Usually there is some build up to the first of the two regularly scheduled Sunflower Showdown battles in basketball, with as much as a month's worth of conference games played ahead of this highly anticipated annual grudge contest. Not so this year, as both teams open their conference season tonight in a 7 p.m. tip off at Allen Field House in Lawrence.
Kansas (10-3) vs. Kansas State (11-1) is one of three Big 12 games on tap tonight, with Texas at Iowa State and Texas Tech at Oklahoma State also on the docket. Previously this week, Baylor one of two Big 12 teams and one of only four in the country that is still unbeaten, at 14-0, upended Texas A&M by nine at Baylor, and the conference's othyer unbeaten team, Missouri, buried 10-3 Oklahoma 87-49 in front of a sold-out house Tuesday night in Columbia.
Baylor's 14-0 start is a school record and Missouri is having its best season so far in over three decades. The 1981-82 Tigers, with Blue Springs, Mo-native Jon Sunvold and Steve Stipanovich, went 19-0 to start the season on their way to a 27-4 overall record and the regular-season title in the Big 12.
By the looks of things at this very early stage of the conference season, besides Baylor, the three best teams in the Big 12 this year appear to be the three Kansas City-area teams: Missouri, Kansas State and Kansas. The one discerning difference from recent seasons, though, is that seven-time defending Big 12 champion Kansas may be the third best of the three. We'll get a major read on that assessment after tonight's Sunflower Showdown between the Wildcats and Jayhawks. And again on Saturday, when Missouri takes its high-scoring, guard-dominated machine to Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan.
Missouri shot a sizzling 60 percent from the field in Tuesday's rout of Oklahoma, exceeding the Tigers' nation-best 51 percent shooting average through 14 games. Mizzou also has the nation leader in individual field-goal percentage, with senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe shooting at 77 percent efficiency, making 89 of his 116 field-goal attempts. The Tigers also are shooting lights out at the free-throw stripe, which is going to make them extremely tough to overcome late in games in which they lead. As a team Missouri has been successful on 77 percent of its free-throw attempts, with seniors Michael Dixon and Marcus Denmon both over 90 percent at the charity line.
By early February, when practically every team in the league will have had the opportunity to play each other at least once, we should have a good shapshot of how things could shake out in the conference at season's end. Taking into account nonconference records and strength of schedule, I would break down the teams in Big 12 men's basketball into three different levels of quality:
(Teams that can beat you, but won't sustain it over the long haul)
Not a Chance
Big 12 Power Rankings (through games of Jan. 3)
•1. Baylor - On way to the Bears' best season in Big 12 history.
•2. Missouri - Making an emphatic Big 12 farewell statement.
•3. Kansas State - Proving everyone wrong who counted them out in the preseason.
•4. Kansas - Too inconsistent for a typical Bill Self team.
•5. Texas A&M - Tough luck in having to open Big 12 play on the road and against Baylor.
•6. Texas - Majority of roster (6) are freshman. But Horns do have the conference's leading scorer in senior J'Covan Brown.
•7. Oklahoma - One of conference's biggest surprises under new coach Lon Kruger, but Sooners were far from impressive vs. Mizzou in opener.
•8. Iowa State - Four transfers who sat out last year will make this Cyclone bunch much tougher than last season.
•9. Oklahoma State - Nonconference results were disappointing; Cowboys are struggling.
•10. Texas Tech - Ninth in country in field-goal percentage, but ninth in conference standings. Go figure.
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