Bill Self has Kansas in line to win its ninth consecutive conference title. Texas isn't going to beat them; can anyone else?
Here are some fun facts about the last time Kansas didn't win the Big 12:
-- Oklahoma State won the conference with a team headlined by John Lucas III, Tony Allen and the Graham twins.
-- The Jayhawks best player that year was Wayne Simien. The Longhorns best player was Brandon Mouton.
-- Barack Obama was a state senator in Illinois.
-- Social media, for all intents and purposes, did not exist.
-- Kanye West was a producer many thought would never succeed as a rapper.
-- Anthony Davis was 10, Bryce Harper was 11 and RG III was 13.
With the start of conference play upon us and football season over, it's time to take an early look at the balance of power in the Big 12. It's not as strong as it has been in recent years, as they replaced Missouri and SEC with West Virginia (having a rare down year) and TCU (rebuilding from the ground up under first year coach Trent Johnson). There's a small handful of teams at the top; Texas is one of a number of teams sitting in the middle of the pack who will be fighting with each other for the conference's fourth, fifth and possibly sixth NCAA Tournament bids.
But, as usual, there's a familiar name at the top of the heap.
It's the same story as it is every year: Bill Self has a deep, talented and experienced team that comes into Big 12 play as the favorite. What's different this year is Ben McLemore, their freshman SG. He's probably my favorite player to watch this season: it's not just that he can do everything on a basketball court, it's the ease with which he does it. He's one of the smoothest players to come around in awhile and it doesn't hurt that he can do stuff like this. He's worth the price of admission and I don't say that about many guys.
I think they're the best team in the country. My early Final 4: Kansas, Michigan, Syracuse and Indiana.
** Defined as guys who play a leading role on their teams and who NBA scouts are looking at. With the way Self develops players, I could list nearly every scholarship underclassmen on the roster otherwise. Suffice to say, there are other names on this team who will have their own moment in the sun in the next few years.
Quality Wins: at Ohio State, Colorado
2) Oklahoma State
They've got nuclear athleticism: they're bigger and faster at every position on the floor than their opponents. They look like an AAU team on steroids, particularly the duo of Marcus Smart (6'4 220) and LeBryan Nash (6'7 240). Both of those guys came out of the DFW Metroplex; they're exactly the type of guys Texas needs to get to be a national power. They have the talent to beat Kansas, but they aren't nearly as experienced. They've rolled through a very easy non-conference schedule, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to an environment like the Allen Fieldhouse or the Erwin Center (sorry, couldn't resist).
Quality wins: NC State (neutral court)
Scott Drew is the opposite of the old saying about a good coach: he can take his players and lose to yours and he can take your players and lose to his. Once again, he has one of the most talented front-lines in the country and, once again, he is going out of his way not to utilize his big men, preferring to let Pierre Jackson dominate the ball and play like a poor man's Nate Robinson. Drew has also managed to dig up the one zone (3-2) worse than his beloved 1-3-1. The result is a team that can beat anyone and lose to anyone just as easily.
Quality wins: at Kentucky, St. John's (neutral court), Lehigh, BYU
** They've also lost home games to Northwestern and College of Charleston.
This is probably too optimistic, but whatever. A fourth-place finish is the ceiling for this roster, so I'm going to choose to believe they can do it. Life being short and whatnot. Hard to say what Myck Kabongo will do for this team when he (eventually) gets back, so I will say nothing.
NBA prospects: Myck Kabongo, Shelden McClellan
** I like the young big men on Texas, but they've got a long way to go. Let's see where they are when they are juniors/seniors.
Quality Wins: North Carolina
I would probably have ranked them higher than Texas if they hadn't managed to lose a home game to Stephen F. Austin. I'm not sure how that's possible, so I'll just write it off as them playing like they were already on Christmas Break. There's no shame in their other two losses -- at Arkansas and a neutral court loss to Gonzaga, whose beaten seemingly every team in the Big 12 in non-conference play. The Sooners have got a lot of size and athleticism as well as a former NBA coach in Lon Kruger. A respectable middle-of-the pack operation.
NBA prospects: A'Bath Mbaye
Quality Wins: None
6) West Virginia
This isn't one of Huggy Bear's more talented rosters in his time in Morgantown, but they are a tough and aggressive team that will play you physically for all 40 minutes. They've played a murderous non-conference schedule and gotten murdered a few times as a result, but they're better in December than they were in November and they'll be better in March too. Huggins is one of the most underrated coaches in the sport, if you ignore stuff like his 0% graduation rate at Cincinnati.
NBA prospects: Aaric Murray
Quality Wins: Virginia Tech
7) Kansas State
They play how Texas needs to: intense man-to-man defense, hoisting up a lot of jumpers and attacking the offensive glass. They're more experienced than the Longhorns, but they aren't quite as talented. Rodney McGruder is the closest thing they have to a go-to scorer. If their jumpers aren't falling, a good team can run them out of the gym, which is what happened against Michigan. Don't be fooled by their stats or their record; before they stunned Florida in Kansas City, all their wins were incredibly soft.
NBA prospects: Jordan Henriquez
Quality wins: Florida (neutral court)
8) Iowa State
This is a shot in the dark ranking. I haven't seen them play and Fred Hoiberg has brought in another bunch of transfers this season, which really isn't a bad strategy for Iowa State. My favorite anecdote about their program: they had two future All-Americans (Harrison Barnes and Creighton's Doug McDermott) playing in Ames as high-schoolers and they didn't get either. Ames, Iowa folks! That's probably not going to happen again anytime soon.
NBA prospects: Maybe Will Clyburn?
Quality wins: None
If you have any hot sports opinions about TCU or Texas Tech basketball, feel free to share in the comments. I don't really know anything about them, but I'm going to assume they are terrible for the time being.