By Shehan Jeyarajah
We knew that the Big 12 had a chance to be improved, but no one thought it would be this good. Out of the 32 college basketball conferences in Division I, the Big 12 has the number one conference RPI thanks to impressive wins in nonconference play against the likes of Duke, Kentucky, Colorado and Michigan among others.
Since conference play began, the Big 12 has been a buzz-saw. Kansas is the only team who has maintained success in the crowded conference schedule. They are still undefeated in conference after impressive wins against Oklahoma State and Iowa State twice.
Outside of the Jayhawks, every other Big 12 team has two or more losses in conference thanks to the level of parity during conference play this season.
Perhaps no team has impressed more than the University of Texas. The Longhorns were picked to finish eighth in conference, behind even West Virginia. Texas has defied the odds. They are currently riding a five game win streak, including wins against three straight ranked teams. They have earned their way into the top 25 of the Associated Press poll.
Oklahoma has also turned heads after losing many players following the 2013 season. Behind sophomore guard Buddy Hield, the Sooners have fought their way to second in the Big 12 after a tough-fought win against No. 8 Oklahoma State.
No team has fallen apart more in conference play than Baylor. After going through conference play with only one loss, to now No. 2 Syracuse no less, Baylor has lost six of their seven conference games to fall to ninth place in the Big 12. Despite being ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation only three weeks ago, the Bears look like a team that will not make the NCAA Tournament.
Iowa State is in a similar situation as Baylor, but they have managed to turn things around. The Cyclones won their first 14 games of the season before dropping three straight games in the tough Big 12. Iowa State has since pulled off a win against Kansas State to stay at No. 16, but they do not look like the same powerhouse they were in nonconference.
In ESPN’s Bracketology, analyst Joe Lunardi has six Big 12 teams making the NCAA Tournament: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas and Iowa State. All six of these teams, not to mention Baylor, have been ranked in the top 25 at some point this season.
Senior Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane has surprised everyone by being the leading scorer in the Big 12 so far this season at 19.4 points per game. The transfer from Marshall is making his case to be named All-Big 12. Highly touted Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins is living up to the hype and averaging 17.7 points per game while also averaging 48.1 percent from the field.
The second highest ranked team Big 12 at the moment is No. 8 Oklahoma State, who Baylor will travel to go play on Saturday in Stillwater. The Cowboys sit at 4-3 in conference after losses in two of their last three games, including against No. 23 Oklahoma in a Bedlam matchup.
All-American first team guard Marcus Smart turned down an opportunity to be a top 5 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft to return to school. Since being back, he has averaged 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 2.5 steals per game. The Bears will have their hands full trying to defend him.
Senior guard Markel Brown adds 16.6 points per game of his own at the other guard spot for the Cowboys. Sophomore guard Phil Forte shoots a ridiculously efficient 49.6 percent from the three-point line.
Baylor has a huge advantage on the inside after Cowboys starting center Michael Cobbins went out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon in his foot. No player on the Cowboys averages more than 5.9 rebounds per game.
Baylor will need to exploit their advantage on the inside to have a chance against the Cowboys. Their perimeter defense will also need to contain the high-power scoring attack of Smart, Forte and Brown and contain Oklahoma State’s ridiculous 47.7 percent shooting from the field.
If Baylor can steal a win in Stillwater, the season can be salvaged. With a sixth straight loss, their NCAA Tournament chances would be all but gone.
Baylor basketball (13-7, 1-6) will take on No. 8 Oklahoma State (16-4, 4-3) at 1 p.m. on Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater. The game will be nationally broadcast on ESPN.