Let's take a look at the state of Big 12 basketball heading into conference-play.
No. 6 Oklahoma State (12-1)
Opens Big 12 slate at Kansas State (Jan. 4, 3 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Dec. 1 over 11th ranked Memphis, 101-80
The backcourt duo of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown ranks among the best in the country. Both are in the top-5 in scoring in the Big 12 (Smart – 17.2, Brown – 16.5) and their names are littered across the conference stat leaderboard. As a team, the Cowboys lead the Big 12 in scoring margin (+23.2), field goal percentage defense (.378), steals (8.4) and turnover margin (+4.7). With co-favorite Kansas losing three times in non-conference play, OSU looked like the clear-cut Big 12 frontrunner, but losing starting center Michael Cobbins for the year to an achilles injury hurts as does the uncertainty surrounding freshman guard Stevie Clark following his arrest for marijuana possession. Clark has already been suspended for four games this season.
No. 9 Baylor (11-1)
Opens conference-play at No. 13 Iowa State (Jan. 7, 7 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Dec. 6 67-62 victory against No. 3 Kentucky
When you think about Baylor, you probably think about the Bears' twin towers Cory Jefferson (14.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Isaiah Austin (his 3.2 blocks per game are more than three Big 12 teams) or perhaps you'd think about the conference's top three-point shooter Brady Heslip (.493 from downtown), but the unsung hero heading into Big 12-play is transfer point guard Kenny Chery. Chery scores in double figures (11.8), is third in the conference in assists (5.3) and has helped Scott Drew's squad make a smooth transition at point guard following two-year starter Pierre Jackson's graduation. Drew may have to tighten up his nine-man rotation when the Bears get into the meat of the Big 12 schedule.
No. 13 Iowa State (12-0)
Opens Big 12 schedule at Texas Tech (Jan. 4, 12:30 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Nov. 17 over No. 7 Michigan (77-70)
Led by senior Melvin Ejim (17.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg), a potential Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, the Cyclones are the only unbeaten left in the conference. But there's plenty more to Fred "The Mayor" Hoiberg's team than his star senior. Forward Dustin Hogue leads the Big 12 in rebounding (9.8) and guard DeAndre Kane is second in assists (6.1). As a team, ISU is the top-scoring unit in the conference and second nationally averaging 88.2 points per contest. The Cyclones also lead the nation in assists per game (19.3).
No. 16 Kansas (9-3)
Begins conference-play at Oklahoma (Jan. 8, 6 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Nov. 12 against No. 4 Duke (94-83)
The Jayhawks are talented but they still struggle with consistency like a team that starts three freshmen and a sophomore. Super-frosh Andrew Wiggins leads the charge at 15.9 points per outing but has been far from dominant and has downright disappeared at times. Fellow freshman Joel Embiid has kicked it up a notch lately, averaging 16.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in the past three games. The elder statesman of this group, junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, ranks fourth in the Big 12 in assists (5.3) but has found himself in Bill Self's doghouse at times. Kansas might be the lowest of the ranked teams in the conference, but they're still probably the most dangerous on any given night. The Jayhawks have run a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule and sit fourth nationally in RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). That's called being "battle-tested," and it will serve KU well early in Big 12 matchups.
Opens conference-play at Texas (Jan. 4, 7 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Dec. 2 victory against Mercer (96-82) or Nov. 22 against Seton Hall (86-85)
Cameron Clark's transformation from diminutive role player to the slashing attacker who leads the Big 12 in scoring has been nothing short of spectacular. Clark's minutes and points (2010-11 – 9.3, 2011-12 – 8.5, 2012-13 – 6.5, 2013-14 – 18.5) had decreased in each of his three seasons in Norman before this year's breakout campaign. Newcomers Jordan Woodard (Edmond Santa Fe) and Ryan Spangler (Gonzaga) both score in double figures and lead the Sooners in assists (5.1, sixth in Big 12) and rebounds (9.5, second in Big 12) respectively. Coach Lon Kruger has the offense clicking (87.2 ppg, second in Big 12) but the Sooners are dead last in defense, giving up 77.8 a game. That won't cut it in conference play, and OU needs to finish with a .500 or better record against Big 12 foes to have a realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament again.
Kansas State (10-3)
Opens Big 12 schedule at home against No. 6 Oklahoma State (Jan. 4, 3 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Dec. 21 versus No. 21 Gonzaga (72-62)
It looked like the Wildcats could be in for a long year when Northern Colorado ousted them 60-58 in the home opener at Bramlage Coliseum. But Bruce Weber's crew has since righted the ship by winning eight-straight just in time for conference-play. Freshman guard Marcus Foster leads the team in scoring (13.8) and forward Thomas Gipson (11.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is dependable on the block, but senior guard Shane Southwell (11.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 3.4 apg) is the Wildcats' best player. Weber has the opposite problem as Oklahoma and Lon Kruger: KSU holds opponents to a league-best 57.8 points per game but is only scoring 67.4, last in the Big 12.
Begins Big 12 slate at home against Oklahoma (Jan. 4, 7 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Dec. 18 at No. 14 North Carolina (86-83)
Texas is the biggest surprise in the Big 12 to this point. Rick Barnes lost his top four players from last season's losing campaign and turned it into an 11-2 start. Junior Jonathan Holmes leads the Longhorns in scoring (13.1) but is playing just 23.6 minutes per game in part to depth at the four and five spots. Barnes can use any combination of Holmes, Cameron Ridley (10.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh to hold down the paint. The Longhorns lead the league in rebounding and blocks, but they're last in free throw shooting and eighth in field goal percentage.
West Virginia (8-5)
Opens conference-play at TCU (Jan. 4, 3 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Nov. 8 against Mt. Saint Mary's (77-62)
Bob Huggins' Mountaineers are fueled by the backcourt duo of Eron Harris and Juwan Staten. Harris sits second in the Big 12 at 18.3 points per game and Staten is seventh in scoring (16.3) and leads the league in assists (6.3). The problem has been WVU's inability to win close games. All five Mountaineer losses were by single digits against respectable competition. The Mountaineers sit near the middle of the pack in most statistical categories (fourth in points-for, fifth in points-against, seventh in field goal percentage, assists and steals per game). Huggins' seat has to be hot as he hasn't put a team in the NCAA tournament in three years and things aren't looking promising this year.
Texas Tech (8-5)
Opens Big 12 schedule hosting No. 13 Iowa State (Jan. 4, 12:30 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Nov. 8 against Houston Baptist (76-61)
First-year Raider coach Tubby Smith just earned his 750th career win and he has an experienced group of starters in Lubbock. Senior forwards Jaye Crockett and Jordan Tolbert lead the team in scoring (13.6 and 12.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.2 and 6.8 rpg, respectively) and both shoot well from the free-throw line. Dejan Kravic is a seven-footer who can take advantage of smaller teams in the paint. The challenge for Tech is depth. The Red Raiders are one of the worst defensive teams in the Big 12 (teams are shooting 42.4 percent against TTU) and will have to find a way to contest shots better in order to avoid another 3-15 season in the Big 12.
Opens conference schedule at home against West Virginia (Jan. 4, 3 p.m. CT)
Best non-conference win: Nov. 24 at Washington State (64-62)
Kyan Anderson is a little guy with big game. The junior point guard stands just 5-foot-11 but he has the ability to put this TCU team on his shoulders. Anderson is fifth in scoring (16.5), fifth in assists (5.3) and third in steals (1.4) per contest in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs are getting production out of freshmen Karviar Shepherd (8.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Brandon Parrish (10.3 ppg) too, but Trent Johnson's team looks to be a year away from leaving the Big 12 cellar. TCU ranks last in the conference in rebounding and ninth in field goal percentage. Still, the Frogs look more competitive than a year ago when their only two conference wins came against tourney teams Oklahoma and Kansas.
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