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Weekend Homework: Big 12 will show its strength right from the start

In dark times like these, a normally self-assured observer of the great and glorious game known as college basketball can find himself or herself beset by troubling existential quandaries.

Such as this: How is a team with the most talented 19-year-old in the world this bad? Are we here for a reason? What happens if a team banned from the NCAA tournament doesn't lose a game? Do we live in "The Matrix"? Why did Georgetown almost beat Maryland and Duke if it can't handle Radford and UNC Asheville at home? Are aliens inside us?

Are some of these questions just episode titles from Morgan Freeman's "Through the Wormhole?" If Wisconsin misses the NCAA tournament and finishes fifth in the Big Ten, will the known universe collapse?

Does such a thing as "the best college basketball team" even exist?

Terrifying, we know. But all is not lost. There remains one port in 2015-16's confusing storm. There is still one thing about this college basketball season that makes total sense.

That thing is the Big 12.

On Saturday afternoon, No. 23 Baylor will open the Big 12 conference season with a trip to Phog Allen Fieldhouse, where it will do its considerable best to upend No. 2 Kansas. Almost as soon as that game is over, in Norman, Oklahoma, No. 11 Iowa State will try to knock off the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners. On the first major Saturday of conference games, this upended season will resemble 2014-15 in at least one way, as the Big 12 will once again be the sport's most fruitful source of quality games and ranked matchups.

It was easy to forget in March, when the league's representatives took an unprecedented collective nosedive in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, but the Big 12 was unquestionably college basketball's best league a season ago. It was no accident that seven of its 10 teams went to the NCAA tournament in the first place. Four of those teams earned No. 3 seeds or higher, and a fifth, West Virginia, was seeded No. 5. It didn't matter that it lacked a powerhouse like Kentucky, Duke, or Wisconsin -- the Big 12's top-to-bottom strength and true round-robin format basically guaranteed at least one marquee fixture every couple of days. No league offered more dependable viewing.

A season later, despite all of thematic changes and weird quirks of the 2015-16 season, this league's core characteristics remain, right down to the names on both sides of the uniforms. Kansas, the reigning conference champion 11 seasons running, is the favorite. The Jayhawks will be chased by Oklahoma and Iowa State, with Baylor and West Virginia not far behind. TCU is the only Big 12 team to rank outside the top 100 in adjusted efficiency. Most of the league's best players a year ago -- Oklahoma's Buddy Hield; Kansas' Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, and Frank Mason; Iowa State's Georges Niang and Monte Morris; Baylor's Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince; West Virginia's Devon Williams -- are still involved.

A few things have changed. Hield has gone from "very good volume scorer" to "basically unstoppable Wooden Award frontrunner." Oklahoma has evolved from a second-tier Elite Eight hopeful to real-deal national title contender. Kansas' poor shooting frequently suffocated its offense last season. These Jayhawks play two point guards (Mason and Devonte' Graham), feature a completely remade Selden, and are draining 44.5 percent of their 3s and 52.5 percent of their 2s.

That might be the 2015-16 Big 12's biggest change: Both Kansas and Oklahoma are better. If both teams win Saturday, they are likely to enter Monday night -- when OU visits Lawrence -- as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. Or No. 2 and No. 1. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that both teams are obviously among the nation's best, and are certain to remain so -- and there are no Kentuckys, Wisconsins, or Dukes to worry about now.

Those behemoths no longer roam the Earth. Their reign of relative order, predictable Final Four participation, and realistic 40-0 ambitions has ended. In their wake lies a landscape full of 15 or 20 (or more?) equally viable and equally vulnerable teams. This season, being crowned No. 1 is nothing more than the first step toward a stormed court. Bo Ryan retired. Bo Ryan! In this dark hour, nothing is sacred.

Nothing, that is, except the Big 12. The Big 12 is still awesome. Phew.

Superlatives

Honorary mention, best opening week: Big East
Butler at Xavier, 1 p.m. ET, FS1

What's so weird about the 2015-16 season anyway? How about the Big East? Providence is way better than anyone imagined. Xavier might have its best team ever. Butler beat the best defensive group in the country (Purdue) on a neutral floor last weekend. Even Seton Hall, which upset Wichita State in overtime, is starting to get interesting. (Also, we still think Georgetown will play much better, more consistent basketball. Um, probably. At some point. Maybe?) Either way, that collective early-season success turned an already-good first-week schedule into a monster. On Thursday, Villanova blew out Xavier after the Musketeers' Edmond Sumner went down early with an injury and Providence had a huge second half to drop Butler. On Saturday, Butler will run things back at Xavier. It's not easy to compete with the Big 12's appetizer platter in this regard, not when it includes a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in Allen Fieldhouse on Big Monday. But Week 1 in the Big East comes awfully close.

Most unfortunately timed make-or-break tipping point
LSU at Vanderbilt, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Don't let the calendar fool you. This is a game LSU very badly needs to win. Not only are the 7-5 Tigers not anywhere close to being an NCAA tournament team right now, but their nonconference schedule was so soft (and their results so bad) that even with 18 SEC games ahead they might not have enough opportunities to tip the at-large scales back in their favor. This is one of those few chances. In an ideal world, this game would happen in late February, by which point coach Johnny Jones would have figured out how to use an incredibly talented, unselfish and productive freshman star in Ben Simmons in such a manner as to best Wake Forest at home. Stranger things have happened. In this world, Jones has four days. On Tuesday, Kentucky comes to Baton Rouge. Not ideal.

Obscure statistic of the weekend: South Carolina's start
Memphis at South Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Trivia time: When was the last time the South Carolina men's basketball team started a season 12-0? Anyone? The answer, of course, is -- wait, what? 1933? Seriously? The Gamecocks aren't exactly a historic hoops power, but we didn't think their last 12-0 start would predate FM radio. Anyway, the real question is this: Do you believe? The Gamecocks' schedule has been soft. Their most impressive wins are Tulsa on a neutral court and Clemson at Clemson. Also, Frank Martin's team started 9-3, and beat Iowa State in Brooklyn, and promptly lost 12 of their next 18 games, and, you know, once bitten and all that. That said, the Gamecocks have dispatched their overmatched competition with extreme prejudice. They're making a bunch more 3s, grabbing a bunch more offensive rebounds, and their defense has no glaring holes to date. We're getting warmer. It will probably take more than a win Saturday against Memphis to sell us. Still: 12-0.

Best Big Ten road test
Iowa at Purdue, 6 p.m. ET, BTN

Iowa should almost be upset Denzel Valentine wasn't able to play in this week's Hawkeyes upset of No. 1 Michigan State. Why? Iowa absolutely looked good enough to knock off the Spartans at full strength -- and get all of the résumé credit associated with doing so. The opposite theory is that MSU just played horribly. Coach Tom Izzo, for his part, said his team "got punked." All of the above may apply. In any case, we should get a really good indication of just how seriously Iowa should be taken Saturday, when it visits the tall wall that is Purdue. There's probably a catchier nickname for the Boilermakers, but you get the point: Purdue's frontcourt is massive and its defense is excellent. But Iowa star Jarrod Uthoff does present the right kind of inverted, floor-spacing matchup problems that could at least make Purdue work.

Second-best Big Ten road test
Maryland Terrapins at Northwestern Wildcats, 8 p.m. ET, BTN

Traditionally, when a top Big Ten team travels to Evanston, Illinois, it enjoys a brand of hospitality unique to Welsh-Ryan Arena, where a combination of apathetic home fans and rabid Chicago-area alumni seizing their only chance to see Michigan or Ohio State or Wisconsin or Indiana produces a 50-50 crowd split at worst. Maryland is unlikely to have that benefit Saturday. But this game is more interesting than it looks on paper for other reasons. The first is that Northwestern is genuinely improved in Chris Collins' third season: The Wildcats own the nation's eighth-best effective field goal percentage (57.3), turn the ball over on only 15 percent of their possessions, and record an assist on two-thirds of their made field goals. They can really score. And Maryland, as Wednesday night showed, is not always the sharpest or most judicious elite team when faced with an ostensibly inferior opponent. The Terps will probably win; NU's injury to Alex Olah is especially unfortunate given Diamond Stone's 39-point, 12-rebound breakout against Penn State. Still, this would not be a shocking upset. Not at all.