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Conference Reset: Can Kansas win a 10th consecutive Big 12 title?

The Cowboys are trying to wrangle the Big 12 crown away from perennial champs Kansas. (USATSI)
The Cowboys are trying to wrangle the Big 12 crown away from perennial champs Kansas. (USATSI)

There are three Big 12 schools currently in the top 13 of the Top 25 (and one), and they're all ranked between seventh and 13th. So the league seems as up for grabs as its been in recent years. Clearly, Kansas is the smart pick until it proves otherwise. But Oklahoma State -- and even Baylor and Iowa State -- are worthy challengers.

Big 12 play gets underway Saturday

Here's the Big 12 Reset:

Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Iowa State

Teams with work to do: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State, West Virginia

Teams already out, barring a miracle: TCU, Texas Tech

Most memorable moment to date: The entire preseason was dominated by talk about this freshman class, and the Champions Classic on Nov. 12 only escalated the conversation. A week later, on national television, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart played his first big game of the season and quickly reinserted himself into the national conversation by dropping 39 points in a 101-80 win over Memphis that was fun for everybody ... except Memphis.

Storyline you were too busy to notice: Most folks realize that Iowa State is good, but did you realize Iowa State is really good and really balanced? The Cyclones are 12-0 and ranked 13th nationally thanks, in part, to four players averaging between 13.3 and 17.9 points per game, and three of those playes -- Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and Dustin Hogue -- are also averaging between 7.5 and 9.8 rebounds per game. Additionally, five different ISU players have already won Big 12 Player of the Week honors this season, which is a record. So Fred Hoiberg seems to have everybody playing with the same goal in mind.

Coach feeling the heat: The name here now is the same as it was in the preseason -- Texas coach Rick Barnes, and it doesn't really matter that his Longhorns are entering league play with an 11-2 record featuring a win at North Carolina. That's nice, sure. But Barnes' future will still be decided by what happens between now and April. UT's first-year athletic director has already nudged Mack Brown into retirement. He'll likely do the same to Barnes unless this season, when it's over, is deemed a success.

Player who needs to step up: Kansas has a pro shooting guard (Wayne Selden), a pro wing (Andrew Wiggins), a pro power forward (Perry Ellis) and a pro big (Joel Embiid). The only thing missing is a pro point guard, and there's no changing that now. But are Naadir Tharpe and/or Frank Mason good enough? They've both been nice at times this season and struggled at times this season. If one of them proves to be a consistent floor leader, there's no ceiling on what Bill Self can achieve with these Jayhawks.

Team better than its record: The Jayhawks are 9-3 but still ranked seventh at KenPom and 13th in the Top 25 (and one), which means they're the best three-loss team in the nation. The losses are all reasonable -- to Villanova on a neutral court, at Colorado and at Florida. So any concerns at KU are small concerns, relatively speaking.

Team not as good as its record: Oklahoma is 11-2, which is great given what the Sooners lost from last season's team, specifically Romero Osby. But the best win is a season-opening win over an Alabama team that's just not every good, and KenPom rates OU as just the eighth-best team in the Big 12.

Three must-see games:

  1. Baylor at Iowa State (Jan. 7)
  2. Oklahoma State at Kansas (Jan. 18)
  3. Kansas at Oklahoma State (March 1)

Player of the Year favorite: Marcus Smart is among the many who were turned off by the hype surrounding Andrew Wiggins, and he's done his part to quiet it. Smart is averaging 17.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists while, at times, carrying the Cowboys. He might go lower in this year's NBA Draft than he would've gone in last year's NBA Draft because this year's NBA Draft will feature Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Joel Embiid and, yes, Wiggins, too. But Smart has hardly hurt his draft stock this season. He's been terrific.

Freshman of the Year favorite: Despite all the comments about how Andrew Wiggins has been "somewhat disappointing," the truth is that he's averaging a team-best 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds against a tough schedule and for a school still projected by most to win the Big 12. Does he have the natural killer-instinct that most greats possess? Perhaps not. But Wiggins is still a top-shelf prospect and splendid college basketball player.

Probable all-league team: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cory Jefferson (Baylor)

Ranking the teams from first to worst:

1. Kansas: Putting KU here contradicts the current Top 25 (and one). But that's because the Top 25 (and one) represents where I believe teams should be ranked now while this is more of a prediction of how I think the schools will finish. Simply put, the Jayhawks are the league's most talented team and reliable program. It would be unwise to bet against them.

2. Oklahoma State: The loss of Michael Cobbins and uncertain future of Stevie Clark could keep OSU from achieving what it might otherwise achieve. But any team with Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash has a shot at something special.

3. Baylor: Kenny Chery has been a solid replacement at point guard for Pierre Jackson. Combine him with two pro bigs (Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin) and a terrific shooter (Brady Heslip), and what Scott Drew has is another roster capable of making a third Elite Eight in five seasons, and perhaps even a Final Four.

4. Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg has quickly become a star in the coaching profession/favorite of NBA general managers, and his team is among the nation's most entertaining. The Cyclones play fast, shoot 3-pointers and score lots of points. When they're on TV, you should watch.

5. Texas: I don't know if Rick Barnes is going to be able to do enough to extend his career, but he undeniably has a scrappy roster that seems determined to give him a fighting chance. Freshman Isaiah Taylor has been a pleasant surprise. He enters league play averaging 11.8 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.

6. Oklahoma: I realize the computers don't love OU, but Lon Kruger rarely has bad teams. A middle-of-the-pack finish seems about right for the Sooners, who are getting a league-best 18.5 points from senior guard Cameron Clark.

7. Kansas State: KSU has wins over Gonzaga, Ole Miss and George Washington but losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte. So the Wildcats have been all over the place. But an eight-game winning streak heading into league play is an obviously nice sign.

8. West Virginia: Bob Huggins hasn't missed the NCAA tournament in consecutive years since 1990 and 1991, but he's at risk of doing it this season. The Mountaineers enter league play with an 8-5 record featuring losses to Virginia Tech and Purdue.

9. TCU: Devonta Abron tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason, which got things off to a rough start for second-year coach Trent Johnson. Kyan Anderson has been nice. But there's just not enough talent at TCU to compete in the top half of this league.

10. Texas Tech: Tubby Smith is a terrific coach who's had a terrific career, but I just don't see how he's ever going to be able to get enough good players to Lubbock, Texas to compete in the Big 12. That's why I was skeptical of the hire. We'll see, I guess. But, either way, his first season at Texas Tech will be a difficult one.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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