Thursday December 31st, 2015

As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the Big 12:

Top three contenders

Oklahoma. Hawaii is the only team so far this season to finish within a possession of the Sooners, and the Rainbow Warriors were on their home court. On average, Oklahoma has beaten its opponents by 20.5 points. The Sooners are led by four upperclassmen: senior Buddy Hield (24.9 points per game), junior Jordan Woodard (13.9), senior Isaiah Cousins (13.1) and senior Ryan Spangler (10.3). Their offensive performances get the most attention, but the Oklahoma’s defense is just as stifling as its offense is electric. The Sooners are holding opponents to a paltry 40.9 effective field goal percentage, which ranks fourth-best in the country. On offense they’re deadly from the three-point line (46.2%), but not overly dependent on three-pointers to score (just 34.8% of their field goal attempts are from behind the arc). With a top 10 adjusted efficiency ranking on both ends of the floor, Oklahoma seems built to challenge Kansas in the Jayhawks’ quest for a 12th-straight Big 12 title.

Kansas. Speaking of the Jayhawks, they’re the No. 1 team in the country in adjusted efficiency, according to On Nov. 17, Kansas, without the services of freshman forward Cheick Diallo, lost its first and only game of the season on a neutral court by six points to Michigan State. Since then, the Jayhawks have been lights out. They’ve beaten three teams in the top 50 (UCLA, Vanderbilt and Oregon State) by an average of 13.7 points. (To be fair, Kansas played the Beavers at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, a pseudo-home game.) In many ways the Jayhawks are the team that most expected them to be: Senior forward Perry Ellis (15.1 points per game) is the star, with a trio of talented guards in tow—Wayne Selden Jr. (14.8), Frank Mason III (13.3) and Devonte’ Graham (10.8). Diallo is using a star’s percentage of the team’s shots and possessions when he’s on the floor, but Self has been careful not to overwork his key freshman just yet, playing him only 10.7 minutes a game and giving him time to grow into a more prominent role.

Iowa State. The Cyclones, like the Jayhawks, are playing as advertised so far. Iowa State revolves around senior forwards Georges Niang and Jameel McKay, and junior guard Monte Morris. With the loss of guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long (hip issues) for the season, the Cyclones need immediate contributions from Marquette transfer guard Deonte Burton, who has been eligible for three games. Against Coppin State on Wednesday night, he scored 16 points on seven shots in 21 minutes. Iowa State is an excellent shooting team and rarely commit turnovers (14th-best in the country in turnover percentage), but the Cyclones struggle to grab offensive rebounds and are rarely getting to the free throw line. They still look like contenders in the Big 12, though maybe not the national-title favorites that they seemed to be in the preseason.

Surprise team

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West Virginia. Our projection system, which ranked Kansas as the top team in the conference, followed by Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Baylor, has been pretty accurate. You might be tempted to slot Kansas State, with its 10–2 record, into this spot, but be cautious with the Wildcats. Their strength of schedule in outside of the conference is 295th, and their scoring offense (73.0 points per game) is tied for 190th in the country. Instead of K-State, let’s put the Mountaineers here. Their strength of schedule is also questionable, but their defense is not. In the second year of the surprise Bob Huggins press era, West Virginia has the No. 1 turnover-generating defense in college basketball, and the No. 2 unit in terms of adjusted efficiency. The Mountaineers’ press makes them a threat to beat any team in college basketball any time they step on the court.

Flop team

None. The worst record in Big 12 right now is a three-way tie at 8–4 between Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas. The Longhorns are the most talented team of the bunch, but their worst loss—to Washington in China—wasn’t terrible, and their other three were to top 25 teams. As usual, though, the mettle of every Big 12 team will be tested in conference play.

Player of the year so far

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma. Hield’s numbers this season are staggering. The senior is averaging 24.9 points per game, fourth in the country, and also finds time to scoop up 5.3 rebounds a game. He uses 28.7% of the Sooners’ possession and takes 31.9% of their shots, but still boasts a blistering 129.5 offensive rating. He is shooting 90.0% from the free throw line and making 52.9% (!) of his three-point attempts. His three-point percentage is actually higher than his field-goal percentage, and he’s hoisting 6.4 treys a game. He’s not only the front-runner for Big 12 player of the year, but he’s also on a very short list for national player of the year.

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Best non-conference win

Oklahoma over Villanova, 78–55, in Hawaii (Dec. 7). On an uncharacteristically off night for Hield—he needed 17 shots to score 18 points, and had no assists and two turnovers—the Sooners still smashed the Wildcats. On a neutral court, Oklahoma held the 13th-most efficient offense in the country to 55 points and rang up 78 points on the 11th-most efficient defense. Texas beating North Carolina on Dec. 12 ranks just behind this game, partially because the Longhorns were playing at home.

Must-see game in January

Oklahoma at Kansas (Jan. 4). How to choose? The Big 12 is the only Power 5 conference that plays a true round-robin schedule; and with five teams in the top 25, there’s a good game around every corner. Still, this game pits what is currently’s No. 1 team against its No. 2 team. This could be the beginning of the end for the Jayhawks’ unparalleled run in the Big 12, or it could be the latest opportunity for KU to reassert its conference dominance.

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