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Previewing the loaded Big 12 Conference in basketball

Who's good? Who's not? Where can we expect each to finish in conference play?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The non-conference slate is now behind us, and the battlefield that is Big 12 conference action is set to ensue. With at least three teams with Final Four aspirations, and seven capable of an NCAA Tourney appearance, the Big 12 will once again be jam-packed with ranked rivalries with postseason implications, and some of the best individual talent the nation has to offer. That said, here’s a brief look at what each team has in its arsenal, how they’ve fared to this point, and how we can expect their season to finish.

No. 2 Kansas Jayhawks

Record: 11-1

-Key Wins: UCLA, #19 Vanderbilt

-Key Losses: #13 Michigan State*

-Key Players: PF Perry Ellis, SG Wayne Selden Jr., PG Frank Mason III

Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks are in pursuit of a 12th straight Big 12 regular season title, and the case to be made for them fulfilling that goal is quite favorable. From top to bottom, Kansas’ roster is stacked with some of the best talent college basketball has to offer (no surprise here). Whether you’re looking for veteran leadership, youthful upside, or NBA-bound talent in general, the Jayhawks boast it all, and their ranking as the nation’s No. 2 team proves such.

In hopes of slowing the Jayhawks down, the rest of the Big 12 can pick their poison. Self has the luxury of relying upon vets like Perry Ellis, Frank Mason III, and Wayne Selden Jr, while Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg Jr. are quite likely to become valuable pieces in conference play. And it’s worth noting that Diallo is widely viewed as Kansas’ prized NBA talent this season, which won’t bode well for the Big 12 once he gets more than seven games under his belt.

The key to ending Kansas’ Big 12 regular season title reign: Pray.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 1st

No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners

Record: 11-0

-Key Wins: Wisconsin, #9 Villanova*

-Key Losses: N/A

-Key Players: SG Buddy Hield, PG Isaiah Cousins, PF Ryan Spangler

The current roster makeup in Norman is quite arguably the most talented the Sooners have seen since Blake Griffin and friends in 2008-09. Headlined by a legitimate CBB Player of the Year candidate in senior guard, Buddy Hield, Oklahoma ranks No. 3 nationally entering Big 12 play. But Oklahoma hasn’t remained perfect thus far behind Hield, and only Hield. To complete what is arguably the best backcourt in college basketball, Jordan Woodard and Isaiah Cousins join Hield on the perimeter; OU’s top three scorers have collectively added 51.9 points, 14.1 boards, and 10 assists per game, while aiding in OU leading the nation in 3FG% (.462).

En route to an 11-0 start, the Sooners 7th ranked offense (87.0) have seen more than its share of completion, knocking off Memphis, Wisconsin, #9 Villanova, and Harvard. But there isn’t a non-conference schedule in the nation that compares to what Big 12 play offers, and the Sooners open up with a daunting three-day stretch, in which they host Iowa State and travel to Allen Fieldhouse to play Kansas. A few losses are likely, but the Sooners have all the makings of a team that will be considerably battle-tested and prepared for March.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 2nd

No. 11 Iowa State Cyclones

Record: 11-1

-Key Wins: Iowa, @ #22 Cincinnati

-Key Losses: Northern Iowa*

-Key Players: PF Georges Niang, PG Monte Morris, PF/C Jameel McKay

If you’re lobbying for the best starting five in the nation, you may not have to look much further than Iowa State. While the Cyclones did lose former head coach Fred Hoiberg to the Chicago Bulls, seniors Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Abdel Nader, and junior facilitator Monte Morris have assured the Cyclones still own one of the college basketball’s most potent offenses; scoring 86.1 points per game.

Due to the sheer depth and overwhelming schedule that is the Big 12, Iowa State can expect to see a small handful of losses – I expect them to split with Kansas and Oklahoma. For Iowa State, with all its experience and talent, conference play is more about finding out how to finally peak when it matters most before Niang, McKay, Nader, and likely Morris all depart after the season. But in doing so, Iowa State will need to figure out how to replace the role senior guard Naz Long left behind, as he’s out for the remainder of the season with hip issues. But nevertheless, ISU will see far more conference wins than losses and have as good of a chance as any to finally dethrone the Jayhawks.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 3rd

No. 23 Baylor Bears

Record: 10-2

-Key Wins: # 16 Vanderbilt

-Key Losses: @ #25 Oregon, @ #24 Texas A&M

-Key Players: PF Rico Gathers, SF Taurean Prince, PG Lester Medford

Scott Drew and the Baylor Bears return Rico Gathers, so that’s good. The Bears also returned Taurean Prince, Lester Medford, and Johnathan Motley, which is also pretty good. Through the non-conference slate, Baylor dropped two games; both on the road to ranked opponents in Oregon and Texas A&M. And while Baylor had far from the most difficult non-conference schedule, there’s no reason to doubt their potential as a serious threat each game, largely due to Gathers, who eats small basketball players for breakfast and second breakfast.

If talent is the question at hand, there’s no doubt Baylor can hold its own with any team in the Big 12. The Bears are loaded with experience, and being the nation’s leading assists group with 22.7 dimes per game should prove beneficial in sharing the wealth when facing three of the NCAA’s top scoring squads (Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State). Baylor will see its share of conference wins, the only thing standing in its way are teams legitimately within the "elite" category.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 4th

No. 19 West Virginia Mountaineers

Record: 11-1

-Key Wins: None

-Key Losses: #10 Virginia*

-Key Players: PF Devin Williams, PG Jevon Carter, SG Daxter Miles Jr.

West Virginia is still West Virginia. Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers are still tough, physical, and press until the opposition suffocates and hands them the ball; WVU leads the nation in steals with 11.83 per contest. Despite losing Juwan Staten, one of the premier floor generals in college basketball last season, WVU’s identity remains intact and this season, Devin Williams, the junior power forward, is the new big man on campus. And trust me when I say this: Williams is an absolute monster in the paint. Along with the aid of Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles Jr., and a slew of quality rotation pieces, the Mountaineers are off to a nearly unblemished start at 11-1, with the only loss coming to No. 10 Virginia.

Now entering conference play, the nightly competition is guaranteed to rise. But if there’s one thing WVU does well that will give them a chance in each game, regardless of the opposition, it’s how hard they compete, much less their talent and depth. Because of this, the Mountaineers should escape with an upset or two in Big 12 play before it’s said and done, en route to a average finish in college basketball’s most competitive conference.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 5th

Texas Longhorns

Record: 8-4

-Key Wins: #3 North Carolina, @ Stanford

-Key Losses: Washington*, Connecticut

-Key Players: PG Isaiah Taylor, SG Javan Felix, PF Connor Lammert

It would be safe to assume Shaka Smart’s debut into Big 12 conference play isn’t coming in the most ideal fashion. In addition to already owning four losses in 12 tries, which will require a solid conference effort to see the NCAA Tournament, Smart and his Longhorns are entering this gauntlet without a key two-way component, as senior center Cameron Ridley is now expected to miss 8-10 weeks due to a fractured left foot.

But the season is far from lost. The Horns’ have a slew of backcourt depth, courtesy of a noteworthy blend of youth and experience headlined by junior floor general, Isaiah Taylor. If Texas’ three heralded freshmen, Kerwin Roach Jr., Eric Davis Jr., and Tevin Mack, can live up to the expectations and should an increased offensive role in wake of Ridley’s injury, along with Javan Felix and Connor Lammert stepping up into leadership roles, the pieces are in place for the Longhorns to beat anyone on any given night.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 6th

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Record: 10-1

-Key Wins: Mississippi State, Minnesota, Hawaii

-Key Losses: #16 Utah*

-Key Players: SG Devaugntah Williams, SG Toddrick Gotcher, PF Zach Smith

The Texas Tech defense has been making things tough on opponents, and is currently ranked in the top 25 nationally by Ken Pomeroy. As a result, the Red Raiders have already reached double digits in the win column, with only a loss to ranked Utah to look back on. But while defense is said to win championships, that won’t be the case for TTU in the Big 12. Even behind the streaky scoring of Williams and Gotcher, the Red Raiders quite simply don’t appear to have the firepower and depth necessary to pose any serious threat to the top half of the Big 12. A .500 finish in conference play seems realistic for Texas Tech.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 7th

Kansas State Wildcats

Record: 10-2

-Key Wins: @ Georgia

-Key Losses: #9 North Carolina*, @ Texas A&M

-Key Players: SF Wesley Iwundu, SG Justin Edwards, PF Dean Wade

Coming into the season, many people assumed K-State would be a disaster after so much offseason attrition. But coach Bruce Weber is not dead yet, and to no surprise, he has the Wildcats defending well. There’s a limit to how bad a team can be when it guards people. But unfortunately for K-State, nutrition in the rigorous Big 12 – most notably the loss of Marcus Foster – often means numerous losses, and the competition the Wildcats will see on a nightly basis makes it difficult to argue that claim.

Sure, there is a scenario where Kansas State steals some games and makes the NCAA tournament, but most likely this is a 5 to 8 win team in conference play that can earn an invite to the NIT.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 8th

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Record: 8-4

-Key Wins: None

-Key Losses: George Mason*, Missouri State, Tulsa

-Key Players: SG Jeff Newberry, PG Juwan Evans, SG Phil Forte

Big 12 play didn’t finish favorably for Oklahoma State last season (8-10), and now, Travis Ford is without Le’Bryan Nash, Anthony Hickey Jr., Michael Cobbins, and for the time being, Phil Forte. While the Cowboys were expected to live up to any staggering expectations this season, the 8-4 start against some no-so-noteworthy talent isn’t a great sign entering a conference season littered with NCAA Tournament-bound opposition.

If there were ever a time for some clarification on when senior leader and sharpshooter, Forte, may be able to return, that time would be now. The Cowboys open up with four ranked matchups in five games, including hosting Oklahoma and Kansas. Buckle up, Cowboys fans. It’s going to be a long season.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 9th

TCU Horned Frogs

Record: 8-4

-Key Wins: None

-Key Losses: Rhode Island

-Key Players: PG Malique Trent, PF Karviar ShepherdPF/C Vladimir Brodziansky

To put it bluntly, there’s not much reason for optimism surrounding TCU basketball entering Big 12 play. While the 8-4 may indicate an average squad in Forth Worth this season, the Horned Frogs are still light years away from competing nightly in the Big 12. But TCU’s eight non-conference wins have come by way of opposition with a collective record of 26-77 to date, including two winless teams.

That won’t be the case throughout conference play. As it stands now, 10 of TCU’s 18 conference matchups would be against ranked competition, and without Kyan Anderson and Trey Zeigler running the show, even a slight hope of an upset is unrealistic. Karviar Shepherd's junior season is not off to a very good start. The 6-10 junior has always been one of those guys who looks better than he plays; this is perhaps a harsh critique, but it is not an unfair one to big man who still struggles to finish near the basket. He does give the Horned Frogs something of an interior defensive presence and is solid on the glass, but so far, he has been outplayed by 6-10 sophomore Vladimir Brodziansky, who has had a strong non-conference season. TCU fans, you’re in for a tremendously long and disappointing conference slate.

Projected Big 12 Finish: 10th