Not much separating top and bottom in Big 12 at halfway point

Tuesday, February 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ Second-ranked Kansas is the only team that got through the first half of the Big 12 schedule without a conference loss. Two-time defending champion Iowa State, going through an expected rebuilding year, has won just once since league play began a month ago.

For the 10 teams between the top and bottom of the Big 12 standings, there's not a whole lot of separation. The three teams tied for third at 5-3 _ Texas Tech, Missouri and Texas _ are a game and a half ahead of sixth-place Oklahoma State (4-5) and two games ahead of the five teams tied for seventh at 3-5 _ Colorado, Baylor, Nebraska, Kansas State and Texas A&M.

``In the past since I've been in it, it was more of a three-tier league, with a couple of teams at the top that were outstanding, four or five teams that were really good and then another level,'' fourth-year Texas coach Rick Barnes said Monday. ``It's definitely not a three-tier league anymore. There's not a team in our league that can't get it going. That's why we play the games.''

Take Kansas State.

The Wildcats, who began the second half of play Monday night with the last of a three-game homestand against Kansas, entered last week with a 1-5 Big 12 record. They won 71-70 over Texas, which had been in the Top 25 just two weeks ago, and followed that with a 70-61 upset of No. 14 Oklahoma State on Saturday.

Then there's Nebraska (10-9, 3-5), which won its only game last week, 80-69 over No. 24 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had just earned their first national ranking in five years with home wins over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State _ both ranked No. 6 at the time _ on consecutive Saturdays.

Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton kept saying even before the season began that he felt the Big 12 would be tough.

``I said there were more quality teams, not only the teams everyone knew would be good, but the teams that likely will finish in the bottom six,'' Sutton reiterated Monday during the coaches' weekly teleconference. ``They are all good teams.''

Fourth-ranked Oklahoma (17-3, 6-2) is the closest team to Kansas in the standings. Texas Tech, Missouri, Texas and Sutton's Cowboys (17-5, 4-5), who have lost four of six, round out the top half of the standings.

``I've said it many times in the past, this is one of the best conferences in the country,'' said Texas Tech coach Bob Knight. ``With the balance and strength this year, it may be the best conference in the country.''

Kansas won the first two Big 12 titles, going 15-1 in 1996-97 and 1997-98. That is the best record ever in the league, meaning no one has ever escaped unscathed.

``We had a great first half, but we're still just halfway,'' said Kansas coach Roy Williams, whose team returns home Saturday against Texas Tech. ``You don't celebrate at the turn.''

With four weeks of conference play left, there's plenty of time for the teams to spread out in the standings _ or bunch up even more.

Among the games this week that could alter the middle of the pack: Nebraska at Colorado, Texas Tech at Oklahoma State, Texas at Texas A&M, Colorado at Texas and Kansas State at Nebraska.