Big 12 Basketball’s Power Trio

Big 12 basketball has shaped up into a three-team race, with all three teams playing legitimate national powers. Baylor, Missouri and Kansas are the only teams with winning conference records after four games, and there’s head-to-head battles involving all three, starting tonight with Baylor’s visit to Lawrence to meet the Jayhawks (9:30 PM ET, ESPN). With today being Martin Luther King Day, Missouri will also be on ESPN against Texas A&M in a 5:30 PM ET tip. If we look ahead to the weekend, it’s a Baylor-Missouri showdown on Saturday (2 PM ET, ESPN) and Kansas gets another nationally televised date, this one with Texas at 4 PM ET Saturday on CBS. With a big week coming up ahead and a great race in the making, the Notebook takes today to evaluate the Big 12’s Power Trio.

Kansas (14-3, 4-0, ranked 10th): The traditional power in this conference doesn’t look dominating this year, but they beat Kansas State decisively to open league action and also beat a decent Oklahoma team. Thomas Robinson is well on his way to Big 12 Player of the Year honors, averaging 17 pts/12 rebs per game. Tyshawn Taylor is excellent at point guard, averaging 16 ppg and shooting the ball pretty well from the floor and very well from behind the arc. Filling in the gaps around his point guard and power forward is the challenge for head coach Bill Self and there are mixed reviews early on.

Travis Releford has made some progress at shooting guard, moving his scoring average into double figures and shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. Going up against a team like Baylor that’s very deep up front, Releford has to open up some room for Robinson to operate in the post. The task of getting Robinson help down low hasn’t fared quite as well. Jeff Whitey, the 7’0” center has been average at best, and wing players Connor Teahan and Elijah Johnson haven’t been able to crash the glass, or score. I haven’t seen this team as championship-caliber all year and still don’t, even if they defend their home floor tonight and take the early conference lead. Robinson is going to have to wake up the echoes of Danny Manning in 1988 and put the Jayhawks on his back if they’re going to be any more than a second or third-place team in the league and 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Which is hardly a disgrace, but the folks in Lawrence are used to a lot more.

Baylor (17-0, 4-0, ranked 4th): Baylor’s powerful front line of Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy has been every bit as good as advertised, as the Bears consistently win the rebounding battles and they get a lot of points from this frontline trio. Jones is the main man who gets the ink, but Acy, with his 13/7 points/rebounds line isn’t far behind, and Miller is a 12/5 man. This group is physically imposing with Jones going 6’11”, Miller going 6’9” and Acy going 6’7”. The backcourt was the question mark and they’ve come through in a big way, with point guard Pierre Jackson running the show and also able to hit 51 percent from the floor and keep defenses from collapsing down. And no one opens up a packed defense like Brady Heslip, the sophomore shooting guard who’s hitting 48 percent of his three-point shots and has been an unexpected boon for the Bears.

The only thing Scott Drew has to worry about is his depth. Baylor hasn’t gotten the production expected from forward Anthony Jones, and there’s no reliable third guard in the rotation. We’ll have to see how the minutes logged by the starters affect them as the season rolls in and we get into February. For now, this is one of the best starting five in basketball, fully capable of a championship run in the regular season and earning a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Missouri (16-1, 3-1, ranked 9th): This is a backcourt that’s very talented and explosive in the starting lineup and very deep. Marcus Denmon and Kim English are as good as duo as there is in America, combining to average 33 points a game. Both shoot the ball very well, sitting in the 50 percent range from the floor and both can nail it from downtown. They don’t get their points by piling up a raw volume of bad shots. Then off the bench comes the Pressey brothers, Matt and Flip. The sons of former NBA player Paul Pressey (a key to the successful Milwaukee Bucks teams of the 1980s), Matt and Flip provide quality depth and would be a respectable starting duo in of themselves, with the only weakness being consistent three-point shooting.

Mizzou is painfully lacking depth inside though, where power forward Ricardo Ratcliffe has to fight lonely battles. The Tigers were hammered on the boards in their one conference loss to Kansas State. It will be interesting to see how Ratcliffe can match up with UK’s Robinson when they play on the prime-time game the Saturday night before the Super Bowl. It won’t be as interesting to see how poor Ratcliffe matches up with Baylor’s threesome. He’ll be outnumbered and it will be up to the backcourt to bail the team out.

It’s very easy to see any of these teams having a big year on a national scale. Baylor is the most complete team. Kansas has the league’s signature player. Missouri can come at you with waves in the backcourt. Now they start playing each other as of tonight, and the Big 12 race is about to get very interesting.