Jayhawks remain favorites to reign as Big 12 Champs
March Madness is nearly here. In fact, it may start a littler early if the Big 12 Conference has anything to say about it.
While the Jayhawks of Kansas seem to take the drama out of the chase for the Big 12 basketball title (winning/sharing the regular season title for 10 straight years), if the team wants to make it 11 in a row it will have to outlast a number of contenders.
Currently, six Big 12 teams are ranked in the Top 25 national polls and seven are projected to make the NCAA Tournament bracket. With that many teams breathing down the Jayhawks’ necks, it may be a freaky February that bleeds over into a mad March. Here’s a look at all the contenders in the crazy conference title chase.
First off, a sincere thanks for playing to Texas Tech and TCU. Both the Red Raiders and Horned Frogs have been eliminated from title contention, though both will certainly have a chance to shape the final outcome, especially if TCU keeps rolling after a couple of huge wins recently.
Three more teams bit the dust as title contenders over the weekend as losses by Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State took them out of the race.
Kansas State has had an up and down season that will probably now be most notable for personnel issues surrounding leading scorer Marcus Foster who served a three-game suspension in the middle of the Big 12 season, though even after his return the Wildcats couldn’t quite get back in the hunt.
The Longhorns of Texas, meanwhile, had to deal with the loss of starting point guard Isaiah Taylor early in the season and had a three-game winning streak going recently, but lower production from players like Cameron Ridley and a lack of success against ranked teams late in the season will prevent Texas from living up to the hype as the preseason pick as Big 12 runner-up behind Kansas.
Oklahoma State seemed to play itself into the title chase late in the season, especially with back-to-back wins over #8 Kansas and #20 Baylor, but a perplexing blowout loss to TCU recently seemed to send the Cowboys in the wrong direction.
Life after Marcus Smart has gone better than expected, thanks in part to Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte stepping up their games, but a repeat performance as the second banana in the Big 12 is now out of the question for Oklahoma State.
As for actual contenders, let’s start with the dark horse in this race, Baylor (8:1), because of its relatively easy schedule down the stretch compared to the other top contenders. Sure, the Bears have to travel to Ames on Wednesday to face #14 Iowa State, but the team will then host #23 West Virginia, play at Texas and close with Texas Tech at home. Baylor has already beaten all four of those teams this season.
With the double-double machine Rico Gathers (11.1 ppg, 12.2 rpg) and veteran point guard Kenny Cherry leading the way, the Bears could turn a few heads at the end of the season with a potentially quick rise up the Big 12 standings.
Sitting right above them currently is West Virginia (12:1), a team that was predicted to tie for sixth in the league with the Bears before the season began.
Working against the Mountaineers’ conference title aspirations is a brutal final stretch. West Virginia will host Texas on Tuesday before facing three ranked teams (at #20 Baylor, at #8 Kansas and vs. #22 Oklahoma State). Prior to last Monday’s win over Kansas, the Mountaineers were just 1-5 against ranked Big 12 opponents this season, a trend that can’t continue if the team wants a legitimate shot at a conference title.
While plenty of teams have a shot, the title chase may be a three-horse race when it comes down to it. Right now, Oklahoma (4:1) is the third horse that is lagging a little behind, though the Sooners will have a chance to catch up quickly at the end of the season.
Oklahoma closes out its Big 12 schedule with a road game against Iowa State and a home contest against Kansas. While the team also can’t overlook TCU, it does control its own fate. As winners of six of the last seven, OU has some momentum on its side and could make the final week of the season very intriguing.
Iowa State (3:1) is on the same track and not giving the Jayhawks much breathing room. The Cyclones have the advantage of playing the final two ranked teams on its schedule (#20 Baylor, #17 Oklahoma) at home, while its last two road games will be against Kansas State and TCU.
The Cyclones have proved their mettle this season and have shown their depth and versatility, particularly in the form of star forward Georges Niang (14.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.4 apg) and if the Jayhawks slip, they will be ready to take the crown.
Until someone unseats Kansas (2:1), though, the Jayhawks will remain the perennial favorites in the Big 12. The race may be closer than years past, but KU is still in the driver’s seat coming into the home stretch.
After a rivalry game against K-State, the Jayhawks will host Texas and West Virginia, but the game to watch will be the final game of conference play at Oklahoma. The Big 12 regular season title could potentially be on the line in that game, with Iowa State watching with great interest.
While the Jayhawks have had their inconsistencies this season, coach Bill Self has the team rounding into form once again. If the team plays with a chip on its shoulder in the final games (especially against West Virginia), there’s no question that Kansas can lock up an 11th-straight conference title.
No matter what happens, it’s clear an exciting conference season could carry over into March Madness. While some question if the league is as good as its rankings show, I believe the battle-tested Big 12 teams should open even more eyes once the NCAA tournament begins and some teams will also have some pretty good odds at possibly claiming a national title.