LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — At first glance, it makes little sense that the Big 12 conducts its men’s basketball tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, considering the state of Missouri no longer has a program in the league.
Then again, perhaps it makes perfect sense.
As the league begins its double-round-robin grind next week, Kansas sets its sights on a 13th consecutive regular-season championship. That almost unfathomable stretch of dominance would match the UCLA teams of the 1960s and ‘70s for the longest streak in major college basketball, and is one that may never again be matched in an era of increased roster turnover and greater overall parity.
And since the Jayhawks reside in Lawrence, a short drive down Interstate 70 from the Sprint Center, the old cliché appears to hold true: The road to the Big 12 title goes through Kansas.
“What Kansas has done, it’s unheard of,” said TCU coach Jamie Dixon, who arrived in the Big 12 from Pittsburgh this season. “I guess it hasn’t been done since UCLA, and that was obviously a different time.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew even called Kansas “a career favorite.”
“But other than that,” Drew added, “it’s a crapshoot. And that makes the league so good.”
Indeed, the league may be Kansas and everybody else, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy on the perennial favorite. The Bears have roared through the rankings after wins over Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier, and are now considered the biggest threat to the Jayhawks’ throne.
West Virginia, TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are among those off to hot starts.
Just like the Jayhawks, who haven’t lost since their opener to Indiana.
“They’ve got a great coach, they’ve got great players, and they never lose at home,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. “People have to go into Allen Fieldhouse and win once in a while, because the rest of us all lose at home, and I think if you look at it, that’s without a question the difference. That has a lot to do with the job that Bill (Self) does. Bill does a great job. And they have really good players.”
There are plenty of good players around the league, though. Here are some of them, along with some of the other story lines that will dominate the league this season:
BUILDING MOMENTUM: The Big 12 hadn’t had a Final Four team since Kansas in 2012 before last season, which was rather embarrassing for a league that likes to call itself the toughest around. But the Sooners ended that streak, and now the question is whether the conference can build on it.
FRESHMEN PHENOMS: Kansas forward Josh Jackson could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft next year, but there are plenty of other newcomers making a splash. Texas center Jarrett Allen, Oklahoma State guard Brandon Averette and Jaylen Fisher of TCU have already made their marks.
VETERANS, TOO: Sure, the Big 12 lost Buddy Hield, Georges Niang and several other stars that seemed as if they’d been there forever. In reality, seven of the top eight scorers in the Big 12 last season are gone.
That doesn’t mean teams aren’t relying on experience this season.
Kansas has Frank Mason III and Devonte Graham in the backcourt. Johnathan Motley of Baylor is an early pick for player of the year. Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans, even though he’s been slowed by injury, is one of the game’s best point guards, and Iowa State’s Monte Morris may be even better.
COACHING MATTERS: Huggins reached win No. 800 this season. Self hit the 600 mark. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber reached 400. Throw in the old guard, including Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, and the newcomers — Dixon at TCU, Brad Underwood at Oklahoma State and Chris Beard at Texas Tech — and the argument could be made that the Big 12 has the best top-to-bottom collection of coaches in college basketball.
“You obviously have to have an understanding of what other teams are doing, what other coaches are doing,” said Texas coach Shaka Smart. “You’d be crazy not to steal some of the stuff that’s successful at other places. So I’ve got a ton of respect for coaches in this league. They’re some of the best coaches in the country. Hopefully, when we see something that they do well, we can steal it.”
GAMES TO WATCH: How about all of them? The double-round-robin schedule means just about every game will factor into the league race. But keep an eye on the first weekend in March, when Iowa State visits West Virginia and Kansas heads to Oklahoma State. It could all come down to those two games.