Big 12 Hoops: A Very Different Year

Last day of Christmas break. The girls go back to school tomorrow. I guess the teachers need an extra day to get grades processed, settled into their classrooms, etc before beginning the second semester.

Meanwhile the temperature is finally above freezing for the first time in two weeks. It might hit 60 Thursday! We may be able to see our (dead) front yard by this time tomorrow.

Seems like a good day to dive into Big 12 basketball!

First thing first: KU isn’t winning the Big 12 this year. Fans all over the conference can pop their bubbly in celebration of the Jayhawks’ 13-year title streak coming to an end in March.

Finally, FINALLY, after all these years we’ve hit a season where KU is both down enough and the league is tough enough so that the field will have the advantage over the perennial champs. That was shown last week, when Texas Tech went into Allen Fieldhouse and won for the first time ever. Texas Tech! Who, granted, are a really good team. But if they can win in Lawrence, you figure this might finally be the year when West Virginia doesn’t blow a big lead and can do the same. Maybe Oklahoma and TCU can win in Allen, too. KU always knew they’d win nine home games in conference, something no other team could ever be certain of. In really weird years they’d only win eight home games, but that was still better than everyone else. Do that and you just have to find 4–5 road wins to get the title. But slipping at home changes the math dramatically. Even with KU already owning two road wins – and they were both good wins against teams that will likely take down at least one contender each at home this year – once the Allen bubble is popped it’s a whole new ballgame.

The Billy Preston saga might get resolution soon. Silvio De Sousa is on campus and practicing, waiting for the NCAA to clear him to play. Even if KU gets both of those guys back, I’m not sure they are enough to change KU’s Big 12 math. You figure it’ll take a couple weeks for Preston to get in the swing of things. And even then, is he ever more than a 15 minute per game player after missing over two months? And De Sousa is learning everything new. He’s physically imposing and had a fine prep career. But he seems like a 5 mpg player who gets on the court, commits a dumb foul or messes up the offense and Bill Self yanks him off the court. His minutes this year are more about getting him ready for next year.

Those two do provide value, though. They’ll give Udoka Azubuike some support, allowing him to rest a few more minutes and maybe play better defense because he doesn’t have to be as careful with fouls. And on the nights when Udoka has to sit, both Preston and De Sousa are bigger than Mitch Lightfoot, KU’s current backup 5.

Lightfoot can also shift to the 4-spot, which fits his skill level much better. Kid has done an incredible job filling a position he is not suited for. He basically won the TCU game Saturday with his defense. But I think he’ll provide even better, and perhaps more, minutes if he slides over a spot.

All that will make KU better at the end of the conference season, in the Big 12 tournament, and in the NCAA tournament than immediately. I don’t think it’s enough to put KU back in the regular season championship driver’s seat.

Oh, and all that is assuming either kid plays. There’s a decent chance neither Preston or De Sousa will play a minute for KU this year.

Too many questions, too many holes on the roster, and too many good teams in the Big 12 for it to happen for the 14th-straight time.

So who wins?

I think the answer is pretty obvious: West Virginia.

Trae Young is a spectacular, awe-inspiring player. And I thought OU was underrated to begin with this season. But as amazing as Trae is, he’s still one freshman on a team full of role players. He has yet to not put up huge scoring and assist numbers, but he also is a chucker of the first order. As KU proved against Sooner Buddy Hield in Norman two years ago, if you can get those guys to take 30 shots to get their points, it destroys the rest of the team. Trae is going to have some crazy nights where he scores a ton, but no other Sooner does, and they go down. I can’t wait to see how Tech, the best defensive team in the league, tries to slow him.

But it’s really not about Trae, who should give the Big 12 its third-straight National Player of the Year.

West Virginia is deep. Experienced. Hungry. And plays a style of ball that is maddening for opponents. They already have two road wins and a win over Oklahoma. I think that whole team, from the coach down to the last player, is burning to finally get a win in Lawrence and be the team that ends the streak. I think they’re good enough to get it done, especially in a year when so many of the Big 12 teams are built around very young talent.

One of the biggest things about KU’s streak is how no one has ever stepped up to take it away from them. There have been several years, in mid-February, where KU was tied for first, or even in second place. And then they always closed out the year 6–0, 5–1, 4–2, while the teams that were ahead or with them would scuffle to 3–3 finishes. Every. Single. Year.

That’s not happening this year. KU closes with Oklahoma, at Tech, Texas, at Oklahoma State. I’d be thrilled with a 2–2 finish, which most likely would put KU at five or six Big 12 losses.

West Virginia is going to have fewer than five losses and will be Big 12 champs.

Beyond that, I think the Big 12 season is going to be great fun. There isn’t a bad team in the conference this year. Iowa State, currently in last place at 0–3, is going to finish the season with at least three wins against whoever the top four teams in the conference end up being. TCU was undefeated coming into conference play and are off to a 1–2 start. Baylor is likely better than their 1–2 start would show. And while I don’t think Texas is all that good, Mo Bamba is the most unique defensive player in the league and will make them a tough matchup if their guards can ever hit a shot.

It may not be one of the glory years, where you can look at the top four or five teams in the league and think they all have a chance to get to the Final Four. But it is going to be a year where every game should be a dogfight, and the gap between the #2 team and the #10 team is a handful of shots over the 18-game schedule.

As a KU fan, I’ll be watching this Big 12 season with a different eye than in the past. I’ll be hoping that KU gets Preston and De Sousa and can develop a new identity in time for March. But I’ll also probably watch more random games than in recent years. Because I think every game as a chance to be a great one. And with everyone knowing KU is vulnerable, I think every team is going to be fighting like never before to try to be the ones to put the final dagger in the KU streak.