- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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Let's be blunt. This isn't a great season for the Big 12, which features a handful of good teams but only one potential great squad in Kansas.
I'm guessing that five conference schools will make the NCAA tournament, but it's tough to imagine any of them, other than the Jayhawks, reaching the Final Four.
The good news is that the parity that exists among the middle-tier teams -- basically from No. 2 to No. 8 -- should make for some entertaining, down-to-the-wire games that will be fun for both players and onlookers. So enjoy the conference season. Unfortunately, there probably won't be much to talk about after that.
The favorite: Kansas
And it's not even close.
I wouldn't be shocked if the Jayhawks won the Big 12 title by four or five games. Bill Self's squad has one of the top freshmen in America in Ben McLemore, who could be a top-five pick in this summer's NBA draft. Center Jeff Withey, who ranks second in the nation in blocks (4.9), has emerged as one of top defensive forces in all of college basketball, and wing Travis Releford is having the best season of his four-year career, averaging 13.3 points while shooting 61.7 percent from the field.
Kansas' biggest advantage, however, is on the sideline. Self, in his 10th season with the Jayhawks, has been as good as any coach in the country in recent years, guiding his team to eight straight Big 12 titles. The toughness Self instills in his players is magnified the most during games away from Allen Fieldhouse. During its conference title run, Kansas is 50-15 in Big 12 road games. That includes a 21-4 mark the past three seasons. No other conference school comes close to matching that.
Baylor has a future NBA lottery pick in 7-foot center Isaiah Austin and the conference's preseason player of the year in point guard Pierre Jackson, the leader of the Big 12's top backcourt. But the Bears are young in the paint, where they lost three players (Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III) to the NBA draft. Austin and forward Ricardo Gathers are freshmen, and junior forward Cory Jefferson was a seldom-used reserve prior to this season.
The Bears have been enigmatic, defeating Kentucky on the road but losing to Northwestern and Charleston at home. Only a consistent team stands a chance to upend Kansas in the league race, and that hardly describes Baylor.
Oklahoma State has spent most of the past six weeks in the Top 25 following a 20-point victory Nov. 18 over preseason darling North Carolina State in Puerto Rico. The Cowboys also turned in an impressive effort in a near-upset of No. 10 Gonzaga on New Year's Eve.
Guard Marcus Smart and wing Le'Bryan Nash are both future first-round draft picks and coach Travis Ford's squad ranks among the nation's top 15 in scoring defense and defensive field goal percentage. The Cowboys, though, are undersized in the paint and lack the discipline on offense to win the Big 12.
Kansas State and Iowa State are both salty enough to beat Kansas on a good night. K-State already has a victory over Florida on its résumé, but the defensive-minded Wildcats have problems scoring. Iowa State is incredibly well-coached and still has a high ceiling as it improves its cohesion with so many transfers. If the Cyclones jell in the next few weeks, I wouldn't be surprised if they finished as high as second in the Big 12 standings.
Player of the year (so far): Withey, the 7-foot shot-swatter from Kansas, averages 13.8 points and a team-high 7.9 rebounds to go along with his gaudy block figures. Opponents have to change the way they play offensively because of Withey, who alters twice as many shots as he blocks. Withey runs the court incredibly well for his size, he's developed a mean streak in the paint and has worked hard during the offseason to improve his limited arsenal of offensive moves. He's the most irreplaceable player on KU's team.
Freshman of the year (so far): It'd be easy to go with another Jayhawk in McLemore, who leads KU in scoring (15.8 points) while shooting almost 49 percent from the field. There may not be five players in America who boast as much talent as the 6-foot-5 guard. But right now, Oklahoma State's Smart is the player most deserving of this honor. Smart's arrival in Stillwater has transformed the Cowboys from a Big 12 also-ran to a team that could advance to the NCAA tournament's second weekend. He averages 13.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals, easily making him the league's most well-rounded player. His biggest contribution, however, comes in the form of leadership, something Oklahoma State has been lacking for years. One could make a case for both Smart and McLemore as Big 12 players of year as well.
Wins to brag about: Baylor ended Kentucky's 55-game home winning streak Dec. 1. Texas' struggles were put on hold for one night during a victory over a soft North Carolina squad Dec. 19 in Austin. Kansas State got its first signature win under Bruce Weber with a victory Dec. 22 against Florida in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas beat Ohio State for the third time in 12 months, the latest triumph coming the same day in Columbus.
Losses that sting: This paragraph will be significantly longer than the previous one. How do you beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, then lose to Charleston and Northwestern at home? Ask the Baylor Bears. They did it. Oklahoma appeared to be turning the corner under second-year coach Lon Kruger, but a 56-55 defeat against Stephen F. Austin was definitely a setback. Amric Fields, TCU's top player, suffered a season-ending knee injury 12 seconds into the Horned Frogs' loss to SMU on Nov. 15. Texas Tech fell to McNeese State at home. No one expected West Virginia to beat Gonzaga, but a 34-point loss was startling and embarrassing -- yet it isn't nearly as bad as Texas opening the Maui Invitational with a double-digit defeat against Division II Chaminade.
Pleasant surprise: Oklahoma State (10-2)
A quick glance at OSU's roster during the preseason made it obvious the Cowboys had the talent to be a high-level Big 12 team. It's nice to see them capitalize. Their only setbacks have come against Gonzaga and Virginia Tech, which was red-hot and undefeated when they upset the Cowboys in Blacksburg. Smart's leadership has keyed the turnaround. Oklahoma State will be even more dangerous if it gets the backing of its hometown fans, who in the past have made Gallagher-Iba Arena one of the nation's toughest environments for visiting teams.
Biggest disappointment: West Virginia (7-5)
Texas seems like the obvious pick here. With an 8-5 record, the Longhorns' streak of 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances is in jeopardy. It's worth noting, though, that Rick Barnes' squad has played one of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, which makes me think that West Virginia may actually be an even bigger disappointment. Bob Huggins spent the offseason telling friends and colleagues how good the Mountaineers were going to be in 2012-13. But transfers Aaric Murray (LaSalle) and Juwan Staten (Dayton) haven't done much to boost West Virginia, which enters Big 12 play toting losses to Duquesne, Davidson and Oklahoma -- not to mention the 34-point clubbing it received from Gonzaga.
Three questions going forward:
Can Texas regroup?
There certainly have been encouraging signs during the past few weeks. Texas was dominant in its 85-67 victory over North Carolina on Dec. 19. Three days later it led Michigan State at halftime before falling 67-56 on the road. With the Big 12 stocked with mediocre teams, there's no reason why the Longhorns can't finish with a winning record and be on the NCAA tournament bubble. The return of point guard Myck Kabongo in February could provide a huge boost during a key stretch in the season.
Who is the league's worst team?
Texas Tech and TCU are both pretty bad, but I'll give the nod to the Horned Frogs, who haven't caught any breaks under first-year coach Trent Johnson. Fields and freshman Aaron Durley are both lost for the season with injuries, and guard Jarvis Ray, who injured his foot Dec. 19, is out another six weeks. All of it nearly resulted in a loss to winless Mississippi Valley State on Sunday. This weekend's Big 12 opener against Texas Tech in Fort Worth may be TCU's only shot at a conference win.
Can Kansas make the Final Four?
Absolutely. The parity in college basketball is greater than ever. There's no reason this squad, which is hardly Self's best, can't advance to Atlanta and win it all. Kansas has looked iffy at the point guard position at times, but Elijah Johnson -- who played shooting guard last season -- is settling in nicely and Naadir Tharpe has emerged as a serviceable backup. Kansas also starts four seniors, something most teams don't have. Johnson, Withey, Releford and Kevin Young already have experienced success at a high level, which has enhanced their poise and leadership skills this season.
1. Kansas: Is there any coach in the country right now better than Self?
2. Baylor: The Bears can be maddening to watch, but their talent is hard to deny.
3. Oklahoma State: Will the Cowboys keep Smart for more than one season?
4. Iowa State: The Cyclones are too talented not to flourish in this struggling league.
5. Kansas State: Defense will keep the Wildcats in nearly all of their games.
6. Texas: The Longhorns are America's youngest team.
7. Oklahoma: The Big 12's most improved team is good enough to upset anyone.
8. West Virginia: Don't write off the Mountaineers. Huggins is too good of a coach.
9. Texas Tech: Interim coach Chris Walker isn't doing enough to win the permanent job.
10. TCU: First-year coach Trent Johnson gets a free pass because of injuries.