The southern schools may reign supreme in the fanatical world of college football, but when it comes to basketball, the best teams in the Big 12 Conference do not reside in Texas or Oklahoma.
If you’re one of those who may be asking, “How in the world could he come that that wild conclusion?” consider this: Of the five Big 12 schools ranked among the country’s 25 best in the latest college rankings, three (Kansas, 2nd; Missouri, 14th; Kansas State, 24th) come from the portion of the conference that formerly in football season was known as the Big 12 North. Texas and Texas A&M are also ranked in the top 25, at 10th and 11th, respectively.
Many who closely follow college basketball, especially those fans in the Great Plains (don’t be surprised, by the way, if that is one of new names under consideration for the Big 12), consider Lawrence, Kan., to be the epicenter of the collegiate hoops universe. And why not? After all, the man who invented the game, Dr. James Naismith, started the basketball program at the University of Kansas. Dr. Naismith also was the first basketball coach at Kansas (and, incidentally, the only one in the school’s championship-rich 113-year basketball history with a losing record).
And speaking of championships, 10 of the Jayhawks’ 53 regular-season conference championships all-time have come as a member of the Big 12, including the last six straight.
Aside from Kansas’ overwhelming dominance in Big 12, Big Eight, Big Seven and Big Six basketball, until just recently, the basketball power center in the Big 12 tended to skew a bit further south, led by Texas, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech under Bobby Knight and Texas A&M. In the last three years, Baylor has replaced Oklahoma and Texas Tech in that lineup.
That’s clearly not what’s going on this year. Through games on Saturday, the six teams in the northern half of the conference (Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State, Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa State have posted a combined record of 86-20 (.810), while the southern teams have a composite won-lost record of 71-31 (.700), weighted down greatly this season by very bad Oklahoma and Texas Tech teams.
And of the so-called northern schools, the Kansas City-area teams, Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State, are the best of the bunch.
The geographical disparity is likely to even out more now that we are into conference play, but based on what we’ve seen on the hardwood more than halfway through the college basketball season is enough to convince yours truly that the northern teams are going to prevail, more times than not and especially at home, in head-to-head competition with their southern conference foes. Tell me who wants to play Colorado this year (on a seven-game win streak and unbeaten at home in 11 games), home or away? Or how about 14-4 Iowa State, or 13-4 Nebraska?
Any way you look at it, with the competition level, top to bottom, the best it’s been in years, this could be one of the best seasons in the history of Big 12 basketball.
Things went pretty much according to form in the conference games over the weekend, with the exception perhaps of Iowa State’s home victory over Baylor, which really can’t be considered an upset given the way the Cyclones have been playing this season. Kansas returned to Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks had won 68 consecutive games, but found themselves in the fight of their lives before finally turning away a pesky and stubborn Nebraska team to win by three points.
Asked to reflect on his final trip to Allen Fieldhouse as coach of Nebraska, Doc Sadler said, “How could you not miss coming here? You talk about the passion in this building? It’s like coming to (Nebraska’s) Memorial Stadium in football.
“But I can tell you this,” the Cornhuskers’ coach added, “As long as I’m coaching here, I’ll be a spectator the next time there’s a game here. I don’t like it that much.”
Nebraska is leaving the Big 12 after this season to join the Big Ten Conference.
Kansas coach Bill Self was happy, but relieved that his team was able to pull out the close victory. “We’ll have to play a heck of a lot better than we’ve played the last three games (at Michigan, at Iowa State and against Nebraska),” he said in pondering the conference games straight ahead. The Jayhawks (17-0, 2-0) face a good Baylor team (13-4, 2-1) tonight in a road game in Waco.
Kansas State took out its recent frustrations against a stumbling Texas Tech team, blasting the Red Raiders 94-60 in a game played in Manhattan. “I’ve done a lot of reflection for the last four days,” Wildcats coach Frank Martin said after the game. “We’re going to start playing some K-State basketball again. That nonsense you guys have watched before today is not happening again.”
The Wildcats (13-5, 1-2) won’t have a lot of time to celebrate their return to winning ways, as they travel to Columbia, Mo., for a critical conference road test against nationally ranked Missouri (15-3, 1-2), which suffered its second conference loss Saturday at Texas A&M, one of four teams that remain unbeaten in conference play.
Neither K-State nor Missouri, the highest scoring team in the conference at 85 points a game, can afford to lose this game and realistically challenge for the Big 12 title this year. Kansas State was the preseason favorite to unseat Kansas as the conference champion this year. The Tigers are 15-2 in Big 12 play at Mizzou Arena and have beaten the Wildcats the last three times the two teams have played at Missouri.
When it comes down to it, though, the historical stats really don’t matter. The players have to come to play and they have to make the plays when it counts most to win.
Missouri junior guard Marcus Denmon, who leads the Tigers in scoring this season, averaging 17.7 points a game, may have said it best: “It’s never an easy game in the Big 12.”
Those words may be more true this year than ever before.
For more information:
Big 12 Conference official website
Additional Big 12 sports coverage & commentary
More Kansas City sports news
glowbass.com college basketball rankings
AP, ESPN/USA Today top 25 college basketball polls