for West Virginia after winning the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic. They lost the game, but the Mountaineer showed they’re worthy of their current ranking and of a place among the best teams in the nation.
Earlier on Wednesday at the Maui Invitational in Asheville, North Carolina (because it’s 2020, right?) the No. 17 Texas Longhorns faced No. 14 North Carolina. Maybe the most important thing on social media is head coach Shaka Smart’s haircut. But he’s probably thrilled with the Longhorns’ 4-0 start, punctuated by the last-second bucket hit by guard Matt Coleman to win the game over the Tar Heels.
Texas, honestly, had a great tournament. Six different players hit double figures at some point, but the players we knew would drive the bus were at the fore — Coleman, Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey. This will be a guard-driven team. But just as important have been the early contributions of Kai Jones off the bench and freshman forward Greg Brown in the starting lineup. I wrote in my Texas preview that this HAS to be the year for Smart and Texas. They’re playing like they got the message.
All of this started Tuesday evening, also in Indianapolis, at the State Farm Champions Classic, as Kansas overcame No. 20 Kentucky, 65-62. The Wildcats had the height advantage, but Kansas (2-1) ended up outrebounding the Wildcats. The Jayhawks did it with a combination of redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson (23 points, 10 rebounds) and true sophomore Christian Braun (13 rebounds, 8 points). Ochai Agbaji chipped in 17 points.
Kansas gutted this one out. It was its ‘worst’ game of the season to this point (yes, I felt the Jayhawks played better in their loss to Gonzaga last week). The emergence of Wilson is huge. The continued great play of Braun, building on last year, is big, too. Marcus Garrett probably shouldn’t have played as he was battling a non-COVID illness. But the biggest thing the Jayhawks have to do is figure out how much center David McCormack can give them. He’s not going to be Udoka Azubuike. But are his averages of 7.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game good enough for a whole season?
If the rest of the Jayhawks pick up the slack, it might just be enough.
We knew the Big 12 was going to be a beast coming into this season. But for a 28-hour period, they put the rest of the country on notice.
It’s not hype. It’s the truth. I think the Big 12 is sending someone to the Final Four. In fact, it could be ‘someones’.
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