Can anyone stop KU? Shaka Smart’s job security? Five questions as Big 12 hoops begins

The Big 12 basketball season kicks off tonight.

It’s been a wild non-conference season for most programs. Kansas is the team to beat once again, but sustained a road loss at Arizona State.

Texas Tech has just one loss to powerhouse Duke. TCU has just one loss, too, but it came at home against Lipscomb. Kansas State had consecutive losses to Marquette and Tulsa, and almost blew a 20-point lead against George Mason last Saturday.

Baylor is in a rebuilding year, but also boasts wins over traditional powers such as Arizona and Oregon. Nobody expected Oklahoma to do much, but its off to an 11-1 start and in the Top 25.

Texas … well, let’s just say Shaka Smart is fortunate to have a fully guaranteed contract through the 2022-23 season.

With that being said, here are five burning questions going into the Big 12 hoops season –

Can anyone knock off Kansas?

The Jayhawks have won 14 straight regular-season championships. That’s remarkable in a league with as much talent and coaching stars as the Big 12.

But KU has turned that impressive streak into just one national championship. Still, KU is poised to make another run for a 15th consecutive conference title this season.

But it won’t be easy. Texas Tech, an Elite Eight team a year ago, is a legitimate threat with a standout defense. K-State, despite its slow start, has the talent. Iowa State is a darkhorse, but is the best offense going in the league right now behind senior Marial Shayok (who leads the Big 12 with 20.1 points a game).

And it’s too early to count out programs with proven coaches such as TCU and Oklahoma to not be in the mix.

Still, KU has the league’s best player in forward Dedric Lawson (who has eight double-doubles this season) and guard Lagerald Vick is a threat from the outside.

Is TCU poised for a run?

The Frogs have one of the top backcourts in the country with senior Alex Robinson and junior Jaylen Fisher. That’s a dynamic pairing that should keep TCU in every conference game this season.

Robinson is off to an impressive start and on pace to become the school’s all-time leader in assists. Fisher has been red-hot from 3-point range, and is averaging more 3-pointers made in a game (3.3) than anyone else in the Big 12.

TCU has other shooters, too, in Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi. Plus, senior JD Miller and freshman Kevin Samuel have provided a nice interior presence offensively and defensively.

TCU has the longest winning streak in the Big 12 with eight straight, and have scored at least 82 points in the last five games.

How good is Texas Tech?

With the losses of Zhaire Smith and Keenan Evans from last year’s Elite Eight team, nobody knew what to expect from Texas Tech. What have we found out?

Chris Beard can coach.

Now, entering Big 12 play, nobody would be surprised if Tech makes another Elite Eight run. The Red Raiders rank first nationally in field goal percentage defense (.328) and scoring defense (52.3). They also have the Big 12’s best defensive rebounding team (29.9).

Offensively, Jarrett Culver has been the No. 1 threat. Culver is averaging 19.6 points a game, the second-most in the Big 12, and Matt Mooney is tied for the league lead in steals (2.2).

Is Shaka Smart on the hot seat?

When Texas landed Shaka Smart from VCU, most pegged it as a home-run hire. Smart was going to wreak “havoc” on the Big 12.

That hasn’t happened. At least not yet.

And Year 4 isn’t off to a promising start. The Longhorns have already endured a three-game losing streak, including consecutive losses to Radford and VCU, and had another loss to Providence.

Smart has landed solid recruiting classes and signs point that he should be able to right the ship eventually. But there’s no way around it – he’s largely been a disappointment thus far.

Smart has just one 20-win season and no NCAA Tournament victories in his first three seasons.

How many teams reach the NCAA Tournament?

The Big 12 sent seven teams to the Big Dance a year ago; six in 2017; and seven in 2016. It’s fair to feel the Big 12 will be in that range once again.

Entering league play, only three teams are ranked – Kansas (5), Texas Tech (11) and Oklahoma (23). But K-State, TCU and Iowa State are all receiving votes.

All six of those schools are ranked in the Top 32 of the NCAA’s new “NET” rankings. Texas (73) and Oklahoma State (74) are the next two schools listed and, with strong showings in Big 12 play, could build a case for an NCAA Tournament bid.

And a school such as West Virginia (which has struggled defensively early on) could get hot at the right time in league play. Bob Huggins has posted winning records in Big 12 play the past four seasons – all of which resulted in NCAA Tournament berths for the Mountaineers.

For now, the guess here is that only the expected six make it – Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, K-State, TCU and Iowa State.

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