The Frogs have been out of action for over a week, taking a nice Christmas break before hopping back into action on Wednesday night. Jamie Dixon and company have to be riding high following a 2-0 previous week that included a road conference win over Oklahoma State. After holding future top 5 draft pick Cade Cunningham in check for a half, the Frogs were able to withstand a second half barrage by the Pokes and steal a 77-76 victory in Stillwater. Kevin Samuel locked down the defensive end with a remarkable 7 blocks to pair with his 18 points and 8 rebounds, while the backcourt pairing of RJ Nembhard and Mike Miles continued to impress with 21 and 16 points respectively. The win was a solid one, but two areas plagued the Frogs and kept the game close: free throw shooting and turnovers. The Frogs shot 9/15 from the line (60%), and it’s only a matter of time before their free throw shooting alone costs them a game. There were also 20 turnovers, with over half of them coming from the backcourt players Miles, Nembhard, and Taryn Todd. Turnovers have not been a major recurring problem so far, and the eventual return of Francisco Farabello will help, but this is something to monitor moving forward.
The Frogs also survived a scare at home against a scrappy North Dakota State team, eeking out an 89-82 victory at home. After taking a 17 point lead late in the first half, the Frogs got complacent and allowed some hot three point shooting to eat away their lead and make this a game right to the final whistle. It was basically the same trio of guys that really saved the Frogs: Mike Miles, RJ Nembhard, and Kevin Samuel. Miles exploded for a career high 26 points, coming up with timely shots both from deep and driving to the hoop. Nembhard scored a cool 22 to go along with the team lead in assists, while Samuel had 14 points and 6 boards. The Bison simply would not go away; everytime the Frogs would begin pulling away, NDSU would knock down some threes and get right back in the game. The Frogs’ offense would stall out, abandoning the inside game to pass around the perimeter and take a contested jumper. Hopefully these remain kinks of a team that has fewer than ten games playing together, and these offensive stagnations can end as conference play ramps up.
Wed 12/30 vs. Prairie View A&M (1-3) @ 7pm on ESPN+
Saturday 1/2 @ Kansas State (4-5)* @ 1pm on ESPNU
The Frogs’ initial opponent for Wednesday was Texas Southern, but COVID related issues caused the Tigers to cancel on both TCU and LSU. Luckily, the administration was quick to set up a replacement game: another SWAC opponent in the Prairie View A&M Panthers. While the Frogs should obviously be grateful that the Panthers are willing to travel to Fort Worth on such short notice, they are also likely worried about the resume implications of this scheduling change. Texas Southern is far and away the best team in the SWAC, which is the worst conference in Division I sporting teams like Alabama State and Mississippi Valley State. Prairie View has had two good seasons in a row, with a NCAA Tournament bid in 2019 and a likely bid in 2020, but overall are just an upper to mid-tier team in this conference. This is to say that, this year, they are likely among the worst teams in D1.
The Panthers were rocked in their two games against proper power conference competition: 86-64 against Louisville and 90-62 against Washington State. The Panthers sport one of the most anemic offenses in college basketball, 322nd by KenPom’s calculations, and to make matters worse they are terrible on the glass. Kevin Samuel could legitimately get 20+ rebounds this game, both because of his size advantage and the lack of rebounding skills in the Panthers’ bigs. There is no reason for the Frogs to not run away with this game. If you want some players to watch for, look at the backcourt pairing of Jeremiah Gambrell and Faite Williams. Gambrell, a transfer from Western Kentucky, is the team’s leading scorer and a gunslinger from deep, attempting 9 threes a game. He doesn’t make a great percentage of them, just over 30%, but poor percentages didn’t stop Jarius Cook of NDSU so the Frogs should proceed with caution. Williams missed the game against Washington State, but is the team’s floor general and was able to generate 11 assists against Louisville. He doesn’t offer much on his own offensively, but look for him to set up the Panthers’ offense and execute their sets against a more talented opponent.
Kansas State is expected to be a bottom-dweller in the Big 12 this season, underscoring the need for the Frogs to take this game. KSU lost an embarassing game at home against D2 Fort Hays State, but have rebounded nicely to beat Iowa State on the road and take care of business against mid-majors like Milwaukee and Jacksonville. The Wildcats are led by a familiar face; senior guard Mike McGuirl has taken a larger role as both point guard and senior leader of the team. Following an injury to Kaosi Ezeagu, the shot erasing transfer from UTEP, KSU has been running a very small lineup to flank McGuirl that has a center and 4 guys under 6’4. Freshman Nijel Pack has emerged as the team’s sharpshooter, drilling about 40% of his threes, while DaJuan Gordon has emerged as the team’s pseudo-power forward on the glass despite his size. Another freshman, Selton Miguel, has moved into the starting five to replace Ezeagu, and has had the game slow down for him after scoring 17 and 14 against Milwaukee and Baylor respectively. In the middle, KSU has employed another freshman in 7’0 Davion Bradford, a guy who can bang inside and will give Kevin Samuel something to contend with all game. Rudi Williams and Antonio Gordon will both supplement the Wildcats off the bench, with Williams running the second unit’s offense and Gordon proving a spark plug that could go off at any time (23 points against Baylor, season high of 8 points otherwise).
What to Watch For
The Mike Miles Show
Freshman guard Mike Miles is proving to be among the Horned Frogs’ best players a mere 9 games into his college career. He has shown a solid three point stroke (49% on 4 attempts a game), ability to get inside and score both through contact and fading away, and a calmness running the offense that is surprising from a freshman. It hasn’t all been perfect, he turns it over about as much as you’d expect a freshman to, but there is an excitement around Miles that is well earned. A freshman hasn’t played this well since Desmond Bane, and Bane is now drilling threes for the Grizzlies in the big leagues after a stellar 4 year career for the Frogs.
Adjustments are Coming: Who Steps Up?
While Miles, Nembhard, and Samuel are playing exceedingly well to start the year, the flipside is that other teams are getting film on them and will adjust their defenses accordingly. The Frogs desperately need a fourth guy to consistently step up and provide relief. There are plenty of options, it is simply a matter of who emerges. The return of Francisco Farabello provides a strong option, as Farabello had already been starting and flashed improved shooting and decision making from the point position. Kevin Easley has also been in the mix, and while strong on the glass and in man defense, his shooting has yet to reach the 38% clip from three we saw at Chattanooga. PJ Fuller has looked the part of a 4 star recruit at times this season, but his scoring output has fluctuated wildly and he needs to look for his shot more often. Taryn Todd has also been a solid three point threat. Any one of these guys taking the next step would be a major boon for the Frogs. They need not be All Big 12 level performers this year, but simply consistent scoring threats who work within the rhythm of the offense.
Since Jamie Dixon’s arrival in 2016, the Frogs have improved markedly, but they tend to go through a rough stretch every season and struggle a bit on the road. This is to be expected on some level; the Big 12 is the toughest basketball conference in the country year in and year out. Even though Kansas State is projected to finish 9th or 10th in the conference, this game is still a conference road game and a must win for the Frogs if they have greater ambitions this season. Escaping Stillwater with a win was a major plus, now the Frogs need to secure a few more road wins to buffer against potential home losses against any of the conference heavyweights. The Frogs are 3-0 this season in neutral site or true road games, and we will see what they can do in Manhattan to kick off 2021.