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Kansas Big 12 winning streak faces tough challenge

Oklahoma guard Trae Young stands with head coach Lon Kruger during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas during the Phil Knight Invitational Tournament, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

Oklahoma guard Trae Young stands with head coach Lon Kruger during the second half in an NCAA college basketball game against Arkansas during the Phil Knight Invitational Tournament, in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Troy Wayrynen)

A number of issues threatened to unseat Kansas from its perennial role as favorite to win the Big 12 basketball crown.

Woefully thin front-court depth. A hovering cloud of uncertainty regarding the status of two potentially key reserves. No backup point guard.

Yet, Kansas emerged from a softer-than-usual non-conference schedule (still the strongest in the Big 12) with a 10-2 record and as a popular pick to win a 14th consecutive title.

Still, the streak won’t last forever and this could be the year it ends. Even if it does, it also could be the year Kansas returns to the Final Four for the first time since 2012.

Here’s one vote for that scenario taking place.

My predicted order of Big 12 finish, with statistics culled from kenpom.com:

1 - No. 12 Oklahoma (10-1, 106 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 16.

Leading scorer: Trae Young (28.7).

Positive stat (national kenpom.com rank): 59.0 (7) effective field-goal pct.

Negative stat (national kenpom.com rank): 28.0 (200) offensive rebound pct.

Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks won the conference outright when Texas (Kevin Durant), Oklahoma (Blake Griffin) and Kansas State (Michael Beasley) had the best player in the nation, so it’s easy to see why most pick KU to do it again, even though the Sooners have the nation’s best player in Young, the freshman point guard drawing comparisons to Steph Curry.

It’s just as easy to see how Young, complemented by a nice array of shot-blockers and shooters, could lead the Sooners to the Big 12 title. They looked terrific winning at Wichita State, 91-83, Dec. 16.

Young doesn’t play like a freshman, so the pressure of a Big 12 race isn’t likely to get to him.

2 - No. 7 West Virginia (11-1, 329 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 12.

Leading scorer: Jevon Carter (18.2).

Positive stat: 28.3 (2) opponents’ turnover pct.

Negative stat: 33.2 3-point pct. (232).

The names change, but the teams remain the same. They apply insane defensive pressure, sometimes all game, sometimes in spot situations, crash the offensive boards relentlessly and leave opponents feeling as if they’ve been in a boxing gym sparring all night. Carter is the Perry Ellis of West Virginia in that it feels as if he’s been playing for the Mountaineers for 10 years.

3 - No. 11 Kansas (10-2, 60 strength of schedule).

Kenpom.com ranking: 6.

Leading scorer: Lagerald Vick (17.1)

Positive stat: 60.5 (3) effective field-goal pct.

Negative stat: 18.2 (351) FTA/FGA ratio.

Cleared to practice, Silvio De Sousa hasn’t been cleared to play in games yet. The bright side: The longer he practices before making his debut, the more ready he’ll be for that debut. The downside: Especially with Billy Preston still not playing, the sooner Udoka Azubuike has help up front, the better.

Kansas has played remarkably well on most nights, but the grind of conference play requires more depth than they had in non-conference play.

This could be a more dangerous NCAA tournament team than in conference.

4 - No. 10 TCU (12-0, 135 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 24.

Leading scorer: Kenrich Williams (14.5).

Positive stat: 59.8 (4) effective field-goal pct.

Negative stat: 52.5 (245) 2-point pct. defense.

NIT champions with a resounding 88-56 annihilation of Georgia Tech, Jamie Dixon’s Horned Frogs have won 17 in a row.

The world is about to see how that streak stands up to tougher competition. In its first five Big 12 games, TCU faces Oklahoma twice and Kansas once.

The Frogs don’t have any superstars but do have five players in double figures, including 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior Vladimir Brodziansky from Slovakia who is averaging 13.5 points, shooting .435 from 3-point range and averaging 1.8 blocks per game.

5 - Texas (9-3, 99 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 32.

Leading scorer: Andrew Jones (15.3).

Positive stat: 87.2 (2) adjusted defensive efficiency.

Negative stat: 0.94 (339) years average experience.

Freshman center Mohamed Bamba is blessed with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, runs the floor like a guard, and has enabled Texas to pressure the ball defensively, knowing Bamba can bail them out with blocked shots.

Bamba totaled 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots against Alabama.

6 - No. 22 Texas Tech (11-1, 334 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 11.

Leading scorer: Keenan Evans (16.5).

Positive stat: 89.9 adjusted defensive efficiency (6).

Negative stat: 66.5 (281) free-throw pct.

The Red Raiders slammed Boston College, 75-64, and Northwestern, 85-49, and have received strong early play from freshmen Zaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, both averaging in double figures.

Zach Smith (7.5 ppg) is off to a slow start and will need to return to form for Tech to finish in the top half of the conference.

7 - No. 18 Baylor (10-2, 291 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 28.

Leading scorer: Manu Lecomte (18.4).

Positive stat: 20.0 (2) opponents FTA/FGA ratio.

Negative stat: 15.7 (328) opponents’ turnover pct.

Lecomte is a terrific point guard and 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil is averaging a double-double, but the Bears don’t have enough offensive firepower joining them in the lineup to contend for a conference title.

8 - Oklahoma State (10-2, 300 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 49.

Leading scorer: Jeffrey Carroll (15.0)

Positive stat: 80.5 (3) free-throw pct.

Negative stat: 33.0 (243) 3-point pct.

Cowboys have played well under first-year coach Mike Boynton, whose only two losses have come to ranked opponents Texas A&M and Wichita State.

Upset victory against ranked Florida State was a big one for the Big 12.

9 - Kansas State (10-2, 286 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 43.

Leading scorer: Barry Brown (14.4).

Positive stat: 4.4 pct. (2) of shots blocked by opposing defenses.

Negative stat: 34.9 (174) 3-point pct.

The Wildcats nearly pulled off what would have been a terrific victory on Thanksgiving Day but couldn’t hold onto a nine-point lead early in the second half and lost to Arizona State by two.

Is this the year Dean Wade consistently asserts himself? If so, K-State will finish better than ninth. If not, maybe not.

10 - Iowa State (9-2, 297 SoS).

Kenpom.com ranking: 74.

Leading scorer: Donovan Jackson (16.2).

Positive stat: 16.7 (48) turnover pct.

Negative stat: 17.9 (237) opponents’ turnover pct.

After opening season with losses at Missouri and at home vs. Milwaukee, Cyclones have rebounded to carry nine-game winning streak into the conference play, including victories against Boise State, Iowa and Northern Iowa. It’s not that Iowa State is bad, but somebody has to finish last.

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