And now the stretch run begins.

After a weekend of play against SEC teams (more on that in a bit), the Big 12 season gets going again tonight. Every team has ten games to play before the conference tournament. And with six teams within a game of first place, at first glance the lead race seems wide open.

I think that first glance is a bit deceptive. The title is Oklahoma’s to lose. They took predictable losses in Lawrence and Ames, but went to Waco and beat Baylor handily. They still have to go to Morgantown and Austin, but they also own a win in Stillwater, where KU lost. And they don’t seem like a team that’s going to slip up and lose a home game.

How about my Jayhawks? the 11-time defending conference champions have a lot of work to do if they want to keep that streak going. After winning their first Big 12 road game in Lubbock, they’ve lost three-straight, all by double digits. There’s no shame in losing in Ames and Morgantown, but I think the loss at Oklahoma State is going to be the killer. Nothing about the Jayhawks’ play over the past three weeks gives me confidence that this is a team that is going to run off an 8–2 run over the next five weeks and win the league. They might win out at home, but even winning in Fort Worth and Manhattan seems like a tall task right now.

Which is kind of weird, considering a month ago there were a couple national writers saying that KU was the most balanced, most complete team in the country. Then they stopped making shots and quite guarding people on the perimeter. Which has been pretty maddening to watch. Especially the not checking people part. This KU team feels like it has a bunch of B and B+ players. On nights when everyone is locked in and playing well on both ends, they’re better than the sum of those parts. But on the nights when even a couple guys aren’t playing well, they become average and easy to guard really quickly.

So while I think KU has a chance to have a say in who wins the conference title, I also believe they face the worst odds they’ve had in the last 11 years.

Can anyone beat Oklahoma? Maybe. West Virginia is such an odd team. They ran KU out of the building a couple weeks ago. They had a great chance to beat OU in Norman but fell on a last-second shot. They they got worked pretty good by Texas at home and needed two overtimes to win in Manhattan. Looking ahead, they still have two games with Iowa State and Baylor, and go to KU and Texas, plus have Oklahoma at home. There are no breaks in the Big 12 schedule, but that’s a pretty tough path.

Baylor is the biggest surprise in the league, to me. Everyone wrote them off after they got destroyed by KU in their conference opener. But they’re one of the three teams with just two losses. Still, they have a home loss and a brutal schedule ahead.

That schedule angle is the big thing. In the true round robin format of the the Big 12, you can’t really look at anyone’s schedule and say they have a huge advantage going forward. Oklahoma seems like they may have a slight edge. But what if the country’s best outside shooting team suddenly goes through a 2–3 game slump? With at least one game against a ranked team every week, the losses can pile up quick if any team goes cold, has a key injury, or just goes through a funk.

But I don’t think OU going through a bad 10-stretch is very likely. Which I’m fine with. As I’ve said before, I really like this Oklahoma team, especially Buddy Hield. I love that their roster is filled with three- and four-year-guys who have put the time in, stayed in school, and gotten a little better each year. And I think Lon Kruger is a great coach.

And I’ll be honest: this is probably the weakest KU team over the past 12 years. A few times during the streak the Jayhawks have come back from two games down in the middle of the season, or a game back with two weeks to play. But as unlikely as those titles seemed, they were always claimed under the leadership of NBA lottery talent. There’s not a lottery pick, and perhaps even a first round pick, in KU’s rotation right now. That’s not an excuse or complaint. It just means that, for me at least, it’s easier to take a look around the league and think, “Yep, this is a year we can’t win it.”

Still, Rock Chalk, bitches.

As for Saturday, the Big 12 – SEC challenge was fun. Meaningless fun, but still fun. I laughed at West Virginia and Florida getting in a shoving match at midcourt before their game. I was in awe of Hield’s performance in the second half against LSU. And I thoroughly enjoyed KU beating Kentucky to cap the night.

Wait, that’s not entirely true. I enjoyed the outcome of the KU-UK game. To say I enjoyed watching it would not be accurate, though. Where the KU-OU game a month ago was an artistic masterpiece, Saturday’s game was a tortured affair. The team that won missed 17 free throws. That team’s senior leader airballed a free throw early in the game, and struggled to hit one of two to tie the game late. The teams combined to play about 10 possessions of decent defense all night. Both teams had stretches where they looked like they had never been taught how to play as a team on offense. I messaged a couple friends late in the game, when KU kept either missing free throws or taking horrible offensive possessions each time they could tie or take the lead, and asked, “Are they trying to throw this game?”

But because it was Kansas and Kentucky, with ESPN Game Day on campus, and a wound-up crowd yelling for the entire 45 minutes of gameplay, it ended up having a level of greatness. Just not as great as the game in Allen Fieldhouse on January 4.

I don’t get why some people don’t like playing these games in January. Why does it matter when you play a non-conference game? The games count just the same whether they’re played in early December, over the holidays, or in the midst of the conference season. I think the players all get pumped up a little to play someone outside the conference. As a KU fan, some of my best memories of my basketball youth are non-conference games in January and February, notably games against Memphis State in 1985 and Louisville in 1986.

To me the genius part, though, was picking this weekend, when there were no NFL games. The Big 12 – SEC matchups were the biggest story in sports on Saturday. That’s worth any change in routine the games cause. Sometimes I think coaches just like to complain when they aren’t in complete control of everything.

Finally, a few writers have pushed the idea that KU and Kentucky should play every year. I’m down with that. They already play every third year on a neutral site in the Champions Challenge. I dig the idea of them playing in Lawrence and Lexington the other two years in each cycle. Not every game is going to be as dramatic as this year’s. And hopefully they aren’t as terrible as last year’s Champions Classic game. But you figure most will be competitive and feature a ton of guys who have been playing against and with each other all through their summer league careers and who will have their names called early on NBA Draft night. Let’s see those guys square off on their home courts instead of only in places like Chicago, New York, and Indianapolis.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind if Kentucky wins like eight in a row!