Big XII Conference Preview
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by Ruben Alonzo
The Big XII opened conference play on January 7, 2006, but the fall of 2005 was not a good one for the conference. The season began with high hopes for two Big XII teams to reach the Final Four; it now appears as if the conference will struggle to get five teams into the NCAA Tournament. Here's a brief idea of storylines to watch for each team:
This doesn’t look to be a good year for the Baylor Bears. Baylor was handed major sanctions by the NCAA following the 2003 Carlson Dotson-Patrick Dennehey scandal and has not been allowed to play any regular season games outside of the Big XII. While the Bears will be under NCAA probation until 2010, they will be eligible for post-season play in the 2005-06 season--this after two years of a self imposed post-season ban. Since Baylor’s first game this season won’t be until a January 11 road game against Texas Tech, this is a hard team to scout. The Bears will be returning 4 starters from a team that went 9-19 (1-15) last season. The best player will likely be last season’s leading scorer, current sophomore Aaron Bruce. The Bears will be young, and will most likely finish near the bottom of the Big XII again, but the future looks bright as the incoming freshman class is strong. Could the Bears make the NCAA tournament? Yes, with a win in the conference tournament, the NCAA would be forced to allow Baylor to play. The Bears can make a case for an at-large only with a road win in Austin, Lawrence, or Norman and at least 10 conference wins.
The Colorado Buffaloes have had a strong nonconference season, and enter 2006 strongly "on the radar" of Bracketography.com. The 10-1 Buffs' only blemish in the pre-conference season was an 82-83 loss at Colorado State early in the year; their biggest win was a 19 point victory over UNC-Wilmington in their first game. The Buffs are lead by Richard Roby, a 6-6 guard from San Bernardino, California. Roby is averaging nearly 16 ppg; his only help so far is coming from 6-8 forward Chris Copeland (13.2 ppg) and Jayson Obazuaye (10 ppg). Roby, Copeland, and Obazuaye are the only CU players averaging double figures. The Buffs figure return to the NCAA Tournament this year as the Big XII's fifth-place team.
Iowa State has shown moments of greatness (seven point victory over Northern Iowa) while also showing signs of weakness (seven point home loss to Fresno St) this season. The Cyclones sit at 11-3 (1-0) after a win over Kansas State in their Big XII opener. The Cyclones have only played one road game so far, a win over Drake. While they haven’t suffered a major loss, the two home losses against Iona and Fresno St may come back and haunt the Cyclones, and a road win over a top-tier Big XII team is desperately needed to improve their profile. They’ll travel south of the Kansas border to face Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Baylor, while getting Oklahoma St, Texas and Texas A&M in Ames. Look for ISU's big three (Curtis Stinson, Rahshon Clark and Will Blalock) to carry the team back to the Big Dance, and a top-half seed.
What can be said about Kansas? The perennial Final Four contenders have had a tough year thus far. At the Maui Invitational they were embarrassed by Arizona, lost by one to Arkansas, and finished the tournament with an easy win over Div-II Chaminade, good enough for a seventh-place finish. While KU’s season hasn’t been all bad–well, they’re in better shape than Baylor–it hasn’t exactly been that impressive. KU has yet to play a true road game, and three of their four losses have come on neutral courts. Following a three-point loss to St. Joseph’s in the Jimmy V Classic, Kansas has rolled out a six game winning streak–beginning with a win over California in Kansas City and still going after their blowout win against Kentucky over the weekend. Their only loss in The Phog was by two points to Nevada. The biggest problem for the Jayhawks thus far is their lack of quality wins, though the win over UK is a good start. Mario Chalmers, Micah Downs, Brandon Rush and Julian Wright made up arguably the best freshman class of the 05-06 season. If the freshman foursome–who some expect will lead KU to a national title if they stick together–can mature, they should be able to win a lot of games in the conference. Expect KU to continue its current roll into the Big XII season and into the Big Dance as a top-half seed.
Kansas State has run off an impressive non-conference record, going 9-2. Unfortunately, as usual, eight of their nine wins have come against teams that have yet to break the RPI top 100. Their victory over Colorado State, a four point victory at home, seems to be their biggest win in the early season. Two road losses against Washington St and Northern Illinois won’t hurt the Wildcats on Selection Sunday, but they'll need quality wins if they want to win over the Selection Committee. Cartier Martin (20.1 ppg), David Hoskins (14 ppg) and Lance Harris (12.2 ppg) should keep the Wildcats in contention for an NCAA bid, with an NIT bid more likely.
It appears that Missouri will be playing in 2006 only to keep coach Quin Synder’s job. The program, which has come under fire following NCAA violations, has been underachieving for many years. Synder, the “next” big time coach, has yet to elevate any of his team to anything Mizzou's fans and national analysts have expected. With their biggest non-conference win coming against Northwestern State, Mizzou has racked up a record of 7-5. Losses have come against Sam Houston St in the preseason NIT at home, Arkansas and Davidson on the road, and a blowout against Illinois in St. Louis. While the Tigers enter Big XII play with a winning record, there doesn’t much hope for Tiger fans this season. A win over Oklahoma State was a good start to conference play, but it might take wins over Texas and Kansas to keep Snyder's job.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers entered conference play against Oklahoma at 10-3. With a 10-point win over Marquette in late November, Nebraska seemed to gain its high profile win for the non-conference season. The Cornhuskers' three nonconference losses have come at home to UAB, at Creighton (by 26), and against a decent Florida St. team in Miami. Going into the season, head coach Barry Collier was said to be on the hot-seat, but his team's buzzer-beating upset of the Sooners in Lincoln over the weekend may have cooled that seat off, at least temporarily. In order to get to any game past the Big XII tournament, Wes Wilkinson (averaging nearly 14 ppg and over 7 rpg) will have to step up. The Huskers have one of the tougher road schedules in the conference, traveling to Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Texas without getting return games from those teams. The Huskers should be able to pull out enough games to get into the NIT, and with two big road wins (i.e. Kansas, Texas, or Iowa State) an NCAA bid is very possible.
Oklahoma began the season as a major threat to be a Final Four team. What a difference a few weeks can make in expectations. The Sooners blew their pre-conference chances at major scalps by losing to Villanova in Philly and getting routed by West Virginia in Oklahoma City. A blowout home win over Alabama looks good on paper, but the Crimson Tide may not mount much of a stampede in the SEC this year. The vast majority of the Sooners' nine victories this season have come against teams outside the RPI top 100, and only wins over Tulsa and a nailbiter against SMU were on the road. Despite their less-than-impressive early season schedule, Oklahoma should remain a enough of a force in the Big XII to get into the NCAA tournament, but the seed will not be nearly as high as the Sooners have been accustomed to receiving under Kelvin Sampson.
The 10-4 Oklahoma State Cowboys have come from a long way from their 2004 Final Four appearance. Losses to Boston College, Northwestern State, Gonzaga and UAB speak well for OK State’s courage to schedule tough non-conference games, but the Cowboys surely hoped to have come away with wins in at least one of those games. Coach Eddie Sutton should see his team playing in the post-season again, the only question is: which tournament? It's time for JamesOn Curry to live up to the hype he received during his recruitment process.
Sportswriters around the country have been ready since the start of football season to proclaim this the greatest year in the history of Texas athletics. A national championship appearance in the Rose Bowl, and a trip to the Final Four seemed almost guaranteed. Then came a 31-point loss to Duke. The following week, Texas lost to Tennessee in Austin by 17. The Longhorns had won their first eight, including victories over Iowa and West Virginia in the Guardians Classic leading up to the Duke game, and seem to have recovered nicely, with an impressive 11-point victory at Memphis and a solid win over Colorado to start Big XII play. Texas' brutal stretch continues this week with a game against the Cyclones in Ames, followed by a final nonconference test against Villanova at the Erwin Events Center. Wins in those two games will re-spark talk of the first national championship double ever recorded in Division I football and basketball. Look for Texas to earn a protected seed on Selection Sunday.
For the second year in a row, Texas A&M head coach Billy Gillispie has scheduled a cupcake non-conference schedule. In Gillispie’s first year leading the Aggies, A&M racked up 11 victories before losing their first game at Kansas. Second verse: same as the first. Again A&M played 10 cupcake teams at home to open the season, winning all of them in fine fashion before falling at Pacific by seven. Last year the formula was enough to get the Aggies into the NIT, but this year's team is without last year's star, Antoine Wright. Wright, a first-round NBA Draft pick, led the team with 17.8 ppg. This year the Aggies are led by sophomore Joseph Jones and junior Acie Law with 16.6 and 14 ppg, respectively. Gillispie is trying to continue the remarkable turn-around he began last year at A&M. Look for Texas A&M to be one of the nation's most talked-about bubble teams in March, thanks to the Aggies' pathetic non-conference SOS (328).
After losses to Syracuse and Wake Forest, Texas Tech started the season at 2-2, only to lose four more games, including a 15 point home loss to Louisiana Tech. The 8-6 Red Raiders seem to be headed down a path to miss out on postseason play completely. Led by junior guard Jarrius Jackson (18.6 ppg), Tech will need to rebound heavily in the Big XII to overcome a number of embarrassing losses. An NIT bid would be a strong comeback, but an at-large NCAA bid is out of the question without an incredible road record in Big XII play.
While the Big XII lacks its usual high-profile nonconference wins this year, it appears as if the bottom of the conference has finally caught up with the top. This should be an exciting season of play, as the Big XII will be one of the most evenly matched conferences in the nation. As many as nine Big XII teams have a chance to be in the NCAA discussion deep into conference play, and the Big XII tournament in Dallas will be a deciding factor in many teams' postseason fate.