All about the Big 12: Basketball barometer

AUSTIN, Texas – The shots weren’t falling, the defense appeared lax and, frankly, there were moments when Texas A&M looked scared.

Watching in horror from the sideline, it didn’t take Aggies coach Mark Turgeon long to stop screaming at his players – and start yelling at the refs. Turgeon stomped his feet, flailed his arms and engaged in a little finger-pointing. Then he yelled some more.

Turgeon eventually got what he wanted: A technical foul.

Gary Johnson believes he and his teammates will be ready for the big stage at Kansas.
(Brendan Maloney/US Presswire)

“I had to make an absolute fool of myself to try to get us going,” Turgeon said after Wednesday’s road game against No. 10 Texas. Unfortunately his efforts went for naught.

The Longhorns dominated the 11th-ranked Aggies from the opening tip to the final buzzer of an 81-60 victory at the Frank Erwin Center. Texas A&M forward Nathan Walkup said he felt like he and his teammates got “punked” by a tougher, meaner Texas squad.

Turgeon said it “seemed like they scored every time they had the ball. We never stopped them. They were fantastic.”

Just as it has all season, Rick Barnes’ squad proved Wednesday that it can beat a good team. But as the Longhorns left the arena less than an hour after the victory, the bigger question was this: Can they beat a great one?

Can they beat Kansas?

The answer will come Saturday when Texas travels to Lawrence to take on the second-ranked and undefeated Jayhawks. Kansas has won a national-best 69 straight games at Allen Fieldhouse, but Texas forward Gary Johnson doesn’t think he and his teammates will be intimidated by the venue – or their opponent.

“We just beat a Top 10 team by 20 points,” Johnson said. “I think that says we’re just a little bit ready.”

Texas is 0-9 all-time against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse and has lost three straight to the Jayhawks overall. The last time the Longhorns beat Kansas was February of 2008 – just two months before Bill Self’s team won the NCAA title.

Even though Texas has had its share of struggles against Kansas, the game between the Longhorns and Jayhawks is always the most-anticipated matchup of the Big 12 season. No two conference schools have produced more NBA talent and, almost every year, Barnes’ team is in competition with Self’s squad for the league title.

Kansas has claimed six straight Big 12 championships, but in 2005-06 and 2007-08 it shared the title with Texas, which won the head-to-head matchup in each of those two seasons.

Just two weeks into the 2011 race, the Longhorns and Jayhawks are the only Big 12 schools who have yet to lose a conference game.

“Everyone talks about them being good at home,” Barnes said. “But they’re great everywhere. Their program has been great for our league. It gave us instant identity.”

Perhaps, but this season Texas has done every bit as much as Kansas – if not more – to bring credibility to the Big 12. The Longhorns’ resume includes victories over North Carolina, Illinois and Michigan State (all away from home) as well as narrow losses to Top 10 teams Pittsburgh (68-66) and Connecticut (82-81 in overtime).

Kansas, meanwhile, hasn’t played a single game against a team ranked in the current Associated Press Top 25 poll.

“To me, Texas is the best team,” Self said. “I’ve seen them play a lot. They’re playing better than anybody. Their scores are more impressive than anybody else’s scores.

“They’ve lost a couple of games, only because of the competition they’ve played. We’re going to have to play better, stronger, tougher than we’ve been playing.”

Judging from Barnes’ comments, Self may be down-playing how good his team truly is.

“They’re the best team in America, from what I’ve seen,” Barnes said of Kansas. “They have it all.”

Markieff and Marcus Morris will pose a big challenge for Texas in the paint.
(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

No Kansas players stand out more than twins Marcus and Markieff Morris. The junior forwards and future NBA draft picks combine to average 30.4 points and 15.6 rebounds. They’ve been particularly impressive in conference play, with collective averages of 39 points and 18.7 boards.

Texas freshman Tristan Thompson knows things won’t be easy in the paint.

“They’re All-Americans in my eyes,” Thompson said. “I’m going to have my hands full.”

Asked what impresses him the most about Kansas, Thompson said: “It’s a team that executes. Every time they come down the court, they know what they’re doing. They’re not looking around wondering what this guy’s going to do or what that guy is going to do. It shows their maturity.”

Kansas struggled early in the season to put away mediocre opponents such as UCLA, Arizona and USC. Lately, though, the Jayhawks have been on much more of a roll. They whipped Baylor by 20 points in Waco on Monday and played one of their best games of the season the previous week at Iowa State.

The Jayhawks’ ceiling remains high and, according to the players, they still have a long way to go to hit it.

“There is always room to grow,” freshman guard Josh Selby said. “I sense we’re about to get to [the next] level, but there are still so many levels we have to get to in order to be great. That’s our focus.

“We want to be a great team – not just an OK team. Right now we’re just OK. We can get better. Coach preaches to us all the time that we’re not great yet.”

Texas fans, meanwhile, couldn’t be any happier with the performance of the 15-3 Longhorns – especially considering what they went through last year. Texas earned a No. 1 national ranking after opening the season with 17 straight wins. But the Longhorns floundered down the stretch and almost missed the NCAA tournament.

“I love where we are now,” Johnson said. “I think flying under the radar is a good position for any team. Last year we were at the top, and it wasn’t good. If I had it my way we’d be unranked for the rest of the year.”

Texas lost three NBA draft picks – Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley – from last year’s squad. But the addition of freshmen Thompson and Cory Joseph and the improved play of Johnson and sophomore Jordan Hamilton have given the Longhorns new life. Players say there’s a chemistry there that was missing a year ago. Even to outsiders, it’s been noticeable.

“I don’t know their personnel,” Self said. “But to me it seems like a tighter-knit group. The pieces fit.”

Barnes is hoping Texas’ tough non-conference schedule will pay off when his team takes the court Saturday. Even though playing in tough road settings such as the one at Michigan State can harden a young team, nothing can prepare someone for Allen Fieldhouse.

“It’s a crazy environment,” Johnson said. “[In 2009], Coach was trying to tell me something, but all I saw was his mouth moving. It gets really, really loud.”

Self knows that will be the case again Saturday, when one team will emerge as the leader in the conference race.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable game,” Self said.

Just as it has been in the past.

Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford, D.J. Augustin, Daniel Gibson, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damion James for Texas … Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Brandon Rush, Wayne Simien, Mario Chalmers, Drew Gooden and Sherron Collins at Kansas. Some of the top college basketball players in the last decade have had defining moments in the Longhorns-Jayhawks showdown.

Here’s hoping this year is no different.

LEAGUE RANKINGS

(Last week’s rank in parenthesis.)

1. Kansas (18-0, 3-0) – Markieff Morris has almost been as good as his twin brother, Marcus. (1)

2. Texas (15-3, 3-0) – Gary Johnson is making the most of his senior season. (2)

3. Texas A&M (16-2, 3-1) – Khris Middleton is the real deal, folks. (4)

4. Missouri (16-3, 2-2) – Freshman point guard Phil Pressey is coming on strong. (3)

5. Nebraska (14-4, 2-2) – The Devaney Center is an underrated venue. (9)

6. Colorado (14-5, 3-1) – Alec Burks has reached double figures in all but one game this season. (6)

7. Oklahoma State (14-4, 2-2) – J.P. Olukemi scored 29 points in Wednesday’s overtime win against Iowa State. (7)

8. Iowa State (14-5, 1-3) – All three of the Cyclones’ Big 12 losses have been by single digits. (10)

9. Baylor (12-5, 2-2) – A lack of experience and depth at point guard is killing the Bears. (5)

10. Kansas State (13-6, 1-3) – Maybe someone on the roster should try “that leadership thingy.” (8)

11. Oklahoma (9-9, 1-3) – Thanks to Texas Tech, the Sooners are finally out of the cellar. (12)

12. Texas Tech (8-11, 0-4) – Can it get any worse? (11)

WHO’S HOT?

Toney McCray, Nebraska – The Cornhuskers’ 6-foot-6 wing is averaging just 7.2 points on the season, but he’s been red-hot in Big 12 play with a 14-point scoring mark. McCray – who missed last season with an injury – and junior college transfer Caleb Walker are making a huge difference for a Nebraska squad that has a legitimate chance of earning an NCAA tournament berth.

Brady Morningstar’s defense – The Kansas senior guard may not contribute much when it comes to points and rebounds, but in terms of shutting down an opposing team’s top player, he’s one of the Big 12’s best. Just ask Baylor’s LaceDarius Dunn. The conference’s leading scorer could hardly get a shot off while being guarded by the pesky Morningstar on Monday. Dunn entered the game averaging 4.2 3-pointers per contest. But Monday he didn’t connect from long range until only 30 seconds remained in the final half.

Jamie Vanderbeken, Iowa State – In his last three games the Cyclones senior has gone 17-of-29 from 3-point range. Vanderbeken is averaging 20 points during that span. At 6-foot-11, Vanderbeken’s size makes him a difficult matchup for a big man trying to guard him on the perimeter.

WHO’S NOT?

Baylor’s defense – The Bears have shown absolutely no fire or toughness on the defensive end the last two games. Kansas made 13 of its first 16 shots in Monday’s 20-point victory and shot 62.5 percent for the game. Two days earlier, Iowa State shot 50 percent against Scott Drew’s squad and made 14 of its 25 3-point attempts.

Kansas State’s schedule – As bad as things have been for the Wildcats, they could get even worse during the next 10 days. Frank Martin’s squad plays No. 11 Texas A&M in College Station on Saturday before hosting a more talented Baylor team Monday at Bramlage Coliseum. After that Kansas State travels to second-ranked Kansas for a Jan. 29 showdown. The Wildcats will be heavy underdogs.

Texas A&M vs. Texas – So much for a great matchup between a pair of the country’s top teams. Wednesday’s game was a rout from start to finish. Texas A&M forward Nathan Walkup said he and his teammates played “soft,” and coach Mark Turgeon agreed. “I never felt like we were a top 10 team, but I don’t vote,” Turgeon said.

THREE TO WATCH

Oklahoma State at Baylor, Saturday – The Bears can’t afford to lose any more home games.

Kansas State at Texas A&M, Saturday – Will this be the game when the Wildcats turn their season around? Or will it be more of the same?

Kansas at Colorado, Tuesday – The Jayhawks needed overtime to defeat Colorado in Boulder last season.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 20, 2011