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Buckle Up for a Wild Big 12 Title Race; Kansas' Long Reign in Serious Jeopardy

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2015

USA Today

The Big 12 has the catchy slogan of "one true champion." The league even bought the URL.

And for 10 straight years on the basketball side, it has had just that: one champ.

Sure, Kansas shared a few conference titles along the way, but every Big 12 season has had an inevitable ending: Bill Self with another ring. This next one is for a toe.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Only Self might want to hold off on getting his big toe sized. He may instead want to get his heart checked first. Judging by how the Big 12 opener went for No. 12 Kansas—a comeback 56-55 win over 21st-ranked Baylor—this chase is going to be one wild (and stressful) ride.

It was the second straight night that a Big 12 game came down to the final possession, and we might as well get used to that. The conference lacks a truly elite team like Kentucky or Duke, but it makes up for it in quantity of quality.

Jesse Newell @jessenewell

Blog: If KU wins the Big 12 this year, it will have earned it: http://t.co/3hRRwoDio7 http://t.co/N1NjYhykj2

Six league teams are ranked. Three others have either been ranked or received votes in the Associated Press poll. The league sent out a release this week that included all kinds of crazy numbers proving its parity of strength. The best of the bunch:

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  1. The Big 12 went 104-22 in nonconference matchups.
  2. From Dec. 7-20, league teams won 28 straight games.
The Big 12 Contenders
Recordvs. AP top 25
West Virginia14-11-0
Oklahoma11-33-2
Kansas12-23-1
Iowa State11-21-0
Texas12-31-2
Oklahoma State11-30-2
Baylor11-30-2
Big 12

This week started with a nice litmus test for No. 10 Texas at home against No. 16 Oklahoma. The Longhorns are the team that most had deemed the favorite based off the first two months of the season. If there was a team that could be elite, it was UT. The Horns have the length and shot-blockers to rival Kentucky and even hung with the top-ranked 'Cats in a game they played without their star point guard, Isaiah Taylor.

With Taylor back in the fold, naturally, the Sooners blitzed them by 21. 

If you're buying the flavor of the week, then the Sooners are the favorite now. Lon Kruger's teams can always score and play defense when it's convenient. This year's team somehow ranks fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. And that's not in the Big 12; that's nationally.

No. 17 Iowa State has looked dominant at times—an 18-point win over Arkansas—and average at others. However, we can't truly judge the Cyclones yet, because they just got big man Jameel McKay eligible, and for the first time since Fred Hoiberg took over in Ames, he has an actual rim protector. So not only will the Cyclones be able to score, they might stop folks from scoring as well.

Stay tuned. 

Ray Thompson/Associated Press

Then there's West Virginia. Bob Huggins said at Big 12 media day that he finally had a team that could play some defense. Turns out that wasn't media-day lip service. The No. 14 Mountaineers are forcing 22.6 turnovers per game, and they have the best point guard in the conference, Juwan Staten. 

Speaking of point guards, UT's Taylor isn't quite right yet after missing more than a month with an injured wrist. That much was apparent in Monday's loss at OU. The Longhorns could have some issues on offense all season, but their defense will keep them in the race, and they're a different team when Taylor is at full strength. Don't count them out based off one game. 

And let's not forget about the Jayhawks. They are vulnerable (see the Temple massacre), but they do have Self and Allen Fieldhouse in their back pocket. So I'm saying there's a chance. 

But if you're giving me the field or Kansas, I'm taking the field. 

Two months ago, Kansas fans would have scoffed at such a statement. The Jayhawks were rightfully the favorite. Then they got blitzed by Kentucky, sophomore Wayne Selden got off to a slow start and their McDonald's All-American freshmen, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, couldn't even get consistent minutes. The fanbase was starting to get nervous. 

To illustrate the bizarrity of this Big 12 season, it's not a McDonald's All-American who could be KU's savior. It's a guy who originally signed out of high school to play at Towson. That'd be point guard Frank Mason, who has been the Jayhawks' best player and given Self something he hasn't had each of the last two seasons: stability at the point guard position.

Mason was a difference-maker against Baylor, scoring 11 points to go along with five assists and one turnover. If the parts around him get better, KU will have a chance. But let's not forget that Baylor was a few botched layups away from putting the Jayhawks in an unfamiliar hole to start this conference season. 

The game, as we should become accustomed to, was so chock full of drama and crazy swings that the final 10.1 seconds took close to 12 minutes to play, included a monitor review, a "do they foul or not foul up three" sequence—Self smartly fouled—and Baylor with the ball down one and a chance to win. But the Bears couldn't get off a shot. 

Just another day in the Big 12.

The swings will be wild. The finishes will leave you exhausted. And just when you think you've figured out the favorite, that team will get waxed at home. 

And thanks to the wonderful (sarcasm font) world of conference realignment, everyone gets a redo! As in everybody plays each other twice. Giving us one true champion.

Or three or four, judging by this group. 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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