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Joe Boozell | | December 8, 2015

Making sense of the three-headed monster atop the Big 12

  Ryan Spangler is a key cog on one of the best Oklahoma teams we've seen in years.

Oklahoma absolutely dominated reigning Big East champion Villanova on Monday night to earn the No. 1 spot in the updated KenPom rankings, and suddenly, the Big 12 is looking like an absolute juggernaut.

Five Big 12 schools lie within the top 16 of Ken Pom’s rankings: Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa St., Baylor and West Virginia (who we won’t break down here, but could also vault into title contention with a few more impressive performances). Take a look at the AP Poll, and the Big 12 picture looks even prettier. Kansas (2), Iowa St. (4) and Oklahoma (7) occupy three of the top seven spots, and the Sooners are a good bet to leap a few teams in next week’s poll.

Kansas has ruled Big 12 basketball for the last decade-plus. That’s no secret, as the Jayhawks have won 11 league titles in a row. As of now, they’re still the favorites to capture No. 12, but make no mistake: this race will be as fun as it’s ever been.

Judging by three key categories – offense, defense and coaching/depth, let’s take a look at which of these well-oiled machines is most likely prevail in one of the nation’s most talented conferences.


KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency rankings: Kansas (14th), Oklahoma (16th), Iowa St. (20th)

All three of these teams are a joy to watch on offense, and while each plays at a frantic pace, they manufacture points in different ways.

The Jayhawks play faster than any Big 12 team based on adjusted tempo (17th in the nation), which is impressive when you consider they only turn the ball over on 15.1 percent of their possessions. That ranks 29th out of 351 teams in the country, forming an unlikely yet favorable combination of controlled chaos. Complement a turbo-quick offense with a careful one, and you’d have to shoot horribly to be less-than-decent unit.

Credit Bill Self for going with a two-point guard lineup of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, as the Jays have two care-takers that can jet past defenses and find talented scorers such as Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden.

Speaking of Selden, he’s a major reason why Kansas has been so good on offense this year. His shooting slash line (FG%, 3P FG%, FT%) is .561/.579/.667, light years better than his .382/.395/.657 percentages last season. The Jayhawks’ expert ball control is paying dividends when Mason and Graham find Selden for 3-point daggers and open pull-up jumpers, as he has a team best plus-40.1 net rating this season. Last season, opponents outscored Kansas by 3.5 points per 100 possessions with Selden on the floor.

The 40-plus mark is obviously going to come down as KU takes on tougher competition, but all signs are positive for Selden and the Jayhawks thus far.

As for Oklahoma and Iowa St., continuity has proven to be a valuable asset for both teams. Each squad returned more than half of its 2014-15 starting lineup for 2015-16, and the stars are playing like stars.

Denzel Valentine, Ben Simmons and Kris Dunn are receiving most of the Naismith Award hype, and rightfully so. They’ve been great.

But so has Oklahoma's Buddy Hield.

RELATED: Breaking down the top-nine Naismith Award contenders

Hield is averaging 20.8 points per game and canning 48.6 percent of his 3’s while only playing 28.2 minutes per game. He has two outstanding running mates in the backcourt, too. Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have combined to take 86 3’s this season. They’ve made 44 of them. The fire emoji would probably suffice here, but for those more interested in numbers, that’s a 51.2 percent clip.

Iowa St. meanwhile, is as balanced as any team in America. No starter averages less than 12.9 points per game, and four starters shoot 53.2 percent or better from the floor. The post-Fred Hoiberg era has gone about as smoothly as anyone could have hoped for at this juncture.

Verdict: I’ll take Kansas, Iowa St. and Oklahoma, in that order, going forward. They’re not separated by much, but Kansas’ disciplined yet frantic mentality seems to be more sustainable than Oklahoma’s ridiculous hot streak from deep to start the season. And you can flip a coin here between the Sooners and the Cyclones, but again, Iowa St.’s balance appears to be more likely to continue than Oklahoma’s torrid shooting pace.


KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency rankings: Oklahoma (1), Kansas (9), Iowa St. (17)

After Monday night, the Sooners rank first in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s remarkable for several reasons, but one really sticks out.

Oklahoma lacks a prototypical rim-protector that teams seem to desperately covet. Ryan Spangler is Lon Kruger’s starting center, and he’s averaging less than a block per game. Akolda Manyang is averaging 6.4 blocks per 40 minutes, but he’s also averaging 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes. Therefore, he only plays 11.2 minutes per game.

Oklahoma is doing this with superior quickness on the perimeter and technique that warrants its own instructional video. The Sooners cut off driving lanes and stifle ball screens without fouling – opponents score 13.5 percent of their points against OU at the foul line, which ranks 349th in the country. The Sooners haven’t wasted time complaining abut how the new rules limit physicality – they’ve embraced rules and taken it upon to themselves to move their feet and play within the boundaries.

Kansas and Iowa St. have been great on defense, too, and the Jayhawks are only going to improve with Cheick Diallo in the fold. The Jayhawks’ roster construction just makes a lot of sense – Ellis is a solid team defender, but probably the weakest link of the starting five. Bill Self surrounds him with four outstanding athletes, and Ellis is a net positive based on his ability to, as the kids say, ‘get buckets.’

Iowa St. was 71st in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, so their early stingy start is a bit of a surprise. Jameel McKay is an absolute wrecking ball in the paint, and he’s sealed off the rim to opposing drivers. The Cyclones’ defense got a boost when McKay arrived midseason a year ago – with a full year of McKay, Iowa St. is starting to recognize its defensive potential.

Verdict: Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa St. in that order, though I think despite ISU’s early improvements, the Cyclones will end up as a distant third (nothing against the Iowa St., but KU and OU could both realistically maintain top-10 defenses by season’s end).

With Diallo, Kansas and Oklahoma are neck and neck. The Jayhawks have a higher defensive ceiling, but the perimeter clamps the Sooners put on Villanova in Pearl Harbor were like nothing that’s been done in college basketball this season. It was an absolute clinic.


There are no KenPom rankings for these categories. Maybe one day.

Self has too many Big 12 title rings to fit on his hands, so he has to be guy you’d have the most faith in to win the conference. Lon Kruger is as well-versed in rebuilding programs as anyone, and he’s done an incredible job in Norman, while Steve Prohm has Iowa St. looking as good at this point in the season as any Hoiberg team did in the past five years.

Where Kansas has a significant edge over the other two teams is depth. The Jayhawks go 11 deep, and injuries happen in college basketball. An injury to a key Kansas player probably won’t derail its title hopes; the same can’t be said for Oklahoma or Iowa St., who will use about eight players once crunch time rolls around.

Final verdict: Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa St., in that order.

It’s impossible to pick against the Jayhawks at this point considering they look better than they did last year. But judging by several factors, Oklahoma is only a hair behind, and it’s a good six-game shooting stretch away from winning a national title.

Iowa St. is a very good offensive team and, at the moment, a very good defensive team to boot. However, it’s tough to see them being ‘great’ on offense or defense. In some conferences, ‘very good’ can win you the whole darn thing.

But every conference isn’t the 2015-16 version of the Big 12.

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