The Big 12 has three teams that tower above the rest in Kansas, Missouri and Baylor when it comes to the conference championship. Below the Power Trio are five more teams angling for NCAA Tournament berths and it's that Middle Five that draw the attention of TheSportsNotebook today.
We can break the five teams down into three categories. Based on the NCAA bracket projections of Joe Lunardi at ESPN.com, Kansas State and Iowa State would make the field if the season ended today. Texas would be in the group of teams just missing the field. And Texas A&M and Oklahoma aren't currently in the picture, but have a good enough overall record to get there in the next six weeks. Here's a look at where each of the five stands, what they've done and who they have.
Kansas State (15-5, 4-4, projected #7 seed): Frank Martin has done a fabulous coaching job with a team that had to rebuild this year and doesn't have much depth. Rodney McGruder, the junior two-guard has answered the bell with a 16 ppg average, while Jamar Samuels has been solid down low with 11 points/7 rebounds per night. These were the core two players that Martin was counting on in November. He's also gotten some nice rebounding help from Thomas Gipson and backcourt scoring from sophomore Will Spradling. K-State's biggest weakness is they don't shoot the three-pointer well and its tough see them rising any higher than their current status. But they've found ways to beat Missouri and Texas, along with Alabama in non-conference play, so you can't count out a Martin-coached team.
Iowa State (15-6, 5-3, projected #12 seed): The 12 seeds are the last of the at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament, with everything below that going to small-conference automatics. Iowa State's win over Kansas on Saturday put them on the map, but the seed projection shows that win must be seen as a beginning and not as an ending. The Cyclones are undersized in the paint, but 6'8" Royce White cures a lot of ills with his 14/10 average, and the backcourt is deep. They could use a true playmaker and this is another team that I find it hard to imagine playing much better than they are right now. Senior guard Scott Christopherson is a good three-point shooter and having him steal a win in February with some long-range bombing might be the difference in whether or not they make the field.
Iowa State and Kansas State go head-to-head in Ames tonight, with both teams having games against Oklahoma and Texas A&M respectively on the weekend.
Texas (13-9, 3-6, projected missing the field by 5-8 spots): The Longhorns are really young with five freshmen being a part of Rick Barnes' seven-man rotation. They're making improvements, having suffered a one-point loss to Missouri last night, a heartbreaker in Baylor on Saturday and a nailbiter against Kansas prior to that. With Texas Tech and Texas A&M coming up this week, the 'Horns have to start getting in the W column immediately. J'Covan Brown is an outstanding all-around point guard, scoring 20 a game, while freshmen Sheldon McClellan and Myck Kabongo are making improvements as his running mates and scoring in double digits. The development of the frosh inside, Jonathan Holmes and Clint Chapman hasn't progressed as well. Between the lack of a post scorer and a three-point shooter, the Longhorns are going to have a tough time getting on the sustained winning streak they'll need to play their way back in. We should also note that their current bracket projection doesn't include last night's game, although a close loss to Missouri might actually work in UT's favor.
Oklahoma (13-7, 3-5): The Sooners have beaten Kansas State twice and the losses include all three conference heavyweights, plus solid teams in St. Louis and Cincinnati. It's the L to Texas A&M that hurts them, and the one to Oklahoma State that looks even worse. OU isn't deep up front, but their two core players, Andrew Fitzgerald and Romeo Osby do a lot of damage, combining for a 25/13 line each night. Steve Pledger is the leading scorer at the guard spot and is a great three-point shooter. Filling in the gaps around these three is the challenge, but regardless, it's easy to see a Pledger, Fitzgerald, Osby core leading a push to March Madness. With the next game being a road trip to Kansas, we'll probably have to wait until Saturday's home game with Iowa State to see if such a push is in the cards.
Texas A&M (12-8, 3-5): A&M also has a good pair at the forward spots, with Khris Middleton and David Lobeau. Unlike OU, they don't have a pure shooter on the outside, but they do have extra help on the frontline with forward Ray Turner, a 6'9" double-digit scorer. Middleton, Lobeau and Turner can present matchup problems in a college landscape that's backcourt heavy. And while A&M doesn't have a three-point threat, two-guard Elston Turner still averages 15 ppg, with senior Dash Harris running the show. It's easy to see the Aggies making a strong push in these coming weeks, although like Oklahoma, the weekend is the more likely coming-out party. Not only is Baylor the opponent, but Harris and Middleton are both questionable.
The Big 12 has become one of the nation's best basketball conferences and quite frankly I'd probably consider it the best combined football/hoops league out there right now. I find it tough to imagine they get any fewer than the currently projected five teams in the NCAA Tournament, and at the end of the day, my guess is that six will make it. I'm picking both current outcasts, A&M and Oklahoma to move on up and join Kansas State when the field of 68 is announced on March 12.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily, commentary and historical perspective.