The wide-open Big 12: Oklahoma, West Virginia and who else could catch Kansas
Is this the year someone finally wins the Big 12 besides the Jayhawks?
The Jayhawks frontcourt is thin, they're living and dying by the 3-point shot far too often, and thus far, they've yet to develop a steady post presence that will anchor them on both ends of the floor opposite Udoka Azubuike. Throw in the rise of Texas Tech, Oklahoma and West Virginia, among others, and there's a realistic possibility that The Streak could fall this season.
So with Big 12 play off the ground but still in its early stages, which team has the best chance of knocking off the Jayhawks and assuming the podium atop the league standings at regular season's end? Or, like clockwork, will Kansas win its 14th straight? Let's take a look at the conference race by handicapping the field from most likely to least likely to win the league.
A home loss to Texas Tech in game two of Big 12 play has many believing 2018 might be the year KU's reign over the Big 12 finally ends. But the Jayhawks responded nicely this weekend with a road win over a ranked TCU team in Fort Worth proving that, despite the Red Raiders slip up, smart money is still on the league running through Lawrence once again.
Kansas undeniably has glaring deficiencies, but a lot of those could be remedied quickly if big man Silvio De Sousa gains eligibility by the NCAA. Getting former five-star Billy Preston into action would be icing on the cake for KU's front court, too, although his situation remains more murky.
So my suggestion is simple: don't bet against a Hall of Fame coach whose got the Big 12 preseason player of the year in Devonte' Graham on his side. The margin seems as if it might be razor thin in 2018 in comparison to seasons of old, but KU's still the right bet to take the crown. Simple because KU's done nothing but take the crown for 13 seasons and counting.
After taking care of business against the Sooners on Saturday and keeping Trae Young in check (relatively speaking), the Mountaineers are looking more and more like they're on a semi-level playing field as Kansas. They're now an incredible 13-0 since losing the season opener to Texas A&M and a perfect 3-0 in Big 12 play with three of their next four games at home.
Add in the fact that Mountaineers forward Esa Ahmad is expected to make his season debut on Jan. 13 against Texas Tech, and it's hard not to like WVU's prospects moving forward. Ahmad put up 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, and his presence alone might be the difference between a regular season Big 12 title and finishing runner-up to Kansas for a third straight season.
Winning on the road against Kansas was big time. But for new coach Chris Beard, it's the first of many obstacles his team must hurdle if they are to overtake the top of the league standings.
That won't be easy to do, especially with road trips to Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State looming in January. The Red Raiders will be plenty tested over the next few weeks and we'll find out whether they can maintain their wicked good start that has them atop the conference at a perfect 3-0 with wins over KU, K-State and Baylor.
If you're looking for a sexy sleeper pick, though (Texas Tech's never won a regular season championship), the Red Raiders are a fun pick. And they've got the best win of any team in the league under their belt in the early going with their handling of Kansas on the road.
The Sooners made a statement in their Big 12 opener by ending TCU's winning streak that, at the time, was longest in the country. They've since fell back to Earth and fallen to 2-1 thanks to a stellar West Virginia defensive effort that limited the Sooners high-powered offense in Morgantown.
The misconception with Oklahoma is that its only weapon is Trae Young, which is one I'm here to dispel. Gunning alongside him in the backcourt is super sharpshooters Kameron McGusty and Christian James, and fellow freshman Brady Manek has quietly established himself as one of the best stretch big men in the league.
The Sooners don't have an elite defense but their explosive offensive attack led by Young is putting up an NCAA-best 94.4 points per contest. That will be enough to keep them afloat in the league race deep into February, and perhaps all the way to the top of the standings come March. I wouldn't bet against Trae Young and I certainly wouldn't recommend it.
After a red-hot 12-0 start, TCU's been taken down notch by losing two of its three Big 12 tilts in the early going.
The positive note if you're a Horned Frogs faithful, though, is that this isn't your grandpa's TCU team. Jamie Dixon's team has been competitive in each of its two losses, and both came to OU and Kansas -- two teams I fully expect to contend for the conference crown.
While I think contending for the league crown is probably out of reach this season, the Frogs are a bonafide NCAA Tournament team in year two of Dixon's reign. They've got the talent to unload some shockers before the season ends and with West Virginia and Texas Tech scheduled for battles in Fort Worth over the next month, we could see the ceiling of this TCU team sooner rather than later.
So which team will we see the rest of the season? Fresh off a win over the Longhorns Saturday, I'd lean towards the latter version. But I'm none too sure just because of the up-and-downs this team has endured already.
The Bears' talent assimilation is fascinating and fun -- Jo Lual-Acuil is a legendary shot blocker, and shot-making wizard Manu Lecomte can catch flame in an instance -- but I'm not trusting the blend of youth that Scott Drew's relying on this season to win the league at this point, as turbulence lies ahead.
After a dreadful 11-22 campaign in 2016, Texas' outlook for 2017-2018 was much brighter. Shaka Smart brought in a lottery pick freshman in Mo Bamba, and he's accumulated a wealth of talent around him that suggested Big 12 title contention wasn't out of the question this season.
So far though, UT's talent hasn't yet translated to winning big under Shaka Smart, whose Longhorns have stumbled into a 1-2 conference start and projects as a 7-seed in Jerry Palm's updated bracket. The Horns are trending in the wrong direction, but its stellar defense which ranks fifth in efficiency at KenPom has the ability to cover up some of their deficiencies on offense.
It's too early to rule out a turnaround for Texas in the conference race though, and if you're looking for a team that's got a remarkable ceiling with loads of talent, Texas certainly falls into that category.
Picked to finish last in the Big 12 preseason, Mike Boynton's led Oklahoma State to an impressive 11-4 mark and is fresh off an overtime win over Iowa State on Saturday. Additionally, the Pokes have three winnable games upcoming -- at Kansas State, at home against Texas, and on the road against Baylor before round two of Bedlam in Stillwater on Jan. 20.
Win two of four in that stretch, and they would be in good position moving forward to stay out of the cellar of the league. On Wednesday, they'll play against a K-State team that will be without its starting point guard, Kamau Stokes, who is out indefinitely with an injury. That certainly improves OSU's chances to steal a win in a tough road environment.
Starting point guard Kamau Stokes is out indefinitely after suffering a foot injury on Saturday, leaving coach Bruce Weber without his top assist man and third-leading scorer. That's not good news, obviously. And to make matters even worse, K-State opened up league play 1-2 with him in the lineup. I simply don't foresee the Wildcats improving with him off the floor.
Junior's Dean Wade and Barry Brown will have to carry the load until Stokes returns -- if he even does at all -- which is quite a tall task. Will the Wildcats be able to evolve with Brown running the offense and Xavier Sneed stepping into a larger role?
The Cyclones are led by a stellar backcourt headlined by senior Donovan Jackson and freshman Lindell Wiggington. However replacing the production of Deonte Burton, Monte Morris and Naz Long is proving to be a back breaking task for coach Steve Prohm, whose got the third least experienced team in the conference behind only Texas and Oklahoma, according to KenPom.
The Cyclones, although off to a rough 0-3 start in conference, have fallen on the wrong end of two overtime contests. It's entirely possible the Cyclones turn things around and march up this list, with opportunity knocking as early as Tuesday when they head to Lawrence to face a Kansas team that's shown itself to be vulnerable this season at home.
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