Around the Big 12: The pack strikes back

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

A funny thing happened en route to the coronation of Kansas and Oklahoma State.

Coming into the season, Kansas and Oklahoma State looked head and shoulders above the rest of the Big 12. With sure-fire lottery picks and NBA prospects up and down their rotation, the conference championship looked like it would come down to two epic battles between the traditional powers.

On that front, at least, the first game between the two didn't disappoint, with the Jayhawks holding off a fierce comeback from the Cowboys to win 80-78 in Lawrence. However, for as much talent as the two teams have, there's no guarantee their re-match in Stillwater will be a contest of Top 10 teams.

After losing Michael Cobbins and Stevie Clark, Oklahoma State is in more dire straits. Travis Ford's team has lost three in a row and are now sitting at 4-5 in conference play, having fallen all the way to 7th place. Without much size or depth, they are vulnerable to just about anyone right now.

Kansas is still sitting pretty at 8-1, but the second half of their schedule is much tougher than their first. They still have potential landmines at Kansas State, at Oklahoma State and at West Virginia, while two of the conference's most surprising teams — Texas and Oklahoma — have upcoming dates in Lawrence.

Over the last few years, the conference has seen a dramatic influx in quality head coaches, with Bobby Huggins, Lon Kruger, Bruce Weber, Fred Hoiberg and Tubby Smith all joining the coaching ranks. All of a sudden, there just aren't many easy wins on the Big 12 schedule.

Perhaps just as important is the round-robin home-and-home schedule, with each team getting a home game against the other nine members of the Big 12. Insert joke about conference re-alignment here. Unlike in the bigger mega-conferences, you don't "miss" any teams during the season.

By the time you play an opponent for the second time, they know your strengths and weaknesses almost as well as you know yourself. There are no secrets in a conference as small as the Big 12 and there's no place to hide a weakness in your rotation; it will be exposed eventually.

It remains to be seen how many teams the Big 12 gets into the tourney. Paradoxically, the conference's depth may work against it, as the middle class beat up on each other and lower the value of signature wins against the top of the Big 12.

Either way, with access to the fertile recruiting areas of Houston and Dallas, there are more than enough quality players available to any Big 12 program that none should be down for too long. The conference will always be a football league, but its basketball gets stronger every year.

Three Questions

Jeff Haley of Burnt Orange Nation and Hoop-Math

Texas freshman PG Isaiah Taylor has been one of the biggest surprises in the Big 12 this season. How would you compare him to some of his predecessors — Cory Joseph, Myck Kabongo and J'Covan Brown?

There are a lot of similarities in the games of Taylor and Myck Kabongo. Both players are hard to stay in front of off the dribble, and both players get to the rim and draw a lot of fouls. Neither player can shoot.

Taylor is actually having a somewhat better freshman year than Kabongo did, if only because he is getting up a few more shots than Kabongo did and has turned the ball over less frequently. Taylor plays under control most of the time, which was something that you cannot exactly say about Kabongo's first season in Austin.

I hope Taylor's sophomore year goes better than Kabongo's did (Isaiah would be wise to stay out of Cleveland — really that is good advice for anyone), although if Taylor improves in some of the same ways over the off-season, it would really help. Kabongo improved his free throw shooting significantly between his first and second seasons, raising his percentage from 68 to 79 percent. Taylor is currently shooting 68 percent from the free throw line, and a similar improvement would add a point to his scoring average.

What impressed you the most about UT's upset of KU on Saturday? And do you think that performance is sustainable going forward?

The way that Texas took Andrew Wiggins out of the game. The Longhorns are currently on an incredible run of virtually shutting out critical opposing perimeter players. Wiggins scored 7 points on 1-12 shooting. But this was just continuing a trend.

Kenny Chery of Baylor scored 5 points against Texas. Texas held Marcus Foster (Kansas State) to 8 points. DeAndre Kane (Iowa State) managed to score 15 points, but needed 12 field goal attempts and 10 trips to the line to do it. West Virginia's Eron Harris only scored 6 against Texas.

Much of the credit for this goes to Demarcus Holland, who is the latest in a long line of outstanding Texas perimeter defenders. But the defensive help rotations have also been outstanding. It will be interesting to see how Holland does in his rematch with Marcus Smart; Big 12 officials will be far less likely to send Smart to the free throw line 20 times when he comes to Austin.

Is this sustainable? Mostly, but some of it is also good luck. Wiggins missed a couple shots at the basket that he usually makes against Texas. But for the most part, Wiggins just wasn't able to crack open Texas' half court defense.

If Rick Barnes is coaching for his job, what do you think he has to do to keep it? And what do you think he should have to do?

Let's start with should, because that is easier to answer. It just is my opinion and doesn't require me to read Texas AD Steve Patterson's mind. I think an NCAA tournament appearance should be enough. Even without an appearance, if the program appears to be on a good trajectory, that would be good enough for me. But I am easy to please.

Now, as to what Rick Barnes actually has to do to keep his job. This gets more tricky. I don't know Patterson's viewpoint, but I can say that with a new athletic director coaches who had pretty decent seasons often find themselves out of a job. Last season Minnesota coach Tubby Smith was fired by a new athletic director after the Gophers won their first NCAA tournament game since 1997. Long-time Buffalo coach Reggie Witherspoon was also fired by a new AD last season after a 14-20, which was a season removed from the best four-year run in the school's D-I history.

I think a lot will depend on how Texas finishes the season. If Texas finishes strongly, and Rick Barnes wins Big 12 Coach of the Year, he is going to be hard to fire. But if Texas limps into the season and just barely slides into the NCAA tournament, it wouldn't blow my mind if Patterson decided to go in a different direction. If Texas misses the tournament, I suspect he will be gone.

Three Big Games

Texas at Kansas State (Saturday): Rick Barnes has the Longhorns ranked in the Top 15 and second in the Big 12, but the second half of their conference schedule is much tougher than the first. They have been great at home, but they will need to win road games against solid opponents like Kansas State to maintain their ranking.

Baylor at Oklahoma (Saturday): No Big 12 coach has suffered more from the influx of coaching talent into the conference than Scott Drew, whose watched an extremely talented team fall from the Top 15 to a 2-7 record in conference play. If they want to turn-around their season, it begins with winning a road game in Norman.

Oklahoma State at Texas (Tuesday): Oklahoma State has gone from worrying about seed lines to worrying about the bubble in a few weeks. If Texas can protect home court on Tuesday, they will knock Marcus Smart and Co. completely out of the Big 12 title race, if they haven't been already.

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