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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Big 12 race tightens up

By DAVE SKRETTA
Associated Press

Kansas coach Bill Self is sticking by the prediction he made back in October, before the season began and long before the Big 12 race started heating up.

Four losses will still mean a chance to win the league. Three may be good enough to do it outright.

The eighth-ranked Jayhawks had a two-game lead heading into last weekend, but a loss at Iowa State on Saturday bunched up the standings.

Fourth-ranked Missouri and No. 6 Baylor were a game back heading into Monday night’s slate of games, as the Big 12 reaches the midway mark of a newly expanded 18-game conference schedule.

“I think it’s a coin toss, I really do,” said Self, whose Jayhawks have won seven straight conference championships. “You can make a case that we’re in good shape, but we still have to go to hard places — some real hard places.”

In Self’s estimation, Missouri may be the front-runner heading into the Tigers’ game Monday night against Texas. They’ve had arguably the toughest road so far.

“To me, even though teams with four losses, whether that be Kansas State or Iowa State or whatever, they can still win the league,” Self said during the coaches’ Monday teleconference. “I think 14-4 would be a really good record and 15-3 would be one that wins it outright.”

The math is certainly skewed in the revamped Big 12.

In the past, the dozen teams that comprised the league played each team from its own division twice, and alternated home and road games on a yearly basis with teams from the other division.

The result was 16 games with a bye week thrown in the mix somewhere.

That extra time off has been eliminated, and two more games against rugged conference foes put in its place. Now, teams play home and road games with every other opponent, resulting in the 18-game meat-grinder that should serve to separate pretenders from contenders soon enough.

“There is no easy game,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team lost at Kansas but awaits a return trip from the Jayhawks next week. “Really, it’s a matter of who can succeed and thrive on the road and defend the home court. That’s where the league will be decided.”

Everybody in the league has at least three conference wins except Texas Tech, which remains winless through eight games. That gives a pretty good indication of the Big 12’s depth.

Kansas (17-4, 7-1) remains in first place heading into a home game Wednesday against Oklahoma and a road game Saturday night at Missouri, the first of two matchups between bitter rivals down the stretch that could have as big an impact as anything on the eventual champion.

“I haven’t put a lot of thought into this weekend and Kansas,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said, “but I do know when I got the job, they made sure to tell me how important a game it is, and how passionate people are about that game.”

While it appears that the Jayhawks, Tigers and Bears have separated themselves from the rest of the Big 12 – at least according to the national polls, which have all three in the top 10 – that isn’t necessarily the case.

Iowa State is still in the thick of the race, and is coming off a confidence-building 72-64 win over the Jayhawks on Saturday. The Cyclones (15-6, 5-3) have already played Kansas twice and Missouri once, and could climb into position to challenge for its first Big 12 title since 2001 before a three-game finishing kick against Kansas State, Missouri and Baylor.

The Wildcats (15-5, 4-4) wasted an opportunity to keep pace with the league leaders when they failed to defend their home court against Oklahoma last Saturday.

Things don’t get any easier for them with a trip to Iowa State looming Wednesday night.

Such is life in the Big 12, though.

The league is currently second in RPI, and its three teams in the top 10 are the most of any conference. It also has the nation’s best winning percentage against nationally ranked opponents, and the second-best winning percentage overall.

“In sports, period, you have to get ready for the next game, win or lose,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, whose team stunned Missouri last week and will be trying to play spoiler again down the stretch. “You can never get too high in this league. You can never get too low.”

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