The Big 12 owns an impressive combined record of against Division I competition so far this season, which bodes well for both a competitive conference season and NCAA bid total. Let's take a look at who has the best chance to go dancing here in mid-December.
For other posts in this series, visit the Bracketology 101 Exam Week 2011-12 section.
Records are accurate as of 12/14/2011.
Missouri Tigers (9-0)
Has any team been a more impressive surprise in recent times? Frank Haith has silenced most of his critics in the Show Me State by leading his team to nine early wins, with the closest being last Tuesday's 10-point Jimmy V Classic victory over Villanova, which happened to be the Tigers' first win outside of the state. Mizzou's non-conference slate closes with two significant tests, the Braggin' Rights game against Illinois in St. Louis, followed by a trip to Old Dominion to close 2011. The biggest challenge for Missouri the rest of the way will be keeping momentum, especially given their second half struggles of late and the grind of the 18-game Big 12 slate, which naturally includes (gasp) games in truly hostile environments, which should be even more difficult given the school's pending move to the SEC.
Kansas Jayhawks (7-2)
Are the Jayhawks the best two-loss team in America? Perhaps, especially after they took out a Jared Sullinger-less Ohio State squad on Saturday. What is certain is that thanks to the early performances of Missouri and Baylor, Kansas isn't a slam dunk to win yet another Big 12 crown. Bill Self's team should get to 11 wins just in time for the league campaign to start, as a trip to USC on December 22nd is the most daunting game left on the non-conference slate. (The game with Davidson in Kansas City three days prior should only be an issue if Stephen Curry is granted fresh eligibility for the Wildcats.) As for the Big 12 schedule, note that the Jayhawks play five of their first nine conference games against the three teams most likely to finish in spots 8 through 10 in the standings, Iowa State (twice), Oklahoma (twice), and Texas Tech.
Baylor Bears (7-0)
Over the next few weeks, and barring a Big 12 season collapse, Baylor has an opportunity to make its profile nearly bulletproof. The Bears already own non-conference wins over San Diego State and Northwestern, but look at who's left on a slate that was obviously designed by Scott Drew to ensure his team's best games were scheduled for after Perry Jones III's return from an NCAA suspension. Baylor travels to BYU next Saturday, takes on St. Mary's and West Virginia at the Las Vegas Classic, all before closing the year out with a game in Dallas against a Mississippi State team that may finally be ready to contend in the SEC. That stretch should prepare the Bears for a Big 12 opening stretch that includes trips to Kansas State and Kansas along with home games against Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, and Missouri.
Texas A&M Aggies (8-1)
The Aggies' biggest victory so far came against St. John's in the consolation game of the 2K Sports Classic, which at this point isn't exactly a quality win. Billy Kennedy's squad has one last shot before the conference grind begins, a game against future conference rival Florida in Sunrise on December 17th, certainly a possibility with their defense. Failure to win that means the short-timers will need to impress in their last Big 12 campaign. In their first seven league contests, the Aggies will have to visit Baylor, Texas, Missouri, and Kansas.
Texas Longhorns (8-2)
Like A&M, the Longhorns' best win is more of a name victory than a quality one, as they topped UCLA at the ancient Sports Arena on December 3rd. Rick Barnes' team dropped its two games at the Legends Classic, falling to Oregon State and N.C. State, but they've recovered by winning six in a row. Texas has two meaningful conference games coming up, thanks to a four-day span that sees them host Temple and visit North Carolina. In terms of the league slate, January will be key in determining the Horns' fate, thanks to home games with Kansas, Oklahoma State, A&M, trips to Baylor and Kansas State, and a home-and-home with Missouri. Yikes.
Kansas State Wildcats (6-1)
Despite a win at Virginia Tech, the jury is still out on Frank Martin's young Wildcats, thanks to a non-conference schedule that's moving from a November simmer to a December boil. The Wildcats tasted defeat for the first time on Thursday, when they lost to West Virginia in Wichita. Back on campus on Sunday, they struggled with Atlantic Sun contender North Florida, needing overtime to dispose of the Ospreys. In the coming weeks, things will get rougher. K-State takes on Alabama to Kansas City on December 17, then heads out to Hawai'i for the Diamond Head Classic, where they'll open with a poor Southern Illinois team. Clemson is the Wildcats' likely opponent on Day 2, while Xavier (or Long Beach State even) could await on Christmas Day. However, I think we'll have an even better idea of where the Cats stand after their first three conference games, at Kansas, followed by Missouri and Baylor at home.
Oklahoma State Cowboys (6-3, 5-3 vs. Division I)
Travis Ford's Cowboys have been frustrating their fans all season, and that's not likely to change given their remaining non-conference games. The Pokes have truly been the kings of the neutral court this season, something very important to remember, since the Tournament is played on neutral floors. First, they stole an NIT semifinal berth from UT San Antonio, and cashed it in for, erm, a pair of losses to Stanford and Virginia Tech. Right now, Oklahoma State in a rare stretch of neutral-site showcases. Saturday, they fell to 0-3 in New York City, thanks to a loss to Pitt. On Saturday, they play New Mexico in Oklahoma City, then play Alabama in Birmingham and SMU in the Showcase in Dallas on consective Wednesdays. When the Cowboys return to Stillwater, they'll close 2011 out with the opportunity to avenge their earlier defeat to the Hokies. In short, much like Kansas State and Baylor, the Cowboys have plenty of chances to improve their profile before Big 12 play tips off.
Oklahoma Sooners (7-1), Iowa State Cyclones (7-3), Texas Tech Red Raiders (4-4)
Even though this trio has combined to 18 win games so far, I'm discounting their chances for the moment. Sure, Oklahoma finished second at the 76 Classic, but I'm not sure the wins they earned there, over Washington State and Santa Clara, will stand out in March. They may not be able to count on last week's wins over Oral Roberts and Arkansas either. Iowa State has similar issues with its two best victories, over Providence and Rice in South Padre. On the other hand, Texas Tech finished a woeful 0-3 at the Old Spice Classic.
The best remaining non-conference game for these three is the Sooners' trip to Cincinnati on December 29. Given the Bearcats' early struggles, both teams will need to be lucky for that game to have much impact on March, other than for NIT seeding.