3 in the Kee: Three leading candidates for Big 12 Coach of the Year

If Kansas State can keep pace with Kansas and Oklahoma State, Wildcats coach Bruce Weber might have to find himself a little more shelf space in that personal trophy case.

Charlie Riedel/AP

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Big 12 is one part beast, two parts grind, and you can thank the men at the top for that. Not a stiff in the bunch.

Kansas State has been billed as one of the most surprising squads in the nation after finding its feet in early December, while Oklahoma and Texas aren’t far behind. Texas Tech has looked saltier than expected, even if the record doesn’t exactly show it. Ditto West Virginia. Then again, in a league in which every coach has reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament at least once in their respective careers, what would you expect? Mind you, when you start trying to separate the cream from the cream, there are about five or six answers, and none of them is wrong ….

THE TOP THREE CANDIDATES FOR BIG 12 COACH OF THE YEAR (MIDSEASON EDITION)

:03 … Lon Kruger, Oklahoma (14-4, 3-2 Big 12)

The six freshmen on the Sooners’ roster are second most in the conference to Kansas’ seven, and among Big 12 brethren, only the Jayhawks and Texas have a higher percentage of minutes allotted to freshmen and sophomores. Kruger’s Sooners hung with Michigan State in November, and despite not playing a true road contest until Jan. 4 in Austin they have already notched victories at Texas and Baylor.

MORE ON THE BIG 12

Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard (11.3 points, 4.7 assists per game) has been a revelation, while forward Cameron Clark (17.1 ppg) and off-guard Buddy Hield (16.6) have blossomed into one of the more dangerous 1-2 scoring combos on the circuit. And burly power forward Ryan Spangler is a double-double machine, a 6-foot-8 grizzly whose grit seems infectious. We knew the Sooners would be green, but who knew they would also turn out to be this flat-out tough?

:02 … Rick Barnes, Texas (14-4, 3-2 Big 12)

Myck Kabongo went pro. Sheldon McClellan transferred out. In October, they were measuring Barnes for a pine box. In December, his young Longhorns won at North Carolina and took out Temple in Philly. In January, they toppled West Virginia in Morgantown and Iowa State in Austin.

And all this with the second least-experienced team (to Kansas) in the Big 12 — in fact, according to StatSheet.com, as of Monday morning, of the 10 least experienced squads in the country, Texas had the highest winning percentage (77.8) of the bunch. Forward Jonathan Holmes (13.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and center Cameron Ridley (10.9, 7.6) are among those who have taken a share of ownership in the program, something Barnes said he didn’t have a year ago.

"We’ve made a collective effort to find guys who fit the blueprint of what we’ve always done and that is where we got away from our program," the Texas coach recently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "But with this group, we’re building something here. Our best teams here were when players had both feet in, and this team is all-in."

Watch ‘The Bruce Weber Show’ at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays on FOX Sports Kansas City. Check your local TV listings.

:01 … Bruce Weber, Kansas State (14-4, 4-1 Big 12)

From Northern Colorado (wince) to a half-game back of the top of the loop in late January, no team in the Big 12 — hell, maybe the country — has come from as far back in the pack as Weber’s Wildcats have in roughly two months’ time.

When the chips are down, you find out who your true friends are. When you lose to the Bears in your home opener and then go to Puerto Rico and get your backside handed to you, it takes the right man, with the right support staff, to circle the wagons.

A Wildcats rotation of supporting players (Thomas Gipson, Shane Southwell, Will Spradling) behind the McGruder-Rodriguez core of last season were always going to take time to find the right blend with a crop of untested — and undervalued — freshmen. But once K-State figured it out, the Wildcats took off, winning 10 straight at one point and reeling off a perfect December (7-0). As first-year stalwarts such as guard Marcus Foster (14.0 ppg) and forward Wesley Iwundu (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg) eased into the flow, Weber’s team hung its hat on the thing that most Weber teams always have: Defense. At the start of the week, K-State ranked 10th in the country in fewest opposition field goals per game (20.5) and 20th in terms of defensive efficiency (points allowed per opponent possession), at 0.904; the ‘Cats were at 0.947 a year ago.

The Jayhawks and Cowboys are expected to pull away from the pack in the weeks to come, but if the Wildcats — who play three of their next four on the road — can keep pace, Weber might have to find himself a little more shelf space in that personal trophy case.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.