As Saturday's start of conference play comes into focus, the familiar favorite is back atop the league's power poll and again looking like the clear team to beat in the Big 12.
Kansas, in search of its ninth straight regular season conference crown, fills the top spot. The Jayhawks face competition from Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor and the rest of the league is looking to make some noise, too, with much to prove from top to bottom.
1. Kansas (11-1). Since an early loss to Michigan State, the Jayhawks have reeled off 10 straight wins to re-establish their place among the nation's elite. Behind center Jeff Withey and freshman Ben McLemore — and a strong supporting cast that includes veterans Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford — KU looks like the league's most complete team. Best win: at No. 10 Ohio State, 74-66.
2. Oklahoma State (10-1). The Cowboys bolted out of the gate with an impressive run to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off championship, hinting at a restoration of pride to the program. Freshman Marcus Smart has transformed the feel of a squad that now relies on rugged defense and toughness over Lob Stilly showmanship. Still developing — and recovering from injuries — the Cowboys carry upside, too. Best win: No. 23 North Carolina State, 76-56, in Puerto Rico.
3. Kansas State (10-2). The Wildcats seem to be making a smooth transition from coach Frank Martin to Bruce Weber, winning 10 games in the nonconference for the seventh straight season. Weber inherited a veteran and talented roster, featuring a scorer in guard Rodney McGruder, who has three 30-point games to date. Best win: No. 14 Florida, 67-61 in Kansas City.
4. Baylor (8-4). It's been an uneven start for Baylor, where Scott Drew has gathered talent — again — yet has so far struggled to produce any consistency. A solid win over Kentucky is overshadowed by bad losses, including a setback to the College of Charleston in Waco. Still, the Bears have a lethal backcourt in Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip and serious upside. Best win: Kentucky, 64-55.
5. Iowa State (9-3). Among a bunch of games against the likes of Campbell and Alabama A&M and Florida Gulf Coast, the Cyclones have played four decent opponents. And lost to three of them. Coach Fred Hoiberg, The Mayor, surely anticipated a better opening. The 'Clones will be dangerous in Ames, but must prove themselves as anything more. Best win: BYU, 83-62.
6. Texas (8-5). The Longhorns rate among the biggest disappointments in the league, as they've struggled mightily without the suspended Myck Kabongo to run the show. They'll get him back in February, but will it be in time to extend a streak of 14 straight NCAA Tournament appearances? Best win: North Carolina, 85-67.
7. Oklahoma (8-3). Hopes of a major step forward accompanied Lon Kruger's second season, but the Sooners haven't shown it, yet. The guards have too few assists and too many turnovers. Shooting percentages are lacking. That's how you get beat by Stephen F. Austin at home. Still, if the youngsters grow up on the fly and some veterans adjust to new roles, the Sooners could surprise. Best win: Mid-American Conference favorite Ohio, 74-63.
8. West Virginia (6-5). Early optimism has waned in Morgantown. And we can't even issue a “Welcome to the Big 12” statement yet. The Mountaineers opened with a 34-point loss to Gonzaga and have mostly scuffled since. In the preseason, noting a decent schedule, coach Bob Huggins said his team could be pretty good and lose some games. Well, they've lost some games. Best win: Virginia Tech, 68-67.
9. TCU (8-4). The Horned Frogs were expected to struggle under first-year coach Trent Johnson. And the 8-4 record shouldn't alter that perception, coming against an ultra-soft nonconference schedule. Measuring success will likely come in baby steps. Best win: SWAC favorite Southern, 68-57.
10. Texas Tech (6-4). Since running off James Dickey, a series of curious coaching hires — and recently, coaching fires — have left the Red Raiders in disarray. Billy Gillispie had to be jettisoned among player unrest. And the vibe from Lubbock isn't good, where a home loss to McNeese State punctuated a light nonconference schedule. Best win: none.