Kansas has won nine consecutive conference titles. Oklahoma State entered the season as the Jayhawks' top Big 12 challenger. Baylor has a promising point guard and two potential NBA draft picks in its frontcourt.
Believe it or not, however, none of those heralded Big 12 teams are playing as well as Iowa State.
Projected to finish in the middle of the league after losing three starters from last season's 23-win NCAA tournament team, Iowa State has exceeded all expectations by winning its first 14 games this season. An 87-72 home victory over seventh-ranked Baylor on Tuesday night kept the Cyclones undefeated and further validated their torrid start.
About the only question Iowa State must answer to prove its worthy of a top 10 ranking is whether it can beat marquee opponents on the road. The Cyclones have overwhelmed Iowa, Michigan and Baylor at rowdy Hilton Coliseum and have beaten Mountain West contender Boise State on a neutral floor, but their best true road win was by just two points over a BYU team that is now just 9-7 overall.
If Deandre Kane plays as well the rest of the season as he did Tuesday night, Iowa State won't need Hilton magic to topple elite foes.
Once a volume scorer at Marshall, Kane showed off his improved efficiency from the field Tuesday night while also flashing a versatile all-around game. The 6-foot-5 Iowa State point guard tallied 30 points, nine assists, eight rebounds and five steals while shooting 11 of 18 from the floor, plenty good enough to help the Cyclones break open a close game in the second half and coast past the Bears.
Guards Gary Franklin and Brady Heslip kept Baylor competitive for a while, but the Cyclones never let the Bears closer than within nine the final 10 minutes. Nineteen turnovers helped ensure the end of Baylor's six-game win streak, as did the Bears inability to get back in transition or to score in the post where they figured to have a size and skill advantage entering the game.
Whereas Iowa State still spreads opponents out like in past years and relies on Kane to create off the bounce or its forwards to exploit mismatches, this year's Cyclones so far have been about more than just efficient offense. Iowa State has shown more commitment on defense too, holding opponents to an impressive 0.92 points per possession and pulling down the highest percentage of defensive rebounds of any Big 12 team.
There's no doubt Iowa State is far better than projected before the season, but being one of the final five undefeated teams hasn't helped the Cyclones win over every naysayer. It will take success away from Hilton Coliseum to do that.
Fortunately for Iowa State, plenty of chances remain with games at Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma State in its next seven games. Hold serve at home and win a couple of those, and it will be impossible to ignore the Cyclones as potential Big 12 contenders.