LAWRENCE, Kan. — When the Big 12 coaches made their annual preseason pilgrimage to Kansas City a few months ago, every one of them except Kansas coach Bill Self predicted the Jayhawks would win another conference title.
Yet things have changed over the course of the nonconference season, and what looked like a certainty that the Jayhawks would win an unprecedented 14th straight Big 12 title is suddenly up in the air.
Another big outing from Udoka Azubuike (24 pts, 7 rebs) helped the Jayhawks to a 75-54 win over Stanford Thursday night in Sacramento. #KUbball— Kansas Basketball (@KUHoops) December 22, 2017
RECAP https://t.co/6aDJpeh24F pic.twitter.com/ON9ze3Wxkk
West Virginia has lived up to expectations. Oklahoma is on the rise behind the Pete Maravich-like scoring of Trae Young, the sensational freshman that picked his hometown school over the Jayhawks. TCU is unbeaten, Baylor and Texas Tech are firmly ensconced in the Top 25, Kansas State took unbeaten Arizona State to the wire, and Texas, Oklahoma State and Iowa State have been hot lately.
In fact, every Big 12 team is rolling into the league's opening games Friday night.
"We feel good about where we're at, and yet we know we've got to keep working at it," said Sooners coach Lon Kruger, whose team puts its eight-game win streak on the line against TCU on Saturday.
"A lot of good teams in the Big 12 and we know how tough every night is going to be."
The fact that the gap has narrowed between Kansas and its rivals has every bit as much to do with the Jayhawks, though. They raised eyebrows with an early win over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, but also stubbed their toes in back-to-back losses to Washington and Arizona State that revealed many warts.
Their reliance on outside shooting. Their ability to get to the foul line. Their perilous lack of depth, which has been somewhat alleviated now that Sun Devils transfer Sam Cunliffe is eligible and five-star prospect Silvio De Sousa has arrived on campus for the second semester.
If they can get their other five-star recruit, Billy Preston, on the court after spending the entire fall investigating an off-the-court financial issue, the Jayhawks could still be the team to beat.
"We've played consistently well this year except for back-to-back games, a four-day stretch where we weren't very good," Self said, taking a rare optimistic outlook on his team heading into conference play. "Other than that, we played consistently well."
As the league schedule begins, here are some of the keys to watch:
ROUND ROBIN: Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon said the biggest adjustment he had to make after taking over last season was the difference in a nine-team league compared to the Big East and ACC, where he had spent most of his career. "Just playing everybody twice, smaller league with nine teams, there was more familiarity," he said. "You know you're going to play them again home and home."
TRAE-MENDOUS: Young is the early favorite for Player of the Year — never mind Freshman of the Year — as the Sooners' star heads into league play averaging 28.7 and 10.4 assists in just 30.8 minutes. "When you're winning, that's the main thing," Young said. "You can just tell that this is the best time to be a Sooner. When you're winning it's fun, so we're going to try to continue doing that."
MORE FABULOUS FRESHMEN: Texas big man Mohamad Bamba is considered a lottery pick in the NBA draft thanks to his defense, but he's also averaging 10.9 points. Lindell Wigginton is averaging a team-leading 15.5 points for Iowa State, while teammate Cameron Lard's career is also off to a fast start.
SUPER SENIORS: Six of the Big 12's top eight scorers are seniors, including the starting Kansas backcourt of Lagerald Vick, Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk. Baylor's Manu Lecomte is averaging 18.4 points while Texas Tech's Keenan Evans and Iowa State's Donovan Jackson are averaging better than 16 per game. Throw in Baylor big man Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., who is averaging 15.1 points and a league-leading 10 boards, and there is plenty of experience in the league this year.
GAMES TO WATCH: Is it cheating to say all of them? OK, then start with TCU visiting Oklahoma on Jan. 13. Throw in the Jayhawks' trip to Norman just 10 days later. Oklahoma visits Texas Tech on Feb. 13, then visits Kansas six days later. West Virginia heads to Baylor on Feb. 20, and a lot could be at stake the final weekend when Iowa State visits Oklahoma, Kansas heads to Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers travel to Texas, Baylor visits Kansas State and TCU wraps things up at Texas Tech.