|Baylor freshman Isaiah Austin is at his best playing around the rim. (US Presswire)|
The Big 12 is a big man's league.
Kansas has won eight straight league titles behind Bill Self's high-low offense featuring big men who end up as NBA first-rounders. Iowa State emerged as an NCAA tournament team last season because of do-everything post player Royce White. Baylor made an Elite Eight with a strong frontline of Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy.
This season, the Jayhawks are once again the favorite in large part because of the play of center Jeff Withey. Several other teams' success will come down to the play of their big men. As conference play begins Saturday, here are four post players to watch who could determine the fate of their respective squads the next few months.
Austin is producing better than any player on this list (14.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and it might be slightly unfair to nitpick a freshman. But he is so talented that he's probably not going to be around past this year -- ESPN.com's Chad Ford said recently he may warrant a top 10 pick -- and for the Bears to hit their peak this season, they need Austin to produce.
Looking at the stats in Baylor's last game, a 94-87 loss to Gonzaga, it looked like Austin was great. He finished with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting and had eight rebounds. But Austin is so gifted that at times he gives the impression that he wants to show off just how amazing he can be. Early in the second half against Gonzaga, Austin, who is 7-1, got the ball near the top of the key and tried to dribble behind his back before he made a move. Remember, he's 7-1. Gonzaga guard Gary Bell swiped the ball away and his steal led to a traditional three-point play on the other end.
Austin had the ball in that spot because he can be really effective in a pick-and-pop game, but it's when he gets too cute or floats to the perimeter too often that it hurts Baylor's offense. Austin could use more touches in the post, as it seems like good things happen when he gets the ball on the block. He can score over both shoulders with jump hooks, his turnaround jump shot is nearly unguardable and he also is a willing passer when the double team comes. He may want to play on the perimeter, but Baylor is best served with him playing near the basket more often than not.
The Bears traditionally rely heavily on their offense because defense rarely has been a strength for Scott Drew's teams. That's why they need Austin to be an efficient scorer and leave the pizazz for NBA workouts.
Henriquez emerged as one of the Big 12's best defenders a year ago and also was an important player offensively in Frank Martin's version of Johnny Orr's pinch-post offense. It was Henriquez who typically played at the elbow in the middle of that offense.
For some reason, Henriquez has not played nearly as prominent a role in Bruce Weber's system this season. Here are his numbers compared to last year.
2012-13: 13.7 mpg, 4.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.0 blocks
2011-12: 20.4, 7.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.4 blocks
Looking at Henriquez's advanced statistics, they are not much different than last season. Obviously his minutes are way down -- he's yet to play more than 20 minutes once -- and his free-throw percentage is down -- from 55.6 percent to 25.8 percent -- but it appears he's still capable of producing.
Henriquez stepped up big in K-State's best win this season against Florida with an impactful line of nine points, six rebounds and five blocks in 18 minutes. A performance like that would earn him more minutes, right? Nope. The next time out Henriquez played only 12 minutes against UMKC. Maybe his skill set doesn't work in Weber's system, but K-State is at its best defensively with Henriquez on the court and the Florida game was a reminder that he can still make an impact.
|West Virginia's Deniz Kilicli has struggled finishing around the basket this year. (US Presswire)|
After 12 games, it's obvious West Virginia is a poor shooting team. The Mountaineers are making only 27.5 percent of their 3-pointers, and that number is not going to magically rise. Keeping the chucking to a minimum is the logical strategy as the Mountaineers averaged 36 points in the paint in their seven wins and 21.6 points in the paint in their five losses.
The next part of the equation is finding some guys who can finish. Aaric Murray is starting to play better and has averaged 14.3 points per game since Bob Huggins left him in Morgantown when WVU traveled to Brooklyn to play Michigan. The real question is Kilicli and whether the senior can turn back the clock and find what was working for him a year ago when he averaged 10.7 points per game and shot 50.4 percent from the field. His numbers are down this year (7.8 ppg and 39.8 FG percentage), and it's not like Kilicli isn't getting good looks. According to Hoop-math.com, Kilicli is attempting 51 percent of his shots at the rim, but he's making only 45 percent of those looks. Kilicli's struggles are hardly the only issue this team faces, but if he would start finishing and he and Murray emerged as one of the Big 12's better frontlines -- an expectation in the preseason -- it would definitely help.
Any reason for hope this year in Norman was because of the Big 12's preseason newcomer of the year. A transfer from Wyoming, M'Baye has an inside-out game that gives the Sooners more firepower than they had a year ago. He was off to a good start until a recent two-game stretch where he didn't necessarily struggle as much as he just disappeared. Against Texas A&M and in a loss to Stephen F. Austin, M'Baye took only five shots and scored three points in the two games.
"We just have to keep encouraging him. I think we have to restore his confidence and keep him aggressive," coach Lon Kruger said after M'Baye's disappearing act. "I think it will take making some shots to get that confidence going. It'll happen. I hope it happens sooner rather than later for us."
M'Baye has responded in the past two games -- wins against Ohio and Texas A&M Corpus-Christi -- scoring 16 and 14 points. If M'Baye is aggressive, he's usually effective and that's what the Sooners need to make a push toward the top half of the Big 12.
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis from Big 12 bloggers C.J. Moore and Patrick Southern, follow @CBSSportsBig12 on Twitter. You can also follow C.J. (@cjmoore4) and Patrick (@patricksouthern).