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Who Needs The NBA When You Have Big-Time College Basketball, Big 12 Style?

The 2011-12 Big 12 men's basketball season, which gets into full swing beginning this Saturday, shapes up potentially as one of the most competitive the conference has seen in years. And that means that surprises should abound.

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Big 12 Conference basketball set to begin
Big 12 Conference basketball set to begin

In addition to November being the next-to-last month of the year, Thanksgiving month and when reality unforgivably trumps perception in college football, it also marks the opening of the college basketball season.

Normally, November also would usher in the start of a new season in the National Basketball Association, but this year the team owners and players are at odds over - what else? - money, once again, and until that whole mess gets resolved, the college hoops gets the stage all to itself in the basketball world. And from a fan's perspective, that's not a bad tradeoff, at all.

The NBA can be a pretty dull affair at this time of year, anyway. And besides, with both college and pro football just getting heated up, there's plenty to watch on TV without having to miss a beat as far as getting our fill of in-person or televised sports.

If college basketball is your passion, get ready. The new season is about to hit the country by storm, including a full slate of games this weekend in the Big 12. By this time next week, most all of the teams in the Big 12 will have two regular-season games under their belt. In fact, Texas A&M,  ranked 19th in the current USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll and one of the conference preseason favorites, got the party started on Wednesday with an easy 81-59 win over Liberty as part of the 2K Sports Classic, which benefits Coaches vs. Cancer.

Seven more Big 12 teams get their 2011-12 season under way at home on Friday night, including all three Kansas City-area schools. The Kansas Jayhawks start the season ranked 13th nationally. Iowa State opens up in Ames against Leigh on Saturday, and Texas takes to the court for the first time on Sunday hosting Boston University as part of the TicketCity Legends Classic regional round.

Kansas, which opens up against Towson at Allen Fieldhouse on Friday, faces a ranked team practically right out of the gate. The Jayhawks will tangle with Kentucky, ranked second in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, on Tuesday in New York. This classic early-season matchup boasts two of the top three all-time most successful college basketball programs.

Four teams in the conference begin the season ranked in the top 25 nationally in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, lead by the Baylor Bears at No. 12. Kansas follows Baylor in both polls, then comes Texas A&M (at 19 in ESPN/USA Today, 20 in AP) and Missouri at No. 25. A minimum of four Big 12 schools have been ranked in the top 25 in 35 of the last 36 weeks that the national weekly polls have been conducted, and there has been at least one conference team in the top-25 rankings every week since the first Big 12 basketball season in 1996-97.

Long regarded as a national powerhouse in college football, the Big 12 has proved to be an equally powerful player on the hardwood in recent seasons. As validation of this point, the conference has sent six different teams to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament in the past three seasons, the most of any conference. The Big 12 has had seven teams win 20 or more games for four consecutive years, and over that same time frame has had at least eight postseason teams every year. In addition, Big 12 teams led the nation a year ago in non-conference winning percentage and own a 222-6 record in non-conference home games over the last two seasons.

For the first time in the history of the Big 12, every team in the conference will play a home-and-away series with the other teams in the league, which should make for some highly competitive play and a more difficult path to the conference championship, which has been claimed, shared or outright, by Kansas in each of the last seven seasons and eight of the last 10.

Kansas and Texas A&M got the nod from the league coaches in the annual Big 12 men's preseason poll as the top two contenders to vie for the conference crown, with Baylor and Missouri expected to be right there to the end nipping on their heels.

The Big 12 will play without Nebraska and Colorado this season as a direct result of conference realignment. Neither school was among the conference elite in men's basketball. So, if anything, the Big 12 should be stronger, given the 10 remaining teams in the league. That may not be the case a year from now, however, when Texas A&M and Missouri join the dearly departed list.

One of the two new schools that will be joining the Big 12, ideally for the 2011-12 season, is West Virginia. Coached by Bob Huggins, who formerly was the head man on the bench for Kansas State basketball, West Virginia has been among the top teams in college basketball for most of the past decade, which will help offset the loss of A&M and Mizzou in basketball.

Looking ahead in the 2011-12 Big 12 men's basketball campaign, parity in the conference should higher than its been in a number of years, especially among the, say, third-through seventh-place teams in the standings. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the conference champion lose as many as four or five games. In my view, Baylor and Texas A&M should be the class of the conference this season, with Missouri and Kansas also in that top tier.

Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State will be tough outs for everybody, but they aren't in the same class as the top four. Iowa State is going to fool a lot of people, with five solid transfers who had to sit out a year because of NCAA rules, but it will take some time for the talent and the chemistry to come together as a team under game conditions. Oklahoma has a new coach and a new attitude, after going from the Elite Eight to a non-postseason team the last two years, but the rest of the conference isn't going to do the Sooners any favors in the meantime. Texas Tech's only salvation may be to beat out Oklahoma for the bottom spot in the conference.

Let the games begin...and enjoy the ride. It should be a scintillating and surprising season in both men's and women's Big 12 basketball.

For more information:

Big 12 Conference official website