Commentary

It'll be a fight to the finish in the Big 12

Originally Published: January 2, 2012
By Jason King | ESPN.com

With Texas A&M and Baylor opening up Big 12 season Monday night (ESPNU, 7 ET), here's everything you need to know about the league:

The favorite: There are four remaining undefeated teams in college basketball, and two of them -- Baylor and Missouri -- reside in the Big 12. Still, until they're dethroned, the Kansas Jayhawks are the favorites to win the league.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireBig man Thomas Robinson has put up monster numbers for Kansas.

Look, this is clearly the worst team Bill Self has had since arriving in Lawrence in 2003. The Jayhawks have no depth and are extremely turnover-prone on the perimeter. But at 10-3, Kansas is still pretty darned scary. Forward Thomas Robinson is a national player of the year candidate and Tyshawn Taylor is in his fourth season as KU's starting point guard. Kansas also touts an underrated defensive presence in the paint in 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who has performed far better than anyone could've expected.

Here are the three biggest reasons I give Kansas the edge: Allen Fieldhouse offers arguably the best home-court advantage in the country. KU has won 82 of its last 83 games there. Next, Bill Self's teams always get better as the year progresses, especially ones that lost a lot from the previous season (i.e., the 2008-09 squad returned just one player, Sherron Collins, who played a major factor in the NCAA title the previous season, yet still won the league). And finally, the Jayhawks have an innate ability to win away from Lawrence. In the last five years, Kansas is 33-7 in Big 12 road games. That's just sick.

Other contenders: Baylor hasn't won a conference championship since 1945, but no one would be surprised if it happened this season. The Bears are the Big 12's most talented team, and it's not even close. Point guard Pierre Jackson, a junior college transfer, has helped shore up a backcourt that also includes sharpshooter Brady Heslip, who began his career at Boston College. The Bears are undisciplined at times, but not nearly as bad as last season. Baylor's strength is its frontcourt, with future NBA draft picks Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller playing alongside senior Quincy Acy. Still, as talented as they are, the Bears need to get tougher in the paint, where they're often pushed around and bullied and, as a result, out-rebounded. Baylor also needs to prove it can win on the road. Victories at BYU and Northwestern are a nice start.

Missouri has been one of the season's biggest surprises. The Tigers are playing with much more structure on offense under new coach Frank Haith, and their defensive intensity -- especially in the half court -- has been impressive. Led by Marcus Denmon and Kim English, all five of Missouri's starters can score, and it touts one of the fastest point guards in America in sophomore Flip Pressey. Mizzou, which employs a four-guard lineup, may struggle with bigger teams. But the Tigers will be an equally tough matchup for opponents. Their strong team chemistry is also a plus, as the players all seem to be unified and on the same page. The only issue with Missouri is that it still hasn't truly been tested. The "name" opponents on its nonconference schedule (Cal, Notre Dame, Illinois and Old Dominion) aren't very good this season with the exception of Cal, who could win the mediocre Pac-12. Some of the nation's best coaches are in the Big 12. It will be interesting to see whether they can stop the Tigers' potent attack.

Player of the year (so far): Thomas Robinson is averaging 17.7 points and 12.2 rebounds for Kansas, impressive figures considering the double-teams he faces almost every game. The 6-foot-9 junior forward, who is in his first year as a starter, has shown the ability to score in a variety of ways and still has an incredibly high ceiling. This is almost certainly the final collegiate season for Robinson, who is projected as a lottery pick in next summer's NBA draft.

Other contenders: Perry Jones, Baylor; Marcus Denmon, Missouri; J'Covan Brown, Texas; Steven Pledger, Oklahoma

[+] EnlargeJason Tolbert
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireTexas Tech isn't very good, but Jordan Tolbert has provided a bright light for the Red Raiders.

Freshman of the year (so far): Texas Tech forward Jordan Tolbert has been huge for the rebuilding Red Raiders, who will take a 7-5 record into Big 12 play. While other highly touted freshmen such as Oklahoma State's Le'Bryan Nash struggle, the lesser-known Tolbert continues to post numbers that would be impressive for any player, much less an 18-year-old playing his first collegiate season. Tolbert is averaging 15.1 points and is shooting 65 percent from the field -- and he's scored more than 20 points in four of his last five games.

Other contenders: Quincy Miller, Baylor; Myck Kabongo, Texas; Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State

Wins to brag about: Kansas over Ohio State and Georgetown; Kansas State over Alabama; Baylor over Mississippi State, BYU, San Diego State; Missouri over Illinois; Texas over Temple

Losses that sting: Davidson over Kansas; Drake and Northern Iowa over Iowa State; Oregon State over Texas; TCU over Texas Tech; Rice over Texas A&M

Pleasant surprises: Instead of going through the traditional "transition period" that usually occurs with new coaches, Missouri's Frank Haith and Oklahoma's Lon Kruger have done wonders with their teams during their first year on the job. … Signing junior college transfers is always a risk, but point guards Pierre Jackson (Baylor) and Sam Grooms (Oklahoma) have been even better than advertised. … Kansas center Jeff Withey has been one of his team's top three players at times. … Baylor guard Brady Heslip has emerged as one of the nation's top 3-point shooters. The Bears' strength was supposed to be its frontcourt, but the backcourt has been just as potent. … Mississippi State transfer Romero Osby has given undersized Oklahoma a boost in the paint. … Frank Martin is doing an excellent job with a Kansas State team that lost standouts Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly. The one-loss Wildcats are getting huge contributions off the bench from freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez and 6-11 center Jordan Henriquez. This is an NCAA tournament team. … Missouri guard Kim English made 54 percent of his 3-point attempts in nonconference play.

Biggest disappointments: Iowa State is talented, but the Cyclones have yet to put everything together. There's no way Fred Hoiberg's squad should lose to Drake and Northern Iowa and only beat Mississippi Valley State by two points (even with a sick Royce White). Michigan State transfer Chris Allen is shooting just 35 percent from 3-point range. … Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor, a fourth-year starter, is averaging 3.8 turnovers per game. … Freshmen Le'Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State) and Myck Kabongo (Texas) have yet to live up to their lofty expectations. … Oklahoma State is 7-6, and the Cowboys needed overtime to defeat Texas-San Antonio and SMU. … Texas A&M, which entered the season No. 19 nationally, is 9-3 but can't tout a single victory against a formidable team. The Aggies lost by 20 points against Florida before falling at home to Rice five days later.

Three questions

Which team will improve the most over the next three months?
It's a tough call between Kansas, Texas and Texas Tech, but I'll go with the Longhorns. Five of their top seven players are freshmen, which means we should probably be pretty impressed that the Horns have managed to go 10-3 thus far. Combo guard J'Covan Brown, a junior, is one of the top pure scorers in college basketball.

[+] EnlargeFord
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesIt's been a rough season on and off the court for Travis Ford and the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

What's going on in Stillwater?
Cowboys fans aren't happy with head coach Travis Ford. Oklahoma State has clearly regressed on the court, and the future doesn't look much better. Two players (Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell) have left the program in the past two weeks, which means that OSU's entire 2009 recruiting class -- which featured seven players -- is no longer on campus. Nash's struggles are also a negative reflection on Ford, who will have a hard time finishing higher than ninth in the 10-team league.

Is there an NCAA title contender in this league?
Even though I'm picking Kansas to win the Big 12, I think Baylor and Missouri have better chances to make significant postseason runs. The Bears, in particular, have an incredibly high ceiling that they aren't anywhere close to reaching. And Missouri is a tough team to prepare for, especially in one or two days. Predicting a national championship for either team seems like a reach. Then again, I wouldn't have picked Butler or VCU to advance to the Final Four last season either. You just never know in March.

Revised predictions

1. Kansas: Never sell Bill Self short.
2. Baylor: Perry Jones III needs to be more assertive.
3. Missouri: No post depth? No problem for the Tigers.
4. Kansas State: This may be Frank Martin's finest coaching job yet.
5. Texas: Freshmen are getting more and more comfortable on the court.
6. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger inherited a better team than most people think.
7. Iowa State: The Cyclones are the "Jekyll and Hyde" team of the Big 12.
8. Texas A&M: Off-court distractions have taken a toll on the Aggies.
9. Oklahoma State: It can't get any worse. Can it?
10. Texas Tech: The improving Red Raiders are hardly a lock for the cellar.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingESPN.