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  • Six weeks out from March, the Big 12 conference title is still up for grabs. Here's an early look at which Big 12 squads could finish at the top of the league.
By Chris Johnson
January 18, 2018

No high-major conference race will be more riveting than the Big 12’s. Kansas’s pursuit of its 14th consecutive league title, which would break the record UCLA set from 1967–79, is a fascinating storyline absent any context, and it’s particularly compelling this year given the number of legitimate competitors the Jayhawks will need to hold off. We exited Saturday with four teams (Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and West Virginia) sitting together in first place, but intraleague competition in the subsequent four days changed that. It’s true that the conference race is in a relatively early stage. Six weeks out from March, the No. 1 spot in the standings is still up for grabs. Below is an early ranking of which Big 12 squads have the best shot at finishing on top, factoring in both team performance and schedule. 

This is the eighth version of a weekly column analyzing four college hoops topics bound by some underlying narrative thread. If there’s something you’d like to see in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

1. Kansas (Big 12 record: 5-1)

Let this be the last time Kansas’s chances of winning the Big 12 are called into question before they are reduced to zero. Just when it looked like the Jayhawks’ streak might really, actually be in jeopardy; when they were teetering after suffering a pair of home losses in the space of a month; when one bluechip recruit (Billy Preston) was lingering in eligibility lingo amid a mysterious case involving a car accident and another (Silvio De Sousa) had yet to receive academic clearance; when the forward rotation was so thin that head coach Bill Self called in a member of the football team to help out...Kansas did what Kansas has done throughout this glorious run. Kansas won a big league game, this one at West Virginia on Monday night after erasing a double-digit deficit midway through the second half, in what should amount to one of the most valuable Ws any team in the country carries into Selection Sunday. Part of the reason that result felt so important is what came before it. The Jayhawks had to battle to put away the league’s worst team (Iowa State) at home on Jan. 9 and, four days later, barely survived another home meeting with in-state rival Kansas State. Then they went into Morgantown and got 33 points combined from Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk to beat back a squad with a top-10 defense that hadn’t dropped a game in its own building since early last February. And with that, Kansas hurdled one of the biggest landmines on its league schedule. The others include a Jan. 23 trip to Oklahoma, a Feb. 17 return game with the Mountaineers and a Feb. 24 trek to Texas Tech, which already downed the Jayhawks in Lawrence on Jan. 2. Kansas won’t take all of those contests, but it doesn’t need to in order to hang another league banner. The Jayhawks proved on Monday that their bid for a record-setting championship is far less wobbly than it appeared at the outset of Big 12 play.

2. Texas Tech (Big 12 record: 4-2)

Any doubt about whether Texas Tech belonged in the Big 12 title conversation after it posted an 11-1 record during the non-conference portion of its schedule was answered unequivocally on Jan. 2, when the Red Raiders rung up 1.18 points per possession and limited the Jayhawks to 1.01 PPP in a 85-73 triumph at Allen Fieldhouse that cranked the “Kansas’s streak is in danger” talk to eleven. That was probably an overreaction, but it would have been reasonable to come away from that game thinking something about Texas Tech that would have felt like a huge stretch back in October, when it was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12’s preseason poll: The Red Raiders could be the Jayhawks’ biggest threat to win the conference. Texas Tech is the Big 12’s most prolific turnover-forcer west of West Virginia and it has limited opponents to 43.6% shooting inside the three-point arc, which ranks 14th in Division I. All told, Chris Beard’s group checks in at No. 3 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. Oklahoma supernova Trae Young put up 27 points on the Red Raiders in a 10-point Sooners win in Norman earlier this month, but he needed 23 shots to do it. And while we’re on the subject of Big 12 point guards who merit a tip of the cap from college hoops observers, Texas Tech senior Keenan Evans looks like he might be able to battle Graham for league player of the year honors, non-Young division, even after being thoroughly upstaged by Texas’s Kerwin Roach II during Wednesday nine-point loss to the Longhorns in Austin. The Red Raiders have already put two of their most daunting conference road games behind them (Kansas on Jan. 2, Oklahoma on Jan. 9), so if they can keep holding serve in Lubbock, where they’re yet to lose this season, they should be able to hang with Kansas down the stretch, though that prospect admittedly feels more dubious now than it did before the slip-up in Austin. For Texas Tech’s sake, hopefully its penultimate league fixture, at West Virginia on Feb. 26, isn’t a must-win. 

John Weast/Getty Images

3. West Virginia (Big 12 record: 4-2)

The Mountaineers were trending toward a slot on the No. 1 seed line and the top spot in the polls before a two-game skid against the only two teams listed above them here. West Virginia entered its Jan. 13 visit to Texas Tech having strung together 15 consecutive wins, including a commendable home conquest of ACC contender Virginia in early December, since a puzzling 23-point loss to floundering Texas A&M on the opening night of the season. The Mountaineers grind on defense, they turn opponents over more frequently than any other high-major team, they crash the offensive glass and they have a fearless rim protector in sophomore Sagaba Konate. Point guard Jevon Carter’s defensive bona fides were well established before this season, but he’s elevated his play on the other end of the floor as a senior, shooting more often on a per-40 minute basis without suffering a major dip in scoring efficiency, shouldering a larger share of the playmaking burden, getting to the free throw line more often and converting at a higher clip once there. Carter was also hugely responsible for Young enduring one of his worst games of the season in a 13-point West Virginia win over the Sooners in Morgantown on Jan. 6, and he ranks fifth in the nation in steal percentage. Monday night’s showdown with Kansas was a huge missed opportunity. West Virginia had the Jayhawks on the ropes, down 12 with less than nine minutes left, only to succumb to pivotal late shot-making from Graham and Mykhailiuk in an eventual five-point decision that marked Kansas’s first win at WVU Coliseum in five years. The Mountaineers should end their two-game slide when they host Texas on Saturday, but two of their next three road games will be serious tests: Texas Christian on Jan. 22 and Oklahoma on Feb. 5. Depending on how it fares over the next month, West Virginia may need to exact revenge on Kansas in Lawrence on Feb. 17 to keep pace in the championship chase.

4. Oklahoma (Big 12 record: 4-2)

When trying to rank a group of basketball teams, favoring the one with the best player, all else being equal, is a sound strategy. That player, Young, has had his way with most of the defenses he’s faced this season, and that should be the case more often than not during the remainder of the Sooners’ conference slate. Saying that Oklahoma’s offense “runs through Young” or that he’s its “primary option” undersells just how much the Sooners are counting on him this season. Over six Big 12 contests to date, Young has taken 39.4% of their shots and assisted on 50.1% of their field goals during his time on the court, both of which lead the conference, according to kenpom.com. Young’s efficiency has tailed off since he blitzed Northwestern with 31 points and 12 assists to close Oklahoma’s out-of-league schedule on Dec. 22, and his inability to take good care of the ball was thrown into sharp relief on Tuesday night when he committed 12 turnovers in an 18-point loss at Kansas State, more than any other player in a DI game this season. He’s still the Big 12’s most potent scorer and playmaker, and he’s been the main driver behind Oklahoma’s rise from 118th in adjusted offensive efficiency over all of last season to 15th at this point of the 2017-18 season. But certain teams have shown they can, if not shut down Young completely, then at least make him work hard for his buckets, without compromising their coverage elsewhere on the floor. Oklahoma’s auxiliary scoring threats (junior Christian James, freshman Brady Manek) have spent most of the season deferring to Young, but over the course of a grueling league campaign, there will be nights when they’ll need to relieve him of some of the point-producing load. It’s also not clear whether Oklahoma’s creaky defense will hold up until March, including when it’ll need to stifle the nation’s No. 11 offense in a pair of meetings with Kansas on Jan. 23 (home) and Feb. 19 (away). Big 12 opponents are making about half of their 2s against the Sooners, and the Wildcats put up 1.21 points per possession in running them out of Little Apple earlier this week.

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