Matt Tait: Big 12 men's basketball race far from a foregone conclusion

Kansas head coach Bill Self gets the attention of his players during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 at Sprint Center.

Kansas head coach Bill Self gets the attention of his players during the second half on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018 at Sprint Center.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

With the fifth-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team now less than a week away from the actual start of its run toward a 15th consecutive Big 12 title, the conference’s list of true challengers has basically been divided right down the middle.

Four teams look like real threats, four teams are currently struggling and one team — Kansas State — is split down the middle as a sort of unknown because of an injury to star forward Dean Wade.

Don’t get me wrong, the conference is still strong enough from top to bottom that anybody can beat anybody on any given night. As has been the case throughout the Big 12’s existence as a 10-team entity, there do not appear to be any off nights again this season.

But as far as teams that truly can challenge to dethrone the Jayhawks in March, that list already has been whittled down to just a few.

About a month ago, pencilling in the Jayhawks (10-1) for another trophy celebration at some point in 2019 was all but automatic.

Three of the league’s other nine teams lost season openers to non-Power 6 programs, including West Virginia, which, for the past handful of years, has been one of KU’s toughest outs in Big 12 play.

Those duds were followed up by a few other suspect losses throughout the conference during the first few weeks of the season, all while Kansas was doing its things at the top of the polls against some of the nation’s toughest competition.

Since then, things have leveled out and the teams at the top of the Big 12 race have found their footing, while Kansas, still off to a 10-1 start, has shown areas of vulnerability even while surviving most of the time.

“I got a kick out of some of the so-called pundits saying this is going to be a down year for the Big 12,” KU coach Bill Self said recently. “We actually had a bad first week or so as a league as a whole, but, since then, (we’re) the No. 1-rated conference again. There have been some very pleasant surprises.”

While only three are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, all 10 Big 12 teams sit in the Top 80 according to, with six ranked in the Top 30. KU leads the way at No. 5, followed by Texas Tech (10), Iowa State (17), TCU (21), Oklahoma (25) and Kansas State (28).

Texas is next at No. 36, with West Virginia (49), Baylor (67) and Oklahoma State (80) rounding out the conference’s resume.

In addition, the Big 12, which through Wednesday was 21-11 against Power 6 opponents so far this season, currently is the nation’s top-rated RPI conference — comfortably ahead of the Big Ten and Big East in second and third — with Kansas, Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma all having just one loss and Iowa State and K-State right behind them with two.

Baylor, Texas and West Virginia entered the week at 7-4, with Oklahoma State bringing up the rear at 5-6. While it seems safe to say that Mike Boynton’s Cowboys aren’t likely to duplicate last year’s feat of sweeping the regular season series from the Jayhawks, if this conference has proven anything, it’s that no team can take any other team lightly at any point in the schedule.

Self knows that. Lagerald Vick, Mitch Lightfoot, Udoka Azubuike and Marcus Garrett know that. But that reality will be new and has yet to be learned for 60 percent of KU’s regular rotation, which, at the very least, makes the race much less of a formality as the calendar turns to January.

Iowa State (10-2), Oklahoma (11-1), Texas Tech (10-1) and TCU (11-1) all have rosters that can push Kansas. K-State, provided Wade can come back, has the talent and experience to do the same.

But it’s never been about which team can beat Kansas one night in January or February. Instead, it’s been about which team can avoid enough setbacks against the rest of the league to keep pace with the Jayhawks at the top.

That, as history shows us, is much, much tougher to do than knocking off Kansas in a one-game setting.

While we wait for the fun to begin — KU has one more nonconference game against Eastern Michigan on Saturday before hosting OU in its Big 12 opener on Jan. 2 — let’s take a quick look at why the teams at the top have positioned themselves to be taken seriously in this year’s Big 12 race.

Oklahoma’s lone loss came to No. 15 Wisconsin in the Battle for Atlantis semifinals earlier this season. Senior Christian James, who has had big-time potential since his freshman season, is averaging 18 points and seven rebounds per game ,and the Sooners, as a whole, are benefitting from the Trae Young era being a thing of the past, with better balance and more options on both ends of the floor.

Texas Tech, which lost so much from last season’s spectacular run, is showing that the Chris Beard experience is no joke. All-Big 12 stud Jarrett Culver is averaging 20 points, six rebounds and five assists per game and Beard is continuing to coach the kind of tenacious defense and opportunistic offense that make the Red Raiders a team that nobody wants to see, at home or away. Tech’s only loss of the season so far came last week to No. 1 Duke at Madison Square Garden.

Iowa State, like Oklahoma, is another one of those surprises Self talked about, and head coach Steve Prohm is proving that the Transfer U model still works for the Cyclones. Marial Shayock, a grad transfer from Virginia, and Nebraska transfer Michael Jacboson are ISU’s top two scorers on a team that has four players averaging 14 points and five rebounds per game or better. There are no real impressive wins on the Iowa State schedule to date, but those will come.

TCU is another balanced team with a ton of experience, as five players are currently averaging between 11.4 and 13.8 points per game. That includes the healthy return of dynamic guard Jaylen Fisher — for his sake, let’s hope it stays that way — who is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range in nine games so far this season.

And then, there’s K-State, which, even without Wade, has plenty of talent and experience to make things interesting. The Wildcats, you might recall, have had to play without Wade before and did just fine then, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight last season. How well they function during the first few weeks of the Big 12 schedule will determine whether they’ll be in a position to really push Kansas when he’s back.

A quick look at KU’s Big 12 schedule shows a slate that figures to be most interesting early and late.

The Jayhawks’ first three games in conference play are against teams on this list — vs. Oklahoma, at Iowa State and vs. TCU — and they finish the season with six games in a 10-game stretch against teams on this list, as well, including four against Texas Tech and Kansas State.

A fast start and fabulous February is all Kansas needs to bring another Big 12 trophy to Allen Fieldhouse. But getting it does not look nearly as easy today as it did in November.