The first month or so of the season has been a strange one for the Big 12. Somehow, the league that boasts a solid Kansas team, a team that beat Kentucky in Lexington and a contender for freshman of the year is having an identity crisis.
Few Big 12 teams seem to be in a rhythm so far this season. Maybe that’s to be expected -- Baylor has a handful of new freshmen, Texas is missing a key player, and West Virginia and Iowa State have an influx of transfers.
As most college basketball teams are breaking for finals, the schedules are light. And with college football completing its season, this is a perfect time to play catch up with college basketball so far.
We continue our series with the key storylines in the Big 12 heading into conference play.
EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: BIG 12
Other conferences: ACC | Big East
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford
Surprise team: Oklahoma State.
The arrival of freshman guard Marcus Smart has turned things around in Stillwater. He’s improved the play of Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown around him, and the rookie still leads the Cowboys in rebounds (7.4 per game) and assists (five per game). Oklahoma State defeated Tennessee and NC State in Puerto Rico, but a 10-point loss to Virginia Tech signals there may be some more growing pains.
Disappointing team: Texas.
Baylor and West Virginia present compelling cases for being the most disappointing, but Texas sealed this spot by losing to Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. Not having Myck Kabongo to start the season hurts, but should the Longhorns ever be in this position with or without Kabongo? Texas has scored more than 70 points only once all season, and that was in the 86-73 loss to Chaminade.
Where did he come from? Cory Jefferson, Baylor
Baylor has been an enigma this season, but one pleasant development for the Bears has been increased playing time for Jefferson. He was relegated to 10.5 minutes per game last season, but he’s starter on this team. The returns have been 13.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 67.2 percent from the floor.
Where did he go? Deniz Kilicli, West Virginia
Kilicli’s beard disappeared during the offseason, and so did West Virginia’s mojo, it seems. Kilicli’s numbers are down across the board as he’s battled foul trouble at times (he fouled out with five points, five rebounds and five turnovers in the season-opening rout against Gonzaga) in addition to general ineffectiveness. Kilicli had only six points and five rebounds in 33 minutes in a 60-56 loss to Duquesne on Tuesday.
Key stat: Jeff Withey’s blocks.
Since the NCAA Tournament, the Kansas center has averaged 5.4 blocks in his last 14 games. If he keeps up his rate for this season (5.6), he’ll be the first player in two seasons to top the five blocks per game milestone. But more remarkable is how Withey stacks up with Kentucky’s Anthony Davis from last season. Davis averaged 4.65 blocks per game last season. The disparity is just as pronounced over a 40-minute average: Davis averaged 5.8 blocks per 40 minutes last season. Withey has averaged 7.5 blocks per 40 minutes since the NCAA Tournament.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY
Texas guard Myck Kabongo
How long will Myck Kabongo remain in limbo? The Texas guard remains in NCAA purgatory nine games into the season. The NCAA is looking into how he paid for a pro workout in May while he considered leaving early to the NBA draft and if he misled investigators. Texas’ season has been a mess without Kabongo, who started last season as a freshman, but in the meantime the long saga for Kabongo has been a lightning rod for the NCAA’s investigative process. A reminder: When Texas faced UCLA on Saturday, the Bruins’ Shabazz Muhammad, who also faced an NCAA investigation, had been playing for six games.
What is going on at Baylor? The Bears are stocked with NBA prospects, but they’re getting middling results out of this crew. The same team that handed Kentucky its first loss in Rupp Arena under John Calipari also lost to Charleston and Northwestern at home. Even a team as talented as Baylor can’t win when it plays this sloppy, though this is nothing new for the Bears under Scott Drew.
How low will the Big 12 go? Outside of three teams, the Big 12 is short on wins over top competition. That may bite the league when it reaches Selection Sunday. The Big 12 has averaged six NCAA bids from 2008-12 and has never had fewer than four. Meanwhile, the 10 Big 12 teams are 11-13 against teams from other six major conferences. Eight of those wins have come from three teams -- Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor. The league is also 2-8 against Associated Press top 25. The league may not as bad as the Pac-12 has been in recent years, but it may struggle to offer good at-large teams to the field.
BIG 12 POWER RANKINGS
Player of the year watch
Freshman of the year watch
Coach of the year watch
1. Kansas (7-1). Given the rest of the field, Kansas looks like a team that could win another Big 12 title comfortably. Ben McLemore, who sat out last season, has been worth the wait. The freshman scored 24 in a 90-54 rout of a quality Colorado team Saturday.
2. Oklahoma State (7-1). Marcus Smart has stepped in to be a glue guy on a team that went 15-18 last season. As a freshman. He’s the only player in the Big 12 in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and assists.
3. Baylor (5-3). Perhaps Baylor shouldn’t be this high given the Bears’ volatility, but the Big 12 field isn’t that strong. And if Baylor manages to get its act together, it could be one of the Big 12’s best.
4. Oklahoma (6-2). Amath M’Baye (10.6 points, seven rebounds per game) has been every bit the difference-maker expected since his transfer from Wyoming. The Sooners were pounded by Gonzaga and put up a good fight against Arkansas. Facing Texas A&M on Saturday will be a key test.
5. Iowa State (7-3). Transfers again are huge for the Cyclones with Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious leading the way. Clyburn’s scoreless, five-rebound game against Iowa would be more of a concern if he hadn’t already scored 21 points with 15 rebounds against UNLV.
6. Kansas State (7-1). The Wildcats’ best win is by 3 over Delaware in the NIT tipoff. Up next: Gonzaga, which has defeated two Big 12 teams by a combined score of 156-97. A week later: Florida.
7. West Virginia (4-4). Bob Huggins is struggling to find the right mix with a handful of transfers, including Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray.
8. Texas (5-4). The Longhorns are loaded with freshmen and sophomores, so much so that the return of sophomore Myck Kabongo (9.6 ppg, 5.2 apg) is vital to Texas’ playing in its 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
9. Texas Tech (5-1). The record is nice, but the Red Raiders lost 85-57 in its only major test against Arizona. Tech is giving up 71.2 points per game.
10. TCU (6-4). Trent Johnson knew the transition from the Mountain West would be tough, but the Horned Frogs are having enough trouble with Conference USA. Three of TCU’s four losses have come to SMU, Houston and Tulsa by an average of 3.3 points.