It’s never about picking the winner of the Big 12 basketball race, it’s about picking the correct runner-up.
The Kansas Jayhawks basically have made it a moot point over the last 14 years as they are on an unprecedented run of championships. There were four years, mostly early in the streak, where they shared the title, but they basically have retired the regular-season trophy.
Some are saying this could be KU’s easiest path to the championship in a long time. Even though six of the 10 teams are 11-1 or 10-2, with three teams 8-4 and the other at 6-6, it’s thought to be a rebuilding year in the Big 12 after graduation hit some teams hard and, of course, some of the brightest stars headed to the NBA.
Kansas ascended to No. 1 for a couple of weeks earlier this season before losing to Arizona State in its first true road game of the year. While the Jayhawks currently reside at No. 5, it’s a flawed team (can’t shoot the 3, gives up too many offensive rebounds) that never makes it look easy. If not for a couple of late rallies, they could easily be 9-3 or even 8-4.
Still, it’s hard to overlook their considerable talent and depth. Losing Udoka Azubuike for a stretch forced KU to go small and now it’s trying to get back to playing big. Dedric Lawson has been better than advertised and freshman point guard Devon Dotson has been outstanding. The disappointment is expected one-and-doner Quentin Grimes playing like somebody who needs a few more years in school as he can’t shoot and makes the typical freshman mistakes.
Kansas State was thought to be the Jayhawks’ most serious challenger going into the season, but the Wildcats really don’t have what could be considered a signature win and will be without Dean Wade for another month to 6 weeks. It’s a team that relies greatly on its defense, but I wonder how it’s going to win games on the road when scoring appears to be difficult.
Oklahoma and Iowa State have been surprisingly good so far, while West Virginia and Texas haven’t been as good as expected.
For KU to make it 15 straight, it has to survive a brutal schedule to start conference play. It gets Oklahoma tonight, then goes to Iowa State, has TCU at home and then Baylor on the road, where it always struggles no matter the Bears’ record. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if KU goes 2-2, probably 3-1, after that start. I just don’t see 4-0 in the cards.
Here’s how I see it:
1. Kansas — How can anyone really expect the Jayhawks not to win it? In the balanced Big 12, three or four losses can take the title, which is what I think they’ll have.
2. TCU — Jamie Dixon has done a monumental job of turning the program around and the Horned Frogs have some veterans with tread on the tire. They don’t, however, have the inside presence as last year.
3. Oklahoma — This sounds strange to say, but the Sooners may be better without Trae Young, who was a one-year wunderkind. They are much more balanced and have good size.
4. Kansas State — Hopes were high after last year’s Elite 8 run with a junior-dominated team. But remember that was a Wildcat team that was merely OK until the NCAA tourney, when it caught fire and received help when Virginia was upset in the first round, the first No. 1 losing to a 16 seed. I think Xavier Sneed needs to step up big for the Wildcats to crack the Top 3.
5. Iowa State — The Cyclones are almost impossible to beat at Hilton Magic, so that’s eight or nine wins right there. If they can do anything on the road, picking them 5 might be too low.
6. West Virginia — Bob Huggins is having a hard time replacing his gritty guards Jevon Carter and Dax Miles, who were like coal miners with their toughness. Still a team with a defensive pedigree, making baskets could be a problem.
7. Texas Tech — The most mystifying team. The Red Raiders made a great run last year and lost some key players, yet they’re 11-1. I could be missing the mark badly on them.
8. Texas — Shaka Smart not being able to win big in Austin is puzzling. He had great success at small-school VCU, but his style hasn’t translated to the Big 12. Could be on the hot seat if he doesn’t make the tournament.
9. Baylor — The Bears don’t have their usual array of long-armed defenders and piercing 3-point snipers. Definitely rebuilding.
10. Oklahoma State — A tough out at Stillwater, but not a team that’s going to win many road games. Just not enough offensive firepower.