> SOUTHERN INDIANA — There are better college basketball conferences than the Big 12 in 2011-12.
But there are none more entertaining.
The Big 12 has three of the nation’s top eight teams, and of the conference’s 10 teams, nine are capable of beating good teams.
The league title will likely come down to No. 8 Kansas, which is atop the conference standings at 7-1, No. 4 Missouri and No. 6 Baylor. The Tigers and Bears are half-game back of Kansas at 7-2 in the Big 12 standings. No conference has a trio of teams more fun to watch than Kansas, Missouri and Baylor.
Outside of North Carolina, Kansas has the best inside-outside duo in the country with Thomas Robinson, who is averaging 17.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game and point guard Tyshawn Taylor, who scores 16.5 points and hands out 5.2 assists per night.
Missouri is arguably the best shooting team in the country. The Tigers shoot 49.8 percent from the field, including Ricardo Ratliffe’s nation-leading 75.1 percent, 37.7 percent from behind the 3-point arc and 77.7 percent from the foul line. Mizzou has four players who shoot very well from deep, including Kim English, who is shooting 49.5 from the 3-point line, and Marcus Denmon, who is fourth in the Big 12 at 17.2 points per game.
There’s not a team in the nation that can match Baylor’s athletic big men. Perry Jones III is a 6-11 forward who can run, jump, handle and shoot. Quincy Miller — a 6-9 freshman — is athletic and has a soft touch. Six-foot-10 forward Anthony Jones can light it up from the 3-point line, and 6-7 senior Quincy Acy is a dunking machine. Throw in junior college-transfer point guard Pierre Jackson and sharp-shooting Brady Heslip, and the Bears are among the most fun teams to watch in the country.
What sets the Big 12 apart, though, is that it has another six teams that can play spoilers. Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas and Texas A&M will likely play as big a role as the Big 3 in determining the conference champion.
Iowa State, led by Minnesota transfer Royce White and coached by former Cyclone great Fred Hoiberg, handed Kansas its only Big 12 loss on Saturday, 72-64. Led by freshmen Le’Bryan Nash and Brian Williams, Oklahoma State knocked off then-No. 2 Missouri, 79-72 last Wednesday. Kansas State also has a 16-point win over Missouri on its resume, Texas pushed the Tigers to the final seconds on Monday, and Baylor needed a late 3-pointer from Jackson to hold off A&M for a 3-point victory on Wednesday.
The Kansas-Missouri showdowns on Saturday and Feb. 25, the Baylor-Missouri tilt on Feb. 11 and the second Baylor-Kansas matchup Feb. 8 will have huge implications in the Big 12 regular-season race. But so will the Jayhawks’ trip to Kansas State on Feb. 13, Missouri’s return visit to Texas on Feb. 20, and Baylor’s trek into Ames, Iowa, on the final night of the regular season.
Those games are what make the Big 12 the most entertaining conference in the country.
SNAPSHOT WEEKLY AWARDS
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Jackie Carmichael, Illinois State: The Cardinal junior forward had a 47-point, 27-rebound week as Illinois State knocked off Missouri State and Southern Illinois last week. Carmichael, who hit his first career 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Evansville on Jan. 7, had 26 points and 16 rebounds to help the Cardinals knock off Missouri State, 76-69 on Wednesday. He made 8-of-15 shots from the field and 10-of-12 at the foul line and added two assists, a block and a steal. In Saturday’s 60-40 victory over Southern Illinois on Saturday, Carmichael scored nine of the Cardinals’ first 12 points en route to 19 points and 11 rebounds for his seven double-double of the season and the 12th of his career, including three in his last four outing. He was 8-for-12 from the field and had three blocked shots in the triumph. For the season, Carmichael is averaging 13.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 blocks per contest.
SINGLE-GAME PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
Brandon Richardson, Nebraska Senior Guard: Richardson finished with a career-high 25 points in the Cornhuskers’ first Big Ten road victory in school history at Iowa. Richardson made 9-of-10 field goals, including six of his seven 3-point attempts, grabbed six boards, handed out five assists and got two steals as Nebraska toppled the Hawkeyes, 79-73. The Cornhuskers, who were coming off a 34 points home loss to No. 6 Ohio State, are now 11-9 overall and 3-6 in the Big Ten heading into Thursday’s contest at Northwestern.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Massachusetts: A week after knocking off Richmond on the road, the Minutemen knocked off Saint Louis Saturday at home to move into a first-place tie with LaSalle and St. Bonaventure in a wild Atlantic 10 race. Led by Raphiael Putney’s 22 points and 10 rebounds, UMass shot 65.5 in the first half and built a 19-point halftime lead over the 16-5 Billikens, who were also playing for spot at the top of the A-10 standings. The Minutemen, who shot 50 percent from the field and held Saint Louis to 34, go to Rhode Island on Wednesday. The Rams are coming off of an 86-81 win at Dayton for their first league win.
UPSET OF THE WEEK
Samford 77, Davidson 74: At just 6-13 entering the contest, Samford certainly wasn’t expected to be the squad to hand the Wildcats their first Southern Conference loss in Birmingham on Saturday. Jeffrey Merritt scored 20 points and Will Cook hit two free throws with 1.2 seconds left to left the Bulldogs to their biggest win of the season. The Bulldogs have another tough one today when they host the College of Charleston.
WIN OF THE WEEK
Valparaiso 55, Milwaukee 52: In its fourth straight road game, Valpo knocked off Milwaukee Saturday to break a second-place tie in the Horizon League. The Crusaders pulled within a half-game of Cleveland State, which they beat 72-66 on Jan. 15 in their last home game. Valpo held the Panthers to 17-for-48 from the field, including 6-of-22 from the 3-point line, and held Milwaukee to 17 second-half points and rally from an 11-point second-half deficit. Ryan Broekhoff led the Crusaders with 11 points, 11 boards, three assists and three steals.
LOSS OF THE WEEK
Notre Dame 50, Connecticut 48: For the second week in a row, the defending national champions get the dishonor of being getting the “Loss of the Week” after Sunday’s 50-48 home loss to Notre Dame. The 19-for-47 shooting night, which included 3-of-13 from beyond the 3-point arc, led to the Huskies third loss in a row and fifth in seven games. What’s worse is UConn has lost back-to-back games at home after starting 10-0 at Gampel Pavilion. Eric Atkins (13), Jerian Grant (11) and Scott Martin (10) scored in double figures for the Irish. Martin also had seven boards. UConn’s Jeremy Lamb led all scorers with 16, but he missed a 5-footer at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime.
PLAY OF THE WEEK
Hummel’s floater lift Boilers past Northwestern: Four nights after missing two potential winning shots in a 66-64 loss to Michigan, Hummel hit a baseline jumper with eight seconds to play to give Purdue a big 58-56 win over Northwestern in Evanston. With the score tied at 56-apiece, Hummel took a pass from Lewis Jackson in the right corner. Hummel went by Wildcat freshman Dave Sobolewski and nailed the 15-footer to lift Purdue to 5-4 in Big Ten play. Northwestern’s John Shurna missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Wildcats dropped their third straight. Hummel finished with 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting.
THE COLLEGE BASKETBALL LIST
Players, who like Stephen Curry in 2008, are capable of carrying their teams to Cinderella status in March:
1. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State Junior Guard: The Racers are the nation’s last unbeaten team, thanks in large part to the play of Canaan, who is averaging 18.7 points, 3.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 1.3 steals. Canaan is shooting 47.8 percent from the field, 47 percent from the 3-point line and 82.8 percent from the free throw line. In MSU’s two biggest wins of the year, Canaan came up big with a combined 36 points, 12 assists and seven boards in victories over Dayton and Memphis.
2. Damian Lillard, Weber State Junior Guard: Lillard is the nation’s leading scorer at 24.4 points per game, but that’s not all he’s about. He’s also averaging 5.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and he shoots 44.2 percent from the 3-point line for the 16-4 Wildcats. Weber State is currently tied atop the Big Sky standings with Montana, which Lillard burned for 21 points, five rebounds and four assists in an 80-64 Wildcat victory on Jan. 14.
3. Scott Machado, Iona Senior Guard: Machado has plenty of talent around him, especially from Michael Glover. But if the Gaels are going to make a run in March, it will be behind the passing ability of Machado, who leads the nation at 9.9 dishes per game. Machado, who also averages 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds, has led Iona to wins over Maryland and St. Joseph’s with a combined 48 points and 25 assists in back-to-back wins in late November.
4. Ryan Pearson, George Mason Senior Forward: If the Patriots are going to make another deep run in the tournament, it will be on the shoulders of Pearson. Pearson scores 17.5 points and grabs 8.8 rebounds per night for GMU, which is 18-5 overall and on top of the Colonial at 10-1. Pearson had 29 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal in the Patriots’ most recent win, 89-79 over James Madison.
5. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh Junior Guard: McCollum is a great scorer at 21.4 points per game. And for a 6-3 guard, he’s an incredible rebounder at 6.4 per contest and grabbed 7.8 boards as a sophomore. Now a junior, McCollum has the Mountain Hawks at 17-6 overall and 5-2 in the Patriot League, two games behind league-leader Bucknell. In a 90-81 loss at Michigan State – a game the Hawks led 38-35 at the half – McCollum had 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a steal.
Note: Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Saint Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova would likely be No. 1 and No. 2 on this list, but at No. 12 and No. 16 in the country, respectively. Therefore, the Blue Jays and Gaels can no longer be considered potential sleepers.
PROJECTING THE 68
1 – Kentucky, Syracuse, Missouri, Ohio State
2 – Baylor, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke
3 – UNLV, San Diego State, Georgetown, Michigan State
4 – Florida, Murray State, Creighton, Michigan
5 – Saint Mary’s, Marquette, Indiana, Florida State
6 – Gonzaga, Virginia, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt
7 – Mississippi State, Iowa State, Connecticut, Kansas State
8 – Temple, Louisville, California, Wichita State
9 – Harvard, New Mexico, Illinois, Southern Miss
10 – West Virginia, Alabama, Saint Louis, Purdue
11 – Memphis, Middle Tennessee, Xavier, Nevada
12 – Long Beach State, Wyoming, NC State, Cincinnati, Arkansas
13 – Massachusetts, George Mason, VCU, Washington, Notre Dame
14 – Oral Roberts, Iona*, Davidson*, Cleveland State*
15 – UNC-Asheville*, Long Island*, Akron*, Weber State*
16 – Bucknell*, Belmont/Mercer*, Stony Brook*, Norfolk State*, Texas-Arlington*, Mississippi Valley State*
*Invited only as conference tournament champions
Note: Based on performance to date
Greg Mengelt can be reached at email@example.com.