The favorites to win the Big 12 coming into this season were Kansas and Oklahoma State. A quick glance at both rosters shows why: big-name talent and at least one player who might be the best in college basketball. Also, Kansas has won nine straight regular-season titles ... so there's that. The Jayhawks' 5-0 start behind freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid has Bill Self on his way to his tenth straight, but there is a pack of Big 12 teams that can't be counted out quite yet.
Oklahoma State, too, has played up to the team's pre-season expectations. Cowboys point guard Marcus Smart joins Wiggins on the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list after stepping up his game in his sophomore season. Smart has his team 3-2 in conference play, coming off a painful 80-78 loss to Kanas on Saturday. Travis Ford's team is still probably the favorite to finish second in the regular season, but is clumped in with a number of other teams.
Here's how the dark horses of the Big 12 stack up:
Jonathan Holmes knocked off Kansas State with a three-pointer at the buzzer, securing the Longhorns' second straight win over a ranked Big 12 opponent. After starting off 0-2 in conference play, Texas has rallied for four straight. The streak has vaulted them into second place behind 5-0 Kansas, but the Longhorns have two games remaining against the Jayhawks. Rick Barnes still insists on going ten-deep, but this year has an excellent mix of role players up to the task. Listed at 285 pounds, Cameron Ridley is a bruiser inside. The sophomore blocks 2.4 shots per game and hauls in 7.5 boards in 25 minutes. Prince Ibeh -- a 6'10 freshman -- is even more impressive on a per-minute basis, turning way two shots per game in just 14 minutes of playing time. The two will be an interesting matchup for Embiid in the Kansas games.
The Wildcats were a Jonathan Holmes prayer away from a road win at Texas and a 5-1 start to conference play. As it is, Kansas State has recovered well from a brutal start to the season. Early losses to Northern Colorado and Charlotte made it appear that the Wildcats would be in the bottom half of the conference. But a 12-2 mark since the team's loss to Georgetown in November includes wins over Oklahoma State, Gonzaga and Oklahoma. Thomas Gipson is deadly around the rim, shooting nearly 60 percent on the season while averaging over 12 points and six rebounds per game. Despite suffering a beating in Lawrence two weeks ago, Kansas State is every bit the contender its No. 22 ranking suggests.
The Cyclones have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team this season, but have nonetheless exceeded expectations in Ames. After starting the season 14-0, Iowa State has lost three straight in conference play. At 2-3, the Cyclones are in danger of slipping out of the race, but this is a talented team when DeAndre Kane is healthy and running the point. The senior is one of the most improved players in the Big 12, having become one of the best rebounding guards in the country. Melvin Ejim -- 6'6 -- and Georges Niang -- 6'7 -- play much bigger than that, and give Kane weapons to distribute the ball into the paint. Head coach Fred Hoiberg needs to right the ship, but Iowa State is a team you don't want to see come tournament time.
The Sooners improved to 2-2 against ranked opponents with wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State in conference play. Their first game against a poll opponent -- a November matchup against then-No. 1 Michigan State -- proved that they could hold their own with the best in the country. Forward Cameron Clark and guard Buddy Hield are a dynamic dual-scoring threat, each averaging over 15 points per game. Forward Ryan Spangler is a solid anchor in the middle, grabbing 9.4 rebounds per game to go along with his 11.2 points. With wins in Austin and Waco, the Sooners could be the team to unseat Kansas for the regular-season title.