If the first day of Big 12 basketball was any indicator, a wild season awaits.
Eight teams opened conference play on Saturday, and the four games were decided by an average of 5.5 points. The day included Texas Tech hanging tough with undefeated Iowa State, Kansas State shocking preseason favorite Oklahoma State and Oklahoma getting an important road victory at rival Texas.
That sent a message to everyone watching at home.
“Every game will be very close and very hard fought,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Whoever executes down the stretch and makes free throws is going to win. I think if you are a Big 12 fan, you are going to have a lot of good games to watch. It doesn’t matter who is on, you are going to have a highly competitive contest.”
That much can be expected from the nation’s top-rated conference. The Big 12 ended nonconference play with a record of 102-26 and ranked No. 1 in the RPI, with five teams ranked in the top 25.
Baylor, Iowa State and Oklahoma State are in the top 11. Kansas is No. 18 despite four losses. No. 25 K-State is on a nine-game winning streak.
The national polls could become more crowded soon. Oklahoma is receiving votes.
Kansas faces the daunting task of playing all five of those teams, which sport a combined record of 60-8, in its first five conference games. A schedule that has already been among the nation’s toughest is about to get rockier.
“It’s a joke,” KU coach Bill Self told reporters following a loss to San Diego State. “If the Big 12 schedule came out earlier, that could impact your games. When you play consecutive games where they’ve got a total of (eight) losses, that’s probably not how you’d set up your schedule. As hard as it’s been for us, the next five games will be harder.”
That should make for an entertaining conference championship race. Kansas has won or shared the league crown for nine straight seasons, but it will face more competition than usual.
Iowa State steamrolled through nonconference play, Baylor downed Kentucky on a neutral floor, Oklahoma State has the league’s top returning player (Marcus Smart) and K-State has recovered marvelously from a poor start.
This might be the most wide-open race the Big 12 has seen in years.
“This looks like the best conference in the country and the best conference I have ever had the pleasure of coaching in,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said. “There are a lot of good players and everybody is very competitive in this league from top to bottom.”
Iowa State’s 13-0 start is not only its best start in program history, it is its longest winning streak in school history, matching the 13 in a row the Cyclones won in 2000.
Sophomore forward Georges Niang is a big reason. He has scored 10 or more points in seven straight games, and he is developing into one of the best big men in the conference. Senior DeAndre Kane has also won Big 12 player of the week honors in back-to-back weeks.
The Cyclones face a difficult challenge on Tuesday, when Baylor visits Hilton Coliseum for a battle of top-10 teams. But with wins over BYU, Iowa and Michigan already on their resume, don’t expect them to be surprised by the big-game atmosphere.
Ask Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford about the challenges associated with replacing starting forward Michael Cobbins, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles, and he likes the phrase “ongoing process.”
“We have a lot of people who need to step in and play high-level minutes,” Ford said. “We have a lot of guys who are learning what it takes.”
Oklahoma State struggled without Cobbins against K-State. The Cowboys couldn’t slow Thomas Gipson when it mattered with their top shot blocker on the bench. Ford doesn’t have many experienced options to turn to inside. He might opt to play a small roster and spread defenses out the rest of the way. That will put extra pressure on Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash to avoid foul trouble and contribute in additional ways.
Freshman of the week
Marcus Foster scored 15 points in an important victory over George Washington. Then he scored 17 points in an even bigger win over Oklahoma State to earn Big 12 freshman of the week honors for the first time.