|Jeff Withey and Kansas cut an intimdating figure for the rest of the Big 12 -- once again. (US Presswire)|
Well, well ... hasn't the Big 12 been cruising under the radar for the first eight weeks of the season? You know about Kansas, maybe heard a word or two about Baylor and
Here's our Big 12 reset:
Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor
Most memorable moment to date: Just as Texas earns an ugly win at home over North Carolina on Dec. 19, news breaks that star sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo will be suspended by the NCAA for the entire season due to benefits received last spring. Kabongo is caught smiling and supporting his teams, pulling the upset, as the rest of the college hoops world reacts 15 minutes before Texas receives word. That suspension has ultimately been lowered to 23 games, but Kabongo's strife has caused many to criticize the NCAA harshly once again.
Storyline you were too busy to notice: Kansas' Ben McLemore has been a stud. Like, about-to-enter-Player-of-the-Year-discussion stud. The freshman has been big for the Jayhawks, who are not spare on talent once again. But McLemore hasn't gotten many headlines or been the feature of much discussion so far. Expect that to change with Big Monday around the corner.
Coach feeling the heat: Not one. The closest would be Travis Ford at Oklahoma State, but his seat will only get warm again if the Pokes underperform in the league and/or he doesn't win an NCAA tournament game this season.
Player who needs to step up: Baylor needs a lot more out of junior Brady Heslip, who's putting up 9.9 points a game -- just OK -- but more noticeably isn't shooting nearly as well as in 2011-12. He's down from 92 to 85 percent at the foul line; 46 to 38 percent from the field; and 46 to 36 from 3-point range. Heslip as a reliable deep threat gives the Bears more options within the offense. He's gotta do better for Baylor to be an Elite Eight threat.
Team better than its record: West Virginia ... I think? I hope? The Eers were picked sixth in the league in the preseason. Pretty much everyone outside the Big 12 laughed at the thought this Bob Huggins team would waltz in and be in the bottom half of the league. Turns out, could be. WVU is 7-5 and has not yet beaten a good team. Virginia Tech is the best W.
Team not as good as its record: I remain a little skeptical of Kansas State as a whole. The 11-2 Wildcats earned a good win in Kansas City over Florida, but beyond that -- and I've seen Bruce Weber's team in person this year -- I'm not sure this group is a guarantee for the tournament. Rodney McGruder is being asked to play in a different role/style for his senior season, and the team could be worse off for it.
Three must-see games:
- Oklahoma State at Baylor, Jan. 21
- Kansas at Kansas State, Jan. 22
- Kansas at Oklahoma State, Feb. 20
Player of the Year favorite: I have to go with Kansas' Jeff Withey, the big man who's such an expert shot-blocker for reasons beyond the obvious. Withey is valuable because he not only blocks shots but puts them into play and often can do it near or away from the rim. He's also better -- not great, just better -- on offense and, more than anything, seems to be the rock of this team. That didn't seem possible even a year ago. That's Bill Self coaching.
Freshman of the Year favorite: It is unquestionably Marcus Smart or McLemore. I'll go Smart here because he's truly the glue and all for Oklahoma State. What a player. One of my favorites. Smart is putting up 13 points, six rebounds and five assists per game. He also leads the league in steals and dishes for an assist on 32 percent of Oklahoma State's possessions when he's in the game. Very savvy player.
Ranking the teams from first to worst:
1. Kansas: I mean, what do you want? Kansas is awesome again. It's the league favorite. Again. Bill Self is probably going to win this league, again, for the 28th time in a row. The difference with this year's team is the abundance of scoring options and, overall, just how fun it is to watch play on both ends. Would be surprised if this team didn't get to another No. 1 seed.
2. Oklahoma State: I mentioned Smart's game above. But beyond that, Oklahoma State has to get more consistency out of future NBAer Le'Bryan Nash. This has been the story since he arrived in Stillwater. The thing to remember with OSU on the whole: It has looked good but not beaten the world yet. Tennessee and South Florida are its best wins. Overall, the Big 12 seems a smidge down, so this should -- in theory -- benefit Ford's fledgling team.
3. Baylor: What Nash is to Oklahoma State, Baylor is to college hoops. So much obvious talent and not nearly the consistency. Consistency is hard; Bill Self makes it look easy. Scott Drew's team has four losses, and even the win over Kentucky is downgraded this season because UK is not yet the UK that you know. Freshman phenom Isaiah Austin being a top-five guy in points and rebounds per game has quietly meant so much to this club.
4. Kansas State: Rodney McGruder's 13.7 points average needs to rise to the 16ish area. The Wildcats are adjusting in their first year under Bruce Weber. I'm being optimistic overall here with K-State because I like Weber and this team's chances in the league. But I could very well see K-State slipping to sixth or seventh.
5. Iowa State: The Cyclones are doing A-OK after Royce White left early for the NBA. But the resume isn't strong. Best wins are over a bubblicious BYU team ... and Drake. So give it time, and start paying attention to senior forward Will Clyburn, a guy who's top 10 in the league in points (14.1) and rebounds (10.1).
6. West Virginia: For the first time in a long time, West Virginia is without a go-to playmaker/guy who is the face of the team. Deniz Kilicli gets more touches than anyone, but he works best as a No. 2 or No. 3. option. The group is relatively young -- as it was last year -- but now doesn't have Kevin Jones, who was the best player in the Big East in 2012. I'd expect an uneven route over the next two months. Wins some games that it shouldn't, loses some others that it shouldn't.
7. Texas: If Kabongo was playing by mid-January, I'd probably have Texas fifth. Here's what a lot of people don't realize about the Longhorns: They're really good on defense. Not quite as spectacular as that freak-nasty 2010-11 crew, but still No. 3 overall in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive ranks (registration required for this site). And those ranks normally bode well for teams. If you're in the top 10, you're almost automatically in the NCAAs. Will UT be an exception?
8. Oklahoma: Steven Pledger is a name that I hope gets bigger by March. Like his game. Romero Osby is another under-the-radar Big 12 guy. Lon Kruger is still building a culture with the Sooners, but the bright side is Oklahoma is a 9-3 team. Has yet to prove itself in the non-con, but I wouldn't be surprised if it beat Oklahoma State in Norman.
9. Texas Tech: First-year coach Chris Walker doesn't have an easy task in cleaning up the mess left by fired Billy Gillispie. But a 7-4 record is respectable and at least a nice start -- until you see all the wins are against just the worst of the worst of D-I. SWAC, Summit and Sun Belt teams that only harm a resume, no matter the result.
10. TCU: I think it's a coin toss between the two bottom teams. The Horned Frogs enter league play as a Big 12 member with a 9-4 record and an inept offense that has been able to stave off any more L's so far. Good job by Trent Johnson in his first year there. And if you're looking for a good player on a bad team who could have a few more 20-point games before his career is out, Garlon Green of TCU is your guy.
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