Big 12 off to a strong start

BY foxsports • December 17, 2009

Sitting in front of the TV last season, coaches around the Big 12 anxiously waited to see if the conference would sneak six teams into the NCAA tournament. You know, the perception that the Big 12 is a football conference.

That could finally change this season.

Led by Kansas and Texas at the top of the polls, the Big 12 has three of the nation's 11 unbeaten teams, including surprising Texas Tech. The conference has five ranked teams, a winning percentage of 82 percent and is 5-1 against Top 25 teams.

If the preseason is any indication, the Big 12 is bigger and badder than ever.

``We've always had one of the top two leagues in the country every year and sometimes we get overlooked,'' Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said Monday. ``We shouldn't be sitting there on Selection Sunday worried if we're going to get six teams in. We should always get six teams in and maybe a seventh ... I think hands down you can really argue this is the best league in the country.''

It starts with Kansas.

The Jayhawks (9-0) have made it look easy so far, a near-unanimous choice at No. 1 most of the season.

Freshman Xavier Henry has lived up to his phenom billing, preseason All-Americans Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich have been predictably steady, and the deep bench has rotated in like hockey players pouring over the boards.

And, hard as it is to believe, Kansas could get better this week.

Guard Brady Morningstar, the team's best perimeter defender, returns this week after being suspended for the fall semester for a DUI charge. Athletic 7-foot center Jeff Withey also joins the team after waiting out his transfer from Arizona, though he has a nagging knee injury.

``I'm probably not happy, but I'm not displeased,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said of his team's early progress. ``I still think there's a big step for us to take and Brady can help us take a step.''

The only team that might be able to match Kansas' depth is Texas.

Even as coach Rick Barnes tries to set his rotation, the Longhorns (8-0) have won their first eight games by 15 points or more for the first time in school history. Seniors Damion James and Dexter Pittman are perhaps the best frontcourt duo in the country, speedy freshman point guard Avery Bradley has been like trying to catch a sneeze and fellow freshman J'Covan Brown quietly averaged double figures before injuring his ankle over the weekend.

Texas, too, is getting reinforcements this week; Jai Lucas, a transfer from Florida, is eligible to play Saturday against No. 10 North Carolina.

Even now, with a couple of recent injuries, Barnes still finds himself trying to find enough minutes for everyone - a dilemma most coaches only dream of.

``They know they've got a job to do and if they don't do it, they're not going to get the minutes,'' Barnes said. ``They're going to do what we want done or they're not going to play.''

It drops off after the Jayhawks and Longhorns, but not much.

Texas Tech has been the surprise of the early season, opening 9-0 for the first time in 80 years. In the polls for the first time since the end of 2004-05, the Red Raiders won a nationally televised game over then-No. 12 Washington two weeks ago and moved up to No. 16 in the polls this week after beating TCU.

Kansas State is also off to a great start despite the occasional frustration coach Frank Martin has felt with his younger players. The Wildcats debuted at No. 17 this week after beating then-No. 18 UNLV and have wins over two ranked non-conference teams in the same season for the first time since 1958-59.

``There's been a lot of good teams and good players the past 50 years and this is the first team to do that, so these kids have accomplished something,'' Martin said.

Texas A&M (8-2), despite losing to New Mexico on Saturday, remained in the polls at No. 23. Oklahoma State (8-1) beat Utah and is off to its best start since 2006-07. Oklahoma (7-3) overcame a three-game losing streak to win four straight.

The success stories go on and on, giving the Big 12 a total of 10 teams with a winning percentage over .700 and making it the only conference where every team has at least six wins.

Even factoring in wins against smaller schools, the Big 12 is looking awfully good with league games just a month away.

``It's kind of a time when we of root for each other,'' Knight said. ``When the Big 12 starts, you want guys to lose so you can finish well, but right now we're kind of united because we want to prove that we're one of the best basketball leagues out there.''

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