Owen Kemp of Rock Chalk Talk and SB Nation Kansas City is the RTC Correspondent for the Big 12 Conference.
A Look Back
The two-week holiday stretch has come to a close and teams across the Big 12 are wrapping up those few final tune ups and preparing to dive head first into the conference season. A time of year that sometimes tends to be slow in the college basketball world proved rather interesting in Big 12 country as a few teams that were once viewed as contenders, now look like pretenders and vice versa.
To start things off, the Baylor Bears have gone from a team that may have been exposed to one searching for solid footing. After the eyebrows were raised in a loss to Gonzaga, the Bears would lose two of their next three with a narrow win over Texas Southern on Sunday. The Bears are still a team with a high ceiling and tons of athleticism, but they are definitely seeking an identity after losing much of what made the team tick a year ago.
On the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Missouri Tigers. Mike Anderson has his team playing at a very high level and Missouri is being talked about as a team that could make a run at the Big 12 title and perhaps put together an impressive March. A win over a ranked Illinois team highlighted the break, but the Tigers were just as impressive in blowout wins over Northern Illinois and Old Dominion.
Another team solidifying its place in the conference hunt was Texas. Rick Barnes went on the road and came away with wins over North Carolina and Michigan State before routing Coppin State on New Year’s Eve. The win against Michigan State was the most impressive, as the Horns dominated Tom Izzo’s group in Lansing, giving the Spartans their first non-con loss at Breslin since 2003.
Over in Lawrence, the Kansas Jayhawks continued to defend its home court winning streak while also getting a win in ugly fashion on the road at Cal. Kansas remains undefeated on the season, but hasn’t looked overly impressive until getting back on track Sunday with a win over Miami of Ohio. Josh Selby who joined the team just before the break has looked every bit the part of a top recruit and has already worked his way into a starting role with Kansas.
The other team in Kansas, the one originally expected to win the conference, has fallen on some hard times. Senior leaders Curtis Kelly and Jacob Pullen were both suspended for a portion of the season following improper benefits taken from a local department store. The loss of the players was met with a loss on the court to UNLV in Kansas City. The good news is that since that point, the team seems to have responded and new players have stepped into larger roles for the Wildcats. Now we’ll see how they respond with Pullen’s return.
Elsewhere Texas A&M, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Colorado all held steady against a splattering of tune up opponents and at the moment the Big 12 actually has 9 teams with double-figure wins and Baylor sits just a game out. Marquee wins out of the group include a road victory by the Cyclones over an ACC opponent in Virginia, and Colorado handling Indiana in a holiday tournament.
Oklahoma State dropped their first major test when they lost by a wide margin to a surging Gonzaga Bulldogs team that was left for dead after a 4-3 start to the season. Rounding out the bottom of the conference, both Oklahoma and Texas Tech did little to change the opinions of their skeptics. Both teams enjoyed wins over the break but neither beat anyone of any substance and so it went, life in the bottom of the Big 12.
1. Kansas (13-0) – Kansas struggled a bit and played to the level of their opponent in two of three games over the break, but in a win over Miami of Ohio, they once again looked like a team that has all the tools to win a seventh straight Big 12 conference title.
2. Texas (11-2) – Texas went to Greensboro and defeated North Carolina and then took a trip to East Lansing where few come away with a victory against Tom Izzo and the Spartans. Now this is the point last year where the Longhorns fell apart, but at the moment they look to be well positioned for a run at the conference title.
3. Missouri Tigers (13-1) – Missouri might be playing as well as anyone right now and the win over Illinois certainly makes a statement. The Tigers are up to #8 in the national polls and could probably make a solid argument for a ranking higher than Texas. At this point, the marquee road win by the Longhorns wins out, but Missouri is a scary team as the Big 12 slate creeps closer.
4. Texas A&M (13-1) – A&M still looks like a very strong team but they haven’t jumped off the page of late like the teams in front of them have. A January 15 trip to Columbia should be circled on the calendars of basketball fans, as both of these teams should be ranked and looking for an early edge in the conference hunt.
5. Kansas State (12-3) – Things have seemed off for the Wildcats through much of the early season and that came to a head with the suspension of Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly. Interestingly, those suspensions seemed to have help a few more players to emerge for the Wildcats and when both return this should still be a team very much in the mix if Frank Martin can find the leadership and chemistry he’s been looking for.
6. Iowa State (13-2) – The Cyclones have managed a 12-2 record when many expected them to struggle. Yes, things will get much more difficult with the start of conference play, but right now they deserve some respect with a pair of road wins against rival Iowa and a nine win ACC team in Virginia. This is very much a reward for the moment as this “power” ranking probably won’t be expected to hold.
7. Oklahoma State (12-2) – The Cowboys went on the road and get handled by Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are good so there is no shame in the loss, but losing by 21 and struggling offensively does raise questions as does the rest of the resume. The Cowboys are likely a middle-tier Big 12 team that could cause problems for one or two frontrunners along the way.
8. Baylor (9-3) – Before the break Baylor failed its first major test in Gonzaga. Since then they have dropped two more and right now the pieces aren’t fitting the way they did last year. Scott Drew will work at it and this team has a very high ceiling, but the Bears might take a few lumps along the way.
9. Colorado (10-4) – Colorado definitely looks like a middle to lower tier team in the conference. The early season hopes that they could make a run at the NCAA Tournament might have been a little bit of an overreaction to the return of Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. One more chance at a non-conference win and then the team will likely need to get ten wins in conference, a feat which doesn’t appear likely as of today.
10. Nebraska (11-2) – Nebraska looks like a virtual clone of last year and almost every year with Doc Sadler. Today they sit at #12 nationally in defensive efficiency, but don’t let that fool you, they’ve done it before. Once conference play starts they will make it ugly and they’ll force teams to earn it, but the Huskers won’t have the firepower to keep up and that defensive ranking will slowly drop.
11. Texas Tech (7-7) – Tech goes 2-1 over the break, and believe it or not, the one loss showed some promise as they almost managed to clip a decent New Mexico team that sits 10-3 and recently beat fellow Big 12 team Colorado. That’s enough to move Tech ahead of Oklahoma and provide just a glimmer of hope that the offensive talent on this team might buy into the defensive effort that’s going to be necessary to win a few in the conference.
12. Oklahoma (8-6) - Oklahoma wins two over the break and now has wins in four of their last five. Problem is, none are anything to lend any more confidence to what this group can do. The conference season kicks off with A&M , Baylor and Texas, which represents the stretch that should end the Sooners hopes of any major strides this season.
A Look Ahead
This week signals the start of the conference season as five games set for Saturday pairing conference foes. Kansas State and Oklahoma State could be a highlight as Jacob Pullen returns, but the Wildcats will still be without Curtis Kelly in a dangerous first game. Missouri heads on the road for the second time this year when the play in Boulder and take on the Colorado Buffaloes. The Tigers have looked very good of late, and they travel well to Boulder so it might be a nice way to ease into a tricky Big 12 road schedule. Also on the docket are Iowa State vs. Nebraska, Baylor vs. Texas Tech and Texas A&M vs. Oklahoma.
Even with ten teams playing in conference games, the one to watch is outside the conference and once again it’s Texas. If there’s one thing you have to give Rick Barnes credit for, it’s challenging his team. The Horns will welcome ninth-ranked Connecticut on Saturday in another game that could help cement Texas as not just a Big 12 title contender but also a national title contender. What’s more impressive is that this game completely overshadows a good contest on Tuesday night, when Texas takes on a 10-2 Arkansas team.
Player of the Year Watch (No Specific Order)
Jacob Pullen – (16.5 PPG, 3.8 APG, 40% FG) Trending Down. First, Pullen was just facing questions about his numbers being down. Now, he’s facing questions about his focus and leadership qualities. Not a good recipe for a player of the year award.
Marcus Morris – (15.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 62% FG) Trending Down. Morris comes off the bench for two straight games while his coach called him out for letting the Cal game get under his skin. Both times he responded, but he’ll need to prove he can carry the burden consistently to take Big 12 POY honors.
Alec Burks – (19 PPG, 51% FG) Trending Down. Burks is leveling off, as is Colorado. This team will need to show another level if Burks is going to continue to get consideration. Fact is, you don’t win POY awards when your team isn’t in the hunt.
Jordan Hamilton – (19.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG) Trending Up. Hamilton continues to be the leader of a team with arguably the best set of wins in the conference. If Texas makes a run in the conference, Hamilton could be the favorite.
LaceDarius Dunn – (21.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 43% FG) Even. Statistically, Dunn is still performing, as a team Baylor is not. That’s the difference at the moment.
Marcus Denmon – (17.6 PPG, 2 SPG, 52% 3P%) Trending Up. If the season ended today, this is my vote. Problem is, conference play hasn’t started yet. Without a doubt Denmon will be in the running though.