The Floor Is Yours: Big 12 matchup is worthy of March

The Big 12 refuses to wait for the Big Dance. Nah, the conference would rather waltz -- or dab on 'em, if you prefer -- now.

Kansas and Oklahoma will joust in a Big Monday matchup (9 p.m. ET, ESPN) that should pit No. 1 vs. No. 2 in conference play for the first time since Wisconsin and Ohio State battled in 2007 -- assuming pollsters elevate both programs to the top slots following No. 1 Michigan State's loss at Iowa in last week's Big Ten opener.

Should that happen, Lawrence, Kansas, might feel like Houston. Final Four-like drama. America's best teams. A pair of potential No. 1 seeds. Two squads that crack the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. Madness on a Monday just four days into 2016.

Saturday conspired to ruin this. Kansas' matchup against Baylor and Oklahoma's game against Iowa State both seemed like "trap games" that could alter Monday's meeting and its meaning. Ambitious, top-25 opponents traveling to hostile venues with a "don't forget about us" attitude.

But trap games became gap games, as Kansas and Oklahoma both won and separated from the rest of the conference while showing the college basketball world that they run this race.

Kansas didn't just win its 102-74 victory over the Bears. It annihilated a Baylor squad that entered the Phog with the No. 23 national ranking but left as an afterthought in the conference race. The Jayhawks led 26-7, then 60-42, 93-70 and, finally, a million to whatever Baylor ultimately finished with.

You're watching a Kansas squad that has connected on 45.2 percent of its 3-pointers (third in the country), rarely commits turnovers within its two-point guard lineup and relies on Wayne Selden, who has made 55 percent of his 3-pointers this season.

Bill Self is still 198-9 at Allen Fieldhouse, where Oklahoma and the other contenders must win to dethrone the Jayhawks and stop their pursuit of a 12th consecutive conference title.

This is still KU's league. But what if this is Buddy Hield's moment? Not just Monday, but all days.

A guy once viewed as a reckless player at times now floats on the court with balance and poise that have helped him evolve into one of the most complete players in America. And he's not alone. When he failed to demonstrate the efficiency that has driven his evolution (22 points on 23 shots) in Oklahoma's 87-83 home win over Iowa State on Saturday, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard and Ryan Spangler all delivered.

That's Oklahoma. The Sooners boast experience, top-10 defense, depth and a national player of the year contender named Buddy Hield.

These two beasts will meet at the Phog on Monday.

Welcome to the Big 12.

Welcome to conference play.

Welcome to bliss.

The race for the conference crown

Big 12

Theme Song: "We Are the Champions" by Queen

Favorite (Kansas): Self has a team that can stretch the floor with the 3-ball and stuff good offensive units with an aggressive defense that has forced turnovers on 22.3 percent of its possessions. This is still KU's crown to lose.

Top threat (Oklahoma): It's hard to imagine any team ending the Jayhawks' streak unless it can find a way to get a rare win at the Phog. This experienced, balanced Oklahoma group has the potential to achieve that feat Monday, especially if Hield delivers.

In the mix: The 83 points Iowa State scored on Saturday in Norman were a high mark for an Oklahoma opponent this season. West Virginia has lost only to Virginia. And Baylor isn't as bad as it looked in Lawrence.

Big Ten

Theme Song: "My Valentine" by Paul McCartney

Favorite (Michigan State): Denzel Valentine, a Wooden Award candidate who has missed the past three games with a knee injury, could return next week. Once that happens, the Spartans should regain their status as Big Ten favorites. Remember, they defeated Kansas, Louisville, Providence, Boise State and Florida when Valentine was available.

Top threat (Maryland): Melo Trimble, who connects on 86 percent of his free throws, is flanked by the kind of supporters -- Diamond Stone, Jake Layman, Rasheed Sulaimon and Robert Carter -- who would headline for multiple top-25 teams. Maryland's league schedule includes single matchups against Michigan State, Indiana and Iowa, so it's easy to envision the Terps winning the Big Ten title.

In the mix: Yes, Iowa fans. You're right. You could make a strong case that Iowa should occupy the favorite or top threat spot after the Hawkeyes opened league play with a win over MSU and a come-from-behind road victory at Purdue on Saturday. Purdue is still anchored by a strong frontcourt and the nation's top defense. We can't count that team out yet. Indiana and Michigan have grown in recent weeks too.


Theme Song: "The Best Is Yet To Come" by Tony Bennett

Favorite (Virginia): What happens when you add the nation's most efficient offense to a squad typically recognized for its astute defense, one that's still ranked among the nation's best (15th per KenPom.com's efficiency ratings)? You get a Virginia squad that looks like the team to beat in the ACC.

Top threat (North Carolina): Marcus Paige leads another elite North Carolina team that registered one of the nation's most impressive wins when the Tar Heels defeated Maryland. But can a team that lost to Northern Iowa and Texas and allowed Georgia Tech to score 1.05 points per possession win the ACC crown? We'll see.

In the mix: If Brandon Ingram's recent production (25-for-48 in his past three games) carries into ACC play, Duke will stay in the hunt. Experience, Shelden McClellan's talent and the best defense of the Jim Larranaga era all make Miami a serious contender in the ACC too. Opponents, entering Sunday's game against Wake Forest, were shooting below 40 percent inside the arc against a Louisville team that can't be excluded from this convo.


Theme Song: "Kentucky in the Morning" by Tom T. Hall

Favorite (Kentucky): Kentucky's offense is raw (31.3 percent from the 3-point line, 66 percent from the free throw line), but it's led by Tyler Ulis (20 points, 10 assists, six steals, three turnovers in 38 minutes Saturday in a win over Ole Miss), the best pure point guard in the country. That's why Kentucky remains the SEC's favorite.

Top threat (South Carolina): Frank Martin's undefeated squad hasn't faced any top-25 teams yet, and the Gamecocks have played only one true road game. But South Carolina's veteran nucleus and top-20 defense can push the Gamecocks to the top.

In the mix: Ben Simmons is everything we thought he'd be, and now that Keith Hornsby has returned and Craig Victor is eligible, the Tigers are a better unit, as proven in Saturday's road win over Vanderbilt. We all thought Kentucky would fear Vanderbilt (2-4 in its past six games), a squad with a pair of legit NBA prospects named Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, right? What if Florida (fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency) starts scoring? And Danuel House and Texas A&M (19th in defensive efficiency) have looked like serious contenders at times this season too


Theme Song: "The Lights of Tucson" by Jim Campbell

Favorite (Arizona): The preseason favorite keeps that slot as Pac-12 play begins. Kaleb Tarczewski returned in Sunday's road win over rival Arizona State, and now Sean Miller's squad has the pieces necessary to win another conference crown.

Top threat (Utah): This seems like a sketchy spot for the Utes, who have lost back-to-back road games to Stanford and Cal. But Jakob Poeltl, a future lottery pick, leads a Utes team that has experienced an abundance of highs (wins over SDSU, BYU, Duke) and double-digit losses to Miami and Wichita State. At their best, they can play with any team in the league.

In the mix: Who isn't in the mix in this league? Oregon is strong now that Dylan Ennis is healthy. Oregon State has a promising group of youngsters. Cal, led by lottery prospects Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, is playing top-30ish defense. If UCLA can cut back on its turnovers (25 in double-overtime loss at Washington on Friday), the Bruins should matter in this race too. Arizona State defeated Texas A&M at home but couldn't handle Arizona on Sunday.

Big East

Theme Song: "Super Bad" by James Brown

Favorite (Villanova): Villanova, the only champion the 10-team Big East has known, showed the college basketball world that it is still the champ with a 31-point win over a top-10 Xavier squad, albeit without injured guard Edmond Sumner most of the afternoon. Ryan Arcidiacono & Co. earn a slight edge over the strongest Big East -- and perhaps the strongest league in the country -- since the group's 2013 inception.

Top threat (Xavier): You could put three teams here without controversy. But Xavier's depth (Trevon Bluiett leads a squad with seven players averaging 7.9 PPG or more) and its resume (19-point win over Butler on Saturday) elevate this group into the top contender slot.

In the mix: Providence's trio of Kris Dunn, Ben Bentil and Rodney Bullock handled Arizona on a neutral floor and Butler on the road. The Friars are as strong as any team in the league. Butler will bounce back if Kellen Dunham escapes his shooting slump. Isaiah Whitehead's Seton Hall squad is more interesting after a 20-point road win over Marquette.

Atlantic 10

Theme Song: "Come Fly with Me" by Frank Sinatra

Favorite (Dayton): If freshman center Steve McElvene (6.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG) emerges as a consistent post threat for a Dayton team that owns wins over Iowa and Vanderbilt, despite a 20.6 percent turnover rate (292nd nationally), then the Flyers should end the season with the A-10 crown.

Top threat (VCU): Melvin Johnson is averaging 18.6 PPG (46 percent from the 3-point line, 90 percent from the free throw line) for a VCU squad that's still creating HAVOC with new coach Will Wade (25.7 percent defensive turnover rate per KenPom.com, third in the country).

In the mix: Maybe George Washington deserves that "top threat" slot as the only team in America with a win over Virginia, but that 21-point loss at DePaul before Christmas did not help the cause. Davidson plays top-35 offense and horrible defense. Kuran Iverson and Four McGlynn will help Rhode Island compete with the top-tiered teams in the league.

American Athletic Conference

Theme Song: "All I Do Is Win" by DJ Khaled

Favorite (SMU): Even though the NCAA has banned them from postseason play in 2015-16, the SMU Mustangs have pursued a new, realistic goal: an undefeated regular season and AAC championship. It all seems possible for a squad backed by seniors Nic Moore, Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert to be connecting on 43 percent of its 3-pointers.

Top threat (Connecticut): Rodney Purvis (15.6 PPG) leads a talented group that has won five in a row and leads the country in defensive block percentage, a mark that might prove difficult to maintain with Amida Brimah (3.0 BPG) sidelined by injury. But the Huskies possess the playmakers necessary to fight for the AAC title.

In the mix: Cincinnati, dominant on the offensive glass and stubborn on defense inside the arc, deserves some recognition in this conversation. Its nondescript offense, however, could ruin its chance to win the championship.

Missouri Valley Conference

Theme Song: "Shock Body" by Talib Kweli

Favorite (Wichita State): As long as the Shockers have Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, they're still the kings of the Missouri Valley Conference. The team is forcing turnovers on one-quarter of its defensive possessions.

Top threat (Evansville): The Purple Aces have a top-50 offense that has made 58 percent of its shots inside the arc and leads the nation with assists on 75 percent of its made field goals. Plus, D.J. Balentine (21.5 PPG) is an elite wing.

In the mix: The same squad that beat North Carolina (without Marcus Paige) and Iowa State has losses to New Mexico, Colorado State and Southern Illinois. If the former shows up, UNI will contend. If ...

West Coast Conference

Theme Song: "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke

Favorite (Gonzaga): Mark Few's Bulldogs have won 13 outright WCC championships (they shared the title with Saint Mary's in 2011). But they haven't looked this vulnerable in years. The Zags lost Przemek Karnowski for the season, so Kyle Wiltjer (20.8 PPG, 7.7 RPG) and Domantas Sabonis (18.3 PPG, 10.6 RPG) must carry heavier loads. The team's struggles in a 79-77 win at Santa Clara and a come-from-behind overtime victory at San Francisco on Saturday offered a preview of the obstacles that stand between Few's program and his 14th conference title.

Top threat (Saint Mary's): The Gaels lead the nation in effective field goal percentage (63.9) and 3-point marksmanship (47.8 percent). Dane Pineau (11.2 PPG) is one of four double-figure scorers for a Gaels squad that could knock the Zags off in the conference race. But it really wouldn't feel like an upset.

In the mix: BYU is off to a 1-1 start in league play, but Kyle Collinsworth (14.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.3 APG) guides a group that can score with any team in the conference. The Cougars wrestle with defensive consistency, though.

Mountain West

Theme Song: "Prove It" by Aretha Franklin

Favorite (San Diego State): No great teams in this league right now. But San Diego State should rise to the top spot with a defense ranked sixth in efficiency. Plus, MWC opponents must deal with the chaos at Viejas Arena.

Top threat (UNLV): The Runnin' Rebels have an NBA prospect inside named Stephen Zimmerman Jr. They have wins over Indiana and Oregon, but they've nosedived in recent weeks and lost their conference opener to Fresno State.

In the mix: New Mexico could be a factor if it reduces its turnover rate (21.4 percent). Boise State has won seven in a row.

Beat the Buzzer

Bobby Hurley's ejection

The new Arizona State coach left his first ASU-Arizona rivalry game on Sunday via ejection with 59.6 seconds to play. At that point, the Sun Devils were down six. Hurley can't lose his cool like that. Yeah, the fans cheered, and it's a fun highlight, but his team had a prayer at that point.

Marquette's rough start in Big East play

After a nine-game win streak that included wins over LSU, Arizona State and Wisconsin, the Golden Eagles looked like a Big East sleeper. Then they lost their first two conference games to Seton Hall (home) and Georgetown (on the road) by 30 points combined. Three of their next four games are against Providence, Xavier and Villanova.

Please don't repeat South Carolina-Memphis

This is the fear. There were 68 combined fouls in South Carolina's win over Memphis on Saturday. Memphis drew 41 fouls from officials Marc Ellard, Pat Adams and John Hampton. Five Tigers fouled out of the game that lasted two-and-a-half hours. South Carolina shot 63 free throws in the game. Yes, the freedom of movement regulations have helped the game overall. But that matchup between the Gamecocks and Tigers was what many critics feared: ugly, foul-heavy basketball.

Grand Canyon still rolling

Dan Majerle has taken the next step in making Grand Canyon a relevant program with a 12-2 record that includes victories at San Diego State and against Houston. Grand Canyon became a Division I program in 2013, and right now, the Antelopes look like the favorites in the WAC.

That's somebody's child, Matt Costello

Why did you do that, Matt? Was that really necessary? You're coming down the lane in Saturday's win at Minnesota when Tum Tum Nairn tosses an alley-oop, and you just decide to rise and dunk on a bunch of Gophers? C'mon, Matt. They're all freshmen. They're like 17. You're a grown man. Send a bag of licorice to everyone you dunked on. That's wrong. Tom Izzo should make you run laps for that.