Saturday, head coach Bill Self had the Kansas Jayhawks playing their most complete game of basketball this season. The result was a big win over second-ranked Ohio State that could be especially important come March and NCAA Tournament selection time. The Jayhawks have already lost twice this season, albeit to then-No. 2 Kentucky and fifth-ranked Duke, both in Maui, Hawaii, over the Thanksgiving holiday making Ohio State the third top-five team Kansas has played in its first ten games of 2011-12.
Kansas has won or shared the past seven Big 12 basketball championships and nine of the last ten. For that very reason, it is difficult not to include the Jayhawks among the league's top contenders every season. However, if anyone is going to derail Kansas' league dominance over the past ten years, this is probably the year. The Jayhawks endured heavy losses from last year's conference championship group and the returning talent and new Kansas recruits are a notch below what has come to be expected in Lawrence every year.
The Jayhawks will still be very good, as evidenced by their current top-25 ranking and the impressive win over the weekend against Ohio State, which was playing without its best player and one of the best in the country in sophomore power forward Jared Sullinger, who has missed two games because of back spasms. But the reality is, Kansas is not as strong as it has been in the past. The depth and physical superiority that the Jayhawks have enjoyed in the past just isn't there this time around. And this will become more apparent in conference play when the competition level becomes much stronger and teams will play a round-robin schedule for the first time in Big 12 history.
Baylor and Texas A&M are both loaded, and Missouri has shown so far that it isn't going to sit down for anybody in the Tigers final year in the conference. All three appear to be stronger than Kansas, in my view, at this stage of the season, but two-thirds of the season schedule still remains.
The Big 12 has a combined record of 67-17 through games this past weekend and is one of three conferences in which every team has a winning percentage of .500 or better. Big 12 teams led all major conferences in nonconference winning percentage a year ago, and is on pace to be right up there again this season.
Following is Part II in our examination of the 2011-12 men's basketball teams. Today we preview the teams predicted to be the top five teams (in reverse order) in the Big 12 basketball race this season.
2011-12 Big 12 Men's Basketball Predicted Order Of Finish
10. Texas Tech Red Raiders
9. Iowa State Cyclones
8. Oklahoma Sooners
7. Kansas State Wildcats
6. Texas Longhorns
5. Oklahoma State Cowboys (6-3)
Oklahoma State is coming off its worst season (6-10, ninth in the conference) in the Big 12 era. As a result, there is a lot of pressure on coach Travis Ford to turn things around. Senior guard Keiton Page (13 points per game) and junior forward Jean-Paul Olukemi (11 a game) are the top two Cowboys' scorers returning. With two highly-lauded recruits coming on board this season, Ford wants to take advantage of the changing composition of his team and adjust the style of play to better fit his preferred offense and the individual skills and talents of his players. "We're going to get back to playing the way we need to play, the way I want to play: faster and spread the court out more," Ford said.
Freshman newcomer LeBryan Nash is preseason selection of Big 12 coaches as the Freshman of the Year. The 6-foot-7 Nash is listed as a forward, but Ford says he can play several positions, including point guard. He was a consensus top-10 recruit that was also on the short list of Kansas, UCLA and Kentucky. The Cowboys roped in another top prospect in point guard C.J. Guerrero. Guerrero is well versed in running a fast-paced offense. He did so in high school in California, while scoring 28 points a game. The difference will be like "night and day" is how Ford described the improvement expected with this year's team. Cowboy fans no doubt will hold him to it.
4. Missouri Tigers (9-0)
Although Missouri does have a new head coach (Frank Haith from the University of Miami), the Tigers probably are in the best shape of any Big 12 team coming into the new season. Haith has the luxury of having back all five Mizzou starters from last year's team, the only school in the Big 12 that can make that claim. Prior to the start of the season, however, the Tigers lost the services of starting forward Laurence Bowers for the year due to a knee injury.
Scoring will not be a problem, but Missouri will need to improve its rebounding if it expects to count itself among the elite in the conference. The Tigers were outrebounded by an average of five a game last year. Mizzou's strength will again be in the backcourt, where guards Marcus Denmon (17 points a game in 2010-11), Kim English and Michael Dixon will conduct business. Returning senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe brings10 points a game inside. The Tigers has enough talent and experience to win the conference crown, but the odds are not in their favor.
3. Kansas Jayhawks (7-2)
It will be a tall order for Kansas to repeat as conference champions in 2011-12, a position in which the Jayhawks have become very comfortable, having shared or won outright the past seven Big 12 titles. The Jayhawks are still very much a force to be reckoned with, but not to the typical lofty standards by which Kansas is used to being measured. Coach Bill Self's team returns only one starter, senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, and the Jayhawks have to replace almost 80 percent of their scoring production from last season.
A couple of talented reserves from last season, 6-foot-9 forward Thomas Robinson and guard Elijah Johnson, both juniors, will be expected to play much stronger contributing roles. The Jayhawks usually have a stellar crop of new recruits coming in every year, but this season, three of KU's freshman recruits were declared ineligible. You can never count out a Bill Self-coached team, and this year will be no exception. "I don't think we'll see a step backward," Self said. "I think, we'll take a step sideways. Our biggest challenge will be scoring."
2. Texas A&M Aggies (8-1)
The Aggies have a new coach, Billy Kennedy, who replaces Mark Turgeon, now at Maryland. But Turgeon left the cupboard fairly full at College Station. A&M has three starters returning and welcomes back six of its top eight scorers from last season. "It's rare as a college coach that you take over a program in good shape," Kennedy said. Forwards Khris Middleton and David Loubeau averaged 14 and 12 points, respectively, in the Aggies' 24-9, third-place conference finish a year ago.
The other returning starter is senior point guard Dash Harris, who is hoping to improve his scoring effectiveness from three-point range. He made only 12 or 72 from beyond the arc in 2010-11. Look for A&M to play more of an up-tempo game this season. The Aggies will also need to improve their scoring if they expect to hold pace with the conference leaders and exceed 24 wins for the sixth consecutive year.
1. Baylor Bears (7-0)
Baylor coach Scott Drew has never felt better about how high and far his team can go than he does this season. This could be the year of the perfect storm as far as the Bears are concerned. There are four Big 12 teams with new coaches, most of the league's top performers from a year ago are gone, and Kansas and Texas arguably are in rebuilding phases. While Baylor has been more of a perimeter team the last couple of years, with long-range sharpshooters such as the departed LaceDarius Dunn, the Big 12's all-time leading scorer, this year's team is going to be dominant inside.
The Bears have three front-line players who are taller than 6-foot-9. Returning starting forward Perry Jones III, who averaged 13.9 points a game a year ago, stands 6-foot-11, freshman newcomer Quincy Miller is 6-foot-9 and returning starter Anthony Jones is 6-foot-10. Jones and Miller are projected as first-round top-10 NBA draft picks. These guys can score from in close and outside, which is going to be trouble for most teams in the Big 12 to defend. Expect the Bears to be at or near the top of the conference all season.