What we’ve learned so far about the Big 12 (North Division)
The Big 12 Conference is riding the wave of last season’s success, and it has Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas and Texas among others to thank for bringing it back to the top of the college basketball pecking order.
Big early-season wins have been the norm for a couple of teams, as the Big 12′s cream continues to rise slowly to the top only a month into the season. Unlike last year, there doesn’t seem to be a sleeper team in the conference at this point. Kansas State wowed the country with the dynamic duo of Michael Beasley and Bill Walker last season; this season you’d be hard-pressed to find a team with that much star power flying under the radar.
While it still might be too early to get the thermometer out to gauge the temperature of each school, I know that it’s never too early to grab the magnifying glass to take a closer look at what we’ve learned so far about every team in the Big 12.
(Ed. note: North Division analysis is the first part of a two-part series)
Kansas (7-1): Gone are the days of big names recruits and senior-led squads at Kansas; the once-mighty Jayhawks are good, but they’re a mere shell of the squad that won the National Championship last season. Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson and Sasha Kaun graduated and moved on; Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush took the smell of NBA money and bolted early for the draft. That left now-junior Sherron Collins as the only man left in the boat. My what a difference a year can make.
It could have been easy for Bill Self to leave the Jayhawk faithful high-and-dry, but Self went against the opinion of every major media market and let the big money at Oklahoma State go. He was going against the grain, but at the time his heart was still in Lawerence, Kansas.
His team is 7-1 so far this season, but have the Jayhawks yet to play a complete game. His squad is still young, but if there’s anyone in the country that can get the most out of his team, it’s Bill Self.
How they look so far: Self has played it smart so far this season, pushing away the big games against nationally-ranked opponents and replacing those games with winnable matchups that should build the character of his young squad.
As expected, Collins has been the biggest contributor of the starting five. Not only is he the player that makes the team go, but he’s also the emotional leader when the team needs a verbal spark. It’s amazing that the Jayhawks have only lost one game so far this season. With a team chalk-full of freshman and sophomores, Self has played a with a mixed bag most nights to some success. If he can get something out of Cole Aldrich and freshmen Tyshawn Taylor and Marcus Morris on a semi-nightly basis, then the team could shock the Big 12.
The win against Washington was the Jayhawks’ most complete win so far. Collins led the team in scoring with 18 in a 73-54 rout. The rest of the wins have come against inferior opponents.
For Kansas, the season rests on its road games. It sounds absurd to say that since road games are always difficult during conference play, but for Kansas these games could make or break the season. Every young team goes through the growing pains of winning in hostile environments; it’s safe to say that winning on the road in college is nothing like winning on the road in high school. If Self can instill a confidence in his team that winning away from Lawrence is possible, then the Jayhawks could be in for a special season. But for now let’s call it so far, so good for Self’s young team.
Colorado (4-3): Losing three of your starters from the previous season is always tough. But for Colorado, that could prove to be even more difficult since those three players were Richard Roby, Marcus Hall and Xavier Silas. So far this season the team has tried like hell to find a way to make up for the 66.5 percent of the points that those three players brought to the table last season. So far things haven’t been going as planned.
How they look so far: Let’s be honest: 4-3 in the non-conference is never a good thing if you’re a major conference program. The non-conference brings the opportunity to pad the win column and prepare for the conference slate. That hasn’t been these case for the Buffaloes.
A home loss to Morgan State is the biggest blemish on their record. Couple that with a 16-point home loss to TCU and a road loss to Stanford and you have a team that’s still rebuilding under head coach Jeff Bzdelik.
Colorado sits in the bottom of the conference in scoring margin, rebounding, and 3-point field goals made. Add to that dismal numbers in the defensive department and you have a team that will probably fall in the 10-12 slot in conference.
Give Bzdelik credit for taking this team and making it his own, but from the look of things this season, it’ll take a couple years of patience and a change in culture to get this program going in the right direction.
Their most recent win against in-state rival Colorado State by 19 means the team is making a positive step forward, and that’s all Bzdelik can ask for at the moment.
Iowa State (6-2): Seven newcomers and four sophomores. That’s Iowa State’s motto this season when alums are asked to explain why their program has gone in the toilet recently.
Just like Bzdelik at Colorado, head coach Greg McDermott has been dealt a hand that is less than favorable. But unlike Colorado, he’s been able to make the best of the situation. With a young squad at his disposal, McDermott is in a position to change the current attitude of a once-successful program.
Based on how he’s done at previous coaching stops, he’ll make Iowa State relevant once again.
How they look so far: 6-2 is a pretty good start to the season all things considered. Their two losses (Hawaii and Drake) came by a total of four points. In my opinion, all signs point to the Cyclones staying in games this year. They have a relatively young squad, but they seem to be playing with a no fear attitude that’s rather refreshing.
What could have Cyclones fans keeping the faith are the defensive numbers so far this season. The team is ranked right near the top in defensive field goal percentage and scoring defense. I can promise you that a stingy defense will really come in handy when facing teams like Oklahoma and Baylor.
Sophomore forward Craig Brackens is the biggest piece to the puzzle. So far this season he’s averaging 17 points and seven rebounds as the big interior contributor. He’ll need to be physical all season if he wants to keep Iowa State in big conference games.
McDermott has the pieces in place, but to be honest, they’re still a season or two away from making a mark on the Big 12. A win on the road against Northern Iowa was a nice start, but the Cyclones will need to pick it up a notch against far superior opponents as the season goes on.
Kansas State (5-3): To all Kansas State fans out there, please let me send out my condolences for your losses. Nobody wants to see a team fall from grace, but that’s exactly what happened when KSU lost Player of the Year and top NBA pick Michael Beasley and forward Bill Walker to the draft.
The team went from a team sitting inside the Top 25 to being nothing more than a blip on the radar. Can Jacob Pullen, Denis Clemente, Jamar Samuels, and Dominique Sutton keep Kansas State relevant this season? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out.
How they look so far: To be honest, that 5-3 record looks pretty darn good so far. Sure, the Wildcats have lost their last three games, but by a total of nine points! The Kentucky loss was their for the taking in the second half; the losses to Iowa and Oregon fall in the same boat. All three were road games (two in Vegas and one in Eugene, Oregon), so that should take the sting off the streak.
All three of those games last season would have been wins with Beasley taking over, but with Pullen acting as their go-to guy, things appear to be a whole heck of a lot different for the Wildcats. The inside game is still there in Sutton and Samuels, but I can tell you that they’re no Beasley and Walker.
They don’t have to be Superman when they take the court, but if Kansas State wants any shot at sniffing the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need to learn how to finish games on their own. Last season they had the luxury of giving the ball to a manchild and watching him do his thing. This year the game has changed.
If Kansas State can get rid of that inferiority complex and win one in the dying minutes, it could become the sleeper team of the Big 12 once again.
Missouri (7-1): OK, I know I said that there isn’t a single team in the conference this season flying under the radar. Well, I lied. This could be the team that shocks the Big 12 this year.
Let’s welcome Missouri back to the conference party after years of mediocrity. With a team loaded to the hilt with talent, Missouri has the guns to run teams out of the building on a nightly basis.
Forwards DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons are damn good, and in my opinion, could make up one of the best forward tandems in the conference. Both are averaging 18 points per game and seem to have a complimentary games that I really like.
All that remains to be seen is if the Tigers can make the most of the senior talent that so many Big 12 North teams are missing. If they can, they’ll go far.
How they look so far: The quality wins just keep coming this season for the Tigers. Oral Roberts, USC and Cal all fell in dominating fashion. Those three wins alone are enough to get Mike Anderson’s squad noticed in the Big 12.
The mix of quality games this season has Missouri on the right track to impress the committee when crunch time comes around. It’s no secret that winning in the Big 12 is a tough task, but I can assure you Anderson has his team ready to make some noise.
The Tigers not finish on top every night, but I promise you before the end of the season that this team will be right there in the mix for the North title.
Nebraska (6-1): So long inside presence, we hardly knew ya! That’s what Doc Sadler was probably saying when he took a look at his roster this season.
Forget about the days of throwing the ball in for center Aleks Maric (15.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg), times have indeed changed. While the team does returns five of its six leading scorers from a squad that went 20-13 overall and 7-9 in the conference last season, the loss of Maric could be a big one to deal with.
How they looks so far: They say defense wins championships, so if that’s the case, then Nebraska should be a lock for the Big 12 title this season! The team currently leads the conference in defensive scoring, holding opponents to 53.3 points per game (that’s a whole three points better than Texas).
Once again, Nebraska isn’t flashy this year. The Cornhuskers currently have one player (Steve Harley) scoring in double figures, which is a far cry from some teams that have four and five players filling the stats on a nightly basis. So Nebraska isn’t an offensive juggernaut, so what?
Well, when you consider that Sadler built this team around four-guard sets, it becomes apparent that something’s missing. A small lineup like that should be running the floor and wearing opposing defenses down. Nebraska can’t seem to find that speedy tempo. What that means is that Nebraska is undersized and lacking speed. That makes for a dangerous combination…and I don’t mean that in a good way.
The 64-44 loss to Arizona State (a team that likes to run) isn’t a good sign for Sadler’s small lineup. Expect Nebraska to finish somewhere between 7th and 10th in the conference.