This was the year Big 12 men's basketball supposedly would suffer a noticeable drop-off.
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?
There doesn't seem to be a team capable of running off and hiding from its Big 12 brethren, yet the league is still defined by a few select schools. More than ever, however, the conference seems ripe to produce an unlikely riser. Oklahoma and Iowa State both seem to be much improved. Each have each won 10 games already, after combining for a total of 30 a year ago.
3. How many tournament teams?
The Big 12 has landed at least five NCAA berths the past four seasons, with six getting in three of those years with the league enjoying an enhanced national image. That same buzz doesn't exist this time, suggesting five may be the limit.
4. Whose Tigers are they?
Mike Anderson assembled most of the talent, but it never really got Missouri over the hump. Now Frank Haith has the Tigers at 13-0 and No. 8 in the rankings. A maligned hire back in April, Haith now looks like a genius hire in Columbia.
5. What does Bill Self have up his sleeve?
So the Jayhawks are down, huh? We've heard this all before. And the master motivator Self always finds a way to have his team cutting down the nets.
Big 12 season predictions
1. Baylor: Currently ranked No. 6 nationally, the Bears have the most talent but must avoid customary road struggles.
2. Kansas: The depth-challenged Jayhawks are vulnerable. Will a string of seven straight league titles come to an end?
3. Missouri: First-year coach Frank Haith inherited a veteran nucleus. The Tigers were impressive in nonleague play.
4. Kansas State: The conference's wild card team. The Wildcats could finish higher than fourth or might finish lower.
5. Texas A&M: The gritty Aggies currently have a horrible RPI. They won't overwhelm anyone but can grind out wins.
6. Oklahoma: The Sooners have played well under first-year coach Lon Kruger but still have much to prove.
7. Texas: Kabono latest of Rick Barnes' elite recruits but inexperienced Longhorns might miss the NCAA Tournament.
8. Oklahoma State: High expectations have been replaced by major questions following poor nonconference showing.
9. Iowa State: Bolstered by transfers, the Cyclones are much improved. Wins in Ames won't be easy this year.
10. Texas Tech: Billy Gillespie must restock the roster; will be a challenge to win more than three or four league games.
Big 12 X-factors
We know about the stars, but who are the Big 12 players capable of pushing their teams to another level? Every team has one.
Baylor: Gary Franklin, G. So. A Cal transfer, Franklin sat out the first semester and is just now getting comfortable.
Iowa State: Chris Allen, G, Sr. The Michigan State transfer has moved to point guard, giving the Cyclones needed stability.
Kansas: Naadir Tharpe, G, Fr. KU's point guard of the future could be called on now to be a key reserve.
Kansas State: Jordan Henriquez, F, Jr. A 7-footer, Henriquez and his 8.1 points are a bulk of good news off the bench.
Oklahoma: Cameron Clark, G, So. When Clark is going good, which is intermittently, the Sooners are much better.
Oklahoma State: Le'Bryan Nash, F, Fr. The transition to college hasn't been easy, but if Nash figures things out, look out.
Missouri: Phil Pressey, G, Soph. A fabulous distributor, Pressey has emerged to make everyone around him better.
Texas: Jaylen Bond, F, Fr. The 'Horns are looking for post production and have turned to the 6-7 Bond, a former Pennsylvania prep star.
Texas A&M: Elston Turner, F, Jr. A Washington transfer, Turner will be called on to boost a backcourt decimated by injury and defection.
Texas Tech: Jordan Tolbert, F, Fr. The Raiders are rebuilding, and Tolbert is a nice piece to start with, averaging 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds.