The Big 12 enters conference men’s basketball play Saturday as the nation’s top-ranked league based on several RPI facsimiles, and not only because of the league bell cows.
The upper crust has had its outstanding moments, and Iowa State, Texas and Kansas are ranked among the nation’s top 15.
But it’s the improved play by what had been recent NCAA Tournament outsiders that has given the league its overall strength.
TCU ended last season on a 19-game losing streak. The Horned Frogs have won 13 straight to open this season, and they’ll meet West Virginia on Saturday. The Mountaineers, 12-1 and No. 17 in The Associated Press poll, are ranked for the first time as a Big 12 member.
The Big 12 is 6-6 against teams ranked in the AP poll and 25-15 versus teams from other power five conferences. Six teams are ranked, and earlier this season, TCU made it seven Big 12 teams in the poll before falling out.
There are four league games today, but the non-conference tour isn’t over. Iowa State plays South Carolina on Saturday in New York, and Kansas is host to UNLV on Sunday. But for the most part, the outside work is completed.
The value of a top RPI? The league will notice that in March, when the committee that selects NCAA Tournament at-large teams sees the Big 12 with break-even conference records but enough success against outside competition compared to teams from other leagues.
Some highlights from the season’s first two months:
Texas at Connecticut and Kansas at Georgetown
Defending national champion Connecticut had just lost to West Virginia and has since tumbled out of the polls. The Longhorns contributed to the slide with a 55-54 victory on Nov. 30 on Jonathan Holmes’ three-pointer with 2 seconds left.
The Jayhawks have played the league’s toughest non-league schedule, and the toughest task came Dec. 10 at Georgetown. Brannen Greene made all five of his three-pointers in a 75-70 victory.
Kansas State to Texas Southern
Not just the who, but the how was a crusher in Kansas State’s 58-56 home loss to Texas Southern on Sunday.
The Wildcats led the 2-9 Tigers by four points with fewer than 3 seconds remaining. But K-State fouled on a three-pointer. Two free throws were made, and the third missed and put back to tie the game. The Wildcats threw away the inbounds pass, Texas Southern took over and scored at the buzzer.
Remember the (Pervis) Pasco fiasco, which led to an improbable Big 12 tournament loss to Colorado in 2003? This may have been worse.
Marcus Foster, K-State vs. Arizona and Georges Niang, Iowa State vs. Arkansas
In a loss, K-State’s Marcus Foster kept the Wildcats alive with 23 points, including six threes, against Arizona. But the Wildcats lost the Maui Classic semifinal 72-68.
In a victory, Iowa State’s Georges Niang turned in one of the best stat lines of the season with 26 points, eight assists and six rebounds in a 95-77 win over Arkansas on Dec. 4. In the same game, his teammate, Bryce Dejean-Jones, went for 27 and made all eight shots he took — and seven of eight free throws.
Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Staten, the preseason player of the year choice, is averaging 16.1 points and 4.2 assists. He’s won the last two Big 12 player of the week awards.
Myles Turner, Texas
The tall Texan is living up to the promise as a freshman, averaging 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and leads the Big 12 in blocks with 2.7 a game.
Non-conference All-Big 12
Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Georges Niang, Iowa State
Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Jonathan Holmes, Texas
How they’ll finish
Got to see Kansas not win a Big 12 to believe it.
BIG 12 FINISH: 1. Kansas; 2. Texas; 3. Iowa State; 4. Oklahoma; 5. West Virginia; 6. Baylor; 7. Oklahoma State; 8. TCU; 9. Kansas State; 10. Texas Tech.
NCAA TOURNAMENT: Kansas, Texas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Oklahoma State.