Texas Longhorns Roundball Roundup: Welcome to the Big 12 Hunger Games

Grant Halverson

Texas approaches conference play with a robust 11-2 record.

Basketball addicts anonymous, I hope you enjoyed the winter break. The Texas Longhorns basketball program sure did. Texas heads into conference play 11-2. If the Longhorns can go at least .500 in conference play, they have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament with a decent showing in the Big 12 Tournament. Never thought I'd be writing that, but I'm happy to do so.

All Things Burnt Orange:

Texas 85, Texas State 53 (Sat 12/14) Texas 86, North Carolina 83 (Wed Dec 18) Michigan St 92, Texas 78 (Sat Dec 21) Texas 66, Rice 44 (Mon Dec 30)  | Winter Break Record 3-1 | Overall Record 11-2

Jonathan Tjarks had a nice recap about the loss to the Spartans, which wasn't bad at all. I had a jubilation ex post facto on the North Carolina win. Texas also dominated two in-state foes, Rice and Texas State.

Big 12 Power Rankings:

What to expect when you're expecting to play these teams in conference.

1. Iowa St. Cyclones (13-0)

Key Wins: The Cyclones are the nation's most surprising remaining undefeated. Of the seven teams with no losses, Iowa St. ranks the lowest in the national polls. Iowa St.'s best wins are at home against 8-4 Michigan and 12-2 Iowa. Fred Hoiberg's crew also knocked off BYU in a true road win and Boise St. on a neutral court.

Noteworthy Losses: Yeah, none.

Stars to Know: Senior forward Melvin Ejim leads the team in PPG with 17.9 and is a legitimate Big 12 POY candidate. Sophomore forward Georges Niang is Fred Hoiberg's most highly touted recruit during and hasn't disappointed. Niang is averaging 15.8 PPG and can pass the ball around pretty good too. Speaking of passing, senior point guard DeAndre Kane, a transfer from Marshall, ranks second in the conference with 6.1 APG.

X-Factor Player: Junior forward Dustin Hogue leads the conference in RPG with 9.8 despite being just 6' 6". He grabs defensive rebounds like a boss, doesn't turn the ball over, and is a plus shooter in limited attempts.

Ceiling: Is it time to believe in the Cyclones? All signs point to yes. Interior size may be a problem, but this team possesses toughness, experience, and high flying scoring potential. One of the best offensive teams in the nation, the Cyclones can contend for the Big 12 title and draw a high seed in the tournament. However, a lack of NBA-caliber athletes makes a Final Four run unlikely.

2. Oklahoma St. Cowboys (12-1)

Key Wins: The Cowboys' recent neutral court win over 11-2 Colorado vaults them over Baylor, back into the two spot. Oklahoma State's best win is a victory over 10-2 Memphis. Travis Ford's team also beat Purdue and Butler in the Old Spice Classic.

Noteworthy Losses: Oklahoma State's only loss was in its rematch to Memphis in the Old Spice Classic final. The Cowboys lost by 5 while beating Memphis by 21 in Stillwater.

Stars to Know: Sophomore guard Marcus Smart will be a lottery pick and continues to play like an All-American. Markel Brown won't be a lottery pick, but he's good enough to play in the Association and should garner All-Conference consideration. The duo are Oklahoma State's leading scorers. Phil Forte has taken the baton from Brady Heslip of triggerman you don't want to leave open beyond the arc.

X-Factor Player: The Cowboys just lost starting power forward Michael Cobbins to a torn ACL, so backup Kamari Murphy will have to step up in his place. Murphy actually leads the team in RPG with 6.2, but he now goes from a 50-50 timeshare to the lion's share of minutes. It's time for him to step up and Channing all over the Big 12's Tatum.

Ceiling: The Cowboys are conference co-favorites, at worst. Don't miss their games against Kansas. The injury to Cobbins and suspension of Stevie Clark damper their title hopes, but I still consider the Cowboys NCAA title contenders.

3. Baylor Bears (11-1)

Key Wins: The Bears poured cold water on Julius Randle's homecoming, beating Kentucky in Jerryworld. The Wildcats have three losses, but are arguably still the most talented team in the country. Baylor also beat Colorado, and squeaked by Dayton in the Maui Invitational.

Noteworthy Losses: Baylor's only loss is to undefeated Syracuse in Maui. From a power rankings standpoint, it's neck and neck with Oklahoma State.

Stars to Know: Senior forward Cory Jefferson, the walking double-double, leads the team in PPG with 14.3 and RPG with 8.4. Don't sleep on his backup, sophomore Rico Gathers, who leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (24.0%). Junior college transfer Kenny Chery probably should limit his 3-point shooting, but otherwise has been a revelation taking over for Pierre Jackson. Remember what I said about Brady Heslip? Never mind. Heslip still has better hair than Phil Forte, and actually just edges out Forte in O-Rtg (153.6 vs. 147.7).

X-Factor Player: Sophomore center Isaiah Austin remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He's fourth on the team in scoring (10.5) and third in rebounds (4.9). Ipso facto, he takes better shots but isn't as involved on the boards. His help defense (blocks and steals) has improved while his turnover percentage has plummeted. I have no idea.

Ceiling: I love the parts on this team, but can the sum outplay Baylor's past ceilings? In order to do so, Austin needs to play like a dominant lottery pick, which hasn't happened in 1.5 years. Baylor ha a Final Four ceiling, but it'll take a ladder of epic proportions to reach it.

4. Kansas Jayhawks (9-3)

Key Wins: Kansas started the season right by knocking off 11-2 Duke in the Champions Classic. The Jayhawks have also righted the ship, with recent wins against New Mexico, Georgetown, and previously undefeated Toledo.

Noteworthy Losses: Kansas' first loss to Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament doesn't look so bad in retrospect; the Wildcats are a shocking 12-1. But the Jayhawks couldn't beat Colorado (albeit on the road), and also lost to Florida.

Stars to Know: I hope you bought your Joel Embiid stock, as the "next Hakeem Olajuwon" superlatives are flowing freely. He hasn't quite reached the Jeff Withey level of interior domination, but the NBA drafts based on future results. Fellow freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins has not been quite as good as his diaper dandy counterparts on offense, but has put up a far better defensive presence than Randle, Jabari Parker, et al. Sophomore forward Perry Ellis, a former high school All-American himself, shoots a wicked good 60.1% from the field.

X-Factor Player: Does Kansas go as far as junior point guard Naadir Tharpe will let them? Tharpe has shot the ball well (42.9% from 3) and dished out the assists (5.3 APG) but can't help turning the ball over. Freshman backup Frank Mason briefly took over starting duties, but Tharpe is back with the starting five and getting hot.

Ceiling: Kansas is considered conference co-favorites along with Oklahoma State. The three non-conference losses might knock Kansas down a seed in the NCAAs, but the Jayhawks are definitely Final Four caliber. Youth is the big concern, as Kansas has just two upperclassmen rotational players in Tharpe and senior Tarik Black.

5. Texas Longhorns (11-2)

Key Wins: Texas' true road win at 10-3 North Carolina ranks far and away as its signature victory. Don't sleep on a road win at Temple and at home against Vanderbilt. Neither team looks tournament-caliber, but the committee will look on those wins favorably.

Noteworthy Losses: A loss to 12-1 Michigan State, a Championship contender, is more than fine. The narrow loss to BYU hurts. The Cougars are better than their 8-7 record indicates, but they won't serve as a quality loss at that rate.

Stars to Know: Forward Jonathan Holmes lays the wood. Texas' only upperclassman, Holmes leads the team in PPG at 13.1 and checks in second on the team with 6.9 RPG. True freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor has been a revelation. His APG is muted at 3.8, but he provides a sturdy ballhandling presence that Texas has lacked. Sixth man Javan Felix has been an all-conference player when the game is on the line.

X-Factor Player: The length of backup bigs Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh have been a boon. Lammert continues to serve as a high-efficiency backup, while Ibeh's defensive presence may be better than anyone in the league not named Joel Embiid.

Ceiling: Can the Horns contend for the conference title? Unlikely, but Texas goes into conference play with a lot of confidence and the potential to knock off the Big 12 powers. Getting a low NCAA seed would be a huge step forward.

6. Oklahoma Sooners (11-2)

Key Wins: Unlike Texas, the Sooners don't possess a signature win like Texas does; hence the sixth spot in the power rankings. Oklahoma's best win is to...5-7 Alabama? Yikes. The Sooners did beat Texas A&M. Which is nice.

Noteworthy Losses: Their latest was an overtime heartbreaker to Louisiana Tech. Like Texas, OIklahoma has a repectable loss to Michigan State.

Stars to Know: Senior wing Cameron Clark leads the conference in scoring with 18.5 PPG and possesses a stout .497/.500/.852 slash line. Sophomore guard Buddy Hield looks big, strong, and mean. He can score a little too. The tallest player on the team is sophomore forward Ryan Spangler, second in the conference with 9.5 RPG.

X-Factor Player: Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard is Oklahoma's answer to Isaiah Taylor. He has 5.1 APG and is shooting an incredible 69.6% on 2-point attempts.

Ceiling: If you're a Texas fan, Oklahoma is the primary competition. The Big 12 might be a five-big league, in which case the battle for fifth place becomes very important, indeed. Oklahoma has some talent. The Sooners are small inside, but have scoring firepower aplenty. An NCAA Tournament bid is not out of the question.

7. Kansas St. Wildcats (9-3)

Key Wins: Don't look now: Kansas State has won eight in a row, including a very good win against 12-2 Gonzaga. A win against power conference opponent 9-3 Mississippi is the other hat-hanger.

Noteworthy Losses: The Wildcats started the season with a brutal home loss to Northern Colorado. Kansas State also had back-to-back neutral court losses to Charlotte (not so good) and Georgetown (OK, then).

Stars to Know: It feels like wing Shane Southwell has been around forever, but he's just a senior. Southwell has 5.1 RPG and 3.4 APG to go along with 11.5 PPG. The rest of the team feels like mix-and-match parts.

X-Factor Player: Freshman guard Marcus Foster is the most involved player on the team beyond Southwell. He leads the team in scoring with 13.8 PPG, though his efficiency rates are dismal.

Ceiling: Ken Pomeroy has Kansas State ranked a surprising 57th, mostly due to its suffocating defense. Their profile looks a lot like Texas: can't score, but might not let the opponent either. With that Pomeroy ranking, I suppose there's a chance they could make the NCAA's.

8. TCU Horned Frogs (9-3)

Key Wins: A five game win streak! Hey! TCU has two power conference road wins, at 7-5 Washington State and 9-3 Mississippi State. So there's that.

Noteworthy Losses: TCU's home loss to Longwood is the Big 12's worst. Losses to SMU and Harvard are respectable.

Stars to Know: Junior point guard Kyan Anderson continues his path to All-Big 12 obscurity. He ranks fifth in the conference in scoring with 16.5 PPG and tied for third in assists at 5.3 APG. Junior forward Amric Fields has a good game to go along with an extensive injury rap sheet. He has played in but five games this season, averaging 13.6 PPG and 6.2 RPG.

X-Factor Player: Top 50 recruit Karviar Shepherd, a freshman forward, is Trent Johnson's best hope at a respectable program down the road. He ranks third in the conference in RPG with 8.6 and BPG with 2.3. His fellow, less heralded freshmen teammates Brandon Parrish and Michael Williams have also contributed valuable minutes.

Ceiling: Aside from Anderson and Fields, TCU is fairly atrocious on offense. The Horned Frogs won just two conference games last year and will have to try very hard to best that this year. The more experience and development the freshmen can get, the better.

9. West Virginia Mountaineers (8-5)

Key Wins: West Virginia has eight wins and none of them are worth half a bitcoin.

Noteworthy Losses: Its five losses aren't bad, though, with the worst a closs road loss at 8-5 Virginia Tech. The Mountaineers' NCAA hopes will be entirely based on conference performance.

Stars to Know: Sophomore guard Eron Harris currently holds the silver in Big 12 scoring with 18.3 PPG, while his backcourt mate, junior point guard Juwan Staten, chips in 16.3 PPG. Staten also leads the league in APG with 6.3, and averages 6.2 RPG to boot. If Staten can keep up the averages, it's not out of the question he makes up half of the All-Big 12 backcourt alongside Marcus Smart.

X-Factor Player: The Mountaineers are very guard-heavy, but the freshman forward combo of Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian has been quirky enough to work. Williams plays the role of interior bruiser, leading the team with 7.8 RPG. Meanwhile, the outside-in Adrian has hit 19 3's but also leads the team with 11 blocks.

Ceiling: West Virginia is a good shooting team and doesn't turn the ball over, meaning the Mountaineers will be tough opponents in nearly every Big 12 game. With most of the conference guard-heavy, the Mountaineers have a good shot at a respectable conference record. Or at going 6-12. Since the Mountaineers have no non-con victories of note, they have to hope for the former for any shot at the NCAA's.

10. Texas Tech Red Raiders (8-5)

Key Wins: Texas Tech is in the same boat as West Virginia. The Red Raiders did beat a schizophrenic 9-5 Houston team.

Noteworthy Losses: Its worst loss is to 5-7 Alabama.

Stars to Know: Senior forward Jaye Crockett is first on the team in scoring with 13.6 PPG and second in rebounding with 6.2 RPG. Junior forward Jordan Tolbert is second in scoring with 12.6 PPG and first in rebounding with 6.8 RPG. Pretty good symmetry there.

X-Factor Player: New head coach Tubby Smith inherited a gutted roster, and the talent level is low beyond Crockett and Tolbert. The Red Raiders have embraced Smith's team-ball concepts. Redshirt freshman forward Aaron Ross is two years removed from high school, but has put together a nice efficiency stat line. He's recovering from a torn ACL and could be a major factor in the Big 12 down the road.

Ceiling: Tech is probably better than TCU and probably worse than anyone else in the conference. The Red Raiders won three conference games last year and will be happy to beat that mark this year.

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