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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Big 12 reset: Perennial champ Kansas is the best of an otherwise pedestrian league

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Kansas guard Ben McLemore (Getty Images)

With conference play fast approaching, we'll reassess our preseason projections over the next week. Here's a look back at the Dagger's preseason Big 12 forecast and some updated predictions for the league season:

Conference RPI: 6

Record against Top 25 teams: 3-12

Preseason predictions I'd like to have back: I had Texas third, Oklahoma State fourth, West Virginia fifth and Kansas State sixth before the season. In retrospect, that's probably the wrong order. I'm most confident in Oklahoma State and Kansas State as upper-tier Big 12 teams. I still have hope for Texas because the Longhorns defend well and they'll get Myck Kabongo back next month. As for West Virginia, I'm just not sure they shoot well enough to contend for an NCAA bid.

Preseason predictions I still feel good about: Not that this was going out on much of a limb, but Kansas remains the runaway favorite to win the league and Baylor is as good a choice as anyone to finish second. Also, Ben McLemore has made me look good for having him on the first-team all-league team. He is a contender for freshman of the year and has been one of the league's top scoring guards.

Conference favorite: Not only was Kansas the obvious choice before the season, the Jayhawks have only solidified their status the past two months. Jeff Withey has been a dominant defensive presence in the paint, McLemore has emerged as a go-to scorer on the perimeter and the Jayhawks have won 10 straight since a three-point November loss to Michigan State.

Who else could win it: No other Big 12 team is talented or consistent enough to end Kansas' reign atop the league, but the best of the rest are Baylor, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. The Bears boast an elite guard in Pierre Jackson, a gifted shooter in Brady Heslip and a talented frontline headlined by freshman Isaiah Austin, yet they've sustained four non-conference losses including against Northwestern and College of Charleston. Oklahoma State is much improved thanks to the talent and competitiveness of Marcus Smart and the development of Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash. And Kansas State turned some heads by upsetting Florida in late-December.

Biggest surprise: There's no obvious candidate for surprise team in the Big 12 just yet, but Oklahoma State and Iowa State have mildly exceeded expectations. Despite a short bench, a freshman point guard and a coach under pressure, Oklahoma State has won 10 games, upset NC State and cracked the top 25. Meanwhile, Iowa State has a chance to finish higher than expected thanks to a balanced attack featuring six players averaging nine or more points, but the Cyclones have lost to the three best teams on their schedule.

Biggest disappointment: Although Texas has suffered losses to Division II Chaminade and mediocre USC, at least Myck Kabongo's absence gives the Longhorns a natural excuse for their modest 8-5 start. West Virginia, on the other hand, has no such excuse for being 7-5 entering January. The Mountaineers simply don't score easy enough, no great mystery considering they lack a go-to threat and shoot 27.5 percent from behind the arc and 40.5 percent from the field.

Player of the Year: There are a handful of contenders entering the start of league play. Jeff Withey's shot-blocking presence is the biggest reason Kansas is limiting opponents to less than 60 points per game, Pierre Jackson's ability to create off the dribble makes Baylor a threat every night. And Marcus Smart's presence has elevated Oklahoma State from also-ran to upper echelon team. But the fast-charging Ben McLemore may eclipse all of them before too long. He has scored 17 or more in four of Kansas' past six games and is shooting 15 of 26 from behind the arc during that time.

Best freshman: It's probably either McLemore or Smart, but Baylor's Isaiah Austin has also been very good of late. Shaking off a bit of a sluggish start, he has averaged 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in his last four games. He reeled off three straight double-doubles before lighting up Gonzaga for 20 points and eight boards.

Three fearless predictions:

• Kansas will be the only Big 12 team in the Sweet 16. Baylor has the talent to prove this wrong and Pierre Jackson is capable of putting his team on his back for a game or two, but the Bears are too erratic to be trusted in March. Oklahoma State and Texas both defend very well, but I'm not sure either scores consistently enough to win a pair of games in the NCAA tournament.

• TCU will fail to score 40 points in a conference game at least once. The Horned Frogs are 329th in scoring (57.3 points per game) and 281st in points per possession (0.93). They scored just 31 points in a humbling loss to Northwestern and couldn't crack 50 in wins over both Prairie View A&M and Navy.

• Five Big 12 teams make the NCAA tournament: Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and either Texas or Iowa State. The Cyclones need marquee wins in league play to make up for not slaying any giants the past two months, while the Longhorns need to rely on their defense to stay afloat until the return of Myck Kabongo stabilizes their offense and helps reduce their turnover rate.

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