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What we’ve learned so far about the Big 12 Conference (South Division)

by Jonathan Wall | December 15th, 2008

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: South Division analysis is the second part of a two-part series)

Oklahoma (9-0): There isn’t a single adjective or description I can use to describe Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin that hasn’t already been used 1,000 times before. The 6’10” Griffin has played like a man amongst boy recently in a stretch of games that have really tested the Sooners as a whole. 24 points and 16 rebounds have been just enough to keep the Norman, Oklahoma school spotless in the loss column. What remains to be seen is how well OU can play if Griffin goes down. Guard Willie Warren and Griffin’s brother, Taylor, are fantastic compliments to the sophomore, but Oklahoma has to be really careful with the health of its star. The Sooners don’t want another injury like last season rearing its ugly head.

How they look so far: Oklahoma’s win against Davidson (82-78) is probably its biggest win to date. Stephen Curry managed to drop 40 points on the Sooners, but they still found a way to come away with the victory. That speaks volumes about their bend-but-don’t-break mentality. Wins against UAB and Purdue in New York City and against USC in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series were all quality victories that should have the NCAA Tournament committee watching intently.

For Oklahoma, the season obviously goes through Blake Griffin. If he stays healthy, this team can go far. The Big 12 is too tough a conference to run the table or finish with 2-3 losses. Like many of the other teams, Oklahoma will suffer through its fair share of difficulties; but if the Sooners play like they did against Davidson, then I’d expect them to be there at the end.

Baylor (7-1): You have to like what you see when Baylor takes the floor. A year after making one of the feel-good stories of the NCAA season by making it to the Big Dance, the Bears are back proving that last season wasn’t a fluke. Just like in 2007-08, Tweety Carter, Henry Dugat, Curtis Jerrells, and LaceDarius Dunn have made Baylor a run-and-gun team that will have to outscore opponents to come out on top most nights. That’s not a shot a the school’s style, but the Bears do have an affinity for allowing quality teams to score and run with them on a nightly basis.

Their win against Washington State in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series might be the biggest one so far since it proved that they can slow the game down against a methodical team. That could be a new wrinkle that allows the team to go far this year if it can continue to play to various tempos.

How they look so far: The loss at home to Wake Forest could be the game every school watches this season before playing the Bears. The Demon Deacons’ ability to work the ball in the paint proved that Baylor’s big weakness once again is in the interior. Bring a world-class guard at them like Arizona State did with James Harden and the Bears can handle it; but throw a couple big bodies down low and things start to go haywire. Are you paying attention to this, Blake Griffin?

Baylor will be a force once again in the Big 12, but like Texas, the school is really going to suffer if its perimeter shooting goes south. It’s still too early to place Baylor in the Big 12 pecking order, but you have to like the Bears’ chances after watching them defeat Arizona State and Washington State.

Texas Tech (7-1): Scoring 167 points against any school will get the attention of any college in the country. But doing it without Bob Knight at the helm is even more impressive. Tech may not be the flashy name that makes a tournament committee’s heart skip a beat, but the Red Raiders do have the necessary pieces in place with guards John Roberson and Alan Voskuil playing big roles for a veteran team.

How they look so far: Wins against Mississippi State and Wichita State were solid marks early in the season. While they aren’t anywhere near as good as what Oklahoma and Baylor, the Red Raiders proved that they can run with a quality opponent. If anything, the biggest issue could be the defense. Tech is giving up a conference-worst 75.9 points per game. That includes the 115 to East Central at the beginning of the season, but you get my point. The Big 12 is a conference chalk-full of high-powered offenses, so Tech will really need to find a way to either slow the game down or have a career shooting night every time it hits the floor.

At the moment I’d give Tech an outside shot to finish in the top five overall in conference. A tournament bid isn’t out of the question if Voskuil does what he’s capable of doing. The balanced scoring attack (five players in double-digits) is also a good sign.

Oklahoma State (5-3): Don’t let the record fool you, Oklahoma State has played a brutal schedule early in the season. Washington (Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series), Gonzaga, and Michigan State make up the Cowboys’ three losses so far; that’s the good news. The bad news is that Oklahoma State has five players all in double-figures in scoring. Yep, that’s the bad news. Why is it so bad? Well, maybe it’s because all five of those players play around the perimeter. Call them Baylor 2 if you want, but the Cowboys have already shown their true colors under first year head coach Travis Ford. They don’t have a post presence to speak of with the loss of Marcus Dove to graduation, and Ibrahima Thomas is far from a savior at the position. Size could prove to be their biggest issue all season for a school that will constantly have to rely on Terrel Harris, Byron Eaton, and James Anderson to get it done from the outside.

How they look so far: Oklahoma State’s wins aren’t anything to write home about. In all honesty, the win against Siena could be the biggest to date (which is really sad). The rest of the non-conference schedule is littered with teams named Savannah State and Arkansas State. Hopefully the Cowboys remember what it felt like to face a quality team when they take the court against Texas A&M for the conference opener.

Unless Oklahoma State is on from outside, then I’d expect the team to finish somewhere between 7th and 10th in the conference standings. While Baylor has the horses to get it done on a nightly basis–the Bears proved that last season by making the tournament–I just can’t see Oklahoma State making it happen with a new coach. Its first eight games predict an NIT bid at best. (Make me eat my words if the Cowboys stun the conference.)

Texas (7-1): Question: When you lose your star point guard to the NBA, can you really get better the following season? If you’re Texas, then that answer is obviously “yes.” A.J. Abrams is no D.J. Augustine, but he sure as heck is a good impostor. Abrams leads the team in scoring at 18 points per game, as well as averaging 3.43 three-pointers. The 31 against UCLA in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series was his coming out party, so to speak. Just like last season, Abrams will have a talented cast surrounding him when he needs the help. Damion James and Gary Johnson give the Longhorns an inside presence to keep teams honest. That could prove to be huge since the team will still ultimately live and die by the three.

How the look so far: They look about as good as we expected. The win against UCLA was a shocker since UCLA obviously had the more experienced guard in Collison in the head-to-head matchup; but there’s something about good teams that seem to bring the best of out the Longhorns. They needed every one of Abrams’ 31 points, but they still managed to get it done.

The lone one-point loss to Notre Dame was a quality defeat that won’t hurt them right now. The UCLA and Oregon victories are enough reason for me to put Texas near the top of the list. A game at Wisconsin could be the Longhorns’ last big test before conference play starts.

For now, the Longhorns stay in the mix as a definite for the tournament until they prove me wrong. If anything, I’m just amazed at how they’re able to continually get it done each season with a new player running the show.

Texas A&M (6-1): Of all the teams in the South, Texas A&M could ultimately be the wild card that shakes up the division. Head coach Mark Turgeon did a bang-up job in his first season in College Station, and he’s once again continuing the new tradition of winning this year with a fresh squad.

Forward Josh Carter (13 ppg) is the big returning starter along with guard Donald Sloan and forward Bryan Davis. The nucleus of a strong starting five is there, but the bench will once again be their big question mark. The addition of freshmen David Loubeau and Dash Harris could make A&M a deeper-than-usual squad.

How the look so far: As I discussed previously, A&M will thrive or die by its offensive output. A conference as loaded as the Big 12 won’t allow you many off nights. That means A&M’s thin roster will have to get the most out of its starters.

If you’ll recall from last season, the Aggies would grow increasingly frustrated if they weren’t hitting their shots. That frustration turned into long scoring droughts where the defense would become non-existent. There wasn’t a better example of that than in their first–and only–loss of the season to Tulsa. A&M didn’t record a field goal until the 8:13 mark in the second half, and by that point A&M had allowed Tulsa to go on a 25-4 run. These are the types of things that have to be rectified before conference play if A&M wants any shot at making its fourth trip to the tournament.

The Aggies’ most recent win against Arizona in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series was impressive. A&M found a way to claw back into the game down 40-29 at the half and win on a Nathan Walkup three with 20 second left in the game. That kind of determination will be a must for a team that doesn’t really have a legitimate star.

The rest of the non-conference schedule is pretty easy, meaning A&M, like a couple of other squads in the South, will have to rely on its big victory against Arizona to act as a springboard going into the conference opener against Oklahoma State.

For now, the Aggies stay in the mix as a tweener. They’ll be there at the end if they get the offense in order.

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