So far so good for Baylor men's basketball. The Bears have defied expectations this season, tallying just one loss in their non-conference schedule (assuming they don't lose to Norfolk St. on Tuesday, a home game they have a 94% chance of winning per kenpom.com). For the eighth straight season, Baylor is ranked in the top 25 of the AP (22nd as of the writing of this post). Things are going so well that Scott Drew is starting to garner attention for his coaching ability rather than his recruiting prowess.
As the non-conference season comes to an end, it's time to measure up the Big 12 and how things could shake out in conference play.
The Big 12 is the best conference in the country
Before we get into the rankings, a quick word on the conference at large. Baylor is far from the only Big 12 team to jump out to a fast start in its non-conference schedule. Check out the standings as teams head into their final non-con games:
At the start of the month, cbssports.com's Matt Norlander made the case for the Big 12 as definitively the best conference in college basketball, and things haven't changed much as the weeks have passed. The Big 12 is the best conference by a wide margin according to KenPom, with 7 teams in his top 25 and 8 in his top 50. Seventy percent of the league is ranked in the AP poll, and even those unranked teams (Kansas State, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State) have the ability to sneak in an upset or two during conference play.
The Big 12 has a pretty clear top 6 at this point, but the bottom 4 are still threatening, and it's entirely possible that one of them could earn the Big 12 a 7th team in the NCAA Tournament. Now, onto the power rankings!
Kansas has won a share of the Big 12 title each of the past 10 seasons, but it's Texas that tops this power ranking leading into conference play. Texas features two intimidating front court players in junior forwards Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, who are averaging a combined 11.4 points and 2.9 blocks per game. More intimidating than those two? Freshman Myles Turner. On his own, Turner is averaging 11.7 points and 2.9 blocks per game. Largely thanks to those three, Texas is 3rd in the country in block percentage and the 6th most efficient defense overall, per KenPom.
On the offensive end, Jonathan Holmes has been the man for Rick Barnes. In the absence of star point guard Isaiah Taylor, Holmes has shouldered the offensive load, averaging 12.6 in 25 minutes per game. He's scoring from all over the floor, drawing fouls, and hitting game winners. Holmes is the only player in his recruiting class that has stayed at Texas, and the senior is showing himself to be the leader and difference maker for the Longhorns. Once they get Taylor back, look out. Texas is a real threat to dethrone Kansas.
Gun to my head, I pick Bill Self to win his 11th conference title in as many years. Right now, though, Kansas is a bit out of sorts. In a year when he was supposed to shine, sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr. has floated through games, averaging just 9.1 points per game while shooting a paltry .357 FG%. The highly anticipated wing Kelly Oubre has struggled to break into the rotation, averaging only 12 minutes per game and only recently beginning to earn Self's confidence. The only reliable offensive player so far has been the undersized sophomore guard Frank Mason III, who is shooting over 50% from three. The team's leading scorer, Perry Ellis, is shooting just .406 from the floor, with a significant portion of his offensive production coming from the free throw line. All that to say, it's been ugly so far for the Jayhawks.
If you're looking for reasons to think Kansas can still round into shape, there are plenty. To start, Kansas has played the 5th toughest schedule in the country according to KenPom and the 3rd toughest by RPI.Their only loses came against what could be an historically great Kentucky team and on the road against a plucky Temple team. Granted, both of those loses were embarrassing -- they lost by 32 and 25 points, respectively -- but they have some quality wins to balance out the loses. The Jayhawks have 6 wins over RPI top 100 teams, and Bill Self teams always improve in late December when they get extra practice time. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander has already shown himself to be an impact player, and as the defense comes together, Kansas should become the Big 12's best team again.
You might be surprised to hear that Oklahoma has the 2nd best defense in the Big 12 after Texas. You might be further surprised to hear that their defense (8th nationally in efficiency) is a fair bit ahead of their offense (41st). Last season, the Sooners had a rep as a three point-gunning team. This season, they're a bit more balanced. Per hoop-math.com, which collects play-by-play data for just about every team in the country, Oklahoma, in non-transition scenarios, takes 32% of its shots at the rim, 32% of its shots as 2pt jumpers, and 35% from three. Transition is where the Sooners thrive. They have 58.2 EFG% in transition, a full 10 percentage points higher than their half court offense.
Buddy Hield, a fast talking junior wing, has been the star of the offense. His overall FG% isn't very impressive, but if you cut out his midrange shots, he's shooting over 51% at the rim and 37% from three, which isn't too bad. Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler, and transfer TaShawn Thomas all average in double figures behind Hield while sophomore point guard Jordan Woodard adds his own 8.5 points per game. This team has scoring threats all over the floor, and the aforementioned defense has been stout. Oklahoma doesn't quite have the look of a conference winner about them, but they'll be a very tough team to beat night in and night out.
4. Iowa State
It's pretty tight between Iowa State, Baylor, and West Virginia. Those next three teams could conceivably be ranked in just about any order. I give Iowa State the edge over Baylor and WVU. The Cyclones are 4-1 against RPI top 100 teams, winning with offense. They score 84.6 points per game (8th nationally), doing so with the country's 9th most efficient offense and the 21st fastest pace. Georges Niang, who went down in the NCAA Tournament last season before Iowa State faced the eventual champion UConn Huskies, is averaging 16.9 points per game on 50/39/88 splits along with 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Niang is one of the most offensive skilled and versatile players in the country, and he is spoiled with help. Head coach Fred Hoiberg's lastest star transfer player, Bryce Dejean-Jones, is averaging 16 and 7 on 58/38/89 splits, while three other players average double figures in scoring.
If there one thing to pay some attention to as the season progresses, it's ISU's depth. Their starting players all average at least 27 minutes per game, and starting point guard Monte Morris averages 32 minutes per game. An injury to one of the starters could really hurt this team, but if they stay healthy, Iowa State can ride the Hilton Magic to a lot of conference wins and a potential 3 or 4 seed in the Tourney.
Baylor has been the surprise team of the Big 12 so far this season. With the outgoing talent and lack of recruiting stars, it didn't seem that Scott Drew would have enough talent to be competitive. Turns out that was pretty wrong. Baylor keeps winning the way it has for the past several years: offensive rebounding. Currently, the Bears rank 4th in offensive rebounding percentage. Rico Gathers? He ranks first. Can he hit a layup? Sort of. 35% of Gather's shots come on putback attempts. On such shots, Gather's field goal percentage is 50%, per Hoop-Math. Basically, when he gets the ball on an offensive rebound, it's a coin flip whether he can turn it into points. As a team, Baylor is shooting 55% on put back attempts, and 17% of its made baskets follow offensive rebounds.
Outside offensive rebounding and above average outside shooting, Baylor's offense can get stagnant. Baylor's EFG% in non-transition situations is only 47%, three percentage points lower than their overall EFG%. Can Baylor keep up its offensive rebounding against the sturdier front lines of the Big 12? They better hope so.
6. West Virginia
Bob Huggins is doing alright in Morgantown. For starters, he had this awesome rant about how playing Marshall every year is a travesty. Next, his nickname is Huggy Bear. Third, he has a pretty good team! The Mountaineers are the 5th ranked offensive rebounding team and are 18th in the KenPom rankings as of the writing of this post. On the defensive side of the ball, WVU is 1st in turnover% and steal%. They employ a full court press with lots of trapping, forcing opposing guards into poor decision making. Once teams have broken the press, however, they're shooting 50% from 2pt range. It's a high risk way to play defense that counts on college players to make mistakes under pressure, which isn't a bad gamble.
Juwan Staten continues to defy expectation for me. He's a lead guard who can score the ball almost at will but can't hit an outside shot. That's a rare breed. He and Devin Williams draw 6.2 and 8.2 fouls per 40 minutes, respectively, putting opposing defenders into foul trouble and getting lots of free throw opportunities. As a team, WVU is shooting only 30% from three, so they need as many other ways to score points as they can find.
7. Oklahoma State
I'm not going to lie. Oklahoma State is my least favorite Big 12 basketball team. It's probably residual from the Marcus Smart era, but there's more to it than that. Phil Forte is the definitive undersized, annoying white shooter who seems like he's been around for 10 years. Then there's head coach Travis Ford, who is basically a Scott Drew Lite. It's like he's trying to steal Drew's thing as the recruiter who can't coach. Wait, why do I dislike Ford for this? Whatever, I still do. I don't care if it's rational.
Regardless, the Cowboys are a pretty feisty bunch. Forte can score from 25 feet out, and LeBryan Nash, a once heralded recruit, has confined his game to the inside, where it turns out he's pretty good! He's averaging 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Don't sleep on Nash to be on an all-conference team. Outside those two, there's not a terrible amount of offense. Defense is more the focus, and they've done well for themselves in that regard. OSU has the 7th highest steal% in the country and forsakes offensive rebounding to get back on defense.
Of the ranked teams, TCU is the one most primed to drop out as conference play progresses. Their 12-0 record is impressive, but they have the worst strength of schedule in the country. Kyan Anderson has been dynamite offensively for the Horned Frogs, averaging 13 points per game with a split of .480/.382/.907 in only 26 minutes per game. Head coach Trent Johnson has done a good job balancing his squad's minutes and has seen returns from all over the floor. He's put together a particularly effective defense, where the Frogs are holding opponents to 38.2 EFG% (5th in the country) and 34.1 2Pt% (4th in the country), while blocking 17.4% of opponent field goal attempts (8th in the country). It's debatable whether TCU is a true threat to make the Tournament this season. Over at cbssports.com, Jerry Palm has TCU slotted for an 8th seed in the east, while his colleague Gary Parish has made the Frogs a target of his Poll Attack, questioning their resume and their worthiness of being ranked in the AP top 25.
Putting aside their admittedly terrible schedule, TCU is showing some fight this season and could snag a few conference wins this season, an achievement that eluded them last year.
9. Kansas State
If Baylor is the surprise-in-a-good-way team, Kansas State is the surprise-in-a-bad-way team. The offense has been okay so far for Bruce Webber. Marcus Foster is averaging nearly 15 points on 44/47/67 splits, and there are two other Wildcats averaging double figures. As a team, KState has the 2nd highest free throw rate in the country, an effective, if ugly, way to score points.
After that? It's ugly. KState has by far the Big 12's worst defense, an oddity for a team that returned most members of a decent defensive squad. They rank 320th in steal%, and opposing teams are completing 50% of their 2pt attempts and 36% on threes. Maybe they can turn this around in conference play, and Marcus Foster is a guy who can drop 40 and win a game he shouldn't. Plus they have the Octagon of Doom. Never count out a team who has an Octagon of Doom.
10. Texas Tech
Poor Tech. First they lose Jared Stidham, and now they're 10th in the ODB basketball power rankings. Just can't catch a break, those Red Raiders.
Let's not sugar coat this: Texas Tech is bad at basketball. They are by far the worst Big 12 team per KenPom, ranking 148th, aka 100 spots behind TCU. Read that sentence again. One more time for clarity. There's not a lot more to say after that.
It's not totally Tubby Smith's fault, either. He walked into a bad situation. Talent is thread bare, and the fans might have more fight than the team. Just ask Marcus Smart, who is no stranger to run ins with the brand of aggression particular to the Red Raiders. Even still, Tech has the ability to surprise a lackadaisical team on the road -- as they did last year to Baylor -- and if TCU could beat Kansas 2 years ago, literally anything can happen.
And that's it! Conference play begins in January, after most of the bowl games have been played and the college football season is winding down. I know, I know. It won't be easy to get by without football, but basketball is here to help.