With one month left in the regular season, Kansas’s 14-year reign over the Big 12 is in serious jeopardy of ending. While the Jayhawks caught a severe case of the road blues in recent weeks, Kansas State cruised to the conference lead, punctuated by Tuesday's home win over KU. A pair of Big 12 teams sit one game back of the Wildcats in the loss column, while Chris Beard’s Texas Tech squad and the Jayhawks lurk at 6–4. Five Saturdays remain until the conference title is won. Can a favorite emerge before March?
Don’t expect the picture to get any clearer in the coming weeks. The Big 12’s five contenders—Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas and Texas Tech—should cannibalize themselves to a certain degree as March approaches, with inconsequential matchups few and far between. Texas and TCU are likely out of the race, but the two programs will happily play spoiler as they fight for a tournament appearance.
So with the quintet of Big 12 contenders set, who can you expect to win the regular season crown? We broke down the field below.
The Current Leader: Kansas State
The Wildcats haven’t lost a conference game since Jan. 5, knocking off Iowa State, Texas Tech and Kansas in the process. Head coach Bruce Weber guides the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense, with five upperclassmen leading the team in scoring. Since shaking off a rocky start, Kansas State has shown no sign of slowing down after last year’s Elite Eight run. Even with a down scoring year from Dean Wade and Barry Brown, the Wildcats can still generate points late in the shot clock. Don’t discount Kansas State’s chances at a Big 12 title or a run to the tournament’s second weekend.
After an impressive 74–67 win over Kansas on Feb. 5—K-State's first over its in-state rival since 2015—another test will come next week. The Wildcats will head to Waco to face Baylor on Feb. 9, then down to Austin for a date with Texas three days later. The Longhorns have won three straight at home, while Baylor is just one back in the loss column. Kansas State’s reward for a Texas two-step will be a home battle with Iowa State, another Big 12 contender. The three-game gauntlet could drop the Wildcats closer to the middle of the pack. Kansas State has worked its way into the driver’s seat, but a difficult schedule and lack of offensive firepower could very well derail its road to the Big 12 title.
Three-Loss Challengers: Iowa State and Baylor
Baylor entered Wednesday night’s matchup at Texas with four straight conference wins by double digits, and tied with Kansas State for the Big 12 lead. But a poor defensive effort dropped Baylor behind the Wildcats in the Big 12 standings. Texas attempted 34 free throws and shot 55.1% from the field at the Frank Erwin Center, led by 21 points from senior guard Kerwin Roach. Assumed to finish near the Big 12 cellar in the preseason, it’s been an impressive season from head coach Scott Drew. Yet road matchups against Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas ahead should end any dreams of winning the conference.
Iowa State shouldn’t abandon such ambitions by any standard. The Cyclones rank in the top 25 of kenpom’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, winning six of their last seven contests. They play with the cohesiveness of an experienced unit, crisp and focused offensively despite being led by a collection of freshmen and transfers. Virginia transfer Marial Shayok leads the show with 19.1 points per game, while guards Talen Horton-Tucker and Lindell Wigginton combine for arguably the conference’s best backcourt. The Cyclones will be a dangerous out in the NCAA tournament.
Iowa State is in strong position to win the Big 12. The Cyclones face just one ranked team in the final eight games, a home matchup against Texas Tech in the regular-season finale. The toughest battle looks to be at Kansas State on Feb. 16, although the Cyclones’ wealth of scoring options should serve them well in the Little Apple. Both in schedule and talent, the Cyclones are a smart bet to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12.
Four-Loss Lurkers: Kansas and Texas Tech
Perhaps the two most talented teams in the conference sit two back in the loss column entering Thursday night. Let’s start with the Jayhawks. Kansas looked to be in its rightful place atop the conference on Jan. 14, defeating Texas to advance to 15–2, 4–1 in the Big 12. Not only did a 15th-straight Big 12 title look secure, a top-two seed in March did, too. What’s happened since? A complete collapse on the road. Kansas has lost four of its last six games—including a loss at Kentucky on Jan. 26—with all four losses coming on the road. Bill Self and Co. fell at conference-worst West Virginia, at Texas and at Kansas State in addition to their loss in Lexington. Not exactly a murderers' row. They’ll get their chance to bounce back at TCU on Big Monday next week, although the real test will come at Texas Tech on Feb. 23.
Kansas could very well need to win out to win the Big 12, and that’s not an impossible dream. The Jayhawks face just one ranked team through March 9 (at Texas Tech on Feb. 16) and close the season hosting Baylor. If the road woes can move to the rearview mirror, there’s a chance Kansas retains Big 12 supremacy.
With a window for the four-loss Jayhawks, can Texas Tech leap into the conference lead? There’s reason for skepticism. The Red Raiders struggled mightily in their last two road matchups, losing to Kansas by 16 and Kansas State by 13. They put up just 45 points in the loss to Kansas State on Jan. 22, going 5 for 23 from three. A chance at revenge against the Jayhawks will be critical in two weeks. Maybe Texas Tech takes the war for the conference championship to the final day of the season, but it will still face an uphill battle. Expect Ames to be hostile if the Big 12 title is on the line on March 9.