The Big 12's basketball reputation took an early hit, with teams tripping and stumbling through much of November and early December in what was billed as a season of transition across the conference.
In nonconference play heading into Sunday, the Big 12's cumulative record: 84-32, hardly inspiring considering the overload of home games and pairings with overmatched schools from lesser leagues. Against the Top 25, the Big 12 stands just 5-12.
Alas, the Big 12 may be regrouping, with several teams posting statement wins and deflecting premature talk of the conference's demise. Kansas won at No. 10 Ohio State and Kansas State upended No. 14 Florida on the same night just days before Christmas. That followed struggling Texas' upset of North Carolina. And Oklahoma State, already owning a win over North Carolina State, gets another shot Monday night against No. 13 Gonzaga.
Perhaps it's a sign that the youthful rosters that dominate the conference — 10 of the Big 12's leading scorers are freshmen, sophomores or newcomers — are growing up.
And the league's rally comes just in time for the start of Big 12 play, which begins Saturday, setting off another race toward March Madness.
Big 12 storylines
The conference is down and the members have changed, but the reigning champs remain.
And in Big 12 hoops, providing a stark contrast to football season, everything begins (and has ended the past eight seasons) with Kansas.
Here's five Big 12 storylines, starting with the powerful Jayhawks but expanding leaguewide, to get you prepared for the impending conference season:
Can anyone dethrone Kansas from its regular-season pedestal?
Eight titles in eight years. Without much resistance, coach Bill Self's Jayhawks have consistently maintained a stranglehold on the Big 12's regular season crown. Can anyone change that? There's a trio of viable candidates (K-State, Baylor and, most notably, OSU), but Kansas once again enters as the heavy favorite to repeat.
How will the newcomers adjust?
West Virginia enters the league with Big East experience and a big-time coach. TCU, meanwhile, stumbles in as a floundering program two years removed from a 1-15 finish in the Mountain West. Neither should challenge for the title, but the Horned Frogs would be fortunate to avoid the conference cellar.
Can Myck Kabongo rescue Texas from mediocrity?
UT stumbled through an 8-5 nonconference schedule, the most pre-Big 12 losses since year one of Rick Barnes' 14-year tenure, including an embarrassing defeat to Division II Chaminade. But they didn't have Myck Kabongo, and will not get the suspended star guard back until mid-February. Is that enough time for a turnaround?
Will OSU and Baylor play up to their talent?
Coaches Travis Ford and Scott Drew can recruit. That's been evident the past few seasons, with the pair bringing some of the nation's best high schoolers to Stillwater and Waco, respectively. But the two embattled program-leaders have received recent heat for the way they coach up that compiled talent. They're both loaded this season (with four- and five-star guys abound). But can they win with them?
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.