Barely a third of the way into Big 12 conference play, the league standings are beginning to show separation between the contenders, the "on any given day as long as it's not away from home" crowd, and the pretenders, otherwise known as the bottom feeders.
The biggest surprise so far, after three weeks of head-to-head Big 12 action, has to be Texas A&M. The Aggies, in their final season of Big 12 basketball and picked by the conference coaches as co-favorites, along with Kansas, to win the 2011-12 conference title, have stumbled badly in Big 12 play after getting off to a 9-3 start against nonconference opponents. A&M, 10-7 on the year, has dropped four out of its first five conference games and is winless on the road in its three trips away from its home hardwood at Reed Arena.
Kansas, Missouri and Baylor haven't disappointed through their opening five league games. Although a number of experts felt that Kansas would have a very difficult time repeating for an eighth consecutive time as conference champion or co-champion, the emphatic response coming from Lawrence so far is "Not so fast!" The Jayhawks are in their familiar top spot in the standings, at 5-0, and in the only head-to-head contest among the three conference leaders at this point in the schedule, KU totally throttled previously unbeaten and third-ranked Baylor by an 18-point margin Monday night.
Baylor, which is the team I picked as the preseason conference favorite, reeled off 17 straight wins to begin the season before stumbling at KU's Allen Fieldhouse, as so many have before them (85 out of the last 86, to be precise). The Bears won't have much time to fret over their first loss of the season, though, as they have another huge game awaiting them on Saturday when they go up against another top-ten team in Missouri in Waco.
The two teams will bring identical 17-1 records (4-1 in Big 12 play) to the game. The Tigers, who are also on their way out of the Big 12 Conference and headed to the SEC after this season, have played well away from Mizzou Arena (6-1 for the year), but Baylor has been even better at home, where the Bears are unbeaten in ten games. Missouri, of course, will get second shot at the Bears when they host them in Columbia the second weekend in February, and earlier that same week Kansas will pay a visit to Baylor. Kansas and Missouri don't meet up for the first time until the first weekend in February at Missouri, with the second game scheduled three weeks later in the House of "Phog."
Baylor, Missouri and Kansas were all ranked in the top ten in the ESPN/USA Today poll this week, at No. 3, No. 5 and No, 7, respectively. These three teams are clearly a notch or two above the rest of the teams in the conference. If any of the other seven conference teams are going to beat the elite three, it will have to be when Kansas, Baylor and Missouri are playing on the road. I don't see any of the three losing at home, except perhaps when they play each other.
Aside from Missouri and Baylor, Texas is the only other Big 12 team not to lose a game at home this season. The Tigers and Longhorns are both perfect through 11 home dates, and Baylor is a perfect 10-0 at home going into Saturday's game with Missouri.
Below the top three in the league are four teams with league records bunched up around the .500 mark: Iowa State, Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Then you have Texas A&M, which is bound to pick up some wins as the season wears on, and Texas Tech, which is still seeking its first conference victory at 0-5, but should still win or steal a game or two or three before its all over, but is destined, I'm afraid, to finish right where they are now: at the bottom, looking up.
Still a long ways to go, but we're starting to see trends that are typically pretty telling about how things are likely to shake out between now and the first week of March.
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