The big picture
Before conference play began, conventional wisdom held that Kansas was still the favorite in the Big 12, but that the Jayhawks could face stiff tests from Baylor and Oklahoma State. Even Iowa State emerged as a contender with its undefeated start, which included a win over Michigan and a road victory against BYU. With Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Texas all exceeding pre-season expectations, the league appeared to be deeper than ever, one in which the teams would beat each other up all season long.
The league certainly has proven to be a meat grinder, with every road win a valuable commodity. But while Oklahoma State and Baylor have both suffered losses in the first weeks of conference play, and Iowa State has stalled in a three-game losing streak, the Jayhawks have once again risen above the fray. With the teams now one-third of the way through the Big 12’s double round-robin, Kansas has a 1.5-game lead over its closest competitors, and Ken Pomeroy’s computers predict that KU will finish the season a full three games ahead of Oklahoma State.
At nearly this exact same point in last year’s conference race, I wrote about how Kansas had already turned it into a three-team battle. The Jayhawks were favored to win every game from that point on, and I even suggested that, “with odds like that, it’s hard to believe that KU could drop three games down the stretch.” Just four games later, I was already wrong, as the Jayhawks went on an unprecedented three-game skid that had Coach Bill Self saying his team that lost at TCU “was the worst team Kansas ever put on the floor, since Dr. Naismith was there.”
In the spirit of learning from past mistakes, I won’t go so far as to make any bold predictions about the Jayhawks in late January of this year. But, I will point out that any team that wants to catch Kansas will have to make up quite a bit of ground. Not only has Kansas already built a 1.5-game lead, but the Jayhawks have done it while also surviving two of the league’s tougher road tests at intimidating Hilton Coliseum and against a very OU team in Norman. The Jayhawks have also dispatched two of the presumed contenders at home, knocking off both Oklahoma State and Baylor in the last week. While road games in Manhattan, Austin, and Stillwater could still prove to be stumbling blocks, unless the Jayhawks trip up in all three of those games, somebody is going to have to defy the odds at Allen Fieldhouse.
Texas at Baylor; Saturday, 12:45 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN3)
LRT’s full preview of the Texas/Baylor game will be available on Saturday morning.
Kansas State at Iowa State; Saturday, 12:45 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN3)
On January 6th, Iowa State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin had a perfect combined record of 43-0. Over the following week, each of the teams finally fell from the ranks of the unbeatens….and they just kept losing. The three teams combined to lose 10 straight games once their unblemished marks disappeared, with Ohio State’s victory against Illinois on Thursday night finally breaking the group’s slide.
Since losing at Texas last Saturday, Iowa State has enjoyed an entire week off to refocus their efforts. Already in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the Cyclones are about to embark on a very tough four-game stretch against ranked opponents. Fortunately Iowa State is at home for two of those games, in an arena where they have posted a 17-3 record in conference play over the last two-plus seasons.
On paper, Saturday’s matchup with Kansas State seems to favor the Cyclones. Kansas State struggles to score outside the paint, while Iowa State’s interior defense is one of the best in the country. The Wildcats get most of their points from offensive rebounds or dribble penetration by Jevon Thomas and Marcus Foster. Unfortunately for K-State, the Cyclones actually rebound very well on the defensive end, and their length on the perimeter allows them to play conservatively and stifle dribble penetration.
The Wildcats have kept themselves in games all season long with a tough defense that keeps scores low enough for their average offense to keep up. In Iowa State’s high-powered offense, KSU is going to find one of its toughest tests yet. The Wildcats have to eliminate transition opportunities for Iowa State and hope that Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams can reclaim enough missed shots on the other end to keep them in the game.
West Virginia at Oklahoma State; Saturday, 1 P.M. CT (ESPN2)
The Mountaineers have yet to beat a team that isn’t below them in the standings, but they did give the Cowboys a scare when these two teams met in Morgantown just a few weeks ago. Terry Henderson went crazy from behind the arc in that game, knocking down five of his seven three-point attempts. In the end, it was a last-second three from Oklahoma State’s Markel Brown that sealed the deal, keeping the Cowboys from a crippling 0-2 start.
Henderson wasn’t able to recapture the magic from that performance in West Virginia’s next two games, but he game back with a vengeance earlier this week. In a sharpshooter’s battle with Texas Tech’s Dusty Hannahs, Henderson drilled 5-of-6 from long range in an 87-81 WVU win on Wednesday. The Mountaineers will need another solid performance from their X-factor to win in Stillwater, and they must maintain their Top 10 turnover percentage against an OSU team that repeatedly forces mistakes by visiting teams.
Oklahoma at Texas Tech; Saturday, 3 P.M. CT (Big 12 Network/ESPN Full Court/ESPN3)
The Baylor Bears were given a reminder just how hard it can be to win on the High Plains when they fell victim to Texas Tech in Lubbock last week. Although United Spirit Arena hasn’t been full in years, the students still show up for big games and that energy has proven useful in some massive upsets over the last few seasons. Add in the experience of new coach Tubby Smith, and the road trip to Tech is going to be a much dicier proposition for Big 12 opponents this year. The fans are planning a “White Out” to greet Oklahoma in this one, but the Sooners have already proven to be road warriors in victories at Texas and Baylor.
The Sooners will have to prevent Tech from dominating the offensive glass and they will have to lock down Hannahs, who is 9-for-9 on threes in his last two games. The Red Raiders, meanwhile, will have a hard time slowing down an OU offense that seems to have a different hero step up every night. Cameron Clark gets most of the pub, but it’s been Buddy Hield who has emerged as the Robin to his Batman in Big 12 play. The sophomore from the Bahamas is averaging more than 18 points per game against Big 12 opponents and posted offensive ratings over 118 in four of the six contests.
Kansas at TCU; Saturday, 8 P.M. CT (ESPNU)
Kansas fans remember the team’s most recent visit to TCU all too well. The Horned Frog victory in 2013 was probably the most unexpected upset of the year in college hoops, and it became the second defeat of a three-game losing streak, something that had not been seen in Lawrence since 2005. You can be sure that Coach Self and the upperclassmen will have the Jayhawk freshmen ready for this one.
That’s an unfortunate thing for a TCU team that is already slogging through a terrible Big 12 campaign. The Horned Frog offense is ranked 292nd out of 351 Division I teams in adjusted efficiency, and it’s only been worse since stepping up to face conference foes. TCU ranks dead last in league games for offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage, and they rank seventh in offensive rebounding percentage. The only offensive mark that even puts them in the top half is their free-throw rate, which measures how frequently they get to the line. Unfortunately, even though TCU is fourth-best in conference play when it comes to earning free throws, they are again dead last in actual free-throw percentage, making less than 60% of their attempts.
If one paragraph of awful stats wasn’t enough, I leave you with one final number regarding TCU’s nightmare season. With 12 games still left to go, Pomeroy already gives the Horned Frogs a 20% chance to finish winless in the Big 12. Their best opportunities to steal a victory come in home games against Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma, all contests in which TCU still only has a 23% chance to win.