2016-17 Big 12 NCAA Basketball Primer, Power Rankings Heading into League Play
Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia are hoping to push the Big 12 to a fourth consecutive season as the country's best college basketball conference.
Whether that actually happens, though, will be determined by the likes of Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas State and TCU and whether they can continue to maintain their impressive records now that the schedule is about to get more difficult.
Then again, if Oklahoma and Texas keep playing as poorly as they have been, the Big 12 might send fewer than seven teams to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
In preparation for Friday afternoon's conference opener between Oklahoma State and West Virginia, we've compiled a primer for the Big 12. There are current power rankings, projected standings, freshmen to watch, Player of the Year candidates—the whole nine yards.
If you were too busy with football in November and December to watch much college basketball, this is your chance to get up to speed on Kansas' quest to win a 13th straight conference championship.
1. Baylor (12-0)—Kansas will remain the favorite to win the Big 12 until it stops doing so, but Baylor sits atop the power rankings at this juncture in the season. As the only undefeated team in the league and as a team with wins over Louisville, Xavier, Oregon, Michigan State and VCU, the Bears have more than earned that right.
2. Kansas (11-1)—There's a great chance Kansas enters Selection Sunday with the country's best RPI. The Jayhawks have not faced (and will not face) an opponent ranked outside the KenPom Top 250 and have only faced one outside the Top 190. And they still have that road game against Kentucky at the end of January. Duke is their only marquee win, but their resume is loaded with pseudo-quality victories.
3. West Virginia (11-1)—In year three, the Mountaineers are on the verge of perfecting their Press Virginia scheme. In addition to forcing turnovers at a record-setting pace and crashing the offensive glass as aggressively as usual, this team is blocking shots more than before and has significantly improved its half-court game on both ends. The road win over Virginia was no fluke.
4. Oklahoma State (10-2)—When he was with Stephen F. Austin, Brad Underwood out-pressured Press Virginia. He has brought that style of play to Stillwater where the Cowboys are forcing turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds at an incredible rate. And with scorers like Jawun Evans, Jeffrey Carroll and Phil Forte, they can put points on the board in bunches, too.
5. TCU (11-1)—The Horned Frogs are responsible for two of Washington's three losses by a double-digit margin this season. They blew out Arkansas State and Texas Southern and scored a nice win over Illinois State. If that was the nonconference resume of a team that isn't 8-64 in conference play over the past four years, more people would be buying stock in it.
6. Iowa State (8-3)—Since what we thought was their statement 17-point win over Miami, the Cyclones are 0-3 against KenPom Top 150 opponents, including getting blown out by Iowa. In fact, that win over the Hurricanes was their only win of the season against a remotely good opponent. They have been to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, winning at least 23 games each season. Both of those streaks might end this year.
7. Texas Tech (11-1)—Guard play was Texas Tech's forte last season, but the Red Raiders are dominating the paint this year. Justin Gray is averaging 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game and Zach Smith is about 20 percent better than that in all three categories. We shall see how they hold up against real competition, though.
8. Kansas State (11-1)—Like Texas Tech, Kansas State has a great-looking record, but the Wildcats' resume may have been built on shifting sands. Their best win of the season came against Colorado State, which might be the seventh-best team in the Mountain West. At least show up on the road against Kansas next Tuesday and maybe we'll talk.
9. Oklahoma (6-5)—The Sooners are shooting better than 40.0 percent from three-point range as a team, but they simply haven't been able to win games. Two of their five losses came in overtime. Two others were decided by a combined margin of seven points. But they're still 1-5 against KenPom Top 200 teams this season.
10. Texas (6-6)—Though they have been a little better in December than they were in November, the Longhorns have a lot of work to do. They don't shoot well, they're average on the glass and they don't force turnovers. It's a bad combination that has kept them from beating above-average opponents this season.
Biggest Lessons Learned from Nonconference Play
Texas Is Fatally Flawed
The issues for the Longhorns run much deeper than the simple fact that seven of their nine primary guys are either a freshman or sophomore. They are terrible from three-point range, they don't have a true point guard and they have been decimated in assist-to-turnover margin in their losses. There's talent on this roster, but it just isn't happening this year.
Oklahoma State Is Going To Be a Problem
It was bad enough when Big 12 teams had to deal with West Virginia's relentless defense, but now Oklahoma State is forcing more than 20 turnovers per game, too. There are a lot of great point guards in this league. Their ability to withstand pressure will be put to the test time and again this year.
The Big 12 Can Shoot
Don't mind Texas bringing up the rear at 28.9 percent from three-point range. The other nine teams are each shooting better than 36 percent from beyond the arc this season, led by Kansas at 41.3. There are 23 individual Big 12 players who have made at least 10 triples while shooting 40.0 percent or better, five of which are shooting at least 50.0 percent. There should be some high-scoring Big 12 games this year.
Top Storylines to Watch
Will Paper Tigers Roar or Crumple?
Kansas State, TCU and Texas Tech are each 11-1, but who have they beaten along the way? TCU does at least have decent wins over Washington (twice), Illinois State and Arkansas State, each by a comfortable margin. Between Kansas State and Texas Tech, though, the best win is either a home game against Rice or a neutral-court game against Colorado State—neither of which has any realistic hope of an at-large bid. Will any of the three be able to turn this good start into a NCAA tournament appearance?
Can Kansas Keep the Streak Alive?
The Jayhawks have won at least a share of 12 consecutive Big 12 titles. LeBron James was finishing up his rookie season the last time this team didn't win a conference title. But both Baylor and West Virginia are among the legitimate candidates for a national championship and need to be taken seriously as a threat to end this Kansas run.
Will Red River Rivalry Be a Battle for Last Place?
Oklahoma has won a dozen Big 12 games in each of the past three seasons. Texas was a preseason Top 25 team. But they are clearly the two teams in the basement of the Big 12 at the outset of conference play. And if the KenPom projections are correct, they'll both be 0-7 when they collide in late January. Even given how poorly they have started, that seems improbable. But which one turns things around to keep that from happening?
Rivalry Games and Can't-Miss Matchups
West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Dec. 30) / Oklahoma State at West Virginia (Feb. 4)
The classic debate is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, but what happens when two insanely aggressive defenses square off against each other? When the top two turnover-forcing defenses met in the NCAA tournament last year, Brad Underwood's Stephen F. Austin got the better of West Virginia, forcing 22 turnovers while committing just seven of its own. Could the Mountaineers do the same to the Cowboys, or are these games just going to have a combined 100 turnovers?
Kansas at Iowa State (Jan. 16)
Over the past five years, Jayhawks + Hilton Magic = Upset City. The Cyclones are 3-2 at home against Kansas since 2011-12, and one of the two losses was an overtime game in which Iowa State fans still feel they were wronged by the refs. Iowa State hasn't been nearly as good this year as it usually is, but don't be shocked if Monte Morris and company pull off a win that shifts the balance of power in this conference.
Baylor at Kansas (Feb. 1) / Kansas at Baylor (Feb. 18)
Iowa State might help them out, but the Bears had better win at least one of these two games against the Jayhawks if they expect to win the conference. Here's a fun fact to keep in mind the rest of the way: Baylor has never won a conference tournament and has not won a regular-season championship since earning a share of the Southwest Conference title...in 1950!
Freshmen to Watch
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Jackson got out to a bit of a slow start in the opening week and is still struggling from the free-throw line (54.2 percent), but there might not be a better freshman in the country right now. He has scored at least 13 points in nine straight and is averaging 15.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and a combined 3.1 blocks and steals per game on the season. Jackson is also unofficially leading the nation in thunderous dunks per game.
Jaylen Fisher, TCU
On the long list of things wrong with the Horned Frogs last season, a 0.799 assist-to-turnover ratio was one of the most egregious. With Fisher (and Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson) running the show, they have flipped the script to average 1.435 assists per turnover through 12 games. Four games against Oklahoma State and West Virginia will inevitably bring that number down, but it's a big reason they were able to beat Washington twice, as compared to last year's 25-point loss to the Huskies.
Jarrett Allen, Texas
Not much is going well for the Longhorns, but Allen has been one of the bright spots, averaging 10.7 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. He was 8-of-9 from the field last week against UAB, which was also Texas' best game of the season, by far.
Top Big 12 Player of the Year Candidates
Jawun Evans, Oklahoms State
It'd be hard to draw up a better start to the season than Jawun Evans has had. He's leading the Cowboys in points (20.2), steals (2.5) and assists (4.6) per game and is shooting 56.0 percent from three-point range. He's also first, second, fifth and fourth in the Big 12 in those respective categories. If Oklahoma State gets out to a hot start in Big 12 play with a win over West Virginia, you'll instantly start hearing more about Evans as a Wooden Award candidate.
Johnathan Motley or Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor
Take your pick in Baylor's frontcourt. Motley is leading the Bears in points and rebounds and is their unstoppable force in the paint, but Lual-Acuil is leading the nation in block percentage and has been every bit as impactful on the glass as Motley. If Baylor is going to win the Big 12, it'll be because of its prowess on the low blocks.
Jevon Carter, West Virginia
If West Virginia continues playing this well, some Mountaineer will inevitably become a candidate for Big 12 Player of the Year. That's just how these awards work. So why not the point guard who's leading the team in assists and steals? Carter isn't much of a scorer, but it would only make sense to go with the best defender from the most relentless defense ever.
Frank Mason III, Kansas
Josh Jackson would be a great candidate for Big 12 POY if he could even be considered the best player on his own team. Consistency has been Mason's forte over the past two years, but now he's consistent at an elite level, recording at least 18 points in 10 of his 12 games, as well as at least five assists in 10 games. He's also shooting 50.0 percent from three-point range while increasing his rate of attempts nearly 50 percent from last season.
Predicting the 2016-17 Big 12 Awards
Player of the Year: Frank Mason III, Kansas
It's a battle of point guards in the Big 12. Oklahoma (Jordan Woodard), Oklahoma State (Jawun Evans), Iowa State (Monte Morris) and West Virginia (Jevon Carter) are each relying heavily upon their primary ball-handlers. But none have been quite as good as Mason, who is leading the conference in both total points and assists. His clutch performance in the Champions Classic against Duke cemented his status as one of the early Wooden Award candidates.
Freshman of the Year: Josh Jackson, Kansas
Barring injury, this thing is already over. Jackson is leading all Big 12 freshmen in points (by a margin of 61), rebounds and steals, ranks second in assists and is tied for third in blocks. The only unknown is whether Jackson will also bypass his teammate for Big 12 POY.
Coach of the Year: Brad Underwood, Oklahoma State
Evidently sick of giving it to Bill Self for winning the league year after year, the Big 12 loves to award this to the coach of the most pleasant surprise. Tubby Smith won it last year for getting Texas Tech to the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 conference record. It hasn't gone to a first- or second-place coach since 2013. That makes Underwood the early favorite, as the Cowboys are having one heck of a bounce back from last year's 12-20 (3-15) debacle.
Big 12 Favorites and Dark Horse
The Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks
Despite some of the worst free-throw shooting in the entire country (59.2 percent as a team), Kansas remains the team to beat in the Big 12.
Frank Mason is one of the top candidates for National Player of the Year with Josh Jackson serving as one of the early favorites for National Freshman of the Year. Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick are both having breakout years. Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg are platooning well at the 5. And, oh yeah, Devonte' Graham is one of the most overlooked stars in recent memory.
Even if the Jayhawks weren't on a 12-year winning streak in this conference, it'd be hard not to buy what they're selling. It might be the most guard-oriented team Bill Self has ever had—particularly now that big man Udoka Azubuike is out for the year with a wrist injury—but it's working like a charm.
The Dark Horse: West Virginia Mountaineers
Kind of hard to argue that a Top 10 team is a dark horse for anything, but every team other than Kansas qualifies for this spot in this conference.
West Virginia is leading the nation in turnover and steal percentage, forcing a turnover on 35.0 percent of opponents' possessions. No other team is at or above 30 percent in that category. But the Mountaineers also rank third in the nation in offensive turnover percentage, which gives them an absolutely insane average turnover margin of plus-15.8 per game. Fordham is No. 2 on that list at 7.8.
As a result of that turnover margin (and their offensive rebounding prowess), the Mountaineers are averaging nearly 16 more field-goal attempts per game than their opponents. Considering their team-wide shooting percentages are better than they have ever been under Bob Huggins, this might be the most dangerous team in the country.
Who Makes the Tournament?
Shoo-Ins: Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia
West Virginia is the only one on this list with a borderline computer profile, because it has played a few too many games against dreadful opponents. However, these are clearly the three best teams in the Big 12 and arguably three of the eight best teams in the country.
Probably: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys were slaughtered by North Carolina, but they also have wins over Wichita State, Georgetown and Connecticut—all away from home. Their aggressive style of play is going to cause problems in the Big 12, likely resulting in a few quality wins and probably a .500 conference record. Based on what they've done so far, that would be plenty for a bid.
Maybe: Iowa State, Kansas State, TCU, Texas Tech
Two of these four probably get in, if only because the Big 12 is too good to not send at least six teams to the Big Dance. But it's anybody's guess who those two will be. TCU has the best resume, but it has been atrocious in conference play since joining the Big 12. Iowa State is in the opposite boat, struggling early despite usually serving as one of the best in the conference. Kansas State and Texas Tech are the wild cards that enter Big 12 play with just one loss each and nary a quality win between them.
Unlikely: Oklahoma, Texas
We're not completely giving up hope on either of these young teams—Oklahoma ranks 321st in experience; Texas is 339th—but they certainly have dug themselves an early hole with five losses each. The good news is that neither one has a particularly awful loss. However, quality losses don't get you very far without quality wins. It would probably take at least a 12-6 Big 12 record for either the Sooners or the Longhorns to make the tournament.
Predicting the 2016-17 Big 12 Standings
1. Kansas (14-4)
2. West Virginia (13-5)
3. Baylor (12-6)
4. Oklahoma State (10-8)
5. Iowa State (9-9)
6. Texas Tech (8-10)
7. Oklahoma (8-10)
8. TCU (7-11)
9. Texas (5-13)
10. Kansas State (4-14)
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.