Heading into the start of conference play Saturday, the Big 12 rates with the nation’s best leagues because of its success in the season’s first six weeks … and decisions made six months before the season started.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Of the 15 players chosen to one of the three all-Big 12 teams for 2013, eight were underclassmen, and most of them were expected to cash in on the NBA Draft.
When a majority did not, the Big 12’s stock rose, and the teams expected to benefit most by players returning — No. 6 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Baylor and Iowa State — have taken full advantage and are the league’s three highest ranked teams in the major wire-service polls.
Add preseason co-favorite and 16th-ranked Kansas to that group, and that was the consensus preseason quartet.
But the Big 12’s strength doesn’t stop there. The conference has developed depth.
Two teams that aren’t ranked — Kansas State and Texas — have defeated ranked teams away from home. The Wildcats beat Gonzaga in Wichita and the Longhorns won at North Carolina.
Even teams without much hope of a championship push have contributed to the Big 12’s perception. TCU is 3-0 in enemy gyms after going 1-10 last season.
“It’s been an unbelievable league,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Everybody has quality wins. It’s far better than what others anticipated.”
Perhaps. The return of Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash, Baylor’s Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson and Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim — and the addition of the Jayhawks’ highly rated recruiting class — raised the bar.
The season got off to a fast start when the Jayhawks defeated Duke in the Champions Classic, and the quality victories have piled up: Baylor over Kentucky, Texas at North Carolina, Oklahoma State over Memphis, K-State over the Zags.
In all, the Big 12 has an 8-8 record against members of the Associated Press top 25 at tip-off time, with one such game remaining: Kansas plays host to No. 21 San Diego State on Sunday.
The importance of the fast start could be realized in March, when the NCAA Tournament field is selected.
For the next 10 weeks, conference teams will slug it out against each other. But assuming a favorite doesn’t go in the tank, teams that have built impressive resumes will only enhance them in league play by playing against highly regarded teams.
One RPI facsimile, RealtimeRPI.com, has six Big 12 teams among the top 46, with Oklahoma State, Baylor, Iowa State and KU in the top 12.
Not all the news has been good. Oklahoma State lost an important piece of its lineup when front-liner Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury during Monday’s victory over Robert Morris.
Cobbins had started the Cowboys’ first 13 games, averaging 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds, and was considered the team’s top post defender. As he did last year when Cobbins missed time nursing a toe injury, Kamari Murphy will be asked to do more. He averages 6.1 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Big 12 at a glance
• Best win: Many candidates. But Baylor’s triumph over Kentucky, which started the year No. 1 and was ranked third when the teams met at Arlington, Texas, was perhaps the most unexpected — unless it was Texas’ triumph at North Carolina.
• Worst loss: By RPI, TCU’s loss to No. 308 Longwood, is the biggest forehead slapper. But the most surprising, based on current strength, was Kansas State’s season-opening pratfall to Northern Colorado.
• MVP: Same as the preseason, Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart. He has picked up where he left off last season, and has delivered the best game by a Big 12 player this season with 39 points in the victory over Memphis.
• Most improved: Oklahoma small forward Cameron Clark gets the nod by topping the Big 12 in scoring at 18.5 points, while hitting 50 percent of his threes. A year ago, he averaged 6.5 points and battled for his minutes.
West Virginia guard Juwan Staten averaged 7.6 points and 3.3 assists last season. This year, he leads the Mountaineers at 16.3 points, tops the Big 12 in assists at 6.3 and had scored in double figures in all but one game.
Also, Texas’ sophomore center Cameron Ridley has jumped his numbers on several fronts: 10.1 points, 7.2 boards, 53.5 percent shooting from 4.1, 4.3 and 46.2.
• Top newcomer: All the preseason hype pointed to Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, and he’s off to a solid if unspectacular start, leading the Jayhawks in scoring at 15.5 points.
But no argument if the choice is Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane, the Marshall transfer who ranks among the Big 12’s top 11 in scoring, rebounding and assists.
It’s a crowded field that also includes the Jayhawks’ Joel Embiid, Baylor’s Kenny Chery, Iowa State’s Dustin Hogue, Kansas State’s Marcus Foster, Texas’ Isaiah Taylor, TCU’s Karviar Shepherd and Oklahoma’s Ryan Spangler.
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.