A new Big 12 basketball season has begun. In a very strange first night of the year, there were three road wins. The only team to win at home? The Mighty Jayhawks of Kansas.

When the balls were first rolled out back in November, consensus was KU would have no problem rolling to their 15th-straight Big 12 title. Kansas State and West Virginia might challenge a little, but KU was supposed to be just too good to be caught.

That expectation has changed a bit. KU is not the juggernaut many expected them to be.

Kansas State has struggled to recapture their March form of last year and now face two key injuries. They lost at home by 20 last night and travel to Lubbock this Saturday. Starting 0–2 was not in the dreams of Purple fans.

I didn’t understand why people were so high on WVU. Jevon Carter was one of the most unique, disruptive players in league history. You can’t just plug someone in and replace him. Predictably – to me at least – the Mountaineers are 8–5 and were another team to lose at home last night. They will beat some good teams if they get healthy, but they are not contenders.

More surprising is who the challengers actually appear to be. Everyone figured Texas Tech would fall off after last season’s Elite 8 run. They’ve been really good through the first month, losing only to Duke in a game they kept close until late. The Red Raiders continue to be fantastic on the defensive end. The question is can they score enough over an 18-game schedule to get the 13+ wins needs to claim the title?

No one expected Oklahoma to be very good after losing Trae Young and a few other rotation players. But Lon Kruger always finds a way. They were in the game at Kansas last night until the final moments, and that came on a night when they were not hitting shots. Are they a true contender? I’m not sure. They’re deep, athletic, and full of interchangeable parts. Plus they have the second-best coach in the league. They look like a third-place team to me.

TCU is always on the verge of something, it feels like. They’re 11–1, have some really nice pieces, and have built up some scar tissue in recent years that teams about to break through often have to manage. But they’ve also played no one in the non-con season, so we have no idea who they are. In the end, they’re TCU, and until they actually string together good wins, I don’t see them being true contenders.

Then there’s Iowa State, who are 11–2 despite dealing with a rash of personnel issues. They’re beginning to get those bodies back and the only question to me is how quickly they can integrate everyone into the rotation without messing up their chemistry.

What about Texas? They had three very good wins before waxing K-State in Manhattan last night. Tons of athletes. But they also have three terrible losses. I figure there’s not a team in the conference they can’t beat on the right night. And there’s also not a team in the conference they can’t lose to on the nights they go 2–43 from 3. That’s a recipe for fifth place. Fortunately all Texas fans are now focused on getting their arguments together why the Longhorns should be preseason #1 in football next year instead of how the basketball team is doing.

KU is in a somewhat similar situation as Iowa State. Losing Udoka Azubuike for four weeks meant revamping pretty much everything Bill Self wanted to do. Getting him back last weekend means adjusting again. They weren’t exactly playing smoothly before his injury. So I think they’re still three weeks away from figuring it all out. Udoka makes KU much better on defense and he’s un-guardable on offense, but I think Dedric Lawson has a tougher time finding his spots when he plays with Dok.

In the backcourt, thank goodness for Devon Dotson. He’s stepped right into the void filled by Devonte Graham and Frank Mason III the last few years, playing about as well as you can ask a freshman to. He’s not the scorer or distributor those other two were yet, but he’s already a better defender. And they were both pretty solid on the defensive end.

I think the key to KU is whether Quentin Grimes can ever get comfortable. He’s looked better the last few games, but still often looks lost or slow. He’s athletic, but not a great athlete, if that makes sense. It would be great if he could suddenly morph into a 13 ppg player. But if he can just get to where he’s hitting two 3’s and not making five dumb turnovers each game he will make the team so much better.

KU is still the favorite. They have the most talent, the best coach, the biggest home court advantage, and all those bags of Adidas money that get slipped into the referee locker room before games.[1] But do they have the Devonte, BIFM, Thomas Robinson on this team that will refuse to lose in big games in February?

Stuff always goes KU’s way in February. Shots crawl in for the Jayhawks and rim out for opponents. A team with an inside track on the title will blow a winnable game. Another team will suffer an injury that wrecks their chances. West Virginia will blow a double-digit lead against KU in a game that swings the entire race.

Every. Single. Year.

KU began the season as the #1 ranked team in the country. They clearly aren’t at that level yet, and may well not get there. The Big 12 was supposed to be down. It looks like there may not be the depth at the bottom of the conference that has been there in the past. But there are likely six really solid teams. The question that will get answered over the next two months is just how big that gap between KU and the other five contenders is, and whether there’s a team out there strong enough to shake off 14 years of history to break through and end the streak.

  1. Not really. The bags are sent directly to their off-shore accounts.  ↩