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Big 12 basketball: No big drop-off for league

BIG 12 MEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW — This was the year Big 12 men's basketball supposedly would suffer a noticeable drop-off. False alarm. Mike Baldwin and John Helsley look at the league's major story lines, top 10 players and more.
BY MIKE BALDWIN AND JOHN HELSLEY, Staff Writers Published: January 1, 2012
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This was the year Big 12 men's basketball supposedly would suffer a noticeable drop-off.

False alarm.

The revamped 10-team league has slipped a little, but not that much.

When conference play begins this week, four teams will be ranked in the top 25, and a few could get there in time but need wins over the Big Four — Baylor, Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State.

“It's going to be really tough,” said OU guard Steven Pledger. “But I know my team is ready. We've put in the work to play the top teams in our conference.”

An 18-game round robin schedule — every team plays home and road series — will be grueling. For Oklahoma State, it's like a mulligan in golf.

“This is a brand new season,” said OSU freshman guard Brian Williams. “A lot of teams pointed out some of our weak points. We'll be working on that. We played a little bit of everything, from teams with good shooters to good post games, transition, half-court. I think we're ready.”

The Big 12 should earn at least five NCAA Tournament berths, possibly six if the sixth-place team can finish 9-9 or better in the league.

Baylor, Kansas and Missouri are virtual NCAA Tournament locks barring an unexpected nose dive. Kansas State also is a good bet.

That leaves gritty Texas A&M, revitalized Oklahoma, talented but young Texas, underachieving Oklahoma State and much improved Iowa State fighting for one NCAA bid, possibly two.

Baylor's talent is as good as most teams in the country. If the Bears play smart, and keep improving, they're a Final Four threat.

Kansas coach Bill Self has a limited hand but has two of the best players in the league. The Jayhawks could lose five or six league games but always find a way to challenge.

Missouri has looked good, but the senior-laden Tigers' biggest tests will be teams that have good size.

K-State still has some talent, players used to high standards. The Wildcats, like the Sooners, face a demanding schedule early in league play. We'll know a lot more about both teams in three weeks.

A&M surprisingly has a dreadful No. 258 RPI rating, no slam dunk to finish in the top half. Texas is young, maybe so young the Longhorns will miss the NCAA Tournament. Iowa State has a respectable No. 66 RPI ranking. Winning at Hilton Coliseum will be tougher than usual. Texas Tech stinks.

The Big 12 is ranked as the second best-league, according to Jeff Sagarin's ratings. According to RealTime.com RPI ratings, the Big 12 is fourth behind the Big Ten, Big East and ACC.

The conference has a few NBA lottery picks and won an impressive 80 percent of nonconference games. Everyone should lift one another in RPI rankings and strength of schedule charts.

Simply put, every win is valuable. It will be a major test, even for the Big Four.

“The last couple of years, 13-5 got you third in this league,” said K-State coach Frank Martin. “The way it is right now, 13-5 probably could be good enough to win the league.”

Five Big 12 story lines

1. Race to the finish.

For the first time in a long time, there is no definitive favorite. Usually, that tag hangs with Kansas, which has won or shared the past seven regular-season titles, but the Jayhawks are in a bit of a rebuild. Baylor has the best overall talent, yet it faces a “believability” issue under coach Scott Drew. So don't count out the Jayhawks. Or Mizzou. Or A&M or K-State or even a mystery contender.

2. Who will surprise?

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