The Big 12 is set for a heavyweight fight between two national powers this season, but unlike past seasons those schools aren’t named Kansas or Texas. This time around it’s Baylor and Missouri who rolled through non-conference play undefeated and then opened Big 12 action with another win. In a year where this conference saw Oklahoma State’ football team break through and win a championship, are we going to see another new face at the top in basketball?
Missouri isn’t exactly a “new face”, even if they’ve never won the Big 12 regular season title. The Tigers are a consistent NCAA Tournament team and made to a regional final as recently as 2009. They have an explosive backcourt. Flip Pressey is an excellent floor leader, while Marcus Denmon and Kim English keep the pressure on offensively. Michael Dixon adds depth to the guard rotation. The problem Mizzou will face is trying to get some help from Ricardo Ratliffe up front. It’s tough to see them winning a rugged conference or being a real Final Four threat without someone else stepping up inside.
Baylor’s got the horses up front, with Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and the 6’9” freshman Quincy Miller all banging the boards and producing point. It was the guards that were the question mark coming into the season, but Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip have answered the questions positively. Jackson in particular, has done a great job running the show. If you’re a Baylor fan, the fun didn’t stop the moment Robert Griffin III walked off the field in the Alamo Bowl. You’ve got a team that is, dare we say, arguably the best in the nation. They are the Notebook pick for the Big 12 crown and I would have them in my Final Four if the brackets came out today.
The rest of the conference can break down as follows….
Kansas: The Jayhawks have had an up-and-down December, getting solid wins over Georgetown, Ohio State and then grabbing an early league win over Kansas State. They’ve also lost to Kentucky and Duke, which is hardly a cause for major alarm, but it does suggest the Jayhawks aren’t in the national elite and a defeat to Davidson was a head-scratcher. Coming into the season Bill Self had to get some pieces put in place around forward Thomas Robinson, an All-American candidate, and Tyshawn Taylor, a very solid point guard. To date, it hasn’t happened, and Self needs consistency from guard Travis Releford and center Jeff Whitey.
Texas: Rick Barnes’ program usually muscles you inside, but this year they are soft on the interior, while having a very good backcourt. The Longhorns’ guard trio of J’Covan Brown (a dynamic scorer with 19 ppg), Sheldon McClellan (freshman impact player) and Myck Kabongo (good distributor and the best name on a power conference team) will have to carry UT as far as they go. Which is probably the NCAA Tournament, but not much more.
NCAA TOURNAMENT CONTENDERS
Kansas State: A major rebuilding project was ahead in Manhattan and I’d have to say that Bill Martin is progressing ahead of schedule, with his only losses being to Kansas and a double-overtime heartbreaker at West Virginia. K-State needs a really good point guard to compete in a league with a lot of good quarterbacks on the basketball court, as well as the football field. But in the meantime swingman Rodney McGruder, post man Jamar Samuels and rebounder Thomas Gipson are keeping them afloat and alive for a shot at the Dance.
Iowa State: The non-conference resume doesn’t grab you, although a win over Iowa looks better now than it did at the time, as the Hawkeyes have won a couple Big Ten games. The personnel does jump out at you, led by 6’8” sophomore Royce White, who’s a rebound per game away from averaging a double-double. Melvin Ejim gets to the glass and there’s a good backcourt rotation of Chris Babb, Chris Allen and Scott Christopherson. A win over Texas earlier this week shows the Cyclones may be coming together.
Texas A&M: Based on what they’ve done on the floor the Aggies are not a contender. The only win of note is over St. John’s, and they did mix a loss to Rice in with more understandable defeats to Mississippi State, Florida and Baylor. But like Iowa State, there’s a personnel package that suggests some meshing could happen. The frontcourt is solid, a must in a physical league, with Khris Middleton, David Lobeau and Ray Turner. The two-guard is in good hands with 6’5” Elston Turner averaging 14 a game. The Aggies need a floor general and if they find one they can take off in a hurry.
Oklahoma State: At 8-6, the Cowboys are doing some serious rebuilding. They’ve got a nice forward tandem at Le’Bryan Nash and Jean-Paul Olukemi, and they get good guard play from Keiton Page. But Page isn’t a true playmaker and the team lacks a legit post man. Because of this trio, they’re interesting in individual game matchups, but over the long haul, they have no shot at the NCAAs without improvement at the point and the post.
Texas Tech: At 7-6, the highlight of the Red Raider season is a win over Cal-State Bakersfield. Time to get Coach Knight back in town. His introductory press conference in Lubbock back in 2001 was one of the great moments in hoops and I’m annoyed I can’t find it on YouTube.