'The league has changed a little bit': Big 12 basketball is hard to watch this season
NORMAN — Bill Self sauntered into the Lloyd Noble Center interview room a couple of weeks ago relatively pleased with his Kansas basketball team’s performance. The Jayhawks had defeated the Sooners by 14 points.
The score was 66-52. “It’s unbelievable,” Self said. “We hung 66 tonight and felt like we were really on fire. That’s how hard it is to score.”
Welcome to Big 12 basketball. We are 39 percent through the conference schedule, and points are at a premium.
In only three of the 35 Big 12 games have both teams reached 70. Twenty-eight times in those 35 games has a team failed to reach 60. Four didn’t even reach 50.
“How would Billy Tubbs like playing in this league?” Self asked of the retired OU coach who championed fast-paced, high-pressure hoops that were wildly entertaining. Informed that Tubbs was in the house that night, Self said, “He probably fell asleep by halftime.”
At least Self’s Jayhawks are winning. The Sooners are 3-4 in the Big 12 and averaging just 64.4 points a game. The Cowboys are 0-7 in the Big 12, averaging just 56.4 points a game and shooting 35.9 percent from the field. The Bedlam rivals play Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center. Will either team reach 60?
“The league has changed a little bit,” said Iowa State coach Steve Prohm, in his fifth Cyclone season. When Prohm arrived, “We had a couple of defense-minded teams in the league, but a lot of pace and free-flowing offense and scoring.”
Not anymore. Chris Beard has brought intense defense to Texas Tech. Baylor coach Scott Drew has scrapped his beloved zone and mimics Tech’s defense. West Virginia under Bob Huggins always has played jail-break defense that hounds opponents into chaos. And of course, Kansas has its usual bulldog defense.
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“First to 50 wins,” Drew said. “Scores are obviously down. Defenses are ahead of the offenses now.”
This kind of basketball makes for disinterested fans and frustrated teams. This is a league that has coaches who have produced big-time offenses. Self. Lon Kruger. Bruce Weber, whose 2004-05 Illinois team averaged 76 points a game in the stodgy Big Ten.
And this is a conference with a great offensive heritage. Tubbs and Johnny Orr made the Big Eight a rip-roaring league in the 1980s. In 1985-86, the final season without a 3-point line, Larry Brown’s Jayhawks made the Final Four and averaged 85.5 points a game in conference play.
Two years later, Tubbs’ Sooners were a team for the ages and averaged 98.6 points a game in Big Eight play.
As recently as 2008, Self’s Jayhawks won the NCAA championship, averaging 80.4 points a game in conference.
But this season, Baylor and Kansas are ranked 1-3 in the national polls but average just 64.9 and 67.4 points a game, respectively.
“Scouting intensifies when you get in conference,” said OU’s Kristian Doolittle, who averaged 16.4 points a game before conference play began but is scoring just 13.3 against Big 12 teams. “They have more game film of you. You can only run so many plays.”
The NCAA pushed back the 3-point line this season, from 20 feet nine inches to 22 feet, 1-3/4 inch, apparently in hopes of limiting how many deep balls get launched. Nice try.
“Like we go play in Madison Square Garden, where they have the NBA line, the first thing my guys do is run out there and start chucking balls,” said West Virginia’s Huggins. “If we put the line at halfcourt, they’d be shooting beyond halfcourt.”
About the only thing the line has changed is slightly worse shooting and an extra turnover a game from guys stepping out of bounds catching a pass in the corner.
“I don’t see it going away,” Self said of the low scoring. “The way Tech and Baylor and West Virginia play defense, and OU’s good defensively, and Texas is really good, K-State hangs their hat on that. And of course, we try to guard, too.
“It could be a first one to 60-type league. I know that’s not exciting for a lot of people. But the spin on the positive is, those are more like NCAA Tournament games, so you learn to grind out games like that and play low-possession games.”
So there’s a rose among the thorns, but for those of us who remember how much fun college basketball used to be, this version is hard to watch.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.