Big 12 outlook: Oklahoma State, Baylor are favorites

Posted Friday, Jan. 03, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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The Big 12 has a case for being the best basketball league in the country.

Four teams are ranked, including Oklahoma State and Baylor are in the top 10, and teams such as Oklahoma and Texas have resurfaced.

It’s not an easy claim, though, with three Big Ten schools in the top five, and the ACC and Big East being strong as usual. But the Big 12 is the top-ranked RPI conference, which is based on teams’ wins and losses and strength of schedule.

So it won’t be surprising if one or more Big 12 schools make a run to the Final Four and AT&T Stadium.

“Big 12 is good,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has led the Jayhawks to nine consecutive league championships. “There’s some teams out there having some great years. For us to win a 10th time in a row, it’ll be as difficult as ever because the competition will be probably as stiff as it’s ever been.”

With Big 12 play begnning today, here is a look at key storylines, the NCAA tournament-bound schools and a preseason all-Big 12 team.

Storylines

10 straight? As Self said, the Jayhawks have their work cut out to extend their already remarkable streak of 10 consecutive conference titles. Oklahoma State and Baylor have a chance to snap it. And it’s too early to count out a school such as Iowa State making a surprise run at the league title. KU, though, is young and talented with freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid leading the way.

Injury killer? Oklahoma State received some tough news this week when junior center Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending injury. It’s a significant blow to the Cowboys, but they should be able to overcome it. Marcus Smart remains one of the best players in the country, Markel Brown is having a great senior season and Le’Bryan Nash is finally playing up to his potential.

Can Baylor put it together? The talent has never been an issue for the Bears. Instead, the question has always been whether they can gel at the right time and make all the pieces fit together. They have so far with Cory Jefferson being a force down low, and Kenny Chery and Brady Heslip being outside threats. And Isaiah Austin continues to get better after undergoing shoulder surgery last off-season.

Are OU and Texas back? Oklahoma and Texas were consistently NCAA tournament-caliber teams, but fell on hard times last year. This year is a different story. The Sooners, despite a tough loss to Louisiana Tech, have surged behind senior guard Cameron Clark, who has gone from averaging 6.5 points last season to 18.5 this season. The Longhorns, meanwhile, are riding high with five players averaging double figures, including leading scorer Jonathan Holmes (13.1 points per game).

What to make of TCU and Texas Tech? Trent Johnson has an uphill battle to turn the Horned Frogs into basketball contenders, but he has begun to lay the foundation. Injuries have slowed the process, but expect TCU to be more competitive in the league. Tubby Smith is facing a similar battle at Tech and could be in for a long season.

Going to the Big Dance

Predicted schools and their seeds:

Kansas (3); Oklahoma State (3); Baylor (4); Iowa State (5); Texas (10); Oklahoma (12).

League’s best starting five

G Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State): Arguably the best player in the country who has a chance for a triple-double on a nightly basis, and is positioning himself as a top-five pick in the NBA draft.

G DeAndre Kane (Iowa State): The transfer from Marshall has shined for the Cyclones. He is averaging 15 points a game, 7.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists.

G/F Cameron Clark (Oklahoma): The 6-foot-7 wing is having a breakout season, averaging 18.5 points and 6.3 rebounds.

F Cory Jefferson (Baylor): Consistently provides a presence in the paint. The 6-foot-9 senior is averaging 14.3 points and, more importantly, 8.4 rebounds a game.

F Andrew Wiggins (Kansas): His numbers might not be too impressive but Wiggins should emerge as one of the best players in the country as the season progresses.

Around the country

Rising

Arizona: Yes, they are the top-ranked team but continue to impress. The Wildcats held Washington State to 25 points on Thursday, setting a school record for fewest points by an opponent at the McKale Center. It was fewest points scored by WSU since 1938.

Falling

Louisville: The defending champions lost to in-state rival Kentucky last week, and then dismissed junior forward Chane Behanan from the team. The Cardinals still have the talent to make a run in March without Behanan, but it is a blow to the team.

Three games to watch

Connecticut at SMU (1 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU): The Mustangs are looking to open the newly renovated Moody Coliseum with a win. It won’t be easy against UConn, although the Huskies to Houston on Tuesday.

Ohio State at Michigan State (8 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN): A battle among the Big Ten’s elite and two top-five teams. The Buckeyes haven’t lost; the Spartans’ only loss was to North Carolina.

Arizona at UCLA (8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN): Top-ranked Arizona faces an early Pac-12 test at UCLA. The Bruins haven’t lost at Pauley Pavilion and are averaging more than 85 points a game.

Projecting the top seeds

Arizona (West): The nation’s top-ranked was perfect through its non-conference schedule. Juniors T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson give the Wildcats experience in the backcourt, and freshman sensation Aaron Gordon has lived up to the hype.

Syracuse (East): The Orange has to be considered a favorite to win the ACC in its inaugural season. C.J. Fair is one of the best big men in the country, and freshman Tyler Ennis has excelled at point guard.

Ohio State (Midwest): The Buckeyes put together a terrific non-conference résumé by going undefeated with wins over schools such as Marquette, Maryland and Notre Dame. Aaron Craft is an experienced backcourt leader, and LaQuinton Ross and Amir Williams are forces in the paint.

Wisconsin (South): The Badgers are off to their best start in 100 years, and have held their last two opponents to less than 50 points. Forwards Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky have been dependable scoring threats down low, and Ben Brust has knocked down 43.3 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts.

Key dates

Jan. 4: Big 12 conference play begins

March 16: Selection Sunday

March 18-19: First-round (Dayton)

March 20, 22: Second-third rounds (Buffalo, Orlando, Milwaukee, Spokane)

March 21, 23: Second-third rounds (Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis)

March 27, 29: South Regional (Memphis) and West Regional (Anaheim)

March 28, 30: Midwest Regional (Indianapolis) and East Regional (New York)

April 5: National semifinals (Arlington)

April 7: Championship (Arlington)

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @drewdavison

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