How many teams make the NCAA tourney in a down year?
With Texas down, Missouri gone and TCU in, the Big 12 has lost a bit of its typical luster entering the 2013 conference season. Only three teams crack the top-25 (a low number), and two of them are on the fringe (K-State 25, OSU 22). So a league that usually sends at least six members might struggle to vault more than four or five into postseason play.
Five players to watch
Ben McLemore (Kansas)
College basketball fans were unable to watch the top-20 shooting guard last season due to academic issues. This season, the redshirt freshman is helping to make up for the scoring lost when two top Jayhawks left for the NBA. McLemore is shooting 48.9 percent from the floor, 41.2 percent from the arc and 87.2 from the charity stripe.
Isaiah Austin (Baylor)
Despite being on the same team as Pierre Jackson, the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, Austin is a 7-foot-1 freshman center who played more like a small forward in his first 11 games. (He missed the second game with an ankle sprain.) Austin is averaging 14.5 ppg, second on the team, and 8.6 rpg, tied for first.
Aaric Murray (WVU)
Murray sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Now, the LaSalle transfer is a 6-foot-10 center and dominator known for his blocking. He leads the team with 18 blocks. He currently holds a 51.8 shooting percentage and 74 total rebounds.
Rodney McGruder (Kansas State)
McGruder provides the hub for the Wildcats' offense. He's one of two players who have started all of this season's games. McGruder is the best shooter, averaging a team-best 13.6 ppg. He has also grabbed the second most boards at 5.3 rpg.
Jeff Withey (Kansas)
The 7-foot senior center is the centerpiece to Kansas' defense. Last season, he had 140 blocks in 39 games, giving him a higher blocking percentage of field goals while on the floor than anyone else in the country. In his first 12 games this season, Withey has 59 blocks.
Five can't-miss games
Kansas again wears the target on its back, putting the Jayhawks front and center on the must-see list — at least on the road, considering their dominance in Lawrence.
Jan. 5: Oklahoma State at Kansas State (Big 12 Network)
The premier game of the opening weekend matches two of the top contenders with a shot at the Jayhawks. The winner takes an early important step forward.
Jan. 22: Kansas at Kansas State (Big 12 Network)
They've played some great games in recent years, and with Missouri gone to the SEC, the Wildcats become KU's chief rival. This is the Jayhawks' first real Big 12 road test.
Feb. 16: Bedlam, in Stillwater (Big 12 Network)
Minus Mizzou-KU, Bedlam rises to the top of the league rivalry list. Game 2 of the series (the Cowboys play in Norman Jan. 12), this meeting could carry major clout, if OSU stays hot and OU figures things out.
Feb. 20: Kansas at Oklahoma State (ESPN2)
Another decisive road game for KU, which has been beaten and tested in Stillwater, even by OSU's lesser teams. If the Cowboys are to contend, this is a must-win.
March 9: Kansas at Baylor (ESPN)
Closing out the regular season, this clash could weigh heavily in the Big 12 race, or simply serve as the final stop on KU's way to a ninth straight conference championship.