Big 12 Confidential (Pre-Conference Wrap)

by Jonathan Wall | January 8th, 2009

Another non-conference season has come and gone, and with the exception of the Kansas vs. Michigan State game on Saturday, the rest of the conference will play their first conference games of the season this weekend.

It’s hard to believe that’s true–the last couple of months have been a relative blur. North Carolina, the one team on the planet that seemed invincible, lost in shocking fashion to Boston College; the Big East is in for another dogfight this year; and for the most part, the college basketball rankings have been changing at a furious pace.

Yep, parity is alive and well in college basketball.

You don’t need to look outside of your own backyard to find that out.

  • A superior Kansas team fell to UMass in what was a home game in Kansas City, Mo.
  • Baylor fell at home to South Carolina
  • Oklahoma AND Texas both on the road to Arkansas.

Most would agree that so far it’s been “one of those years” for the Big 12′s best.

If you were expecting certainty and a solidified top four this year…you’re still looking for it. If you like boring basketball, then I suggest you go watch an NBA game where the scores and teams at the top are pretty predictable.

If there is one bit of certainty going into conference play, it’s this: The Big 12 could be a relative O.K. Corral this season, where every squad has the chance on any given night to take down whomever is on top.

Unlike last season, almost every team has a weakness that can definitely be exploited with the right players on the floor. That could lead to a reshuffling of the conference and mass pandemonium towards the end of the season. If you’re a college basketball fan, you have to be excited about that.

Just like last season, I’d like to use the first Big 12 Confidential of the year to recap the best and the worst of the non-conference games.

Best non-conference wins:

Oklahoma 87, Pudue 82: Missed free throws down the stretch by OU’s Blake Griffin forced this game into overtime. However, Griffin atoned for his mistake, as the Sooners took it to Purdue in the extra period to win a memorable NIT Season Tip-Off in New York City.

Texas 68, UCLA 64: UCLA’s Darren Collison was the guard everyone was talking about before this game. When it was all said and done, Texas’ A.J Abrams ended up being “the” guard that left everyone thoroughly impressed. Abrams lead Texas with a career high 31 points, and the Longhorns’ defense got it done when it mattered the most.

Kansas 92, Tennessee 85: Could this be the game everyone looks back at as the turning point in Kansas’ season? It could be, especially after the Jayhawks’ slow start out of the gate. Sherron Collins led all scorers with 26 points, and Cole Aldrich added 10 rebounds to give Bill Self’s team their biggest win of the season against a ranked opponent.

Baylor 87, Arizona State 78: Baylor needed a quality non-conference win to validate their preseason hype; they got it in a huge way on a neutral court against then-No.14 Arizona State. They allowed ASU guard, James Harden, to score 32 points, but they ultimately won the war with Curtis Jerrells and LaceDarius Dunn leading the way.

Worst non-conference losses:

Massachusetts 61, Kansas 60: What was supposed to be a blowout in Kansas City turned into a shocker that many still haven’t quite gotten over. UMass, 2-6 (prior to the win), reached deep late in the game to hold off a young Kansas squad that still seemed to be finding themselves. This loss could be the difference late in the season the Jayhawks find themselves on the tournament bubble.

Stanford 111, Texas Tech 66: Earlier in the season, Texas Tech let poor East Central College have it in spades in a complete drubbing, 167-115. That 50 point win had to have repercussions, and it certainly did when Tech met their maker in the form of the Stanford Cardinals. Beating a cupcake on your home court is expected, but losing to another D1 school by almost 50 is inexcusable.

Arkansas 96, Oklahoma 88: I’ll admit that Arkansas is having a great season, but Oklahoma should have taken care of business against a team with a new coach. OU fell down by 15 at halftime and never recovered. Based on the teams Oklahoma has defeated so far this season, this one goes down as a bad non-conference loss.

SMU 70, Colorado 67: I don’t care if you’re the basement school of the Big 12, you should never lose to a school like SMU. This was just another ugly loss for a Colorado team that has fallen so far since their last NCAA tournament appearance in 2003.

Big 12 Player of the Year candidates (based on preseason form):

1. Blake Griffin, F (Oklahoma): No player in the Big 12 has made as much of an impact on his team in the early part of the season than Griffin. He currently leads the conference in points per game (22.1) and rebounds (14), as well as field goal percentage (.661) and defensive rebounds (11). Those are Michael Beasley-esque numbers from the most dominant player in the Big 12. For now there’s nobody else in his league.

2. Sherron Collins, G (Kansas): He’s the straw that stirs Kansas’ drink, the glass the drink goes in, and most likely, he’s the table holding the glass steady. To put it plainly: he’s the one man that seperates his team from the NCAA or the NIT. So far he’s done an admirable job leading the Jayhawks to some big wins, including one over Tennessee. He’s averaging 18 points and 5 assists, and will most likely continue to stuff the sheet on a nightly basis.

3. A.J. Abrams, G (Texas): Like Sherron Collins at Kansas, Abrams has to be on his game every time he takes the court. For the most part he’s done that, averaging 18 points per game and 3 three-point field goals per game. His perimeter numbers have to be good for Texas to survive the brutal road ahead. If he falters, his ranking in this poll won’t be the only thing going down the tube.

4. Curtis Jerrells, G (Baylor): Baylor may have a stable full of guards, but Jerrells is the one that makes the team tick. Currently averaging 16.7 points per game and a conference-best 6.2 assists per game, Jerrells knows how to run Baylor’s high-octane offense. He’ll need to stay fresh though, especially since he’s logging 34.4 minutes per game — third higest in the conference.

5. Damion James, F (Texas): Damion James is unknown to many, and for the most part, he’s fine with that. Why wouldn’t he be? Most opponents know the first target on the floor is Abrams, making James’ job just a bit easier as the second option on the team. His 14.6 points and 9 rebounds have been critical when the perimeter play has failed to produce.

Notables: Cole Aldrich (Kansas), Cory Higgins (Colorado), James Anderson (Oklahoma State)

Big 12 Rookie of the Year candidates (based on preseason form):

1. Willie Warren, G (Oklahoma): Willie Warren has lived up to his potential as the next big thing at Oklahoma. Sure, Blake Griffin is the main attraction, but Warren is making his mark by feeding the big man and getting his on the side. Not only is Warren averaging 16 points per game, he’s also shooting 50 percent from the field. Did we mention this kid is a freshman?

2. Tyshawn Taylor, G (Kansas): Taylor didn’t know what to expect when he came to Kansas. With a bare cupboard, it looked like he’d be getting some playing time early in the season. Little did he know he’d be playing major minutes (27 per game), and helping KU over the hump in what will surely be an interesting conference season for the young squad. He’s also second on the team in assists at 3.6 per game.

3. Nate Tomlinson, G (Colorado): Colorado is once again in a rebuilding year. But unlike years’ past, Nate Tomlinson appears to be a bright spot amongst the gloomy outlook. The Australia born guard is logging the eighth most minutes in the conference (33.5), 3.6 assists per game and almost 10 points. Could Tomlinson be the second coming of former Baylor guard Aaron Bruce? (Bruce was an Aussie as well)

4. Marcus Morris, F (Kansas): Marcus Morris gives Kansas two legitimate stars for the future (Taylor being the second). He’s currently averaging 5.8 rebounds per game and 8 points as the second option in the post behind Cole Aldrich.

5. Quincy Acy, F (Baylor): Acy might have a hard time getting noticed this season in Baylor’s guard-heavy system, but for the most part he seems to be making the most of his minutes. At 16 minutes per game, Acy is the first option behind senior forward Kevin Rogers. He’s got a knack for rejecting shots (averaging almost 1.5 per game), and based on the games we’ve seen him in, he’s the future of the Baylor interior.

Top 5 teams in the Big 12 (rankings will be updated every Tuesday):

1. Oklahoma (14-1): Still the best team in the conference, but the loss against Arkansas still leaves me scratching me head.

2. Texas (11-3): Like Oklahoma, the ‘Horns couldn’t beat Arkansas in their building. They should take their aggression out on poor Iowa State this weekend.

3. Kansas (11-3): Early season losses were the perfect remedy for a young squad. Recent win at home against a highly talented Tennessee team proves they may have finally found their groove. Plus, Sherron Collins is playing some of his best basketball at the moment.

4. Baylor (12-2): Recent loss to South Carolina at home was really disheartening. They need to get everything back on track this weekend against Texas Tech at home.

5. Missouri (13-2): Could be the Big 12 sleeper team in the North Division. I just need to see them put it together against a quality opponent before I’m totally sold.

On the bubble: Texas A&M (14-1), Oklahoma State (11-3), Kansas State (11-3)

Game of the weekend:

Texas A&M (14-1) at Oklahoma State (11-3)9 PM EST / Television: ESPNU
Texas A&M head coach Mark Turgeon spoke candidly after a recent win against North Dakota about his teams inability to find that killer instinct. The urgency in his voice sounded like that of a coach that was figthing for his job, and not that of a guy that had led A&M to their best start in over 80 years. You can tell me A&M’s going to be fine when they get into conference, but until they find a way to finish teams named McNeese State and North Dakota, I’ll be like everyone else — watching the Aggies with bated breath, waiting to see if they live up to their record.

Oklahoma State, like A&M, has an inflated record considering who they’ve defeated over the course of their non-conference slate. What the team lacks in size in the post, it makes up for in speed and athletic ability. That’s obvious based on the Cowboys’ conference best 85.9 points per game.

This game will all come down to who wants it more, and right now I believe that team is Oklahoma State. They can run, they have the homecourt advantage, and for the moment, they have the speed and pace that really seemed to give A&M trouble last season during conference play. I think that will be enough to get them off on the right foot against A&M.

Final Score Prediction: Oklahoma State 86 Texas A&M 79

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