The Big 12 sure looked like it was going to be tough at the beginning of this season. Since then, the conference's overall profile has slightly dimmed as some teams have played better than expected (KSU, MU, BU) and others have failed to live up to expectations (aTm, OSU).
Remember when the coaches picked Texas A&M to share the conference title with Kansas? Apparently the 0-3 Aggies have decided to try to top their football counterparts, who were picked 2nd and finished tied for 6th. For that, Aggie, we thank you.
It's not terribly surprising that reality has been quite different from the preseason polls, as this happens just about every year (yet inexplicably, preseason polls continue to be regarded as just as relevant if not more so every season). It's great that Kansas State is one of the teams on the overachieving side, but that's also something we've kind of become accustomed to here, last season notwithstanding.
No, the interesting storyline here is where the overachievers and underachievers fall on K-State's schedule. The first 3 games were always going to be tough, but it's doubtful many people expected all of them to be against top 10 opponents.
That didn't go so well, but the good news is that it means all the underachievers are coming up in the next month. Add to the fact that the top 3 were somewhat cruelly placed together again toward the back end of the schedule, and it's hard to find a game that K-State shouldn't be able to win relatively easily in at least the next eight.* Seriously, have a look.
*The ninth game in the upcoming stretch is at Texas, so based on recent history as well as the way UT has played this season, it was quite tempting to include this game as well. However, the Longhorns do have a lot of talent if they can ever put it together, and eight games is already satisfactory in terms of impressiveness and historical purposes (see below).
With that being said, I'm aware of how tough it is to win on the road anywhere in the Big 12. Honestly, I fully expect KSU to lose at least one of the games at Oklahoma State, at Texas Tech or at Iowa State, and I also expect to be very angry about it.
But if you ask me to pick any one of these games individually, I will pick the 'Cats every time, without question. If, like me, you want to temper this strange optimistic feeling you're experiencing, keep in mind that even if we can pull off 8 or 9 straight, the Big 12 title will still be a long shot, thanks to the Jayhawks' visit to Manhattan, followed by games at Waco and Columbia all in a span of 9 days.
A big win streak sure would be fun, though. Even the Elite 8 team two years ago only won 7 straight Big 12 games. I'm pretty sure eight in a row hasn't happened in my lifetime.
In fact, as far as I can tell, the Wildcats haven't had a streak like that in conference play since 1976-77, when Jack Hartman's team —captained by Mike Evans — won its final eight Big 8 games to win the regular season conference title before capturing a Big 12 tournament title and losing to Marquette in the second round of the NCAAs. My parents could probably tell me more about this team, as I believe they were both attending KSU at the time.
Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself, and this could all go south in a hurry if the 'Cats do the same. The quest for eight in a row begins Saturday at Oklahoma, and remember, you heard it here first.
Check the jump for a preview of the last-place Sooners.
As bad as the Sooners have looked in their 0-3 start to Big 12 play — as Frank would say, they've played like first graders — this team's 10-2 nonconference record was really amazingly solid. A 20-point loss on a neutral court to a decent-but-not-good Saint Louis team is kind of embarrassing, but a 15-point win in Norman against Arkansas and a one-point loss on the road against a Cincinnati team that just won at Georgetown is kind of impressive.
Despite awful crowds, Oklahoma always seems to play well at the Lloyd Noble Center in conference play, and in their only home loss this season, the Sooners actually led Kansas by one. It's hard to imagine K-State coming out complacent after that unpleasant loss to Baylor on Tuesday, but the Sooners stand ready to take advantage if that happens.
Cade Davis is finally gone after 10 years in Norman, but junior Steven Pledger has more than filled his shoes on the perimeter. He's the star of this team and while he's deadlier than ever off the pass, he's added the ability to attack the basket this season.
At 45%, he's Oklahoma's only significant threat from 3-point range, though Carl Blair and Tyler Newell are also decent shooters off the bench. Martavius Irving should get the assignment on Pledger, but the other guards will hopefully use a good amount of freedom to help off penetration or make sure Pledger is defended when coming off screens.
Inside, Andrew Fitzgerald is a solid big man who will get his share of rebounds and can step out to hit a mid-range jumper if you let him. Romero Osby, a transfer from Mississippi State, is almost as big and has even more versatility that has led him to 5 double-doubles this season, or one less than JO, Thomas Gipson, and Jamar Samuels combined.
It's not hard to see why the Sooners are almost +8 in rebounds and should provide a good barometer for a K-State team that has put together two solid performances in a row on the boards. The energy and aggressiveness will have to be there for that to happen again.
JO should certainly have some success against a frontline with no significant players taller than 6-8, and the Sooners are very thin on depth inside. A heavy dose of K-State's big three could cause OU some problems, especially if they get into foul trouble and have to go small.
I sincerely hope Rodney McGruder can continue playing like a stud, though it's probably expecting a little too much for him to go for 30 again. I think Martavius Irving and Angel Rodriguez will find driving siginificantly easier against the Sooners than it was in the last three games, so the key will be them taking the initiative.
You may have noticed I didn't include this game as one of the road games Kansas State could lose during this stretch, solely because I find it impossible to imagine that Frank won't have his team angry and fired up after letting the Baylor game slip away. I think K-State wins this one going away, but the Sooners could keep it close for a while, especially if Pledger is shooting well.