Technically, there’s not a Big 12 North or South division in college basketball, but teams from the North seem to be swinging the pendulum of talent away from the South in 2009.
Kansas, always in the discussion for a Big 12 tournament championship, is in a familiar position to contend for another crown this season. But it’s the depth provided by the next three teams — Missouri, Kansas State and Nebraska — that has earned North teams more respect of late.
This season, North teams make up four of the top six spots in the Big 12 standings. Last season, four of the top six teams in the conference were South teams.
Futhermore, North teams carry an 11-8 advantage in head-to-head matchups against South teams this season. It’s also worth noting that four of those eight North losses were courtesy of Iowa State and Colorado, who are a combined 2-14 in conference play.
When talking about added respect among the North teams, it starts with No. 16 Kansas, which is 8-1 in conference play. Impressive, considering the Jayhawks lost all five starters from last year’s national championship team. KU starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior, and coach Bill Self still has the Jayhawks second in the Big 12 standings.
Then, there’s Missouri at 8-2, fresh off the biggest victory of coach Mike Anderson’s career, a 62-60 home triumph over Kansas on Monday. The Tigers, who were 6-10 in the conference last season, have finally caught on to Anderson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” style of pressure defense. They’ve won four straight and are third in the Big 12 standings.
Kansas State, a year removed from losing Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, wasn’t supposed to contend this season. The Wildcats were picked eighth in the preseason coaches poll, and for a while, it seemed like an accurate prediction. K-State started conference play 0-4. Since then, the Wildcats have been one of the hottest teams in the country. They’ve won five straight and have soared in the Big 12 standings into a tie for fourth at 5-4.
The other team tied for fourth in the Big 12? Nebraska (5-4), which was picked ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll. Nebraska has won three straight, including a massive home victory over Texas on Feb. 7 that resulted in fans storming the court.
So are these North teams legitimate contenders?
In his latest Bracketology, ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi predicts five Big 12 teams will make the NCAA Tournament. Those teams, in order of seeding: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 Missouri, No. 7 Texas and No. 12 Kansas State.
Three North teams and two South teams.
For now, the North has the advantage a little more than halfway through the season. We’ll find out soon enough if these North teams can keep the momentum in their favor.