You really have to look at the numbers to truly appreciate Kansas' dominance of the Big 12 Conference over the past decade. The league has changed so much over that time from styles of play, to players, to even the just the makeup of the conference altogether, but there's always been one constant.
Bill Self and his Kansas Jayhawks have been something that college basketball fans could depend on. Heading into the 2013-14 college basketball season, Kansas, a team loaded with as much talent as any team in the entire nation, has a legitimate and very likely chance at winning a mind boggling 10th consecutive regular season conference championship.
"That's astonishing to have a team in a power conference do that in today's game," ESPN's Dick Vitale said during the broadcast of Kansas' 94-83 victory over Duke at the Champions Classic in mid November.
He's right, with the parity and loads of talent that come through any given conference, let alone a major conference, it's hard to fathom a team running off a streak of nine straight league titles. Winning a 10th would just make a huge statement.
Still, though the Jayhawks have made it look relatively easy over this time, Self won't ever allow you or anyone else to take it for granted and just assume that his team is entitled to anything, let alone a conference championship. There's a considerable amount of talent and hard work that goes into making the machine run year after year and despite bringing in arguably the nation premiere recruiting class during this past offseason, it won't come without a variety of trials and tribulations, as night in and night out, Kansas will have a big target on their back.
The Big 12 will have nine other teams, all with the same goal, to dethrone mighty Jayhawks. Now, for some teams, those dreams will be relegated to staying just that. But, for a select few teams, those dreams will be there and they will be the squads that pose the biggest threat to knocking Kansas off it's lofty perch atop the Big 12. Here's a look at the nine teams that will do their best throughout the course of this season to try and steal the league crown away from Kansas.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Head Coach - Travis Ford (6th season at OSU 104-64)
January 18 at Kansas
March 1 at Oklahoma State
Travis Ford's Oklahoma State Cowboys head into this season as the most likely candidate to dethrone Kansas. The Cowboys showed moxie last season when they shocked Kansas 85-80 in Allen Fieldhouse. It was a rare home loss under Self, who lost just his eighth home game in his 10 years at KU. A few weeks later, the Jayhawks had to go to double overtime to outlast the Cowboys 68-67.
So far, Ford has done some talking, as Kansas has garnered a lot of praise throughout the summer and as the season has begun. Give him credit. The league seems to be way down on any hostility and true hatred that makes for good rivalries, so he's trying to stir up something. Regardless, it won't matter too much, as both games should be fantastic.
The Cowboys return many key players, most notably guard Marcus Smart, who is the heart and soul of the team. They have been hit with injuries, but they're talented and hungry to assert their place.
Coach Ford says:
"Well, we haven't talked much about where we were picked. We talk a lot about understanding what our goals are and what we want to try to accomplish. Winning a Big 12 Championship is something that we strive to do. It's something we talk about, but we fully grasp that Kansas is still a team to beat. I think any coach would tell you that. They're still the team in the Big 12 that everybody's trying to compete with.
We understand the expectations of this team. Our guys hear it every day from the fans and the media and the positive things that are said, and we've embraced it in the fact that, yes, we think we have a pretty decent team. But we have to be humble enough to understand that expectation hasn't ever won anything for anybody. We've got to be humble enough to handle it and hungry enough to get a little bit better each and every day.
We have a lot of motivation for our basketball team, which we talk about. Our motivation is to be better than we were last season. We didn't end the season the way we wanted to. But, we had a lot of positive moments last season. A lot of high moments, lot of great moments. But, we did not end the season the way we wanted to or expected to.
We talk about that. We don't hide from that. We don't hide from, yes, we are supposed to be a pretty good basketball team this year. We don't hide from that. But we've got to understand it in the fact that we've not won anything. We still have a lot of motivation to try to win a Big 12 Championship, a regular season, a tournament and try to go deeper in the NCAA Tournament."
The meetings between the Jayhawks and Cowboys should be great television. ESPN announced that it's "College Gameday" show will be on hand at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, for the March 1st matchup.
Iowa State Cyclones
Head Coach: Fred Hoiberg (4th season at ISU 62-39)
January 13 at Iowa State
January 29 at Kansas
If there were a couple of heated games last season, the three meetings between Kansas and Iowa State fit that bill, particularly the last two, which came at Ames and in Kansas City at the Big 12 Tournament.
The first matchup was no slouch either, as Ben McLemore crushed the Cyclones with a game tying three that sent the game into overtime. Kansas would turn the certain home loss into a 97-89 win. In Ames, the Jayhawks and Cyclones needed overtime again before Elijah Johnson led them to a 108-96 win that had some ISU fans acting like idiots afterwards. In Kansas City, Kansas turned a close game into a runaway behind Perry Ellis, who helped KU to a 88-73 victory.
This year, Iowa State is back to prove people wrong, while ignoring those that pick the them to do well.
Coach Hoiberg says:
"The one guy I showed our team is the guy from USA Today that ranked us 10th. That is the one ranking I showed our guys. That is the thing that I like being picked low, and then you try to go out to prove people wrong.
Again, I'm still trying to figure out what exactly we are as a group. What will our identity be? Just because we have so many new people on this roster, so many new faces. But I like what I've seen. I think our guys feel a little bit of respect with being picked in the top half of our league. Will we live up to that? I don't know yet. Hopefully we'll continue to evolve and come together. We've been getting better every week, and hopefully we'll continue on that trend."
Head Coach: Scott Drew (11th season at BU 178-138)
January 20 at Kansas
February 4 at Baylor
Under Scott Drew, the Baylor Bears have made themselves a contender, usually filled with great talent. Still, against Kansas, it's typically a moot point, sans a big win at home to end last year's regular season. In March, they got hot and rode that to a championship in the NIT.
This year, they'll try to get back in the big tournament and they'll do that by trying to make noise in the Big 12.
Coach Drew says:
"Well, cutting down nets in Madison Square Garden, there are only two teams that finish with the win with the NCAA, and that's just a great feeling going into summertime.
But, I think our approach, first of all, in the tournament was in it to win it. I think you look at once you found the match ups and the brackets, so many good teams in college basketball. I was just telling someone a little bit earlier, the parity, the one year VCU was the last team in, people were upset they got in and went to the Final Four and could have won a National Championship.
So, it just shows you the fine line there is. That's what makes college basketball so exciting today. Having postseason experience and being successful is very helpful, especially to the young players who get a chance to extend practice time too, and that post season feeling of win or go home mentality. So, hopefully that definitely pays off for us this year. I know it was a great experience for us.
Head Coach: Lon Kruger (3rd season at OU 35-28) 2013-14 meetings
January 8 at Oklahoma
February 24 at Kansas
Lon Kruger is at it again, as he returned Oklahoma to the NCAA Tournament in only his second year in Norman. The Sooners were hot down the stretch last year and anyone that thinks that it was fluke knows nothing about college basketball or one of its great teachers in Kruger.
Coach Kruger says:
"Everyone thinks their league is great, and ours is no different. Obviously, a lot of new players. That's exciting. There will be some turnover in terms of rosters in some cases, in other cases pretty good chunk of the minutes returning. But when you look at the roster with Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor all returning a lot of people, I think they understandably are thought to be at the top of the league in the preseason expectations. But then, I think, great balance as well after that.
It will be an interesting race, as all conferences are. It's great to see how things unfold. Everyone has their expectations and predictions early. To see how those either become reality or not, exciting to watch that. It will be a very good league, very good league, and fun to watch it unfold."
Head Coach: Rick Barnes (16th season at UT 358-155)
February 1 at Texas
February 22 at Kansas
The dean of Big 12 coaches is back to try and return Texas back to where it's been throughout a majority of his tenure. It won't be easy, as recruiting has been hit or miss, but, Barnes has accomplish a lot as head coach of the Longhorns and odds are they'll be better than last year's disappointing 16-18 campaign.
Coach Barnes says:
"Well, I think at the start of every season if you really have a passion for what you're doing, you're going to in your own mind you're going to put the onus on yourself and your players and figure out that you'd think that you could find a way to get things done.
I guess when it gets down to the motivational part of it, I guess there's always more pressure when you're being hunted. I've learned too that I think it can work for you as well too. The one thing if you're being hunted, you know you've got to be ready every single night, and that alone prepares you for what you need to do in every aspect.
On the other hand, if you're hunting somebody, you better be prepared too because you know those opportunities are there, and you've got to be ready.
But, I think really the key to the whole deal is everyday preparation and that you go about each game in a businesslike way, and you realize that college basketball, a 40 minute game, and we've seen it throughout our lives that anything can happen."
Kansas State Wildcats
Head Coach Bruce Weber: (2nd season at KSU 27-8)
January 11 at Kansas
February 10 at Kansas State
Yes, Kansas State shared the Big 12 title with Kansas last year, but the two schools couldn't have reacted more different. Kansas was disappointed they couldn't win it outright after falling on the road and took in stride as if they'd been there before. Kansas State celebrated, despite also losing on the road that day. When they got back home, it might as well have been New Year's Eve all over again. You know what happened after that. The Wildcats lost in the first game of the NCAA Tournament to LaSalle. This year, they look to try and build off of that.
Coach Weber says:
"We lost some key members, there is no doubt. Rodney McGruder, one of the all time greats in K State history. Jordan Henriquez gave us a great backstop to our defense. And Martavious (Irving) was rock solid for us.
The key for us to be competitive in the league, there is no doubt our older guys have to be consistent, starting with our seniors, Will Spradling, Shane Southwell, Omari Lawrence, Ryan Schultz, they have to be there every day. They have to be great leaders.
You look at last year, we had experienced guys, Kansas had experienced guys. It makes it so much easier on a coach.
So, those guys along with Thomas Gipson I think has lost 30 pounds, has a chance to be one of the better big guys in the league. They are consistent, and that helps our freshmen. We have some talented freshmen. We're excited about them, but they are freshmen. Every day is new to them. If we get consistent play out of the older guys, it will make it a lot easier on me, and a lot easier on the freshmen. But, we're looking forward to an exciting year. It should be fun."
West Virginia Moutaineers
Head Coach: Bob Huggins (7th season at WVU 133-75)
February 8 at Kansas
March 8 at West Virginia
West Virginia's first season at the Big 12 couldn't have gone worse. They went 13-19 which is not indicative of the program that coach Bob Huggins has run an if history is any indicator, he'll have them back competing at a very high level very soon.
Coach Huggins says:
"Well, I guess, I think people assumed since I've been in the league for a year that I kind of knew what was going on. I was kind of hoping that I did. It was an entirely different league when I was there. We had a north division and a south division, and you played everybody in the north twice and played the south once. So it's an entirely different league and an entirely different atmosphere than it was when I was at K-State.
The travel was harder than what we thought it was going to be. I think the commissioner and everybody in the league have done a great job of trying to make it as painless as you can possibly make flying four hours painless. The whole league is different.
Let's be honest, officiating in this league compared to the officiating in the Big East was night and day. The atmospheres were night and day. You go from a league where you play maybe half of your games in NBA arenas that are downtown, away from campus, and you don't have the student involvement that you have in the Big 12. I think the atmospheres in the Big 12 are far tougher to play in than they are in leagues where you don't play on campus.
So there was, I think, a great deal of adjustment for not just the coaches, but I think the players as well.
And the other thing I think was before in the Big East because we were an hour flight away and four or five hour drive and because we had so many alumni up and down the East Coast everywhere we went, we had a tremendous following. In this league, it's really hard and we don't have the alumni base that we have in the East. So there were a lot of differences.
But, as we tell our guys all the time, those students can't block a shot to get a rebound, and I'm sure sometimes they don't call a foul. But there are other things they can't do, so, you know, just play."
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Head Coach: Tubby Smith (1st season at Tech) 2013-14 meetings
February 18 at Texas Tech
March 5 at Kansas
One of college basketball's most likable guys is now at Texas Tech. Tubby Smith takes over on the South Plains of Texas after being unfairly fired at Minnesota and hopes to bring stability to a program that has fallen on hard times since the departure of Bob Knight a few years ago.
Coach Smith says:
"Well, first, when you're fired from a job, you never expect that. I've been in the business 39 years, and you provide a service for programs and communities and universities. So we did the best we could.
Now, I think we've done it the right way over the years. So I wanted to take some time. But sometimes it doesn't go that way. What happened was I get a call maybe the next day or two days after I was let go in Minnesota by the folks at Texas Tech, and it's good to be wanted. Certainly I feel like it's an opportunity. They have a need there, and they want some stability and some continuity. Certainly the commitment is there by the administration at Texas Tech. So that's sort of how it happened.
Again, you're right. When you're in that predicament and you're no longer working, which you've been able to do for so many years. It never was my ability to lean on coach and been questioned well, I'm sure I've been questioned by a lot of people, but never to that level where you're going to be fired.
I was impressed with the facilities. The United Spirit Arena is a beautiful facility. Certainly they've had a tough time at Texas Tech. They've had some lean years over the last few years, so we felt like coming in there we could restore some pride and prestige to the program. I think we're on the right track with some good returning players that I think will help us. Because they were not far away last year. I think in watching some of the film and going back and evaluating their team from last year, they were very close from having a very good year last year. And I felt comfortable having been to Lubbock before. Not necessarily coaching, but through their recruiting, I've been impressed with the people there and the things they stand for.
Obviously, the Big 12 is an outstanding conference, as good as the Big Ten. So it's another challenge and another opportunity for ourselves to measure ourselves against the best."
TCU Horned Frogs
Head Coach: Trent Johnson (2nd season at TCU 11-21)
January 25 at TCU
February 15 at Kansas
The low point of Kansas' season a year ago came at the hands of TCU on a night where the Jayhawks laid an egg in a 62-55 loss in Fort Worth. You can bet that Kansas never underestimates Trent Johnson's Horned Frogs again. The man can coach and he'll have TCU playing good basketball before too long.
Coach Johnson says:
"Well, I was impressed in year two, if we can get healthy and remain healthy, we'll be a good basketball team. It seems like last year I was up here saying if we can just find a way to be competitive to stay in games, that would be fortunate from our standpoint.
But, we've got a good group of old and new. We have one senior in Jarvis Ray. The young freshmen, Karviar Shepherd, Hudson Price, Brandon Parrish, Mike Williams, they're all good, quality players, good kids. And the continued development of Kyan Anderson and his leadership ability has been very impressive up to this point.
Like I said earlier, for us, and me in year two, I'm excited in my own way. I think we have an opportunity, like I said, if we can get healthy and remain healthy, we have a chance to be a pretty good basketball team this year."