Once the Big 12 season tips off at 6 p.m. today on ESPNU when Texas A&M travels to Waco to face undefeated Baylor, discussion of where the conference stands compared to other heavyweights gives way to talk of the far more compelling race for a league title.
First, a look at how the Big 12 performed in compiling a 100-26 record (73-4 at home) in the nonconference portion of the season. It went a combined 16-7 against the Big East (7-4), Big Ten (4-1) and Pac-12 (5-2), which means the Big 12 has huge muscles. Not so fast. It also went a combined 6-13 vs. the ACC (1-6), Missouri Valley (2-3) and SEC (3-4).
Forecasting a Big 12 champion isn’t any easier than it was when the season tipped off in November, but it’s worth taking a shot at a predicted order of finish.
1. Baylor (13-0): Bears strength is up front, where a bunch of guys named Quincy and Jones keep ending up on the right side of thrillers. Baylor always has three long, springy players in the back of its 2-3 zone. Anthony Jones backs up Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy, but it’s 5-foot-10 junior guard Pierre Jackson, a juco transfer and Las Vegas native who keeps coming up big in the clutch for the Bears. Nobody does better in thrillers than Jackson. In the team’s three tight games, Jackson had a shot-block at the buzzer and a pair of game-winning shots.
Most impressive victory: At Brigham Young, 86-83.
Best player: Perry Jones III, 6-11, Jr., Duncansville, Texas.
2. Missouri (13-0): First-year coach Frank Haith has not let the ongoing NCAA investigation into needy booster Nevin Shapiro’s allegations that Haith knew about a $10,000 payment to a player he was recruiting when at Miami distract him from keeping the Tigers on track.
The fast-paced Tigers take care of the basketball, know how to get good shots and have a wide array of accurate shooters. They lead the Big 12 in field-goal percentage (.517), three-point percentage (.415) and free-throw percentage (.766).
Most impressive victory: Notre Dame, 87-58.
Best player: Kim English, 6-6, Sr., Baltimore, Md.
3. Kansas (10-3): Rebounded remarkably well from surprising news that freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor would not be eligible to play this season. It crippled the team’s depth, but nobody ever talks about it, mopes about it, or uses it as an excuse.
Best player: Thomas Robinson, 6-10, Jr., Washington, D.C.
Most impressive victory: Ohio State, 78-67.
Worst loss: Davidson, 80-74, in Sprint Center.
4. Kansas State (11-1): Not unlike the Wildcats’ football team, Frank Martin’s physical scrappers have exceeded expectations by playing terrific team ball. Freshman forward Thomas Gipson got out of the gate great and has hit the freshman wall. Just as he started to slump, freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez emerged.
Best player: Rodney McGruder, 6-4, Jr., Washington, D.C.
Most impressive victory: Alabama, 71-58, in Sprint Center.
Lone loss: West Virginia, 85-80, double overtime, in Wichita.
5. Texas (10-3): Freshman Myck Kabongo ranks second in the conference in assists (5.46) and knows where to pass the ball, to Big 12 leading scorer J’Covan Brown (19.3). The Longhorns most talented frontcourt players also are their least experienced, which will make winning the conference title a tough challenge.
Best player: J’Covan Brown, 6-3, Jr., Port Arthur, Texas.
Most impressive victory: Temple, 77-65.
Worst loss: North Carolina State, 77-74, in New Jersey.
6. Texas A&M (9-3): Star Khris Middleton missed seven full games after suffering hamstring injury in the first half of the season-opener and has performed unevenly in his four games since returning. Strong post player David Loubeau, who seems as if he’s been an Aggie for a good 15 years, finally is a senior.
Best player: Khris Middleton, 6-8, Jr., North Charleston, S.C.
Most impressive victory: St. John’s, 58-57, in Madison Square Garden.
Worst loss: Rice, 65-58.
7. Oklahoma (10-2): Lon Kruger’s Sooners have done surprisingly well and Steve Pledger, shooting .484 from three-point range and averaging 18.8 points, deserves some of the credit. Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plains, has shot .410 from long range and help opponents to .309.
Best player: Steven Pledger, 6-4, Jr., Chesapeake, Va.
Most impressive victory: Arkansas, 78-63.
Worst loss: St. Louis, 83-63, in Anaheim.
8. Oklahoma State (7-6): Talented freshman forward Le’Bryan Nash has struggled to find consistency and has made just 11 of 43 field-goal attempts the past four games and is shooting .364 overall and .240 on three-pointers.
Best player: Keiton Page, 5-9, Sr., Pawnee, Okla.
Most impressive victory: At Missouri State, 72-67.
Worst loss: New Mexico, 66-56, in Oklahoma City.
9. Iowa State (10-3): Forward Royce White, who was on the wrong side of the law at Minnesota and never did play for the Gophers, is making the most of his second chance. He leads the Cyclones in points, rebounds and assists.
Best player: Royce White, 6-8, So., Minneapolis.
Most impressive victory: Iowa, 86-76.
Worst loss: At Drake, 74-65.
10. Texas Tech (7-5): Billy Gillispie, a proven recruiter and coach, will turn it around, but it’s not going to happen this year. The safest prediction is picking the Red Raiders to finish last.
Best player: Jordan Tolbert, 6-7, Fr., Fort Worth, Texas.
Most impressive victory: North Texas, 69-64.
Worst loss: Indiana State, 60-49, in Florida.