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The Conference Grind Begins

Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Big 12 conference play officially gets underway on Saturday and with it, comes the 18-game grind that will ultimately determine just how good of a team Iowa State is. The Cyclones open things up by returning to the scene of their ugliest loss from a season ago at Texas Tech.

At a perfect 12-0 and ranked #13, Iowa State comes into league play in the unfamiliar position of being a potential favorite to take the conference championship. Most would concede that the Big 12 is a four-team race and with recent injuries at Oklahoma State, an inexperienced team in Lawrence, and the always unpredictable Baylor in the fold, Iowa State has just as good of a chance as anyone to win the league.

To this point, Iowa State has been among the biggest surprises in college basketball, but conference play will determine whether or not the Cyclones have staying power. If ISU is going to remain in the top 25 for the duration of the year, it will have to continue to grind out wins against a better than expected Big 12. Including ISU, four Big 12 teams are ranked among the top 16 and three others are receiving votes.

I'm not much of a gambler, but at this point, I'd still put Oklahoma State and Kansas as the odds on favorites to win the Big 12, but Iowa State and Baylor certainly don't sit far behind. Prior to the year, I did a conference countdown, predicting how everything would shake out and I've already proved to be dead wrong about one team (Texas), but this is as good of time as any to reevaluate things and put another foolish prediction in print.

The Favorites

Even with the loss of F Michael Cobbins to a ruptured Achilles and freshman G Stevie Clark to a marijuana-related arrest, Oklahoma State still has the best chance to unseat Kansas' Big 12 reign. The Cowboys have a three-man core that's as good as any in the country and perhaps the most dynamic player in the country in Marcus Smart. Inside depth will now become the biggest obstacle between Oklahoma State and a conference championship. Cobbins wasn't much of an offensive threat, but he was a stellar defender near the rim and while only 6'8", he'd become one of the better shot blockers in the Big 12. Kamari Murphy is a more than adequate replacement and there shouldn't be much drop off there, but things get really thin after that.

Standing in Oklahoma State's way and standing in every school's way for the last decade is Kansas. The Jayhawks might be the most naturally talented team in college basketball, but things have taken time to come together. They hold wins over Duke, New Mexico and Georgetown, but there are losses to Villanova, Florida and Colorado, the latter two on the road, that show on the KU ledger. If anything, you can't say that Kansas hasn't been tested. Whether or not that non-conference gauntlet leads to conference success we'll see, but I think this Kansas team has only scratched the surface of their potential and that's downright terrifying.

The Contenders

Iowa State and Baylor are good enough to beat Kansas and Oklahoma State on any given night, but it remains to be seen if either team can be better over the course of 18 games. Iowa State tallied several impressive wins en route to finishing the non-conference season undefeated, but in the back of all our minds (or at least mine), you have to wonder if this team has been playing at their ceiling, or if there's another gear we've yet to see. Iowa State isn't going to lose many home games and the potential for a 9-0 home mark in conference isn't unrealistic, but how they fare on the road will ultimately determine if Iowa State has a legitimate shot to take the conference crown.

With Baylor, it's a familiar script. Good enough to beat anyone (Kentucky), but then there's an OT win over Northwestern State and tight contests against Charles Southern and a not so good South Carolina outfit. Cory Jefferson is playing like a guy auditioning for an NBA lottery team (good), but Isaiah Austin is costing himself millions with his play thus far (bad). Coming off a great summer, Brady Heslip has rediscovered his shooting stroke (good), but when Baylor needs a guy to break down the defense, Kenny Chery is no Pierre Jackson (bad). This is the ultimate trick-or-treat team.

Playing For A Post Season

Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas State have post season aspirations. The Big 12 will not be a 7-bid league, however, meaning that at least one of these teams will fall short of the big dance. Texas has been the biggest surprise of the bunch, coming off the first losing season of Rick Barnes' tenure in Austin, he's managed to make a young team a surprising winner. Freshman point guard, Isaiah Taylor, looks like a future star and Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes are playing much better inside. The 'Horns are going to be a tough out and might be the Big 12's best shot at locking up a 5th NCAA bid.

Then there's Oklahoma. I wasn't high on the Sooners coming into the year and I still have my doubts, but Lon Kruger has managed to get this team out to a solid start (recent home loss to Louisiana Tech notwithstanding). OU has one of the more underrated back courts nationally as far as I'm concerned and I've got kind of a basketball crush on Buddy Hield. This kid can flat out play and will be a household name before long. The big surprise in Sooner land, though, has been senior Cameron Clark. More of a role player throughout his career, Clark has exploded as a senior, leading Oklahoma in scoring at 18.5 points per game. OU will be a bubble team, but that La-Tech loss is making me think NIT.

And finally, just who is Kansas State? The team that lost to Northern Colorado, Charlotte and was embarrassed by Georgetown is showing life lately and notched a big time win on a semi-neutral (Wichita) court against Gonzaga that made the rest of the conference take notice. The catalyst for the recent surge has been freshman guard, Marcus Foster. A prolific scorer in high school, Foster has been fantastic of late. Physically, he looks like a senior and he plays with the swagger of one. The Wildcats have ripped off 8 straight and we know how tough of a gym Bramlage is. Could K-State sneak into the dance with a 10-8 conference record?

The Bottom Dwellers

You look at West Virginia and Texas Tech, sitting at 8-5 and think it's going to be a long winter, but neither school really has a true bad loss on their resume. Then again, neither really has a good win either, but hey, they've been competitive and that's all you can ask for when you're picked near the bottom anyway.

The Red Raiders ride their inside duo of Jaye Crockett and Jordan Tolbert, who've both played well, while Tubby Smith has managed to find a suitable point guard in Robert Turner. Tech will spring an upset or two in conference play, but let's hope one doesn't come on Saturday.

TCU doesn't totally suck. Quite the backhanded compliment, I know. The Horned Frogs are getting better. They've been bitten bad by the injury bug, but Kyan Anderson is putting up big numbers and highly-ranked freshman, Karviar Shepherd is producing, so there's hope for the future...just not this year.

Looking At Saturday's Game

As I mentioned, Iowa State's game at Texas Tech brings back memories of that atrocious performance in Lubbock nearly a year ago. Was that the worst loss of the Hoiberg era? I'm not necessarily going to say that it was, but I'm not going to say that it wasn't. In any event, this is a different team with mostly different players and Iowa State has shown that it can win away from Hilton Coliseum.

Texas Tech sits at #110 in the rankings and has an RPI ranking of 141, meaning that this should be a win for Iowa State, but conference road wins are rarely easy, especially when the guy manning the home sideline has a national championship ring on his finger.

The Red Raiders have the ability to match up with Iowa State's small-ball line up and their bigs are active, athletic and crash the boards. This will be the first of a series of many tests for how well Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang can handle the rigors of conference officiating. Stay on the court and Iowa State wins. Get into foul trouble and well, let the struggles begin.

On the perimeter, Iowa State should hold a major advantage. Tech doesn't have a guy on their roster that can match up with DeAndre Kane, so look for him to have a big game. It's crucial that one of Naz Long, Matt Thomas or Monte Morris comes up with a solid game on Saturday. Iowa State is tough enough to beat when they have four guys in double figures, but when they get a fifth, there's only a few teams in the country that can knock them off. Long is shooting nearly 50% from outside and Morris has played well in stretches and has been almost always steady through 12 games. Matt Thomas is the guy that could really get this team to the next level, though. A lot has been made of Thomas' play, but while not necessarily shooting lights out, Thomas has passed the ball well enough and has gotten better defensively since his disastrous effort against "Georges" Mason. I think he knocks down at least three treys on Saturday.

When all is said and done, I see Iowa State putting this one away late and coming out of Lubbock with a double-digit victory. Tech will fight and scratch and claw for the first 25-30 minutes, but Iowa State has too many weapons and Tech doesn't have the talent to make this a 40-minute game.

Iowa State goes to 13-0, setting up a monster showdown with Baylor on Tuesday.

Iowa State 78 - Texas Tech 66

Game Info

Tip: 12:45 PM CST January 4th - United Spirit Arena in Lubbock, Texas

TV: Big 12 Network, WOI-TV/ABC5 in central Iowa (welcome back to my life Dave Armstrong!)

Radio: Cyclone Radio Network

Webcast: ESPN3

Texas Tech's SBN Blog: Viva The Matadors