Streakbusters: Can Oklahoma (or anyone) dethrone Kansas in Big 12?
There are several anachronisms that would adequately illustrate just how much the world has changed since the last time a team other than Kansas won the Big 12 regular season championship. Here's one: Since the Jayhawks started their streak of 11 consecutive conference crowns in 2004-05, the Big 12 has become a 10-team league. Another: Lon Kruger, the head coach of the top-ranked Oklahoma team that is the most likely to end KU's run, was an NBA assistant with the Knicks.
But while the Sooners may be the team with the best chance to finally upend the Jayhawks, they are far from the only candidate. The Big 12 boasts five ranked teams in the most recent AP Top 25, and its top six teams in the league standings are separated by two games, from the Sooners and West Virginia at, 7-2 down to Iowa State at 5-4. Most of those teams have nine games remaining before the conference tournament. Kansas, sitting at 5-3, is the only one with 10, including Wednesday night’s tilt against Kansas State. Heading into the second half of the season, any of the six could win the Big 12. Below is a breakdown of each team's chances to ultimately stand atop the best conference in college basketball.
NOTE: Teams are listed in current order of standings.
Remaining schedule: at Kansas State, Texas, Kansas, at Texas Tech, at West Virginia, Oklahoma State, at Texas, Baylor, at TCU
Games against contenders: 5 (3 home, 2 away)
The Sooners are rightfully the No. 1 team in the country, as well as the No. 1 overall seed in our most recent Bracket Watch. Not only are they the best team, they still have four games remaining against the bottom tier of the Big 12. If they simply win those four games and go 3-2 in their other five, they’d be at 14-4 in conference. They’ve proved themselves away from home, as well, winning at Baylor and knocking off Villanova on a neutral floor, and of their five remaining road games, three are against league bottom feeders in Kansas State, Texas Tech and TCU. What's more, OU's only two losses in league play came by two points in a triple-overtime thriller against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and by five points against Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.
Having Buddy Hield, the nation's second-leading scorer at 25.8 points per game and the Wooden Award favorite, is a huge advantage. And it doesn't hurt that Oklahoma shoots a nation-best 46.2% from three-point range. The Sooners may be tied for first right now, but they are heavy favorites to finish alone at the top.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Remaining schedule: Baylor, at Kansas, TCU, at Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, at Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, at Baylor
Games against contenders: 6 (3 home, 3 away)
The Mountaineers turned heads by beating Iowa State in Ames on Tuesday, and not just because the Cyclones had already knocked off both Kansas and Oklahoma at Hilton. West Virginia had lacked a meaningful win away from home to that point, so it was important for the Mountaineers to finally add one, especially with trips to Kansas, Texas and Baylor still ahead this season. They have one of the toughest remaining schedules in the conference, with just three games against the bottom four teams in the league, including a trip to Oklahoma State that won’t be a walkover. They will meet all five of their fellow Big 12 contenders in their next six games. In other words, their entire outlook could change over the next three weeks.
Remaining schedule: at West Virginia, at Kansas State, Texas Tech, Iowa State, at Texas, Kansas, at TCU, at Oklahoma, West Virginia
Games against contenders: 6 (3 home, 3 away)
What exactly do we make of Baylor? Yes they are just one game behind the leaders in this conference, and yes, they won at Iowa State on Jan. 9, but that’s easily their best win of the season. They lost to Texas at home, needed two overtimes to beat Kansas State at home, gave up 102 points in a loss at Kansas and were blown out in the second half of their first game with Oklahoma. In the non-conference they lost to Oregon and Texas A&M, and their win over Vanderbilt, which at the time was ranked No. 16, has lost most of its shine now that the Commodores are just 12-9. That’s not the sort of team that is going to navigate its remaining schedule to get to the 14 wins it will probably take to win this conference.
Remaining schedule: Texas Tech, at Oklahoma, at Iowa State, West Virginia, Baylor, at Kansas State, Oklahoma, Kansas, at Oklahoma State
Games against contenders: 6 (4 home, 2 away)
The Longhorns have already exceeded expectations in Shaka Smart’s first year at the helm, with wins over North Carolina, West Virginia and Baylor, the latter two on the road. They are going to be a legitimate threat to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. But don't expect them to go to the Big Dance as Big 12 regular season champs. Take a look at that remaining schedule. No other team still has to play Oklahoma twice. Everyone else has at least one game left with last-place TCU, the one league member that is below .500 overall this season. Throw in a trip to Iowa State, and home games with West Virginia and Baylor, and Texas is going to have to play very well in the back half of its regular season just to get to 10 conference wins.
Remaining schedule: Kansas State, at TCU, West Virginia, at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, at Kansas State, at Baylor, Texas Tech, at Texas, Iowa State
Games against contenders: 5 (2 home, 3 away)
The Jayhawks should be 7-3 heading into next week, which will be arguably their toughest of the season. On Feb. 9 they host West Virginia, and four days later they travel to Norman, Okla., for the much-anticipated rematch with the Sooners. The Mountaineers already thumped Kansas once, using its pressure defense to force 22 turnovers in a 74-63 win on Jan. 12.
Then comes Oklahoma, which will be itching for revenge. That kicks off a closing stretch in which the Jayhawks play four of their last six games on the road, although two of those are against TCU and Kansas State. Kansas's hopes for its 12th straight title will likely come down to that showdown with the Sooners. A loss there will make it almost impossible to catch Oklahoma, which has shown no signs of doing its fellow contenders any favors by losing games it shouldn't.
Iowa State Cyclones
Remaining schedule: at Oklahoma State, at Texas Tech, Texas, at Baylor, TCU, at West Virginia, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, at Kansas
Games against contenders: 4 (1 home, 3 away)
Iowa State is in sixth place in the Big 12, but it’s also the only team with five of its last nine games against the bottom four teams in the conference. It’s a lot to ask the Cyclones to go 5-0 in those games, but chances are they will be favored in all five. Still, they might have to win out just to catch Oklahoma in the standings, and that’s going to be awfully tough with trips to Morgantown and Lawrence still looming. Iowa State is going to be a factor in March, which it proved by beating Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa, arguably the most impressive trio of wins any team in the nation can put forth this season. Still, Tuesday night's home loss to West Virginia, in which they blew a 15-point lead and lost by five, may be the one that keeps the Cyclones from staying in this race right until the very end.