Kansas has become to Big 12 basketball what the Bobby Cox-era Atlanta Braves used to be in the National League East. It doesn’t matter if it looks like a rebuilding year or if everybody is back—the Jayhawks are going to find their way to the top of the Big 12. They’ve won or shared the conference championship ten of the last eleven years, including eight straight. Whether they’ll do it again will be the focal point of our overview of the Big 12 basketball landscape, as conference games start on Saturday afternoon.
Bill Self’s team looks like a vintage Jayhawk club, ranked sixth in the nation after the run of non-conference games. The one loss came early to Michigan State, but in between KU has beaten St. Louis, blown out Colorado and then got a big win at Ohio State on the Saturday before Christmas. Kansas has good size in the backcourt with 6’5” Ben McLemore and 6’6” Travis Releford. Even point guard Elijah Johnson is relatively tall at 6’4”. Smaller guards are at a disadvantage, and all three guards shoot the ball well, particularly Releford who is a lights-out 62 percent from the floor and 44 percent behind the arc.
Don’t think Kansas is all about the backcourt though, not with 7’0” senior Jeff Withey occupying the low post and averaging 14 points/8 rebounds per game. Kevin Young chips in seven boards a game at power forward, as he fills the thankless role of low-profile rebounder his team will need.
What it boils down is that anyone who beats out Kansas and takes their crown away is going to have to be very well put together and find a way to play its best games when they count the most.
Kansas State and Oklahoma State are the only other teams ranked in the Top 25, each at the bottom end of the poll. Baylor made a regional final a year ago and has turned itself into perennial contender. Any challenge to Kansas is going to come from this group.
Kansas State: The hard-nosed Frank Martin’s team has only lost to Michigan and Gonzaga and gotten a win over Florida. The Wildcats are perimeter-oriented with Angel Rodriguez running the offense, Rodney McGruder being the key scorer and Will Spradling being a good complementary option. No one really shoots the three-pointer well though, and there’s a lack of a true post presence. Martin has found enough rebounding from starting forward Thomas Gipson and bench work from Nino Williams and 6’11” Jordan Henriquez. They have enough to put together a good season, but not enough to compete with Kansas.
Oklahoma State: A win over N.C. State and a one-point loss to Gonzaga on New Year’s Eve mark a good run through non-conference play. Freshman point guard Marcus Smart has emerged as a quality playmaker and 6’7” sophomore Le’Bryan Nash is a scorer, a decent rebounder and can block shots. Markel Brown provides scoring help from the perimeter, but like Kansas State, there’s no reliable low-post option in the offense. They get enough rebounding from senior Philip Junk and Michael Cobbins of the bench, but I think you have to put them on the same level as K-State—a solid team, but not in Kansas’ class.
Baylor: Non-conference play was decidedly a mixed bag for the Bears, with the high points being a win at Kentucky, a win over BYU and I guess we’ll give them a win over St. John’s, even though the Red Storm have their share of problems. But there was a blowout loss to Gonzaga, a loss to Colorado and a loss to a bad Northwestern team.
Baylor is unranked and deservedly so given those losses, but I think this is the team with the highest upside, and thus the one with the best chance to challenge Kansas. The Bears have a good 7’0” freshman in Isaiah Austin, who’s already averaging a 15/9, and power forward Cory Jefferson is similarly aggressive on the glass and consistent with his offense. It’s tough to extend defensively, with these two down low and the ball-handling skill of Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton. Oh, and Jackson drops 20 points a game. The only piece Baylor is missing right now is long-range shooting and it’s feasible that Brady Heslip could provide that before the year is over.
I wouldn’t pick Baylor straight-up over Kansas—the Bears have shown a tendency to lose big games in conference play in recent years and we still need to see them put all these pieces together on the floor for consistent stretches. But this is the team to keep an eye on if anyone is going to stop Self’s Jayhawks.
STILL FINDING THEIR WAY
Texas and West Virginia each have coaches with a track record of success in Rick Barnes and Bob Huggins, but both are teams looking to find their footing.
Texas: After the Longhorns made a late run to the NCAA Tournament with an extremely young team last year, I thought they’d be in better shape this year. But last year’s extremely young team is still this year’s pretty young team and UT’s rise back to prominence has hit a bump in the road. They’ve lost to Chaminade and USC due primarily to problems up front. Ioannis Papapetrodus, a freshman power forward from Greece is their best inside option, and he’s more effective stepping back to the three-point line. The guards have talent, notably sophomore Sheldon McClellan, but they’ve got a big burden. Don’t write off Barnes putting together an NCAA Tournament run, but expectations again need to be tempered in Austin.
West Virginia: Huggins has got some real depth problems, and no real playmakers in the backcourt. Aaric Murray and Deniz Kilici give the coach some good work at forward, but this is still a time when the Mountaineers have to keep breaking in underclassmen.
THE OTHER FOUR
It’s tough to see any of Iowa State, Oklahoma, TCU or Texas Tech making an NCAA Tournament push, but you can’t rule them out for getting to fifth place and at that point, they at least get in the conversation.
Iowa State: I like the aggressive-rebounding forwards in Will Clyburn and Melvin Ejim, and the playmaking skill of Korie Lucious, but it’s tough to win without either a three-point shooter or a true low post player. It’s even tougher to feel good about a team who lost to Iowa.
Oklahoma: Steve Pledger and Romero Osby give the Sooners a credible guard-forward combo to play with, but two freshman guards have to develop if they’re going to have a good year.
TCU: The fact they lost a game to Northwestern 55-31 says it all. Kyan Anderson is a nice point guard and Garlon Green a forward who can score, but a team that struggled to compete when they were in the Mountain West is not going to magically start winning games in the Big 12.
Texas Tech: Understandable losses to Arizona, Arizona State and Alabama are mixed in with a less logical loss to McNeese State. And other than Arizona, even the understandable losses are nothing notable. Forward Jaye Crockett will provide some excitement in Lubbock, but the help isn’t there.