“Lord, honey, it’s gonna be excitin’!”
Our family is pretty addicted to the various Food Network baking and cooking competition shows. We are especially fond of the Holiday Baking Championship. The quote above came from this year’s winner, Jason Smith, a folksy, down-home baker from Kentucky who was full of oddball yet hilarious comments. That one was used, over-and-over, in promos for the show’s six-week run. It’s become a common saying in our house.
I think it’s also a perfect summation of this year’s Big 12 basketball season. We’re only two games into the schedule and it looks to be the wackiest, most wide-open, most interesting race in recent memory.
Which is a huge surprise. At the end of last season, everyone looked at the rosters of the league’s ten teams, saw who each team was losing, who they had back, threw in the recent history of the league, and figured Kansas would have an absolute cake walk to their 13th straight league championship.
KU might still win, but it’s far from a sure thing.
Baylor and West Virginia are both better than most people expected. Or at least we think they are.
Baylor had, arguably, the most impressive non-conference run of anyone in the county, beating Oregon, Louisville, Xavier, and Michigan State. But last night the Bears were, frankly, fortunate to beat Iowa State at home. Is Baylor going to Baylor again now that the conference schedule has kicked off? If they can hold court at home against Oklahoma State Saturday, they will likely be #1 in at least one poll going into their Monday trip to Morgantown.
Bob Huggins has again found the perfect mix of players for his system. They didn’t have the stoutest of non-conference slates, but they did beat Virginia convincingly in their one marquee matchup. But then they lost to Texas Tech in overtime Tuesday. Playing in Morgantown is always a bitch, and their road success is closely tied to how the officials call the game. Regardless, it doesn’t look like a down year for the Mountaineers.
And then there’s the rest of the league. When conference play began on Friday, the top eight teams all had two losses or fewer. Oklahoma was supposed to be in a rebuilding year, so seeing them in 9th place isn’t a huge surprise. But saying Texas is, likely, the worst team in the conference is a massive surprise. The Longhorns had a few really bad losses mixed into a forgettable preseason slate.
Of the five remaining teams, I don’t think there’s a pushover in the bunch. Jamie Dixon may not turn TCU around completely this year, but they were 11–1 coming into the Big 12 season. The Frogs hung with KU for 40 minutes Friday but just couldn’t make the stops or hit the shots that gave them a chance to win. They’re going to beat some people in Ft. Worth this year.
I doubted K-State going into Tuesday’s game in Lawrence, but they were unflappable in the face of a 12-point, second-half deficit in Allen Fieldhouse. A lousy call cost them a chance at overtime. A couple missed, wide-open looks and a rather curious coaching choice likely cost them a win. You figure they’re going to be very tough in Manhattan all year and sneak a couple road wins here and there.
Iowa State has slipped a bit. They still have Monte Morris, a pretty solid top 3–4 overall, and Hilton Magic. But, they could have easily lost to Tech at home on Friday. Then they almost won at Baylor. I think they’re going to be hard to figure all year.
Oklahoma State has lost their first two Big 12 games, but Juwon Evans will keep them in just about every game they play at home.
I think Texas Tech is the most dangerous team of this group. They could easily be 2–0 right now. Or 0–2, too. Still, this isn’t the pushover squad they were for so many years. West Virginia won’t be the only title contender to lose to the Red Raiders. I don’t think they’re good enough to be a true contender, but they could make a difference in who does win.
Speaking of the champs, KU obviously has some issues. They suddenly can’t guard on the perimeter. The loss of Udoka Azubuike makes an already thin inside rotation kind of scary. I’m currently building a shrine to the Hoops Gods to keep Landen Lucas healthy for the next three months. They’re going to lose at least one game because of terrible free throw shooting.
But, they’re still the most talented team in the league. Have the biggest home court advantage in the game. One of the best coaches in the game who has made in-season adjustments to hide weaknesses in the past. I don’t think we should be writing the season off just yet.
When I look at the Big 12, I don’t see a shitty team anywhere. I think Texas will get things figured out and be decent. Lon Kruger will keep Oklahoma in games despite their youth. Maybe TCU or OSU or someone else loses a couple in a row and kind of fall apart. Today, though, there isn’t a team where you can look at them and be convinced you’re going to beat twice.
There have been years where KU was miles ahead of the pack. Other years where a group of 3–4 teams separated themselves. And a few others maybe the top 5–6 were really good, and then there was a steep drop off.
This year, I don’t expect to see a huge difference between the eventual champion and the teams that finish in slots 6–8. I think in the final week of the regular season, we’re going to have a number of scenarios any one of 2–4 teams could win the title, and a few more could finish anywhere from second to eighth, depending on how the last round of games work out.
As Jason said, “Lord, honey, it’s gonna be excitin’!”