It's official; all teams are moving into conference play following the Jayhawks narrow victory over Michigan in a game that represented the last Big 12 non-conference game of the season.
The results are pretty impressive. Big 12 teams finished a combined 140-34 in non conference play which leads the nation in non conference winning percentage. Only two teams failed to hit double digit wins which is more or less the benchmark for having a good opportunity at earning your way to the NCAA tournament.
Another impressive stat and a very clear sign of the difficulty in winning on the road in this league is the 217-6 conference record at home over the last two non-conference seasons. Throw in the fact that for the first time in league history the Big 12 once had six teams in the top 25 and it's pretty clear the conference season is set up to be a survival of the fittest type test.
Tipping off Wednesday the Jayhawks are the defending champs. Make that the six time defending champs. Kansas State was picked to win the league prior to the season and they can have that, but who are the threats to Kansas and the contenders in the Big 12 conference?
Throw in the fact that A&M will face road tests against Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State and you have a stretch that is similarly tough to what Kansas will face in running through the North (Kansas State, Missouri, Colorado). One positive on the scheduling front for the Aggies is that they do get to play host to K-State and Missouri which would at this point seem to be the other top teams in the North with Colorado making a strong argument on Saturday.
Statistically the Aggies are a decent team on the offensive end led by sophomore forward Khris Middleton. On the interior 6'8" David Loubeau and 6'7" forward Nathan Walkup provide a physical precense on the interior.
Where A&M will hang their hat is on the defensive end. A&M does a great job of forcing you into lower percentage shots and they are one of the best teams in the conference this year at holding you to just one shot. The Aggies are very much in the mix and with a 2-0 record against top 25 opponents; Mark Turgeon's team is certainly a threat.
Up until Saturday Missouri was on cruise control. The Tigers were playing Mike Anderson's 40 minutes of hell and creating blowout wins against meager non conference competition. Saturday, told a bit of a different story.
In their first real road test (Oregon is bad), the Tigers struggled to create pressure against Colorado, they struggled in the half court offensively, and they had no answer for Alec Burks. The Buffs handed it to them and Missouri looked vulnerable. That said, this is a good and dangerous team if you play into their hands.
From a scheduling standpoint there are no major advantages for Kansas in this one as the two play a home and home. But when you look at the Tigers South slate they do have a tricky road. Away games against A&M, Texas and Oklahoma State and those are three teams that could be playing for tournament spots, certainly two of them are near locks.
As for the Tigers as a team, Marcus Denmon and Ricardo Ratliffe are the stories to date. Denmon had as good a non conference season as anyone in the conference and Ratliffe is the closest thing to a post presence that the Tigers have. Mike Anderson just needs to find a way to run a halfcourt offense through the interior and get Ratliffe more opportunities on the offensive end when their pressure fails.
Statistically Missouri is a top 40 team both in offensive and defensive efficiency. They aren't particularly great on either end, although they do sit near the top in scoring average because they are one of the best at forcing turnovers. Fall into that trap and the Tigers are a threat. Next year is when I think this group has the best shot at the Big 12 title as they lose just one bench player, but they're certainly in the conversation for 2011.
Picked to win it and nothing seems to be going quite right. I could probably go back and find a hundred comments on this website pointing to Denis Clemente's loss as a key reason this team might struggle, but apparently the national media was oblivious to that fact.
Obviously the big early blow with a loss to the Cowboys on the road isn't a particularly good start and things have been far from smooth as the Wildcats looks to get back to full strength and add Curtis Kelly, but don't they have to eventually figure it out? Well, maybe they not.
Kansas State is mediocre at best in terms of offensive efficiency and a huge sign of what Clemente meant to this team can be seen in the rather high turnover percentage. Throw in some less than stellar shooting numbers and an abysmal year from the charity stripe and it's just a team that hasn't looked as expected.
Even on the defensive end things are off. Yes the Wildcats are decent, but they aren't a top 20 defense like they were a year ago.
From a scheduling perspective the Wildcats have already lost one on the road in the South and they'll have to travel to College Station and Austin as well. Baylor at home looked like an advantage early on but at this very moment most would probably rather go to Waco than College Station if they had their pick.
Threat? Yes, absolutely. They were picked by almost everyone to win the thing so now they get to have the pressure to live up to it. Enjoy.
Are you sold on Texas? Once again the National media seems to be. In watching any of the talking heads as they cover Texas you'd think they'd wowed the world with their play this season. Most are saying that Rick Barnes has solved all the issues from a year ago when the Longhorns fell of a cliff.
Maybe he has, but Texas was 17-0 before that happened last year. This year they sit 12-3 with two close losses to Top 10 teams and one loss to USC. I think they look better, but last year was so dramatic it's hard to overcome that line of thinking.
As they do with A&M, Kansas has an edge early with the one matchup between these two being in Lawrence. From there the Longhorns do host Missouri and Kansas State while taking their talents to Boulder for the matchup against a now dangerous Colorado.
From a player perspective this team does feel like it has an identity more so than last year with Triston Thompson and Jordan Hamilton playing the go to role for this team. But what probably helps the cause and the belief that last year can't possibly repeat itself the most is the Longhorns play on the defensive end.
Texas makes life very difficult for teams with their defense and in almost any situation (2P, 3P, #of FT's) they don't give you many chances. Throw in a fairly efficient offense that "VALUE'S the basketball" (Jay Bilas plug) and you have a team that doesn't look all that vulnerable.
Texas was good last year and hit a downhill slide they couldn't stop. Texas is better this year and barring another disaster they might be the biggest threat to Kansas and the Big 12 title.
This is a team that it's hard not to go back and forth on. The expectation was that they would be one of the top three to start the year. It's hard to imagine a coach and a team finding more 6'10" players that can run, jump and play basketball as if they were 6'5" but Scott Drew has that.
Losing 3 of 4 in December just doesn't help the confidence however and after doing so Baylor is a bit of a forgotten player at the moment. But wait just a minute.
Baylor is a team that Kansas will have to go on the road in order to get a win against in the South and it's not going to be easy. LaceDarius Dunn can explode on any given night and the Jayhawks like to support those types of outings it seems. Throw in Quincy Acy and Perry Jones and this is a team that Kansas could run into trouble with. Yep, those long athletic bigs that can attack the basket aren't easy to defend and the Morris twins are prone to fouling.
Statistically speaking they're mediocre on offense and pretty good on defense. Fact is the Big 12 as a whole is looking to be pretty darn good on defense and that will challenge the Jayhawks highly efficient offense on a nightly basis.
The biggest problem for the Bears so far? Turnovers. It gets in the way of everything you do and want to do on the offensive end and provides quite a boost to the opponent. I'm calling it now, Missouri throttles Baylor in Columbia.
Either way, Baylor is in it. They might be lying low at the moment, but the Bears are definitely capable of getting on a run.
On The Radar
Tad Boyle has this group playing well as a team and he has two players in Cory Higgens and Alec Burks that can take over games. The problem so far has been consistency on the road.
The big challenge for Kansas will be heading to Boulder and coming away with a win. Even if the Buffs aren't a contender for the title, they can certainly present a road block for the Jayhawks as the Buffs will be looking to get to that 9-10 win mark in conference and a shot at the Big Dance.
It's a team and a program that never seems to go away. Oklahoma State once again has a few athletic scorers that aren't particularly talented but can get to the rim. They also have a three point threat and a few bodies on the interior that are going to make you earn EVERYTHING.
It's a fun style to watch and an overachieving nature that managed a win in the opener against a ranked Kansas State team.
Once again Kansas benefits from having the Cowboys at home, but this is a team that has already played a role in the title hunt by beating the Wildcats and can continue to do so all season.
If I had to say right now, the Big 12 see's seven teams in the tournament once again, with Oklahoma State and Colorado battling it out for that final spot although I'd say Baylor could fall into this category as well depending on how well things start to mesh.