At the midpoint of the Big 12 men's basketball race, the three-team scramble predicted by coaches in October is unfolding.
With one significant exception.
Missouri, rather than Texas A&M, is the third team in the free-for-all with Baylor and Kansas for the regular-season title. And the fourth-ranked Tigers (20-2, 7-2 in Big 12) have the easiest schedule down the stretch.
That does not mean tonight's Border War matchup in Columbia, Mo., between Mizzou and No. 8 Kansas (18-4, 8-1) looms as a "gimme" for the home team. Nor will the Tigers have an easy time defeating No. 6 Baylor (20-2, 7-2) on Feb. 11 in Mizzou Arena.
But understand this: As the second half of the league's 18-game conference schedule begins today, Missouri is the only Big 12 team that remains undefeated in its home arena (12-0).
Mizzou also is the only member of the top three with remaining home games against both fellow front-runners.
In conference matchups, Missouri has more remaining home games (5) than Kansas (4), as well as fewer daunting road trips than Baylor.
Add it up and the Tigers, who were picked fourth in the coaches' preseason poll, have the inside track to the league title if they can continue to defend their home court in the season's biggest games, starting tonight against Kansas (8 p.m., ESPN).
"That's the formula," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "You've got to protect your home court and steal a couple on the road."
Haith quickly added that his team "didn't steal one in Stillwater when we had a chance" in last week's 79-72 loss to Oklahoma State (11-11, 4-5). He also knows that Kansas, winner of the past seven Big 12 regular-season titles, will not easily surrender the top spot.
But the Jayhawks have the league's toughest remaining road schedule. In addition to tonight's game at Missouri, KU also plays at Baylor (Wednesday) and at K-State (Feb. 13) in its next four games. Kansas' final two road games are at A&M (Feb. 22) and OSU (Feb. 27), two volatile venues for visiting teams.
Asked if he considered his team the front-runner because of its status atop today's standings, Kansas coach Bill Self said: "I think it's a coin toss. You can make a case that we're in good shape. But we've still got to go to real hard places [down the stretch]. Baylor is right there. And Missouri has played as hard a schedule as anyone so far."
In the next breath, Self uttered words rarely used in Big 12 basketball circles.
"Teams with four losses, they'll have a chance to win the league," Self said.
In the league's first 15 seasons, that has happened only once: Oklahoma and Kansas shared the 2004-05 title by finishing 12-4 in conference play. But with 18 games, rather than 16, on this year's Big 12 slate -- coupled with home-and-home matchups against all opponents -- it would not be shocking to see another four-loss team collecting a trophy.
Who has the best chance? History suggests Kansas. Baylor has the deepest roster. But the schedule favors Missouri.
Other than a Feb. 25 date at Kansas, the combined conference record for Missouri's remaining road opponents is 7-20 (Texas Tech, Oklahoma, A&M). Baylor's remaining road foes, in addition to Missouri, include Iowa State (16-6, 6-3), a probable NCAA Tournament team.
Because of an 89-88 home loss to Missouri on Jan. 21, Baylor will be playing catch-up in its remaining road games. But the task does not seem impossible to Bears coach Scott Drew because Baylor owns the league's best road record (6-1).
Drew also understands that upsets will occur frequently in a league where eight of 10 teams appear destined to land postseason berths in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT. Take away cellar-dweller Tech (7-14, 0-9) and every other Big 12 team has a home winning percentage of at least .785 this season, with A&M (11-3) the only school with as many as three home losses.
"There is no easy game on the road in the Big 12," Drew said. "Night in and night out, you see someone who is supposed to win and doesn't. It's a matter of, 'Can you be successful on the road and defend the home court?' That's where the league will be decided."
If so, score the midseason edge to Missouri. By a whisker.
But realize that a softer schedule down the stretch can be trumped by elite athletes. That is what Self is counting on with Kansas' inside/outside combination of guard Tyshawn Taylor and forward Thomas Robinson, a national player of the year candidate.
"Those two are the key," Self said. "When they don't play as well, we get average pretty quickly."
And the law of averages, based on the difficulty of the front-runners' remaining schedules, rests with Missouri.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760