Big 12 basketball reached the halfway point of its conference round-robin on Wednesday night, making this an ideal time to assess the top performers in the league thus far. Although No. 5 Kansas sits predictably atop the standings, the Jayhawks are far from the only team worth watching after nine games of Big 12 action.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most tightly contested races in the conference has been the Freshman of the Year competition. KU’s electrifying Ben McLemore is among the frontrunners, but will he get the nod as the best of a dazzling first-year crop?
Read on for more on the Big 12’s top frosh and the rest of the awards to be doled out to deserving players (plus one coach) halfway through the league schedule.
It would have come as little surprise if Korie Lucious’ basketball career had ended in January of 2011. That was the month when Tom Izzo tossed the then-junior point guard off the Michigan State roster mid-season, a result of “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Instead of hanging up his sneakers, Lucious found a new home at the transfer haven that is Iowa State, and Cyclones fans are thrilled that he did.
After sitting out his transfer season last year, Lucious has stepped in to run the nation's No. 11 scoring offense with flair, dishing out 5.6 assists a night while scoring 9.5 points per game (both career highs) to boot.
A close call over Kansas bruiser Kevin Young, Markel Brown gets the nod here because unlike Young, he was already playing starter’s minutes a year ago.
This season, in much the same playing time, the junior SG has done a sensational job of filling the hole left by graduated sniper Keiton Page.
Brown’s scoring average has soared by five points per game to a team-leading 15.3. He’s also been a more efficient shooter, lifting his field-goal percentage from .426 to .434 and his three-point accuracy from .319 to .363.
Kansas’ Bill Self and K-State newcomer Bruce Weber both have cases to make for this prize, but both of those coaches returned all-conference level talent from last year’s teams.
Fred Hoiberg, on the other hand, has built another NCAA tournament contender in Ames—despite the loss of superstar Royce White—while relying heavily on three crucial newcomers to the roster.
Scoring leader Will Clyburn and point guard Korie Lucious both sat out the 2011-12 season as transfers, and both have played huge roles for this year’s Cyclones, who are scoring an eye-opening 78.7 points per game.
Hoiberg has also coaxed a huge season out of freshman Georges Niang, who’s provided a crucial low-post presence on this guard-heavy roster.
Thomas Gipson, like so many Wildcats this season, isn’t usually much of a scorer. Nonetheless, he deserves Sixth Man of the Year honors for the remarkable feat of leading a top-15 team in rebounding while coming off the bench.
The 6’7”, 270-lb sophomore defers to the superior length of 6’11” Jordan Henriquez in the starting five, but few forwards in the country can carve out space like Gipson does in pulling down 5.5 boards a night.
He’s had his moments on offense too, rocking the physical Texas frontcourt for 17 points (and seven rebounds) in a blowout win last week.
The Big 12 has two of the best defensive players in any conference, but only one can claim top honors here.
As devastating as conference steals leader Marcus Smart has been, though, even he can’t beat out the nation’s third-leading shot-blocker, Jeff Withey.
The 7’0” senior is swatting 4.2 shots a night, but just as important, he’s been the heart of the best defense in college hoops.
No team in the country is holding opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than KU’s 35.4, and that’s a credential Smart just can’t match.
As usual, there’s loads of competition among the conference’s first-year stars, most notably Isaiah Austin at Baylor and Ben McLemore at Kansas.
However, while both of them are putting up impressive numbers in a couple of categories, Marcus Smart is contributing in pretty much every area on the stat sheet.
The Oklahoma State point guard is averaging 14.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists and a conference-best 3.0 steals per game for the season.
He’s also carried the unheralded Cowboys to a berth in the Top 25, not least by keying Saturday’s gargantuan upset at Kansas.
Judged on his individual performance, Oklahoma State’s do-everything Marcus Smart has the edge on Jeff Withey. Where the Kansas senior earns this prize, though, is as the leader of the Big 12’s best and most consistent team.
In spite of Saturday’s pratfall against the Cowboys (and a possible repeat performance Wednesday, pending the final score at TCU), KU still sits in first place in the Big 12 standings and is ranked No. 5 in the country.
Moreover, the Jayhawks haven’t been ranked lower than No. 12 all season, a record no team in the conference can touch.
All of that success has been built, above all, on the nation’s No. 1 field-goal defense, and Withey (the nation’s third-leading shot-blocker at 4.2 a night) has been the heart of that defense.
Add in his team-high 8.3 boards per game and a not-inconsequential 13 points per contest (second on the roster), and the seven-foot senior is the best and most important player on the Big 12’s top team.