Big 12 Filled With Roadblocks

Kansas embarks on its second season on Wednesday with a tough tilt against Nebraska. Phog.net takes a look at the rest of the conference as KU goes for its sixth straight title.

So far this season there have only been two number one teams in college basketball and both of them reside in the Big 12. First it was KU who was number one from the preseason thru January 10th. But now number one belongs to Rick Barnes Texas Longhorns for the first time in school history. The Horns arguably own two of the best wins in the country this season beating North Carolina and Michigan State in the non-conference.

If you're the rest of the conference the schedule is full of opportunity and risk and this just might be the deepest most talented Big 12 conference the nation has seen in a long, long time.

"I do believe the Big 12 is arguably the best conference in the country this year. With three teams ranked in the top ten, having the best non-conference winning percentage and the pleasant surprises that teams like Texas Tech and Baylor have been--all those things have certainly made this league deeper than its ever been," said KU head coach Bill Self.

"I think we have a tough conference every year," said KU center Cole Aldrich. "The last two years I've been here we've had five or six NCAA Tournament teams. I think that's great (for us) because it proves that we're in a tough conference."

"It's definitely the best it's been since I've been here," said sophomore Tyshawn Taylor who really just has one year to compare. "I remember Oklahoma being ranked high last year, and Texas being ranked high, but three teams like this (in the Top 10), it's good for the conference."
 
But the strength doesn't just reside in the top. Through and through there isn't an easy game on the schedule. Upstart middle to lower echelon teams will be hungry and capable of an upset. The upper tier will have to bring their "A" game every night especially on the road. Heading into Tuesday the Big 12 conference was 112-1 at home, astonishing numbers for sure.

"The winning formula away from home the way that we coach it and the way that we play it is to defend, rebound, and take care of the basketball and everybody be as one," said Self.

Every game will be hotly contested and make no mistake about it whoever wins this year's title will have earned it.

"In this league this year any possession could mean the difference between winning and losing," said Self.

TEXAS
We start at the top with Texas who will likely battle it out with Kansas for the conference title. The Longhorns record remains unblemished and Rick Barnes team is loaded with first class talent.

"I told the team earlier that if you would have asked me who the No. 1 team was in the second week of January last year, I couldn't tell you. But I do know who won the national championship. With that said, I think it's a compliment to our players and our program. They've worked to do something that hasn't been done here," said Barnes about the number one ranking."

Barnes has a deep roster and a potential Big 12 Player of the Year candidate in Damion James. James is averaging a double-double and is a tough matchup for just about any team. Freshman guard Avery Bradley has been outstanding and put up a career-high 29 points against Colorado. But it isn't just those two. Barnes roster boasts eight players averaging over six points a game showing their tremendous balance.

"I think that the fact that we have continued to improve," said Barnes when asked what he likes best about his team. "We've had different guys at different times do some really good things. We just need to get more consistent as a group. I still think our younger guys must continue to learn and sustain effort. We're learning to play with different lineups. We've got to do different things with different groups out there. I still think we're nowhere near being as good as we can be."

Scary thought for the rest of the league.

KANSAS STATE
Kansas State (13-2, 0-1) is off to a terrific start even after a tough loss Saturday in Columbia. The Wildcats are ranked in the top 10 and Frank Martin's teams are always physical and this year boasts one of the league's better guard combos in Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. 11 times this season the two have combined for 30 or more points.

So far Martin's team features a potent offense scoring over 80 points a game but usually conference play makes that number drop. You must take care of the basketball against this team or they will make you pay. In five or their last six games the Wildcats have scored 20 or more points off turnovers.

MISSOURI
A team I have been impressed with is Missouri. Head coach Mike Anderson has his team wrecking havoc and playing his style of basketball. They lead the nation in steals and are currently in the midst of an eight-game win streak. We know how formidable Anderson's pressure D has been especially in Columbia. But the Tigers haven't been on the road since early December so a tough road lies ahead for the Tigers and we're about to find out just how good this team can be.

J.T. Tiller leads the team on the defensive end and is once again a candidate for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. It starts with his on-the-ball defense.

"We try to make people uncomfortable with our defense," said Anderson whose team forces 22 turnovers per game. "That means the ball pressure and traps that occur. We kind of mix and match our defense. We want to be a team that number one we're not predictable and I think that's the great thing about it. We're different than everybody and that could be good and that could be bad. So far it's been pretty good for us."

On the offensive end Anderson's teams always share the basketball. The Tigers lead the nation in assists per game last year and find themselves among the top 10 again this season.

Youth is the theme on this roster with 11 of 13 players currently in their first or second season under Anderson. 6-1 freshman Michael Dixon has been impressive averaging double-figures in some of the team toughest contests this season.

TEXAS A&M
They play the game inside out and are getting over a big time injury to one of their best players, Derrick Roland. Roland was a leader and one of the team's top defenders but he is gone for the season with a broken leg. So far Mark Turgeon's team has responded to the adversity.

Turgeon's teams always feature rugged defense and play together offensively but everyone knows who the unquestionable leader of this team is. Senior Donald Sloan is averaging 18.0ppg and carrying the load this season for the Aggies.

"He's been phenomenal," praised K-State coach Frank Martin. "Donald has always been a very athletic slashing kind of guard he's taken his senior year here by storm. He's extremely aggressive and playing with a big-time amount of confidence right now."

Sloan anchors the perimeter but the interior is not quite as formidable as in years past.

NEBRASKA
Doc Sadler's Nebraska Cornhuskers do it with balance. Not a single player averages more than 13.0ppg. But the lineup got a lift when 6-8 freshman center Christian Standhardinger made his career debut Saturday against Texas A&M. He led the Huskers in scoring with 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting, and also notched a team-best seven rebounds.

"We gotta be better than we were yesterday going to Lincoln because we know that we'll get a great atmosphere which we always do when we go up there and play a good Nebraska team that played very well at A&M," Self told the media on Monday. "They were winning the game in the second half. They got a new guy (Christian Standhardinger) that's playing and he's good. He's got a lot of bounce and energy so it's definitely a different Nebraska team from a size standpoint just of late."

According to Sadler Standhardinger has a long way to go on the defensive end but he hopes he can create matchup problems on the floor for the opposition. Standhardinger is one of seven fresh faces on Sadler's roster of 11 scholarship players this season but the Cornhuskers rely on experience for most of the scoring. Seniors Sek Henry and Ryan Anderson are usually the most potent scoring threats but they will face a fired up Kansas team coming of its first loss of the season, something Sadler doesn't necessarily see as a positive.

"There's not any weakness on their team as far as I'm concerned. I know Bill is going to have those guys so ready to play Wednesday night, and not that they wouldn't have been but they're definitely going to be focused now. As the opponent it's not real encouraging but at the same time we're looking forward to the challenge I hope."

When asked what it would take to beat KU on Wednesday Sadler laughed and said, "it's going to take Bill (Self) breaking the rules and practicing them about 20 hours a day the next three days probably. And them being so sore they don't want to play."

TEXAS TECH
The Red Raiders got off to a fine start to the season going without a loss until the mid point of December. They were mentioned as one of the nation's biggest surprises early on. This Texas Tech team is a bit different then the one Pat Knight's father Bob coached. This team is playing confidently and plays at a faster tempo.

"I think he's letting those guys play with freedom that's one thing I picked up on," said Mizzou head coach Mike Anderson. "He's got more athletic kids they're still under the motion cutting game I think they're playing a lot faster. But there are still the fundamentals of basketball that I'm sure Pat preaches day in and day out. They look like they're having fun. He's playing a lot of players too."

But lately the Red Raiders have hit the skids losing three of their last six games including an absolute drubbing at Oklahoma State on Saturday (81-52).

"We've been ranked here for over a month and that really hasn't happened here and kids were feeling too good about themselves," Knight said honestly. "I had warned them and warned them about this league but sometimes they've just got to experience it for themselves and I think they did."

Those three losses have all come on the road where Tech went winless last season (0-11).

Knight's triple threats include Mike Singltary, who leads the team in scoring at 15.8 ppg, John Roberson averages 13.9 ppg and David Tairu adds 12.2 ppg. Most fans remember Singletary's offensive heroics from last season's Big 12 Tournament and it appears he's picked up where he left off this season. Roberson distributes the ball and boasts a 2:1 turnover ratio and leads the conference in assists (5.5 apg). Tairu nails over 51 percent from behind the three-point line.

"I like this team. We have a lot better team than we did last year so I'm not worried from a mindset," Knight continued. "They don't like to lose which is good. I expect them to be able to bounce back."

REST OF THE LEAGUE
Baylor just joined the ranks of the Big 12's ranked teams this week and as Kansas knows all too well, the Louisiana combo of LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter can single-handedly give a team fits. The Bears knocked KU out of the Big 12 tournament last year and make life difficult on any team that fails to guard the perimeter.

Dunn is a 6-4 junior with long range marksmanship. Senior Tweety Carter is the school's first McDonald's All-American and is a playmaker but also accurate from three-point range. On the interior, 6-10 junior Ekpe Udoh leads the team and the conference in blocked shots and leads the league in rebounding.

Scott Drew's Bears are a dangerous opponent.

Colorado unfortunately will continue to be behind the rest of the Big 12 and close to the cellar of this conference. Four starters returned from a team that went 9-22 and won just one Big 12 game just a season ago.

6-5 junior Cory Higgins scores the ball the best for the Buffaloes and 6-5 freshman shooting guard Alec Burks is long and legitimate three-point threat.

Oklahoma State is lead by James Anderson who leads the team and the conference in scoring at nearly 22 points per game (21.7 ppga). Obi Muonelo continues to be a threat from the exterior. Second-year coach Travis Ford continues to feature a frenzied style.

Oklahoma has likely been the conference's biggest disappointment thus far this season though the Sooners came in with one of the highest ranked backcourts. Willie Warren's name is frequently mentioned among the best in the nation but his 17.6 ppg haven't been enough for Jeff Capel's Sooners thus far. Production is up for Warren but shooting percentages are down. Other than Tiny Gallon's shattered backboard vs Gonzaga there hasn't been much to talk about for this squad which has already lost six games.

Iowa State was predicted by many to be a surprise in the conference. When you have one of the conference's best players then you get some attention. All-Big 12 forward Craig Brackins opted to stay in Ames, and the 6-10 junior is without a doubt one of the league's best players.

SUMMARY
"I'm not saying that we've played great, but I think you can make a case that we're one of the best teams out there. I think you can make a strong case that Texas is one of the best teams out there and I think whenever you're ranked in the top 10, you can make a case that K-State is as well. I don't know that we've had three teams that have been in the top 10 at the same time as long as I've been here," said Self.

Texas is a good of a team as I've seen in the country and Texas Tech has had a great start. Baylor's also had an exceptional start and Texas A&M is off to a good start being ranked a majority of the time. No one is going to want to play Missouri. There are some good teams in our league. It's the best that it's been since I've been here and I think it will play out to be thought of that way nationally as time goes on."

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