The Big 12 basketball race for second place begins Saturday with four conference games. To the victor goes the pleasure of playing on the opposite end of the bracket as Kansas in the conference tournament, played in the Sprint Center (March 13-16).
It’s not a race Kansas has any interest in joining. Anyway, at the moment KU’s focus is trained solely on Sunday’s nonconference game against Temple, which knocked Syracuse from the ranks of the unbeaten. The conference season for KU and Iowa State opens Wednesday in Allen Fieldhouse, by which time the race for second place already will be under way.
Ranking the contenders (odds of winning the race for second place appear in parentheses):
Oklahoma State (2/3): Freshman point guard Marcus Smart, 6-foot-4 body by Greek sculptor, leads the Cowboys in rebounds (6.2) and assists (5.2) and averages 13.4 points per game. As is the case with just about all of his teammates, especially leading scorer, sophomore forward Le’Bryan Nash (14.4 ppg), the gap between how skilled a three-point shooter he thinks he is and reality is a wide one, but other than that, there’s plenty to like about a team rich with fast, strong players.
Baylor (4/1): Quick, explosive point guard Pierre Jackson’s a handful to guard and a legitimate candidate for Big 12 Player of the Year honors, but he remains a little on the streaky side as a long-range shooter. He shot a combined 3-for-13 from three in losses to Colorado and Charleston. Freshman Isaiah Austin, a 7-foot-1 long-range shooter and productive rebounder, softens the blow of losing Perry Jones. But if the Bears are going to win the race for second place, they must develop a hunger to defend that matches their desire to score. Opposing three-point shooters have a too-high .369 accuracy rate and an overall percentage of .428.
Kansas State (10/1): Bruce Weber doesn’t receive the credit for it that Frank Martin did because his voice isn’t as low, his glare not as mean, but he has the Wildcats playing hard-nosed defense and hitting the boards with passion. The upset of Florida was huge, but the Wildcats lack scoring punch.
Iowa State (25/1): Utah transfer Will Clyburn dropped 32 points in a 21-point victory against Brigham Young and had 21 points and 15 rebounds in a losing effort vs. UNLV. He also went scoreless in 24 minutes in a nine-point loss to Iowa. If he can recover the three-point touch he had for Utah, and if Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious can become steadier at the point and develop more of a pass-first mentality, the Cyclones could become a tough out.
Texas (50/1): Myck Kabongo isn’t eligible to return until Feb. 13 and without him Texas doesn’t have a playmaker capable of breaking down the defense to create high-percentage shots for teammates. Consequently, the Longhorns have an abysmal .402 shooting percentage. They play tough defense, but can’t score.
Remember all the panic about how the Longhorn Network would turn UT into an unbeatable force in every sport? Forget it.
Oklahoma (500/1): Unless Billy Tubbs or Sherri Coale happens to drop in to catch the game, the Sooners simply don’t have any star power in the Lloyd Noble Center.
West Virginia (500/1): It’s great to have fiery, candid Bob Huggins back in the Big 12, but has Huggy Bear lost his recruiting touch? These Mountaineers make basket-making seem as difficult as caning a chair.
TCU (1,000,000/1): Trent Johnson will recruit better talent to the Horned Frogs roster than he works with now and when that happens, he’ll figure out how to make them competitive.
Texas Tech (1,000,000/1): Billy Clyde Gillispie’s coaching future looked so bright when Texas A&M’s Acie Law stepped back and hit that three-point shot over Brandon Rush in Allen Fieldhouse. Now the state of the Red Raiders roster only begins to tell the story of a talented former coach’s decline.