So many years with so many false alarms have conditioned us all to think that giving any school other than Kansas a shot at winning an outright Big 12 basketball title rings hollow.
History has conditioned our brains. Remember, the best player in college basketball wore a Big 12 uniform for three consecutive seasons starting 10 years ago and not one of them experienced a Big 12 regular-season championship.
Kevin Durant swept the national honors with good reason, but Texas did no better than third, two games behind the Jayhawks, one game in back of Texas A & M.
In 2007-08, Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, unjustly beaten out for national player of the year honors by North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough, finished in third place, three games behind co-champions Kansas and Texas.
The next season, Blake Griffin’s Oklahoma squad finished a game behind outright champion KU.
Somehow, Kansas always finds a way, so it becomes tougher to believe that anyone but the team that exploits its home-court advantage as no other school in the conference quite does will prevail.
But the truth is nothing rings hollow about Baylor, ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press college basketball top 25 poll released today, and West Virginia, ranked No. 7.
One-18th into the Big 12 season, both schools already made loud road impressions, Baylor slamming Oklahoma in Norman, 76-50, West Virginia burying Oklahoma State in Stillwater, 92-75.
If that didn't make everybody realize what a close race appears to lay ahead, it caught the attention of Kansas coach Bill Self, who didn't need any convincing in the first place.
After praising Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State for their play in conference-opening victories, Self said, “The two games that were most impressive to me were what Baylor did in Norman and what West Virginia did at Oklahoma State. We have always struggled at Oklahoma State and they go down there and control the game from start to finish.”
Baylor, which defeated four top 25 teams before conference play, took a 50-24 lead in Norman. Do-it-all, 6-foot-10 forward Johnathan Motley totaled 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots in 22 minutes against the Sooners.
“It was an unbelievable start to their conference season,” Self said. “All it did was just prove what we already knew: league’s good, really good.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew has assembled a balanced roster as effective on the perimeter as it is inside, both offensively and defensively.
Mixing man-to-man and zone defenses, the Bears have limited opponents to .294 shooting on 3-pointers. Center Jo Lual-Acuil makes scoring near the hoop difficult as well. He leads the Big 12 with 3.8 blocks per game. Miami, Fla., transfer Manu Lecomte, a smart point guard armed with a soft touch from long distance, is just the steadying influence the Bears needed to add.
They didn’t just defeat four ranked opponents. They hammered them by an average of 12.5 points.
West Virginia’s strong start to the season, highlighted by a 32-point slaughter of Illinois on a neutral floor and a nine-point victory at Virginia, hasn’t taken anybody by surprise.
Experienced guards Tarik Phillip, Daxter Miles and especially Jevon Carter create perpetual chaos for opposing ballhandlers.
Plus, these Mountaineers shoot better (.490 overall, .369 on 3-pointers) than many of Bob Huggins’ previous teams. And as always, they attack the offensive boards relentlessly.
Beyond the three schools anticipated to fight for the crown, no Big 12 member is ranked in the top 25, but Kansas State checks in at No. 30, Iowa State tied for No. 31, based on votes received in the poll.
UCLA fell from second to fourth after losing at Oregon at the buzzer. Kansas remained third and Baylor went from fourth to second.
“I anticipated that,” Self said of Baylor leapfrogging KU. “I think they were (three) behind us going into this last weekend and they were far more impressive than we were so that doesn’t surprise me at all. They deserve where they’re at. If anything, that won’t be motivation for us against K-State, obviously, but that will get our guys riled up.”
Just in time for K-State, so in an indirect way, it certainly is motivation to do well against the Wildcats, no pushovers on any floor.
Self has talked for a while about how much he thinks K-State (12-1) has improved this season and did so again today.
It’s not a stretch to believe that every Big 12 school other than Oklahoma (6-6, 0-1) and Texas (6-7, 0-1) has the look of a team worthy of an NCAA tournament berth, although it will be difficult for eight to make it from a 10-team conference.
Human voters bunch the three top-tier schools closely, and so do computer rankings.
Kenpom.com has West Virginia fourth, Kansas fifth, Baylor sixth. Sagarin predictor has West Virginia first, Kansas fifth, Baylor ESPN’s BPI has West Virginia first, Kansas seventh and Baylor 10th.
Always one to get right to the point, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said at Big 12 Media Day what it would take to topple KU from the throne: Someone is going to have to defeat the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse. More to the point, it likely will take either Baylor or West Virginia sweeping KU to deny the Jayhawks at least a share of their 13th-consecutive regular-season title.
Kansas takes a national-best, 49-game, home-court winning streak into Tuesday's 8 p.m. tipoff against K-State at Allen Fieldhouse, site of 47 of the games during the streak. KU has won its last 32 conference home games, all in Allen Fieldhouse.