• BIG NIGHT IN THE KCAC — The KCAC men’s basketball race is going to take some semblance of shape tonight.
The top four teams are in action against each other.
The marquee game is in Hillsboro, where Clair Oleen’s Bethany Swedes host Tabor. Both teams are 5-1 in KCAC play and arguably the two teams with the most individual talent.
The Swedes are trying to stay afloat without standout Gary Jones, who has been sidelined reportedly with an academic issue. The springy Jones was well on his way to first-team KCAC honors before his off-the-court question came up. It is thought he’ll be back for the second semester.
The Swedes are disproving the theory that defense wins championships, as they generally prevail simply by outscoring teams as they play at a dizzying pace. Bethany’s Cody Harris, a transfer from a junior college in Minnesota, is an amazing talent who can get his shot anytime he wants it. Balance, though, has been a Bethany trademark, as Jonathan Gidson, Larry McLin, Brandon Huskey and Devin Smith are all capable of scoring in double figures.
Tabor is still my pick to win the KCAC, even after Lance Carter was dismissed from the team. The Bluejays have a lot of upperclassmen with considerable experience and like Bethany has loaded up on junior college transfers.
The other big game tonight pits 4-2 third-place teams Saint Mary and Friends, who meet in Wichita. The Falcons have been a surprise to me as I really thought after covering them against Central Christian College, they would be in the second division. They make teams play their pace, which could be hard tonight since Saint Mary plays as fast any team in the KCAC.
Southwestern is alone in fifth at 3-3, but McPherson College can catch the Mounbuilders tonight with a win at the Sport Center. The Bulldogs are one of four teams locked in a battle for sixth place at 2-4 in the conference. Mac has to be kicking itself for losing back-to-back December games against Bethel and Kansas Wesleyan, which came during the Bulldogs’ darkest stretch of the year. A win tonight and Mac could work its way back toward the upper division.
• LOOK WHO’S IN FIRST — We’re not even three weeks into the Big 12’s conference play and already the cream has risen to the top.
We’ve barely gotten started and already the Kansas Jayhawks — trying for their 11th straight outright or shared championship — are the only team without a loss at 3-0.
KU has played two of its three games at Allen Field House, but its lone victory was a biggie — at Baylor, which knocked off Iowa State on Wednesday to hand the Cyclones their first conference loss.
Of course, many of the so-called experts had written off KU’s chances this year. One computer even spit out numbers that had KU going 10-8 in Big 12 play.
Maybe that has given the Jayhawks motivation. Granted, this may not be one of Bill Self’s best teams and has more deficiencies than any KU team I can remember. It doesn’t have its usual height and shoots the ball poorly from the field. It also doesn’t have any senior and junior leadership — junior Perry Ellis should be a leader, but he spends much of the time like a turtle in his shell.
The trendy pick before the season was Texas, but the Longhorns already have dropped a pair of eggs. Oklahoma also has floundered a couple of times already. Right now, KU has a one-game lead in the loss column over Iowa State, Kansas State and West Virginia. I had K-State in the top three before the season and maybe the Wildcats are finding themselves now that Marcus Foster is over his pity party and playing up to his capability.
What has separated KU from the other teams in the past is its ability to win on the road. If the Jayhawks can go 5-4 in the Big 12 away games, I’m guessing they’ll once again be the champion.
• INVITATIONAL PAIRINGS — The first night of the McPherson Invitational generally hasn’t drawn big crowds in recent years, but that could change this year.
Old rivals McPherson High and Hutchinson hook up in Thursday’s first round. The Salthawks were easily the Bullpups’ biggest rival until the teams switched divisions. They still have a yearly matchup, but it’s not like the home-and-home series of days gone by.
Shawnee Mission East and Blue Valley West know each other very well, so that’s another rivalry game in the first round. Wichita Heights and Maize are both from the same area and a very good team will be playing in the sunshine on Friday.
The other first-round game matches Manhattan and tourney newcomer Mill Valley.
I’ll be terribly disappointed if the Roundhouse isn’t rocking next week, especially on Friday and Saturday.