The football team closed out its season Tuesday night, and the hoops guys are about to end their holiday hiatus with the start of league play on Friday. So, show of hands: Who knows (without looking) which Big 12 team has the best ranking in the AP Top 25? West Virginia, of course, at number 7. You knew that, didn’t you?
Okay, which team is second? Correct. TCU, at No. 10. Just what everyone was predicting, right? Kansas rose as high as No. 2, but now sits 11th after consecutive losses to Washington and Arizona State. Three other conference teams also appear in this week’s top-25, and two others received votes. K-State is not among the eight teams recognized by the press.
Rankings this time of year mean next to nothing, of course. It could all change, starting Friday night, when eight of the ten Big 12 teams begin league play. (OU and TCU play Saturday afternoon.) Non-conference results suggest no team in the Big 12 is “bad.” But perhaps no team is invincible, either. One squad (TCU) is undefeated. All except Texas escaped their first 12 with fewer than three losses. The conference’s worst loss, by win-expectancy standards, might belong to none other than Kansas.
So, what does it all mean? Everyone has reason for optimism. But every team has deficiencies, too. Will one of the second nine finally end the Jayhawks’ 13-year reign of terror? As Asia told us in 1981, only time will tell.
This week, we will discuss the teams in the order they finished last year, attempting to spotlight strengths and reasons for concern. We will also assail the futile task of trying to assess, based on the lessons of the season’s first two months, who has a legitimate chance of challenging for league supremacy. Though non-conference play revealed quite a bit about some teams, predicting the order of outcome now requires only slightly less guesswork than it did back in October. So please—for your own sake—don’t rely on any of this for gambling purposes.
No. 11 Kansas (10-2)
Kansas has won or shared thirteen straight league titles. It has won at least a share of 60 titles in 110 years of league play. The New England Patriots envy such a dynasty.
After an inexplicable loss to Washington and a perhaps forgivable one to Arizona State, the Jayhawks beat Nebraska (7-5) by one in Lincoln, prompting an exuberant Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk to proclaim, “We’re back.” Laughable as that pronouncement seemed after a squeaker against the likes of Nubs, he may have been absolutely right. KU dominated Stanford on the road, 75-54. Udoka Azubuike did his best Shaq impersonation, throwing down seven dunks. Stanford is not a good team, and is battling through key injuries at both guard spots. But the biggest deficiency for Bill Self’s team had undoubtedly been its defense, and holding any Power-5 team to 54 in a quasi-home game is impressive.
The Jayhawks got help (at least tentatively) this week in the form of early qualifier Silvio de Sousa, who was cleared to practice and joined the squad the day after Christmas. You never want to expect too much from a player who has not been through a single weight room session with the team, but de Sousa is an athletic 6-9 player and a top-30 recruit. Anybody want to bet against Bill Self wringing enough usefulness out of him to address a glaring lack of post depth? He helps. Billy Preston should be reinstated soon, and he could transform the team.
Defend the dribble drive a little better, hit shots, and the KU juggernaut should march on. They start league play in Austin against a surging Texas squad, then host 22nd-ranked Texas Tech before traveling to No. 10 TCU. Even if your name is Kansas, a 2-1 run through that three-game stretch would be good. 3-0 would serve notice to the rest of the league that Washington was just a Sprint Center aberration.
Of note: KU has not lost a conference opener since 1991. Texas may have the league’s worst record, but that may be misleading, for reasons we’ll explore later. The match-up of Azubuike and Mo Bamba should be especially entertaining to watch.
No. 18 Baylor (10-2)
Could Baylor challenge Kansas? The Bears were picked fifth in the preseason poll, but have run out to a 10-2 start, with a solid win against Creighton. The rest of the non-conference slate is pretty nondescript, though. Its losses to Wichita and Xavier were competitive, but its RPI (96) is the Big 12’s lowest. Outside of Creighton, Baylor’s best wins are against Wisconsin (6-7, RPI 93) and Texas Southern, whose RPI is somehow as high as 211 despite a record of 0-13.
Baylor may be the biggest unknown in the conference. With Manu Lecomte and Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr., the Bears present a legitimate, experienced 1-2 punch from the point and in the paint. The team is not deep, though. Six players average over 25 minutes per game. Jake Lindsey gets most of the rest. Keep in mind, this is against mostly very pedestrian competition. Expect the starters to be pushed even further as competition ramps up in conference play. Injury or untimely foul trouble could (please pardon me) sic ‘em.
With Lecomte leading the show and the length of the 2-3 zone forcing teams to beat them with contested shots from outside, Baylor will surely upset a league opponent, or two. But they may also lose to a few lesser opponents, and could find themselves playing a first-day game in the league tournament.
No. 7 West Virginia (11-1)
As previously noted in the first installment of this column, West Virginia lost its first game to Texas A&M in Germany, which seemed like cause for concern, at the time. Turns out, the Aggies are pretty good, and so are the Mountaineers. Since then, West Virginia has beaten all challengers, and has outscored them all, too. They have quality wins against Missouri (9-3, RPI 19) and current No. 9 Virginia (11-1, RPI 29).
Officiating may affect West Virginia’s success more than any other team in the country. Get one of those crews that thinks any attempt to defend dribble penetration earns a whistle, and Huggy’s crew will lose three-hour slogs to the free throw line. But if they are allowed to impose their physical style on opponents, senior citizen Jevon Carter, along with Daxter Miles, Jr. and James Bolden, will grind out plenty of wins and frustrate the mostly finesse-oriented teams in the Big 12. If officiating loosens for league play (as it has the past several years), West Virginia could absolutely challenge for a share of the league title.
The Mountaineers start conference play at Oklahoma State and at Kansas State, before returning home to host Oklahoma and Baylor. That appears to be a fairly generous start, with mid-to-lower tier teams on the road, followed by challengers at home.
Iowa State (9-2)
Iowa State is unlikely to win the Big 12 this year, but the Cyclones have rebounded nicely from an 0-2 start to finish the pre-Christmas schedule at 9-2. They have a win against Boise State, and they won both games against instate rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa. They also won a two-point contest against Tulsa, a feat K-State could not accomplish.
Our Farmageddon rivals open with a pair of home games, against our Wildcats and the Texas Longhorns. They did struggle to put away a 3-10 Maryland-Eastern Shore squad before the break. But we’ve seen teams look bad when their minds are on the flight home, rather than the over-matched opponent presented immediately before vacation.
Four ‘Clones average double-figures, led by Donovan Jackson at 16.2 ppg. Nick Weiler-Babb contributes 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per night. Iowa State will not be the easy out we anticipated after the blowout loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But Hilton will need to be extra magical to keep them above the middle of the league.
RV Oklahoma State (10-2)
The Cowboys may be the surprise of the Big 12, so far. Picked by a wide margin to finish last, they completed the fall semester 10-2, with respectable losses to Texas A&M and Wichita State, and wins over Pitt and Tulsa. They also gave No. 19 Florida State its first loss in the Orange Bowl Classic. Oklahoma State received votes in the latest AP poll, and would be No. 32 if it were extended.
Held out amid the FBI investigation early in the season, Jeffrey Carroll returned in early December to team with Kendall Smith and Tavarius Shine, giving the team needed scoring punch. Senior Mitchell Solomon continues to be the big lunk in the middle. Eight players average better than 7.5 points per outing, and 11 average ten minutes or more of playing time.
Oklahoma State probably will not be the team to topple Kansas off its perch. But they look more than capable of outpacing the distant last-place prediction meted out to them by the Big 12 coaches.
Kansas State (10-2)
We’re here to be honest. And the honest truth is, even after 12 games, we can’t say with any certainty how good Kansas State is. Part of the reason is lack of quality opponents in non-conference play. Their strength of schedule ranks a putrid 283rd. Not going to learn much from a “test” like that.
The ‘Cats best showing is against Arizona State—a neutral court game that they led for much of the night, but could not hang on to win. It’s never great when the best evidence of your own quality is a loss. In retrospect, it looks as if they may have played over their heads that night. Kamau Stokes shot 7-10 from three-point range, and the ‘Cats put up 90 against a Power-5 opponent. We have not seen an effort since to convince us that the Arizona State game is the norm for this squad.
Perception is also colored a great deal by an ugly loss to a Tulsa squad that should not sniff a tournament berth. Think about this: had K-State eked out a win against the Golden Hurricane in Wichita, it would certainly be ranked, with its only loss coming by two points at the hands of the nation’s No. 3 team. Had Kam’s late 3 dropped against the Sun Devils, they might even be a top-10 team. They are that close.
But after barely stumbling out of Spokane with a win over a mediocre-at-best Washington State club, does anyone have the feeling the Wildcats are on the cusp of greatness? Two plays, and we could be dealing with crazy expectations. Short those two plays, the voters give Bruce’s guys little credit at all. That’s probably just. The best team K-State has beaten is 7-6 George Washington, currently 151st in RPI.
Here is what we can say about the Wildcats: When they shoot it well and get steady performances from their four best players, they can beat nearly everyone. But what is that, really? Couldn’t the same be said of every team in the conference?
No. 12 Oklahoma (10-1)
Predicted by the coaches to finish 6th in the league, Lon Kruger’s Sooners have surged to No. 12 in the AP poll, No. 10 in RPI, on the back of wins over Oregon and USC, along with a 91-83 win in Koch Arena over Wichita State. By now, everyone who cares has heard of Trae Young, the hometown freshman point guard who puts up 28.7 points and 10.4 assist per night, seemingly without breaking a sweat. Has any school ever had the Heisman and Naismith winners in the same school year? It could happen in Norman.
Before the Break, OU beat a fading Northwestern squad, 104-78. The score was 68-38 at the half. Young had 31 points and 12 assists in the contest. He only played 27 minutes. In the previous game, against Northwestern State, he tied an NCAA record with 22 assists.
The question for the Sooners is whether they can get enough contributions from other players to beat elite teams. Christian James (13.4) and Brady Manek (11.3) are the only other double-figure scorers. Khadeem Lattin provides defense in the paint and rebounding, but he has never been a huge offensive threat. Through collective effort, OU has put up 95 points per game. Keep that up, and defense will not be a major concern.
If Young stays healthy and avoids the Freshman wall, this team will outperform prognostications, and could even challenge for the title.
No. 10 Texas Christian (12-0)
Baylor set the blueprint a few years ago: Win the NIT, and climb conference standings the following season. TCU has followed those plans so far, bringing the league’s only unblemished record into conference play. The Horned Frogs are fourth in RPI, with quality wins over St. Bonaventure, SMU and Nevada.
They have not really played anyone with a name, but several schools in the Big 12 (cough, K-State) have just as diligently avoided such opponents. As it turns out, the RPI doesn’t care much about names. Nevada (15), SMU (55) and St. Bonaventure (32) all sport ratings superior to any team K-State has defeated.
The Horned Frogs are led by veterans Kenrich Williams (14.5 ppg) and Vladimir Brodzianski (13.5 ppg), both of whom should just graduate, already. Three others score in double figures, as well, and two more go for over eight per game, making this the most balanced team in the league.
Sophomore point guard Jaylen Fisher (11.9 points, 6.0 assists) keys the attack, and is probably their most indispensable player. They will be tested early, with games against Oklahoma, at Baylor, and hosting Kansas to start league play. We’ll know shortly whether they can follow the Baylor plan further than the Bears did.
No. 22 Texas Tech (11-1)
Tech was picked seventh in the preseason coaches’ poll, just ahead of K-State. So far, the Red Raiders have achieved more. Like TCU, Texas Tech’s biggest win is over Nevada, 82-76. They demolished Northwestern, 85-49, before we all figured out that the other purple Wildcats were overvalued to start the year. Tech’s only loss is to current No. 23, Seton Hall, by a tally of 89-79.
Tech wrapped up the pre-conference schedule by thrashing Florida Atlantic and Abilene Christian, a couple of mostly meaningless victories. Their RPI is 44, though their overall strength of schedule is a modest 193. Tech has displayed a potent offense, putting up 81.7 points per game. But defense is more its calling card. Opponents have managed only 58.7. Scores against tougher competition (Nevada and Seaton Hall) may reveal a chink in the defensive armor. We’ll see soon.
The conference slate begins at home against Baylor, followed by a trip to Lawrence and a visit from the Wildcats. Tech’s gym has been unkind to visitors, and they should expect to start 2-1 if they are a real threat to play above the middle of the Big 12.
RV Texas (9-3)
Don’t let the three losses fool you. Texas is for real. The losses are to No. 4 Duke, No. 20 Gonzaga, and 9-3 Michigan, a team that is receiving votes, none by more than eight points. If the rankings extended beyond 25, Texas would be 30th in the AP. The aforementioned Mo Bamba is a 6-11 freak of nature, with a seven-foot, nine-inch arm span. Rumor has it, he can touch the top of the backboard.
The freshman also seems to understand his role on Shaka Smart’s team. He has nice outside shooting touch, but unlike his predecessor, Isaiah Austin, he does not seem to feel compelled to launch deep balls to avoid contact around the rim or just to prove he can do it.
In their final game before the holiday break, Texas put up an impressive 66-50 win over Alabama. It was impressive because 1) they dominated a decent Alabama squad in Birmingham, and 2) they held hotshot freshman Collin Sexton, who averaged 22 points per game entering the contest, to eight points on 4-of-12 shooting. This team has the athletes to contend. This could be the year that Shaka Smart puts it all together and rises to those outsized Texas expectations.
Too Early Start
League games traditionally began after New Years. That has always meant a couple of games occurred while students remained on break. This year, every team will play a conference game in December. Spring course registration at K-State is January 11, with courses beginning on the 16th. K-State has the fortune of playing in Ames while students are away, followed by the misfortune of playing Kansas in Lawrence January 13, when the students are freshly returned and rabid for a game.
Short of reducing the schedule, a few league games over the break are unavoidable. It is also undeniable that a full student section goes a long way to imparting the magic we associate with rivalry games. I would prefer having the students in Bramlage to razz Huggy. But that game occurs on New Year’s Day. Texas, whose arena is sterile on the best of occasions, will get no student enthusiasm Friday night as it attempts to kick off its assault on a league title against Kansas. The first installment of Bedlam takes place January 3rd in Norman. How can you have Bedlam with no students in the house?
An early start to league play may have been necessary, no matter what. That an additional game got pushed into December only to accommodate playing the Big 12-SEC challenge in January exacerbates the problem. Why not play those games to cap off non-conference play, instead of interrupting compelling league races to go out-of-conference?
You know the answer. Money. Ceding decision-making to the networks. I know I’m howling at the moon. At my age, I think I’ve earned that right.
The team most likely to end KU’s run of league titles is:
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