Oklahoma State didn’t cause a seismic shift in the Big 12 basketball standings by upsetting Kansas over the weekend at Allen Fieldhouse, but the Cowboys might as well have.
The race for a conference championship no longer seems like a coronation. Now it’s up for grabs.
The Jayhawks’ 18-game winning streak is gone and so is their aura of invincibility at home. Oklahoma State proved visiting teams can win in Lawrence. Suddenly, the five teams within two games of Kansas in the conference standings – Kansas State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State – all have renewed hopes of winning the Big 12.
“It’s going to be very competitive the second half of the season, I have no doubts about that,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Every game is going to be important.”
K-State is in the best position to challenge Kansas, with two conference losses while Oklahoma, Baylor and Oklahoma State are all tied for third at 5-3. The Wildcats are coming off an important road win over Oklahoma, and play two other contenders in the next week. After Texas Tech, they host Iowa State and travel to Kansas. Win all three, and K-State will have at least a tie for the Big 12 lead.
Maybe that’s why Wildcats coach Bruce Weber started talking about the importance of beating the Red Raiders immediately after Saturday’s game.
“We just want to stay up in the standings,” Weber said. “The only way to do that is to win on the road.”
Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State are all capable of making a move, too. The Sooners own a win at Baylor, and the Bears can beat anybody when Pierre Jackson gets hot and the Cyclones are nails at home. But the Cowboys might have the best conference title case. Their schedule was front-loaded with road games against K-State, Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas already behind them. The majority of their toughest remaining games all come in Stillwater.
Beating the Jayhawks pushed them, and several other teams, back into the mix. Interestingly, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford tried to downplay the victory on Monday.
“Kansas is still the team to beat, no question,” Ford said. “They are one of the best teams in America. We had a good day. I don’t think our win diminishes how good they are.”
But it did make Big 12 basketball a lot more interesting.
Player of the Year watch
With teams approaching the midway point of the conference season, now is a good time to evaluate the league’s Player of the Year race. KU’s Ben McLemore seems like the favorite, averaging more than 16 points for the team atop the Big 12 standings. But there are several other challengers. Baylor’s Jackson leads the league in scoring (19.6 points), Rodney McGruder has pushed K-State into the top 15, KU’s Jeff Withey might be the nation’s top shot-blocker and Will Clyburn is on a nice run for the Cyclones. Don’t count out Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, either. He has led the Cowboys to wins over Kansas and North Carolina State with big games. He may be a freshman, but he can do a back flip like a senior.
What can Brown do for you?
It’s easy to overlook Markel Brown. He’s on the same roster as Le’Bryan Nash and Smart. Of that trio, Brown is definitely the most unsung player. But maybe that shouldn’t be the case. Brown has had several strong games for the Cowboys as a junior, including a 28-point effort against Kansas.
And when he isn’t scoring, he is providing much-needed leadership on a team filled with underclassmen.
“He is the oldest guy on the team,” Ford said. “He is a junior, but he is the guy who has played the most minutes by far. It’s not even close. He has good experience.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew wasn’t surprised by his play at Kansas.
“Markel is one of those players that, when he gets going, it is really hard to stop him,” Drew said.
What is this, the Big Ten?
Should it come to any surprise that K-State only needed 52 points to win at Oklahoma on Saturday? Weber came to the Wildcats from Illinois, where the Illini routinely played low-scoring, physical games in the Big Ten. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is also a former Illinois coach, and has experience with defensive battles. The Sooners went nearly 11 minutes without scoring and still had a chance to win at the buzzer.