- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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Oh, the difference two months can make.
Back in October, when you talked about the Big 12, you talked about Kansas State. The Wildcats, thanks to the return of preseason All-American Jacob Pullen, budding star forward Curtis Kelly and most of 2010's thrilling Elite Eight team, were picked to win the conference by 10 of the league's coaches, Kansas coach Bill Self among them.
Kansas State was practically a Final Four lock, the best team in the nation not named "Duke" or "Michigan State," and while rival Kansas took its time reloading after the loss of three key starters from last season's team, the Wildcats would be holding down the Big 12 conference title and would -- at least temporarily -- silence the drone of "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" in the process.
That's what we all thought, anyway. Give Kansas State coach Frank Martin credit. He was less convinced.
"Kansas has won our league six years in a row," Martin said then. "And it's not like we've had a lot of success against them. I'm a true believer in [the idea that] you've got to go beat the champ."
Two months later, Martin looks downright prescient. His team has faltered in November and December both on and off the court. Kansas State was drubbed by Duke in Kansas City, scored 44 points in a loss to Florida, lost Pullen and Kelly to suspensions stemming from their acceptance of free clothes from a department store just before a loss to UNLV, and saw their head coach publicly fret about the direction of his leaderless team.
In the meantime, Kansas has been chugging along, looking like a Final Four team yet again. And forget Martin & Co. -- it doesn't look like anyone's going to top the champ anytime soon.
Can the Wildcats turn it around? Are the Jayhawks the conference's best? Who else is worth keeping an eye on? All that and more in this Big 12 primer.
Team to beat: Kansas
Yes, Kansas is the Big 12's best team. It's rather remarkable that a team could lose two first-round NBA picks (Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry) and its senior all-everything point guard (Sherron Collins) and still be this good, but such is life at the helm of one of the nation's best programs.
Why haven't the Jayhawks missed a beat? Let's count the ways: Forward Marcus Morris, who flashed signs of big-time ability last season, has proved that he doesn't need Aldrich patrolling the middle of the lane to score. His brother, Markieff, has stepped into his interior rebounding role with ease. Center Thomas Robinson is one of the three best offensive rebounders in the nation. Guard Tyshawn Taylor is experienced and intelligent, and he's playing some of the best basketball of his career. Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Travis Releford are hitting open shots.
And -- here comes the scary part -- uber-freshman Josh Selby is still incorporating himself into Kansas' swing-motion, high-low offense and is doing so while hitting game-winning 3s (in his debut versus USC) and putting up lines like his 18-point, seven-rebound, five-assist night against Miami (Ohio). Kansas looks built to last and has cemented its place -- which, come to think of it, was never really lost in the first place -- as the Big 12's team to beat this season.
Player of the year (1A): Marcus Morris, Kansas
Even if Morris weren't having this good of a season, he'd probably still earn this spot under the Derek Jeter Memorial Best Player On The Best Team Rule, which I believe is on page 300-and-grit in your player-of-the-year media voting handbooks. Fortunately, Morris is having arguably the best individual season of anyone in the Big 12; he just so happens to be doing it on one of the best teams in college hoops.
Per Ken Pomeroy, the Kansas forward has the highest offensive rating of any player in the Big 12 who uses as many of his team's possessions (at least 24 percent) as Morris does. His effective field goal percentage is 66.1, which ranks him No. 21 in all of college hoops. Morris also rebounds, blocks shots, doesn't turn the ball over all that frequently and gets to the foul line at a high rate. He's expanded his game all the way out to the perimeter, which, alongside Kansas' coterie of guards, has stretched opposing defenses to the breaking point. Morris is lucky enough to have the other half of the Morii and Thomas Robinson helping him patrol the lane, but there's no question Marcus has taken a huge leap in his junior year.
Player of the year (1B): Marcus Denmon, Missouri
Denmon doesn't use as many of his team's possessions as Morris, and his team isn't quite as good as Kansas, but when Denmon does have the ball, he's downright spectacular. Denmon has the No. 12-ranked offensive rating (135.1) in the nation, a figure he's achieved by avoiding turnovers, drawing fouls and, most noticeably, shooting the utter take-your-pick out of the ball. Denmon makes 52 percent of his 2s, 50 percent of his 3s and 85.4 percent of his free throws. He's done all that while being the lightning-quick catalyst in coach Mike Anderson's all-out 40 Minutes of Hell hybrid. Note to opposing defenses: When you score, you should get back on defense. Because it's likely Denmon is already past you.
Early surprise: Texas A&M
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, because Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon seems to pull this off every season. The Aggies lost their three key seniors (Donald Sloan, Bryan Davis and Derrick Roland) from last season's quietly tough team, but the Aggies haven't missed a beat. They have risen all the way to No. 16 in the latest coaches' poll thanks to a 13-1 start, a stretch that included a neutral-court win over Temple and a 63-62 nail-biter over an underrated Washington team in College Station. If this were any other A&M year, that would be par for the course. Given the minutes, points and experience Turgeon lost with last season's graduating class, this season's Aggies are vastly outperforming preseason expectations.
Early dud: Baylor
The Bears have a star guard in LaceDarius Dunn. They have a sky-is-the-limit freshman talent in forward Perry Jones. They have an efficient, pulverizing dunk machine in forward Quincy Acy. The Bears have length, athleticism and thoughts of another appearance in the Elite Eight. What the 2010-11 Baylor Bears don't have, unfortunately, is quality wins.
After breezing through the early cupcake-laden portion of its nonconference schedule, Baylor fell to Gonzaga in Dallas, then to Washington State and Florida State in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. Those were the only chances the Bears had to notch anything resembling quality nonconference wins, and they were expected to win those games anyway. Gone is Baylor's perceived top-10 status (Baylor fell out of the polls for the first time this week) and, with it, a top four-seed in the NCAA tournament in March. There is much work to be done in Waco.
The big unknown: Kansas State
Kansas State is in dud-worthy territory too, no doubt, but the Wildcats -- much like their fellow former-top-five contemporary, Michigan State -- remain an intriguing team as the season goes along. Clearly, the talent is there, and for all of Pullen's early struggles, and he and Kelly's untimely suspension, the Wildcats have proved themselves capable of quality wins by blowing out Gonzaga and passing a tough road test at Washington State.
Kansas State has two questions, one tangible and one not, that will determine the rest of its season. The tangible is whether the graduation loss of former point guard Denis Clemente's up-tempo penetration is as important to Pullen's offense -- and, by extension, K-State's -- as it seemed to be in November and December. The intangible is whether the Wildcats have a leader ready to step up and take this team where it needs to be. As Kelly returns from NCAA suspension later this month, and Pullen attempts to find the offense that made him a favored preseason Naismith candidate, the Wildcats will have to find answers to both. If they don't, their disappointing start is bound to turn into a disappointing season.
Scrappiest teams: Nebraska, Iowa State, Oklahoma State
You might not give much of a thought to Nebraska basketball, but dig this: The Cornhuskers currently have the nation's eighth-ranked defense according to Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency numbers. We'll see how that defense holds up against Big 12 opponents. And, sure, Nebraska hasn't beaten anyone of note (its two losses came to Vanderbilt and Davidson). But Doc Sadler's team could be a surprisingly tough out for much of the Big 12 based on sheer defense alone.
Meanwhile, Iowa State, a team projected to finish last in the same league as decrepit Oklahoma, has been playing some impressive defense of its own.
The Cyclones might not be all that bad.
And though Oklahoma State is clearly hurting from the loss of talented scorer James Anderson, the Cowboys have been hanging tough thanks to Marshall Moses and Keiton Page, the latter of whom is a 5-foot-10 sharpshooting guard whose photo you might see if you look up "scrappiness" in the dictionary. (Ha. Like anyone uses dictionaries anymore.)
Best of the rest: Texas, Missouri
"Best of the rest" doesn't really do these two teams justice, because it appears both are just plain good. Texas has played its typically stifling man-to-man defense under coach Rick Barnes. That defense ranks No. 7 in the nation in adjusted efficiency; it helped shut down Illinois star Demetri McCamey in an overtime win at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 18 and held Michigan State to 55 points in East Lansing on Dec. 22. With Baylor and Kansas State swooning, the Longhorns appear to be one of the few teams capable of challenging Kansas for the Big 12 title this season.
That other team? Missouri. The Tigers have their flaws -- they're not a great rebounding team, they don't get to the free throw line, and their defense tends to break down when opponents don't turn the ball over -- but they've won more impressive games than any team in the Big 12 to date. Denmon is a star, Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers have been tough on the interior, and Kim English, Michael Dixon and Justin Safford round out a lineup that can attack you from all angles, all the time. That's just the way coach Mike Anderson likes it.
Grading the preseason picks (based on the preseason Big 12 coaches' poll)
1. Kansas State: Ouch. The Wildcats have a lot to figure out if they plan to overtake Kansas anytime soon.
2. Kansas: Double ouch. When in doubt, never doubt the Jayhawks. Or something like that.
3. Texas: Pretty well done, actually. The Big 12 coaches apparently saw the potential of impressive freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, and voted accordingly.
4. Baylor: The Bears have to beat somebody -- anybody -- to justify their understandably high preseason expectations.
5. Missouri: A bit too low, but just a bit.
6. Texas A&M: Maybe the best preseason coaches' pick of this whole bunch.
7. Texas Tech: Way, way too high. The Red Raiders already have seven losses, including a Texas-fecta of defeats to Texas Christian, North Texas and UTEP. If it weren't for Oklahoma, this would be, at least to date, the worst team in the Big 12.
8. Oklahoma State: Maybe a little too low for the Cowboys, though they haven't shocked the world thus far.
9. Colorado: Just right. If anything, maybe too high. Colorado has some serious guard talent in Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. Unfortunately, that's all the Buffaloes have.
10. Nebraska: OK, sure.
11. Oklahoma: At No. 11, still too high. Oklahoma is in a bad way; the end of this season -- or at least spring football -- can't come quickly enough.
12. Iowa State: Surprisingly enough, too low. Iowa State isn't a tournament team, to be sure, but the Cyclones have held their own against some decent teams throughout the nonconference slate.
Rookie of the year: Tristan Thompson, Texas
Thompson hasn't hesitated to insert his influence in Texas' interior, and his performance -- 12 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.4 steals per game -- has been just the boost Barnes' team needed after losing forwards Damion James and Dexter Pittman in the offseason. Also keep an eye on Baylor's Perry Jones and Iowa State's Melvin Ejim.
Coach you want drawing up a last-second play: Mark Turgeon, Texas A&M
The Big 12 isn't known for being a coaches' league. Those plaudits are typically reserved for the Big 10 and the Big East, where a handful of highly regarded head men stalk the sidelines with more X's and O's brilliance in their left pinky than I have in my entire brain. Still, the Big 12 wouldn't be as tough on a yearly basis if it didn't have some great coaches drawing things up on the sidelines. We'll give the nod to Turgeon here, because though he doesn't ever seem to have the same high-profile talent as his contemporaries, that supposed talent gap doesn't keep his teams from competing with the conference's best.
Coach on the self-inflicted hot seat: Pat Knight, Texas Tech
During his Big 12 media day press conference, Texas Tech coach Pat Knight did a rather bold thing. He told the media that 2010-11 was a "get fired or get an extension" kind of year. He noted the seniors on his team, the progress they made last season and the high expectations he had for the season at hand.
Maybe that wasn't the best idea. Tech has lost seven games, mostly to mediocre or just-plain-bad opponents, and unless Knight's team suddenly experiences an epiphany in conference play, the hot seat Knight put himself on before the season is going to get unbearably scalding.
Best mascot: "Pistol Pete" -- Oklahoma State
If there's a creepier mascot in college basketball, one with more confused, distant eyes and a shinier head, one more likely to give your children nightmares, well, please don't show me. I'm already freaked out.
Biggest unnecessary court logo: Texas A&M
A long, long time ago (in 2007, actually), my colleague Pat Forde used his Forde Minutes to call out the Big 12 for its rash of gigantic midcourt logos. Kansas' giant cartoon Jayhawk is an offender, as is Texas' huge state-plus-Longhorn logo. (Subtle, guys.)
Still, by far the most blatant midcourt logo in the conference -- and perhaps in all the land -- is Texas A&M's parquet monstrosity that basically runs from 3-point line to 3-point line. But hey, at least it's not one of those awful (and legitimately dangerous!) stickers.
Most entertaining team: Missouri
This might be the easiest category in this entire primer. The Tigers play at a blistering pace. They pressure the ball the full length of the floor, get out on the break as fast as any team in the country, and don't mind -- actually, they prefer -- early clock shots that would make most Big Ten coaches faint. This year, in games versus Georgetown, Vanderbilt and Illinois they've even developed a penchant for crunch-time thrillers. If you can't have fun watching Mizzou play, you can't have watching basketball. Truth.
1. Kansas at Kansas State, Feb. 14
2. Missouri at Texas, Jan. 29
3. Kansas at Missouri, March 5
4. Texas at Baylor, March 5
5. Texas at Kansas, Jan. 22
NCAA-bound (6): Kansas, Texas, Missouri, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas A&M
NCAA top-four seeds: Kansas, Texas, Missouri
Sweet 16 teams: Kansas, Missouri
NIT: Nebraska, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Colorado
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.
With nonconference play drawing to a close, we take a look at the start of Big 12 play.