Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What to expect in Big 12 basketball

The non-conference games are almost complete, the various tournaments have been played, and there are a variety of surprises which have become headlines in the Big 12. Notably, Kansas State is ranked and much better than expected and Missouri is undefeated and off to its best start since the early 1980s.

Let's take a look at the local teams and what we should expect as conference play begins next week.

Kansas - The defending Big 12 champs for the past six years have been up-and-down, as expected, with the high point being a home victory over Ohio State and the low being a loss, at Sprint Center, to Davidson. It's always a habit with Kansas fans to compare the current KU squad with a past team, but this year's edition is unlike any in recent memory. This year's team seems to be most like the 2008-2009 Kansas squad which featured Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, and the Morris twins as freshmen. But, that team also had basketball savvy players like Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed who ensured good ball movement and minimal turnovers. The current Jayhawk team is loose with the ball, averaging 15.18 turnovers per game, has average ball movement, and has yet to get consistent bench play from Connor Teahan, Naadir Tharpe, Justin Wesley or Kevin Young.

What must happen if Kansas intends to win a seventh straight title: Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor must stay healthy, Taylor has to reduce turnovers, and Young must play like he did against Ohio State.

Prediction: The race for the Big 12 title still runs through Lawrence, KS, but it's hard to see this KU team beating Baylor for the league crown. Prediction--Second place in the Big 12 with a likely second round exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Kansas State - No one, and I mean no one, expected Kansas State to be 10-1 with the only loss a two-overtime thriller against future conference mate West Virginia. The Wildcats are getting surprising performances from Jordan Henriquez, Thomas Gipson, and Angel Rodriguez, to go with the expected leadership from Rodney Magruder and Jamar Samuels. Best win: A 13-point neutral site win over Alabama. Worst loss: The only one--against West Virginia in Wichita. Big game: The conference opener, in Lawrence, against Kansas on January 4 is an important "momentum" game for both teams.

Prediction: Kansas State is surprising everyone but can they contend for the league crown? It's hard to see the Wildcats finishing higher than fourth in the league. Look for KSU to make the NCAA Tournament and exit in the first round.

Missouri - Missouri wore the mantle of "most surprising" in the Big 12 until Kansas State won the Diamond Head Classic tournament this past week. The Tigers are undeafeated and are doing it without Lawrence Bowers, out for the year due to a pre-season injury. As expected, MU's guards are the team's engine but the play of Ricardo Ratliffe has been the key to the Tigers' success thus far--he's averaging 14.3 points and 6.9 boards per game. Marcus Denmon is having a league MVP type season and is complemented by Kim English (15.3 points per game) and Michael Dixon (13.1 points per game), plus Phil Pressey at the point. A good shooting team, Mizzou averages .519 in field goal percentage and shoots over 78% at the free throw stripe.

Prediction: Missouri is not a good rebounding team and lacks quality internal muscle, beyond Ratliffe. MU will be disadvantaged against a front line like Baylor's and has yet to face defensive-minded clubs like Kansas or Kansas State. Frank Haith's team will contend for the title but will finish tied for third. Look for MU to make the NCAA Tournament and exit in round two.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Crist and Heaps

Kansas has signed many a five-star recruit in basketball. In football, since the origin of the Rivals five-star recruit grading system, the Jayhawks have signed nary a player of this premier caliber.

That changed today--not once, but twice--as first Dayne Crist of Notre Dame and then Jake Heaps of BYU made known their intentions to transfer to Kansas.

The announcements illustrate the impact that the Charlie Weis hiring is already having on the KU program. Crist played for Weis at Notre Dame; Heaps was recruited by Weis before committing to BYU. Crist will be able to play immediately while Heaps will have to sit out a year under NCAA transfer rules. (Crist has graduated but not yet used up his collegiate eligibility, thus making him available to play right away.)

To put this announcement into perspective, these two recruits said "no" to the likes of Michigan, Oregon, Stanford and USC before signing with their respective schools coming out of high school. And, today, they pledged their allegiance to the University of Kansas.

Jayhawk fans hope that today's announcement begins the fall of other recruiting dominoes given KU's involvement with one high-profile wide receiver transfer possibility, and a couple of highly rated high school receiver and tight end targets.

Charlie Weis was announced as KU's new coach on Friday, December 9. But, the day the Charlie Weis regime at Kansas officially began will likely be remembered as Thursday, December 22--the first time KU ever received a commitment from five star football recruits.

Hits, misses and penalty flags

- Hit: Kansas' recruitment of Dayne Crist, the QB transfer from Notre Dame, may be getting a boost by the rumored announcement of Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst as the head coach at Pitt. Wisconsin and Delaware are the other two schools vying for Crist's affections. This former five-star QB has one year of eligibility remaining and can play immediately upon transferring.

- Miss: There's justifiable excitement about Kansas City's victory over Green Bay but let's not get ahead of ourselves, Chiefs fans. Kyle Orton still is a quarterback who's had uneven NFL success and Romeo Crennel is an assistant coach who has interviewed with the Giants, Bills, Cardinals, Bears and Falcons, and not been hired by any as a head coach. Let's keep our excitement, and expectations, real.

- Penalty flag: If England's football (a k a soccer) captain, John Therry, did racially abuse an opponent, then he should be punished for the crime. Therry is the first player to face a court in Britain on a charge of racially abusing an opponent. This charge is part of an effort to crack down on racism in the sport of soccer.

- Hit: Missouri's 11-0 record will be tested in tonight's Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis versus Illinois. The Illini have one loss--to impressive-thus-far UNLV--but will pose the stiffest test for the Tigers in the non-conference season. The betting line has MU as a two point favorite.

- Miss: It's hard to figure Texas out. Rick Barnes' Longhorn basketball squad appears to have talent, at least on paper, but is unranked and lost by 19 last night at North Carolina.

- Penalty flag: Sexting is back in the sports news again--Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors has been accused by a team employee of sending texts which include photos of his genitals.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's bowl season...are you excited!?

The college football bowl season kicked off today with three doozies--the New Mexico Bowl (Temple-Wyoming), Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Ohio-Utah State) and New Orleans Bowl (Louisiana-Lafayette-San Diego State.) Over in NCAA Division II, Pittsburg (KS) State was winning a national championship the practical way--via a playoff--but not in Division I/Football Bowl Subdivision. No, no--over here we kick it off with the first three of 34 different bowl games, not counting the national championship game between LSU and Alabama.

Let's take a look at a few of the bowl matchups, including those with Big 12 schools, over the next 22 days so that you can plot out your viewing strategy.

Independence Bowl, December 26, Missouri and North Carolina. Two 7-5 teams square off in this mundane of matchups. Missouri's high powered offense will face a challenge with UNC's stout defense but should win by a touchdown.

Holiday Bowl, December 28, California and Texas. Remember when Texas used to play in bowls which meant something? Longhorns by eight.

Alamo Bowl, December 29, Baylor and Washington. Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III has electrified Baylor Nation and will have plenty of opportunities to rack up points against the Huskies' porous defense. Baylor by 22.

Pinstripe Bowl, December 30, Iowa State and Rutgers. Let's give it up for the Cyclones, victorious over then number two Oklahoma State and back in a bowl game. This disciplined ISU team will win by two TDs over Rutgers.

Insight Bowl, December 30, Iowa and Oklahoma. The state of Iowa's "other team" takes on a Sooner squad depleted by injuries. OU by three.

Texas Bowl, December 31, Texas A&M and Northwestern. A&M's coach, Mike Sherman, was fired; Northwestern's coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is still coaching in Evanston after being rumored to be in the mix for a couple of high profile openings. Look for Northwestern to win a close one in this New Year's Eve battle.

Ticket City Bowl, January 2, Houston and Penn State. Houston was one game away from playing in a BCS game; Penn State is a program in chaos. Houston will bounce back from their Conference USA league championship game loss with a 10 point win over the Nittany Lions.

Outback Bowl, January 2, Georgia and Michigan State. Michigan State was blown out by SEC's Alabama in last year's Capital One Bowl. The Spartans won't let that happen with a SEC bowl foe again, winning by eight.

Rose Bowl, January 2, Oregon and Wisconsin. The Ducks' speed will overwhelm Wisconsin. Oregon by 12.

Fiesta Bowl, January 2, Oklahoma State and Stanford. In the best matchup of the bowl lineup, OSU will win by 10 over Andrew Luck and Stanford.

Cotton Bowl, January 6, Kansas State and Arkansas. Two teams who should have been in a BCS bowl will duke it out in Dallas. Razorbacks by four.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Who's got the crow for me to eat?

At Noon today I posted in this blog that the University of Kansas would not hire Charlie Weis or Phillip Fulmer to be their new head football coach. Five hours later they did just that as word leaked that Weis would move from the University of Florida, from his offensive coordinator position, to Lawrence to lead the Jayhawks' football program.

What's this all mean, beyond the obvious irony of Weis returning to the area only one year removed from his stint at the Kansas City Chiefs?

One, this move immediately raises the profile of the Kansas football program. Turner Gill was a ho-hum hire two years ago. Weis will make one of the lead stories on ESPN's Sportscenter.

Two, it proves that Sheahon Zenger, Kansas' athletics director, is willing to take a risk. It's pretty obvious that Zenger wanted Mike Leach and then had to scramble once that verbal deal fell through. He quietly and methodically went about his search such that the Weis announcement was indeed a surprise.

Three, Weis has now sat in three different coaching jobs in three years. He said he moved to Florida for family reasons. How does he now rationalize this move to Kansas? Has Weis become a restless coach or was the allure of a head coaching gig too much to pass up? Maybe Weis knew that the Florida job was simply an interim until he was offered a head position somewhere else.

Four, Weis has a reputation for having a prickly personality. How will that personality impact his ability to hire a quality staff much less get into recruits' homes? A key for Weis will be finding assistants (can you say current Kansas coach Reggie Mitchell) who can recruit and, in particular, recruit Texas.

Five, we know that Weis can coach the offensive side of the football. So, one would think that he would find creative ways to get the ball into the hands of KU's stable of quality running backs--James Sims, Darrien Miller, Tony Pearson and Brandon Bourbon. Pearson, in particular, should flourish under Weis' system.

Finally, Weis has three Super Bowl rings. He's been involved with winning programs. There is a certain legitimacy that Kansas will gain simply by having Weis as its head coach. The challenge now will be to take this hire and turn it into something bigger--hire a top-flight defensive coordinator, recruit a true Division 1 quarterback and/or lure Dayne Crist (a Weis recruit to Notre Dame) to transfer, and "coach up" the promising young players from Kansas' quality recruiting classes of the past two years.

Weis will be officially introduced tomorrow afternoon and then will find himself in front of the Kansas faithful at halftime Saturday of the marquee Kansas-Ohio State basketball matchup. It's a moment many wondered whether Zenger could pull off. So, let's take a moment to applaud KU's athletics director for conducting a search which was well controlled, produced a high-profile result, and has the potential to be a needed big step of restoring some swagger back in Kansas' non-basketball sports activities.

Who will KU eventually hire?

It's been over a week since Kansas' athletics director, Dr. Sheahon Zenger, hit the road to find the school's next football coach. Thus far, Zenger has yet to make a hire and has yet to tip his hand publicly as to who that might be.

Mike Leach's candidacy came and went with some speculating that an agreement was in place but unraveled around Leach's lawsuits with ESPN and Texas Tech, a sister Big 12 institution to KU.

Larry Fedora became the "it" coach, after Southern Mississippi walloped Houston, but he appears headed for North Carolina--a school where his southern recruiting contacts may be a better fit.

June Jones' name was floated about and he seemed headed to Tempe as head of Arizona State but that deal fell through. Will Jones, SMU's coach, get back in the mix at Kansas?

Let's break down those who are believed to be in consideration at Kansas as the clock continues to tick, and openings remain at Illinois, Penn State, UCLA and Texas A&M.

- Jones: Jones could qualify as a home run hire for Kansas given his consistent success and what he's done most recently at SMU. He also has the much-desired recruiting contacts in the Lone Star State. What may work against Zenger is Jones' agent--notoriously ruthless Leigh Steinberg.

- Gus Malzahn: If you believe Twitter, then you probably think that Malzahn's already been hired at KU. His offenses have been successful but he's not been in the head coaching seat since high school. There is speculation that all is not well with Gene Chizik's staff at Auburn which may make Malzahn hot for the job in Lawrence.

- Sonny Dykes: Dykes would seem to make a lot of sense as KU's next head man. He led Louisiana Tech to this year's WAC championship, has Texas high school recruiting ties, and knows Leach's spread offense. Dykes would fit the criteria for those who want a head coach to move to KU versus hiring a current D-1 coordinator.

- Paul Chryst: Reports out of Madison are that Chryst, the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, has interviewed with Zenger.

- Dirk Koetter: This former head coach (Boise State and Arizona State) and current offensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars offers an interesting twist to the search--someone with NFL credentials. He also offers up an important decision for Zenger--does he hire someone with issues with his past employer (Arizona State) or try to stay above the potential criticism he'd likely receive?

- Mark Stoops: Over the weekend, Stoops' name seemed to be a hot one with those speculating on the KU hire. It's now seemed to have cooled off. Stoops coached with Zenger at Wyoming and has been the architect of Florida State's defensive turnaround.

So, who will Zenger hire? I think he'll likely come to terms with one of the above names. Forget about Phillip Fulmer and forget about the crazy Charlie Weis idea--KU's A.D. will make a choice from the Jones-Malzahn-Chryst-Koetter-Stoops fivesome. Whether he can get the deal done in order to introduce his new football man on Saturday, at the KU-Ohio State basketball game, is the challenge.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Kentucky, North Carolina, and basketball tradition

North Carolina, number three in the all-time college basketball wins category, is playing Kentucky, number one in all-time wins as I write this post today. I can't help but be struck by the linkage of the traditions of these two schools and that of my alma mater, the University of Kansas. And, in full disclosure (given my lack of objectivity here), this is one of the arguments I use when debating which school, of the three, has the best basketball tradition.

- Today's game is being played at Rupp Arena, named after Kentucky's iconic coach--a University of Kansas graduate and player under KU's legendary coach, Phog Allen.

- Kentucky's current coach, John Calipari, was an assistant coach at Kansas in 1984-85.

- North Carolina plays their games in the Smith Center, named after Dean Smith, North Carolina's iconic coach--also a Kansas graduate and player under Allen.

- North Carolina's coach, Roy Williams, as all well know, spent 15 years at KU where he crafted a 418-101 (.805) record and took KU to four Final Fours and two national championship games.

So, when it comes to basketball tradition, I offer up those facts as a bit of grounding on which of these three blue bloods is first in that category. Combine the above with the fact that James Naismith, who invented the game, was Kansas' first coach and no school matches KU in the tradition of its program and its impact on the game of college basketball.

Just sayin'...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Week 14: College football predictions

Last week: 8-0
Season to date: 95-34

Kansas State over Iowa State: The 'Cats still have a chance to tie for the Big 12 crown. Iowa State, notable for its recent upsets over higher ranked opponents, will lose by 10 in Manhattan.

Baylor over Texas: Robert Griffin III is expected to play tomorrow even though he suffered a concussion in last week's win against Texas Tech. Can the league's top-ranked offense beat the top-ranked defense? I think so--I'm picking the Bears by four with RGIII having a huge game.

Oklahoma State over Oklahoma: Bedlam--a series where the Sooners have won eight straight. OSU still has a shot at the BCS title game but it's unlikely. Yet, the prospect of their wonder season frittering away with a loss to OU has to be galling to the Cowboys. I suspect that Brandon Weeden and his receivers will have a big day, winning by three late.

Oregon over UCLA: Let's see--one of the teams in this conference championship game actually fired their coach. How can you pick against Oregon? Ducks by 21.

Virginia Tech over Clemson:
This is a tale of teams who have headed the opposite directions. Clemson beat Virginia Tech earlier in the season in Blacksburg but that won't happen tomorrow. Look for the Hokies to win by 10, thus setting them up for yet another BCS bowl game.

Wisconsin over Michigan State: The inaugural Big 10 championship game will be a chance for the Badgers to replay Sparty for that last second Hail Mary win during the regular season. Wiscy by seven.

LSU over Georgia: I almost made this my weekly upset special and seriously think that a hot Georgia team can pull off the win, particularly in its backyard in Atlanta. But, this seems to be a special LSU squad on its way to the national championship game. Let's go with the Tigers by six.