Pretty much the moment Kentucky began treating KU like a high school JV team, I was sure that not only would KU’s Big 12 conference title streak end this year, but that Texas would be the team to do it. Texas isn’t as big or deep or talented as Kentucky. But the Longhorns are probably the biggest team in the nation next to the Wildcats. Their top 7–8 is awfully talented. And they have a group of young players who put in the work last year and seem poised to break out this year.
With the Big 12 conference now underway, I’m still sure of one of those November assumptions. KU will not win the regular season title this year. But I’m less sure it will be Texas who takes the crown. Especially after Oklahoma went into Austin and toyed with the Longhorns Monday night on the way to a relatively easy win.
I, like a lot of people, laughed when I heard OU players saying over the summer that they considered themselves the favorites to win the Big 12 this summer. Turns out that may not have been overconfidence getting the best of them. The Sooners are really good on both ends of the court.
The fun thing, though, is this could be the deepest the Big 12 has ever been. I don’t know that there’s a national title contender in the conference. But neither is there a group of 3–4 teams at the bottom that are guaranteed wins for the top tier. Texas Tech will battle people at home, and likely get a couple wins over NCAA tournament teams. TCU has a gaudy record produced by a weak non-conference schedule, but they’re not pushovers anymore either. K-State has kind of fallen apart, but if they can correct whatever has ailed them in recent weeks, they’re still a tough team to beat in Manhattan.
And then pretty much everyone between OU and those bottom three teams can win anywhere on any night. Or lose anywhere on any night.
As a KU fan, the frustrating part is that the Jayhawks fall into that pack of teams in the middle. They just can’t get their inside game going, which has caused the rest of the offense to suffer. After over a decade of always having a shot blocker, there is no down low to clean up errors made on the perimeter.
That’s not to say KU is terrible. They’re still very talented and have lots of room to get to where their potential is. But this isn’t going to be one of those years where everyone says “Kansas is vulnerable,” in January and six weeks later they’re shaking their heads saying, “Man, they did it again.” They’re good, but just not elite.
Nope, this year KU has too many weaknesses. And in years past, the teams that were challenging KU always tripped over themselves on the road in February while the Jayhawks went out and won huge games in Ames and Austin, or Manhattan and Stillwater. The other teams may well stub their toes on the road, but I can’t see KU ripping off one of those 4–1 runs over their last five road games stretches this year to grab a title that seemed lost.
KU has just two losses against the toughest schedule in the country. Kelly Oubre is finally living up to the lofty expectations he arrived with. Cliff Alexander has yet to do the same, but if the light goes on with him, he makes the team much tougher to guard. The team defense is better. And Frank Mason III is turning into a star.
But it’s also not at the same level as just about every one of the last 10 KU teams. It’s not loaded with NBA talent. It doesn’t have more size than every other team in the conference. And it lacks that core of upperclassmen who have been through the battles for 2–3 years and understand winning.
The Jayhawks will be in the mix. Baring a disaster, they’ll be a top 4 seed in March thanks to their ridiculous schedule and the strength of the Big 12. But unless something crazy happens in the next two months, Oklahoma or Texas (or both) will be this year’s Big 12 champs.