Big 12 men's basketball overlooked now, but maybe not later

Texas coach Rick Barnes doesn't buy it. Neither does Texas Tech coach Chris Walker. In the long run, they may be right.

But, as of now, the Big 12 is in a down year. Three teams -- Kansas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State -- are ranked in the AP Top 25, with only Kansas being in the top 10. In the coaches' poll, K-State isn't ranked.

Baylor, Oklahoma and Iowa State lead the non-ranked Big 12 teams that could be ranked at some point. Texas has talent but is without its best player, Myck Kabongo, suspended until Feb. 13. Texas Tech, meanwhile, is finding its way under an interim coach. Newcomers TCU and West Virginia are struggling, as the Frogs have lost key players to injuries and the Mountaineers are in rebuilding mode.

Kansas, it would seem, has a clear-cut path to a ninth consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship.

"I don't give a whole lot of thought to the rankings," said Barnes, in his 15th season at Texas. "I think you'll see in our league that on any given night somebody can win. Our league is good and it's only going to get better, because we do have some real young teams in the league."

Barnes may be right, and it wouldn't come as a surprise to see more than half of the Big 12 in the NCAA Tournament come March. The Longhorns are one of the teams that could find themselves on the bubble, trying to make their 15th straight tournament.

Texas has an interesting résumé, with a bad loss to Division II Chaminade and a good win over North Carolina. But the Longhorns should close out conference play strong when Kabongo returns for the final eight regular-season games, plus the Big 12 tournament.

"We've wanted Myck back from the beginning, but it is what it is and you have to move forward," Barnes said. "Everybody is excited about Myck coming back and he's handled it as well as anyone. There's no question he's going to help us."

For Texas Tech and Walker, Saturday's start of conference play marks a new set of challenges. The Red Raiders had a rough nonconference stretch when they lost four of five games, including a home loss to McNeese State, but Walker sees promise in his squad.

"Going to TCU on Saturday, it'll be our first road game and the first Big 12 game for eight of my players," Walker said. "But I feel really good about my team. As far as I'm concerned, the slate is cleaned going into conference. We want to show we belong in this league and we're going to be competitive. Whether that pans out in wins and losses, I don't know, but I'm most concerned with the effort and energy and enthusiasm we play with."

Walker also dismissed any notion that having the interim label before his name makes a difference.

"It's not an obstacle, it's a tremendous opportunity," Walker said. "How can I feel anything other than proud or happy? I have a chance to make my own way here, control my own destiny."

Similarly to Walker, every team controls its own Big 12 destiny when league play starts Saturday. While the conference might not look as strong as it has in the past, it's still a formidable one. After all, the league boasts five coaches who have taken schools to Final Fours -- Texas' Barnes; Kansas' Bill Self; West Virginia's Bob Huggins; K-State's Bruce Weber, who took Illinois to the title game in 2005; and Oklahoma's Lon Kruger, who led Florida to the Final Four in 1994.

TCU coach Trent Johnson might have summed it up best after his team's last game, saying it's time to start playing "big boy basketball."

Drew Davison, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @drewdavison

March Madness' best bets

Kansas: Bill Self is regarded as one of the top coaches in the country and always has the Jayhawks primed for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. This year appears to be no different, even after KU lost Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Jeff Withey is one of the best big men in the country, and freshman Ben McLemore is a dynamic playmaker. Veterans Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford are solid leaders in the backcourt.

Oklahoma State: Travis Ford needs a strong showing to keep his job, and the Cowboys are on a path to do just that. Sophomore Le'Bryan Nash and junior Markel Brown have emerged as the go-to scorers, and freshman sensation Marcus Smart from Flower Mound Marcus has lived up to the hype. Freshman Phil Forte has knocked down more than 40 percent of his 3-pointers.

Kansas State: Bruce Weber inherited a solid team at K-State and has done a good job so far. The Wildcats are one of the best defending and rebounding teams in the conference. Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson have provided the post presence, while Rodney McGruder is the scoring threat. Sophomore Angel Rodriguez has handled the point position well, too.

Baylor: Pierre Jackson is among the best point guards in the country, Isaiah Austin projects as a future NBA lottery pick, and Brady Heslip is a 3-point artist who has been inconsistent this season. The challenge for Scott Drew, though, is getting the talent to mesh. The Bears already have bad home losses to College of Charleston and Northwestern in nonconference play,.

Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg has brought some offense to Ames. The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in scoring, and had a double-digit scoring margin. Hoiberg has gotten the Cyclones back to relevancy with transfers in guard Korie Lucious (Michigan State) and wing Will Clyburn (Utah).

Oklahoma: The Sooners returned all five of their starters from last season and should challenge for an NCAA bid for the first time under Lon Kruger. Romero Osby and Steven Pledger are the top scoring threats, and forward Amath M'Baye, a transfer from Wyoming, has become a post presence. OU has also gotten good backcourt play out of Je'lon Hornbeak, an Arlington Grace Prep product.

Five players to watch

Ben McLemore, Kansas: An elite freshman who always has a chance to throw down a highlight-reel dunk. McLemore provides a spark for the Jayhawks, and has become their biggest scoring threat. He isn't scared to shoot the 3, either, draining more than 40 percent of his attempts.

Isaiah Austin, Baylor : Another elite freshman in the league who might be around for only one season. Austin, from Arlington Grace Prep, has the ability -- and freedom -- to do it all. He can post up, he can drive, and Scott Drew has given him the green light to shoot 3-pointers. Austin might not score as much as Pierre Jackson, but he will be one of the main reasons for the Bears' success or failure in the Big 12.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Yet another standout freshman in the Big 12. Smart doesn't look like a freshman on the court, making veteran-savvy plays. He has the potential for a triple-double every game, and will help get the Cowboys back to being a perennial tournament team.

Rodney McGruder, Kansas State: McGruder is the leader of the Wildcats. He is their best offensive option, shooting better than 40 percent from the field, and has a chance to leave as one of the school's top all-time players. McGruder, a unanimous all-Big 12 preseason selection, has already been named the conference's player of the week twice this season (Dec. 10 and Dec. 24).

Myck Kabongo, Texas: He hasn't played this season and, outside of the Longhorns' win over North Carolina, it's been fairly apparent. Kabongo, who was named to the preseason all-conference team after averaging 10.4 points and 5.1 assists as a freshman, is serving a 23-game suspension because he didn't provide "factual information" regarding a workout to the overzealous and self-righteous NCAA. Kabongo can return Feb. 13 against Iowa State and should give Texas a late-season surge over its final eight Big 12 games.

Top five conference games

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Jan. 12: One of the best games early on in the conference season between in-state rivals. The Cowboys can make a strong statement about contending for the conference title with a solid road win, while the Sooners can do the same by upsetting what should be a Top 25 team.

Baylor at Kansas, Jan. 14: This is the first Big Monday game and, before the season, it made sense. And it still could be an entertaining game at historic Allen Fieldhouse. But the Jayhawks have put together a much more impressive nonconference season than the Bears, and should be heavy favorites. Baylor, however, has talent and has shown it can play well in big games coming off an Elite Eight run last year.

West Virginia at Kansas State, Feb. 18: Bob Huggins returns to the school that helped rejuvenate his career. And, in turn, he helped put K-State back on the basketball map in his one season. West Virginia might have had the most disappointing nonconference season out of any school, but Huggins' teams tend to get better as the year goes on. K-State, meanwhile, should be among the top teams in the conference at this point and Bramlage Coliseum has become a tough place for opponents to play.

Kansas at Oklahoma State, Feb. 20: Gallagher-Iba Arena is one of the best venues in the Big 12, and this game likely should be a great matchup will match between what will likely be the top two conference teams at the time. The Jayhawks and Cowboys have played some memorable conference games, and this could be another classic, with freshman standouts Ben McLemore and Marcus Smart going at it.

Baylor at Texas, March 4 2: This might not be a game worth watching now, but should be come March. Myck Kabongo will be back with the Longhorns, who will be looking to make a case for their 15th straight NCAA tournament bid. Baylor, on the other hand, should have a more in sync team with almost a full season under its belt.

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