By Harrison March:
For the first time in __ years of existence, the Big 12 has seven teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
That’s already amazing, but add in the fact that the Big 12 has just 10 teams and it becomes a pretty incredible feat. It’s Christmas time and 70 percent of the NCAA’s best basketball conference is ranked.
Mind-boggling is the closest thing to the right word I can come up with.
Quickly, so we’re on the same page: Texas (9), Kansas (10), Iowa State (12), West Virginia (18), Oklahoma (19), Baylor (22) and TCU (25) are those with the coveted number sign – or hashtag, if that’s what you think that means – next to their names. Toss in Okie State, who received votes to place 37th, and you’ve found yourself looking at the most stacked league in DI hoops.
Pretty crazy, huh? Enjoy it while it lasts.
Conference play is on the horizon that is the first week of 2015, and that’s when the league’s pretenders will be exposed.
The Biggest Offender: TCU (12-0)
In what I consider to be absolutely shocking at first glance, the Horned Frogs are the only undefeated team left in the Big 12. That’s right. The same team that went 0-18 in conference play last season (is that called back-peddling the table?) stands alone with its goose egg in the ‘L’ column.
TCU has one win against a KenPom top-100 team. Barely. It’s No. 93 Mississippi, who opened its season with a loss to the Charleston Southern Bucaneers. From there on down, TCU’s schedule looks downright ugly.
Featuring the likes of the Prairie View A&M Panthers, the Furman Paladins and McNeese State Cowboys – you know, from the state of McNeese – TCU’s average foe checks in on KenPom’s rankings just below No. 246 in the nation. And oh yeah, that’s out of 351.
The Horned Frogs, on average, square off against teams from Division I’s bottom 30 percent, so an 11-0 record against those such teams leads to an extreme over-rank of the men in purple. They’re undoubtedly an improved squad from last season, but a legitimate top-25 team they are not.
Honorable Mentions: Oklahoma, West Virginia and Baylor
**Here’s where I cover my tail by saying being a ‘pretender’ in the Big 12 is not a bad thing by any stretch, it simply means a conference title is out of that team’s reach. A pretender in the Big 12 could very well head over to a conference with less top-tier teams and hold its own (looking at you, Big Ten and Pac-12). I’m not slighting these teams, but rather saying this isn’t their year to win the Big 12. End disclaimer.**
Oklahoma is a team on the cusp of becoming a Big 12 contender. Many picked Lon Kruger’s bunch as a dark horse to dethrone Kansas, but this team just isn’t quite ready. Two of the Sooners’ three losses are quality losses – if you believe in those – with the lone exception coming courtesy of a blown 18-point lead against Creighton.
However, this is a poor shooting team (43.9 percent) that doesn’t share the rock well (just 13.5 assists per game). If those numbers are so low after contests against Southeast Louisiana, Northwestern State and Weber State, we aren’t going to see an uptick when conference play gets going.
Though it’s way too early to start calling next year’s conference race, the 2015-16 season could be the breakthrough for Oklahoma. Rebound machine Ryan Spangler and leading scorer Buddy Hield will be back for their senior campaigns, while the team will only be graduating 12.8 points and 7 rebounds.
West Virginia puts up nearly 79 points per contest – good enough for 23rd in the country – but does so by being a volume shooting team. The Mountaineers shoot even worse than Oklahoma (41.8 percent), but make up for some of it with the NCAA’s best offensive rebounding (19 per game).
Expect that number to drop, however, when West Virginia starts fighting for boards against longer, more athletic Big 12 teams than the Mountaineers have faced to date. At just 20.4 defensive rebounds per game (that’s 328th nationally), the opportunities for volume shooting won’t be as prevalent and the Mountaineers will fall off a bit.
Baylor has been a pleasant surprise in the Big 12, given the loss of Brady Heslip and Cory Jefferson to graduation and Isiah Austin to the NBA draft. The Bears could have easily been stuck in the ominous ‘rebuilding phase,’ but instead have shown their defense, which allows just 55 points per game, can carry them much like their balanced offensive attack did last year.
The catch with that stellar defense is that it hasn’t led to strong offense. Baylor’s offensive output is down from last year and sits dead last in the Big 12 by a few points. The Bears’ defense will keep them in games this year, but their lack of offense will keep them from getting over the hump against upper-level teams.
So Who Wins The Big 12?
If you haven’t done the math in your head yet, it’s a three-horse race between Kansas, Iowa State and Texas.
As I write, Kansas is getting blown out of the gym by Temple for its second loss of the year. In both Jayhawk losses, however, they’ve shot just terribly (19.6 percent vs. Kentucky and 32.1 percent vs. Temple). As far as the eyeball test goes, Kansas just seems to not have ‘it’ this season. There’s plenty of time to turn that around, but I like to think they won’t and that the Jayhawks won’t win the conference for the first time in a decade.
Everyone knows Iowa State has one of the most high-octane offenses in basketball. The Cyclones are No. 9 in points (84.6) and shooting (50.6 percent), as well as No. 2 in assists (19.4). The defense, however, conceded a Big 12-worst 68.5 points per game. We’ve only seen this ISU outfit at full strength once this season, and while it resulted in an 83-54 win, it was against a bottom-feeding Drake team. At this point, it’s too early to tell if Jameel McKay will make enough impact on the defensive side to put Iowa State on top.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of this lengthy, accurate and no doubt entertaining breakdown of the Big 12 as it currently stands. I want to commend you for making it this far, because it either means you really care about what I have to say or have found a way to occupy your time while very bored. Well done.
As things appear a little past one-third of the way into the season and with Big 12 play just around the corner, Texas looks to claim the crown. I want to extend my preemptive congratulatory remarks to Rick Barnes and the Longhorns, who are simply one hell of a basketball team.
Texas’ length will be unmatched in league play and that will be its X-Factor to a fantastic defensive effort this year. The Longhorns currently grabs the most defensive boards of any team in the league (31.5), are fourth in blocks (7.6) and sixth in points allowed (53.4).
The Longhorns will suffocate offenses, evidenced by their holding of No.1 Kentucky to just 63 points in Rupp Arena – almost 14 points below the Wildcats’ average – in their lone loss of the season. They’ll defend home court in league play, but a few road losses are likely against quality opponents. Texas finishes 27-5, 14-4 Big 12 to reign supreme in basketball’s toughest conference.
It’s a stacked conference. It’ll be an exhilarating 18 games for every team (save Texas Tech), but Texas stands above the rest. If you aren’t excited for January through March in Big 12 country, you may need to check your pulse.