It's still KU's title to lose

By Steve Sell
December 30, 2016

The Big 12 begins basketball conference play tonight and the big question is: can anybody catch the Kansas Jayhawks?

KU begins its quest for a 13th straight conference championship, which would tie the collegiate record held by UCLA during the dominating John Wooden era.

I’m kind of looking at Big 12 basketball much like Big 12 football — it’s somewhat of a down year.

While Kansas is highly acclaimed, the Jayhawks certainly have their flaws. The loss of massive freshman Udoka Azubuike for the rest of the season is a monster blow, as it diminishes the Jayhawks’ inside presence. Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg are certainly going to have to step up to complement KU’s peerless perimeter game.

When looking at the other teams, though, they all have more flaws than KU. Iowa State is not quite the same and West Virginia could have trouble at times scoring. Oklahoma is rebuilding and Baylor is talented, but it always seems to underachieve in conference play. Keep an eye on both Kansas State and Oklahoma State, as both seem to be better than expected. I don’t look for a lot from Texas, Texas Tech and TCU.

Here’s how I see the final order:

1. Kansas — Winner and still champion. KU has three of the five best players in the conference in Frank Mason, Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham. How far it goes in the NCAA Tournament depends on the inside game.

2. West Virginia — The Mountaineers resemble their surroundings and their coach Bob Huggins — they play like tough coal miners and have Huggins’ passion. They may shoot it somewhat crooked, but their defense will keep them in every game.

3. Iowa State — “Hilton Magic” alone keeps the Cyclones in the Top 3 as they will lose very few games before their home faithful. An excellent starting five, but a lack of depth hurts them.

4. Baylor — I’ve never been a fan of Bears coach Scott Drew and his passion for playing zone defense, but for the most part it works. The Bears will lose some games they have no business losing, but they could be the second-most talented team in the Big 12.

5. Oklahoma State — Most polls have the Cowboys anywhere from seventh to ninth, but I have great faith in McPherson native Brad Underwood, who has put his stamp on the program in a hurry as the Cowboys’ high tempo is creating havoc. Few teams have guards the quality of Juwan Evans and Phil Forte.

6. Oklahoma — Graduation gutted the Sooners. Jordan Woodard must feel alone without Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. OU needs for Khadeem Lattin to come up big.

7. Kansas State — I don’t know what to make of the Wildcats, whose non-conference schedule must have been drawn up by Bill Snyder as it's as tissue-soft. They are the toughest team to assess, but there seems to be a lot of good pieces here. I love the tenacity inside of D.J. Johnson and versatility of Wesley Iwundu and Dean Wade. It could come down to the consistency of the guards. This is a team that could make the Top 5 if it comes together.

8. Texas — Shaka Smart was supposed to be the savior of Longhorn basketball and shake up the conference, but it’s taking a while for his wild style from VCU to translate to the Big 12. A young team that could spring an upset or two.

9. Texas Tech — The Red Raiders haven’t been much of a factor since joining the Big 12. It can’t be easy to recruit to Lubbock.

10. TCU — We’ll find out tonight if TCU’s 11-1 record is for real. The hiring of Jamie Dixon as coach, however, gives the Horned Frogs immediate legitimacy. They won’t be cellar dwellers for long with him at the helm.