The hoops season is well underway around the conference, and for many schools it wasn't a moment too soon. Texas is certainly no exception: while the young football team has improved dramatically over last year's no-fight incarnation, the nature of the basketball season allows for more excitement that a team can improve enough to make noise late within a single season. Mack Brown and his boys have given us plenty to be excited about in 2012 and beyond, but the beauty of roundball is that Rick Barnes can potentially bring a team from "too young" in November to "don't want to play them" in March.
But no school in the conference anticipates basketball season more than Kansas on a yearly basis, and the football team's abysmal performance can only have enhanced KU's status as a basketball school. And, as usual, the Jayhawk have to be considered the favorite to win the conference this season. But there's a catch: we've grown accustomed to Kansas being a top-5 team and having another couple of Big 12 squads nipping at their heels to win one of the best hoops conferences in the country. Others will certainly be nipping at Kansas's heels once again, but sadly it appears neither the Jayhawks nor the conference as a whole can be considered elite at this point.
One of the features that has made KU such a force during Bill Self's tenure has been the team's depth. Big 12 fans are used to seeing Kansas replace blue chip starters with blue chip reserves without missing a beat; their second and third stringers are normally dominant ballplayers. Not so this year. But why? Self's recruiting machine was just as active and successful this past offseason as it usually is. Kansas fans blame the NCAA and Big 12.First, there is the heartbreaking story of Braeden Anderson. This kid comes from a small town in Canada, and was deemed a "partial qualifier" by the NCAA. That means he is ineligible to compete during his first semester but could become eligible during his second; he is allowed to receive scholarship dollars the entire time. However, the Big 12 has an additional requirement that the conference's faculty athletic board must approve any partial qualifier, and the board declined to approve Anderson. His family cannot afford to pay for college, so he cannot remain at KU as a walk-on while he works to get eligible. Thus, he has moved to Fresno State and will not play for the Jayhawks.
Two other top-notch freshmen, Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor, were also ruled partial qualifiers and cannot play at all this year but can begin practicing after the semester break. KU faithful believe the NCAA acted far too slowly in declaring the two partial qualifiers, and they may have a point--the decision was not made until October. Laboring under the assumption that these highly-recruited newcomers would be available on day one until then, Self had to retool his entire approach to winning with this team; a team that suddenly ran only about eight deep and starts a couple of guys that normally would get 10-15 minutes a game for the Jayhawks.
This lack of depth was apparent in Kansas's early-season loss to Kentucky. After hanging and fighting tooth-and-nail with the Wildcats for the first half, UK was able to essentially wear down KU in the second frame and used a couple if big runs to put them away. The Jayhawks sit at 3-2 right now, with losses to their only two elite opponents (Kentucky and Duke) and solid wins over UCLA and Georgetown on neutral floors. They have three games coming up against FAU, USF, and Long Beach State before welcoming the intimidating Ohio State Buckeyes to Allen Fieldhouse on December 10; that should be a good indicator of how the team is coming along.
The good news for KU is that it still has an excellent chance to win its millionth (give or take) conference title. The Big 12 will not be the powerhouse basketball conference we have grown accustomed to this season, and thus even in its weakened state Kansas will compete for the conference crown. However, much like Texas football last year, there is always the chance that other squads will smell blood in the water and take their best shots to finally humble mighty Kansas. One of the most exciting things about the New and Improved Big 12 is that every team now plays every other team home-and-home. That means Texas will get a shot to do the unheard-of: make it two years in a row in Allen Fieldhouse. Circle your calendar for March 3, 8:00 PM, ESPN. It's the game of the regular season and the stakes could be high.