Tuesday, March 28, 2023

2023 Big 12 championship race: Texas, Kansas lead contenders for crown in college basketball’s toughest league

This is the last season of Big 12 basketball in its current form as the 10-team league prepares to offset the departures of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC with the additions of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. This iteration of the conference will be missed, but it is sure going out with a bang. Nine of the conference’s 10 teams rank among the top 40 at KenPom.com and seven Big 12 teams are projected to make the NCAA Tournament, according to Jerry Palm’s Bracketology.

While the conference is clearly the best in college basketball, it does not have an obvious title favorite. Texas holds a one-game lead in the conference standings entering Wednesday’s action, and there is a four-way tie for second place. Lurking just behind those five teams is a sixth threat in No. 11 Baylor, and the Bears should not be counted out.

Another beauty of the 10-team era of Big 12 basketball is the scheduling parody as every team plays every other team twice, which creates an even canvas upon which to decide a regular-season champion. So, midway through the conference slate, who is the favorite to win the league?

For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking the team they believe will emerge from the fray to win the Big 12.

Kansas/Kansas State/Texas

If I had to pick just one team to win the Big 12, I’d pick Kansas because it has been the right play in 16 of the previous 19 seasons. But I actually think we’re going to get co-champions this season in the form of Kansas, Kansas State and Texas.

A three-way tie!

Texas and Kansas are a tier above Kansas State from the perspective of most reputable computers — but the Wildcats have a notable schedule advantage going forward. Texas and Kansas both have five road games remaining; Kansas State only has four, and they are against the Big 12’s worst teams: Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. To be clear, it’s still challenging to win at those places. But Kansas State has already won multiple road games tougher than any of those, which is why I really do think the advantageous schedule going forward could be the thing that allows Jerome Tang to get at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title in his first season as a Division I head coach. — Gary Parrish

Kansas

Something surprising: The Big 12 overwhelmingly rates as the toughest conference, and yet the highest-rated team at KenPom is Kansas (9). That said, the top six all sit between ninth in 25th in that metric and are placed similarly in predictive metrics elsewhere. I think Parrish has a better-than-50% chance of being right that the ending will find multiple teams atop the league ledger. Getting a three-way tie is also on the table, but I think there’s a better shot of one team than three laying claim to the Big 12 regular-season title. Because Texas’ remaining schedule is so difficult due to the road tilts GP laid out; and because I’m a little bit of a seller on Kansas State; and because I can’t see Baylor making up a two-game deficit; and because I don’t think Iowa State or TCU will have the best records over the next month, I’m going with Kansas. 

Ol’ reliable KU getting Self his 17th regular-season title. One game back of Texas with the best coach and the best player in the conference. Jalen Wilson is second only to Zach Edey right about now for NPOY. Dajuan Harris is still undervalued as a point guard; when he scores in double figures this season, Kansas is 9-0. Give me the Jayhawks to win this league with a 13-5 record. — Matt Norlander

Kansas

It’s only fitting that the toughest league in America is also the toughest to predict in the sport. That’s because there are not one, not two or three but as many as six teams in the Big 12 that could be considered viable contenders for the regular-season conference crown.

Texas is alone at the top of the standings for now after defeating Baylor on Monday — the same night Iowa State blew a 23-point lead and lost to Texas Tech — but the Longhorns aren’t in the clear by any stretch. Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and TCU are all a game behind entering Wednesday’s action. 

My money is on chaos if only because this league is chaos. So I’m taking Kansas to mount a comeback down the stretch and win the league. Texas’ lead is far from safe with road trips to K-State and Kansas on deck. Meanwhile Kansas has a bonafide Player of the Year contender in Jalen Wilson, who is playing his best ball down the stretch run. This team can play at a high level on both ends with a blend of young star power and veteran experience.

The magic number to win the league might be 13 conference wins, so there’s still room for KU to easily get there and also enough wiggle space to stumble a few times down the stretch, too. Road tilts vs. Iowa State, TCU and Texas in coming weeks won’t be easy, either. Kansas has to defend its home court and be just above .500 in road games, but the path to another regular-season title is there for the taking.  — Kyle Boone

Texas

If you’re waiting for Texas to collapse following the dismissal of coach Chris Beard, you’re going to be waiting for a while. This team is uniquely equipped to handle that adversity because interim coach, Rodney Terry, spent a successful decade in the head coaching ranks at Fresno State and UTEP. Terry also knows the Big 12 from prior assistant stops at Baylor and Texas, and he has veteran assistants Bob Donewald and Chris Ogden to rely upon as well. As for the team, it’s one of the deepest and most-experienced groups in the Big 12. 

Midway through the conference season, Texas is alone atop the league standings with a 7-2 record that includes a 3-1 mark in road games. The Longhorns are unfazed by the Big 12 gauntlet because they have seven talented veterans in their rotation and their coaches know what to expect in this league. Texas’ next two games —  consecutive road games against top-10 foes Kansas State and Kansas –are a reminder of the conference’s rigors,  but then comes a manageable stretch before the grand finale of Baylor (road), TCU (road) and Kansas (home). It would be no surprise if a league title is on the line for that final KU game, and it would be unwise to bet against the Longhorns at home.

Nothing comes easy in the Big 12, but Texas has shown us in recent weeks that overcoming adversity is part of its DNA. Every team in the Big 12 except Texas and Kansas State has lost consecutive games at some point this season, and the Longhorns can hand the Wildcats their second straight defeat when they meet Saturday.  — David Cobb

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