Complete 2013-14 Big 12 NCAA Basketball Primer Heading into Conference Play

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2013

Complete 2013-14 Big 12 NCAA Basketball Primer Heading into Conference Play

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    At first glance, many people would probably describe the Big 12 Conference like this: Kansas, and then everyone else. Such is the way of a league that has had the same champion for the past nine seasons.

    But that might not be the case this season, as the Jayhawks might be facing their most arduous conference-wide challenge in a decade. And with four ranked teams and no clubs with a losing record in nonconference play, it's understandable why CBS Sports' Jerry Palm lists the Big 12 as the top-rated conference in Division I.

    There have been statement wins logged by teams up and down the standings, which should make for an exciting conference slate that could produce as many as seven NCAA tournament entrants.

    To get you prepped for the Big 12 Conference, we've put together everything that's happened and everything you need to know about this power-packed league.

Nonconference Records

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    Iowa State 11-0

    Oklahoma State 12-1

    Baylor 11-1

    Oklahoma 11-2

    Texas 11-2

    Kansas 9-3

    Kansas State 9-3

    TCU 9-3

    West Virginia 8-5

    Texas Tech 8-5

    (NOTE: Through games of Dec. 30)

Biggest Lessons Learned from Nonconference Play

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    Iowa State is for real

    The Cyclones are one of just eight unbeaten teams remaining in Division I, and it's not like they got there by playing Cupcake Tech and St. Little Sisters of the Poor.

    Iowa State's nonconference record includes wins over Michigan, BYU (on the road), in-state rivals Iowa and Northern Iowa and a sweep of mid-major foes Akron, Boise State and George Mason at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.

     

    The state of Oklahoma is as tough as ever

    The Sooner State has a pair of 11-win teams, with both averaging more than 86 points per game. While OSU is a known entity thanks to the dynamic play of PG Marcus Smart, Oklahoma is a bit of a sleeper that's getting double-digit scoring from five different players and has had to make due without its injured floor leader (Je'lon Hornbeak) the last few weeks.

     

    Texas is back

    The Longhorns were a major disappointment in 2012-13, finishing with a 16-18 mark and putting some heat under Rick Barnes' courtside folding chair.

    But Texas has looked far better this season, and its win two weeks ago at North Carolina showed just how improved this team is. Texas is actually 2-0 in true road games, having also won at Temple earlier this month.

     

    Even the bottom is stronger

    Last year, the 10-team league had four teams finish with losing records, the highest percentage of sub-.500 teams of any of the power conferences.

    But along with Texas, there looks to be much improvement from the teams at the lower end of the standings, with Texas Tech showing much more competitiveness under new coach Tubby Smith and TCU nearly matching last year's 11-win mark.

     

Top Storylines to Watch

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    Can Kansas make it 10 in a row?

    At 9-3 and with losses to Colorado, Florida and Villanova, the Jayhawks look like a major disappointment at this point in time. But Kansas has played the nation's second-toughest schedule up to now, according to Jerry Palm, so don't immediately discount the Jayhawks just because of some early setbacks.

    Until someone takes them out, the Big 12 has been dominated by Kansas for the past decade, and it remains the favorite until someone can prove otherwise.

     

    Will there be any defense?

    Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are among the nation's top 10 scoring teams, while seven clubs average at least 78 points per game, making you wonder if anyone will be able to slow an opponent down or if the league slate will be full of shootouts.

    But OSU is also strong on the defensive end, and Kansas State is allowing just 58 points per game and recently shut down an explosive Gonzaga offense.

     

    Can Baylor break through?

    The reigning NIT champions are a hard-fought loss to No. 2 Syracuse in the Maui Invitational final away from heading into Big 12 play with a perfect mark. The Bears were underachievers last season, but the postseason run through a solid slate of opponents provided confidence heading into this year, and that experienced roster has been aided by the arrival of PG Kenny Chery.

Rivalry Games and Can’t-Miss Matchups

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    Baylor at Iowa State (Jan. 7)

    The first meeting of currently ranked league foes gives us another chance to see if the so-called "Hilton Magic" can help the Cyclones knock off another top opponent. ISU has already downed Iowa and Michigan on its home court, the toughest place in the Big 12 to play.

     

    Kansas at Iowa State (Jan. 13)

    Kansas handed ISU a double dose of heartbreak last season, with the game in Ames providing a controversial finish. Could this be the game in which the Cyclones exact their revenge?

     

    Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Jan. 27)

    The Bedlam Series is the most heated rivalry in the conference, regardless of the sport. And with both the Cowboys and Sooners looking strong this year, it just adds an extra helping of fuel to the fire.

     

    Kansas at Oklahoma State (March 1)

    If Kansas is going to win its 10th straight Big 12 title, it will need to steal a few on the road. That doesn't happen in Stillwater very often, but the Jayhawks were able to do so in double overtime last season.

     

    Oklahoma State at Iowa State (March 8)

    As balanced as the league looks, the title might still be undecided on this final day of the regular season, making it very likely this matchup will help determine who goes into the Big 12 Tournament as the No. 1 seed.

Freshmen to Watch

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    Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

    The most hyped of all first-year players in college basketball, Wiggins might not be putting up the kind of numbers you'd expect right now, but he's still a major force to be reckoned with. Kansas' rough early schedule has been a challenge for Wiggins, but he'll remain a key concern for every opposing Big 12 coach.

     

    Karviar Shepherd, TCU

    The 6'10" center has been a big part of the Horned Frogs' solid start, averaging 8.3 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Though he's not a great shooter, hitting just 42 percent of his shots, his defensive presence in the paint will be an issue to contend with.

     

    Joel Embiid, Kansas

    The 7-footer from Cameroon has been maybe the most impressive of the Jayhawks' freshmen, most notably thanks to his shooting accuracy (68.3 percent) and ability to alter shots (2.3 blocks per game) despite just playing 20.7 minutes per contest.

Top Big 12 Player of the Year Candidates

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    Cameron Clark, Oklahoma

    Clark has been the Big 12's most improved player from a year ago, raising his scoring average from 6.5 points per game as a junior to 17.8 this season. The 6'7" guard is making more than 50 percent of his shots, while he's getting to the line more and crashing the board better than at any other point in his career.

     

    Melvin Ejim, Iowa State

    The senior is third in the league in scoring (18.0 points per game) and rebounding (8.8). The 6'6" forward is taking on a bigger role than just being strong on the boards this year, and he's improved his free-throw shooting to 86 percent.

     

    DeAndre Kane, Iowa State

    The 6'4" senior might be the league's most balanced all-around player, sitting in the top 11 in scoring (15.5 points per game), rebounding (7.5) and assists (5.5). The transfer from Marshall has helped solidify the Cyclones' roster with his varied skills.

     

    Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

    Smart's decision to come back to school for his sophomore year was a surprise, but so far it's proven to be a smart choice based on how much he's improved on his strong freshman numbers. He leads the Cowboys with 18 points per game, but he's also dishing out more assists, as he feeds Le'Bryan Nash and others to help diversify the attack.

     

    Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

    Though the numbers haven't been there, per se, Wiggins is the focal point of Kansas' game and will likely be the one player who determines whether the Jayhawks can take the Big 12 title for a 10th straight year.

     

Predicting Big 12 Awards

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    Freshman of the Year: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

    Considering the hype, it will take a lot for Wiggins to not get this award. He's not having a bad year at all, and his numbers are quite strong for a freshman. As long as voters don't underrate his performance because of the expectations, this title is his to lose.

     

    Coach of the Year: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State

    As Steve Fisher has done for years at San Diego State, Hoiberg's ability to mix transfers (Dustin Hogue and DeAndre Kane) into a lineup that already had veteran leadership in the form of Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang without much friction is the mark of a successful coach.

     

    Player of the Year: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

    Smart is better and more well-rounded than he was during a breakout freshman season, and his NBA draft stock has never been higher. Though he's had some issues with trying to do too much himself, Smart has shown the ability to carry his team when needed and is by far the most valuable player in the league.

Big 12 Favorite and Dark Horse

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    Favorite: Kansas

    Pay no attention to the nonconference record. Until Kansas is knocked off, the Big 12 belongs to the Jayhawks. The experience their young lineup will have gained during the first two months of the season should provide a great foundation for the more important part of their schedule.

     

    Dark Horse: Iowa State

    It's humorous to think of an unbeaten team with as many quality wins as ISU as a dark horse, but this is based as much off past history as anything else. The Cyclones struggled on the road and against ranked opponents last season, but if they can reverse those trends they'll be challenging Kansas for the league crown.

Who Makes the NCAA Tournament?

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    Shoo-ins: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas

    The league is strong enough to where it should get six teams in, as long as the top tier doesn't drop too many games to the bottom-feeders. There have been a decent number of quality nonconference wins to help overcome the likelihood of these contenders all knocking each other off.

     

    Hopefuls: Kansas State

    The Wildcats' win over Gonzaga on Dec. 21 was a surprising one, and made it so K-State should stay in the mix for an NCAA berth if it can finish .500 or better in league play.

     

    Long shots: None

    From the likes of TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia, it would take a miracle—or a surprise run in the Big 12 Conference tournament—to get any of them into the dance. Combined, they're 0-10 against teams rated 100th or better by Jerry Palm, with the "best" win from that trio coming in the form of a TCU victory over Washington State (7-5).

Predicting Big 12 Standings

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    1. Kansas

    2. Oklahoma State

    3. Iowa State

    4. Baylor

    5. Oklahoma

    6. Texas

    7. Kansas State

    8. West Virginia

    9. Texas Tech

    10. TCU