There weren’t more than handful of people in Lloyd Noble Center on Martin Luther King Day when the Sooners were practicing. The gym, mostly empty, rang with the sounds of Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and assistant Chris Crutchfield down on the south end of the floor.
Isaiah Cousins was at the top of the key. Je’lon Hornbeak was stretched out on the left wing, and Jordan Woodard stood on the right. They were playing defense — 3-on-3 with other guards — and the intensity level was high.
Three players who make up the eighth best scoring team in Division I men’s hoops were repeatedly being coached up on their defensive skills. They worked the team’s weakness, so its strength might further flourish.
As the ball moved from side to side, as sophomore Buddy Hield continued to drive and kick, the three guards sprinted about the half court. They looked to deny passing lanes, force bad shots and create turnovers the old fashioned way.
“At some point,” Crutchfield said, “you gotta hold your ground. You have to hold your ground and take a charge.”
This wasn’t anything different from what Kruger and his staff has taught their teams since they first arrived in Norman three years ago. They still want to play tough defense. They still value taking care of the ball.
But there was something different about this team; different than the other two OU teams Kruger’s coached. The difference is this team is ranked in the Associated Press poll.
It’s a subtle thing, a ranking. The only folks who truly care about college sports rankings are college sports fans and college sports media. For fans, it’s about pride. For reporters, it’s about establishing a hierarchy that many believe is as close to true as possible.
The ranking doesn’t change how teams practice or prepare. It doesn’t come with magical fairy dust. The ranking is just a slight acknowledgment from the voting contingent of the basketball media that it has been watching, paying attention, doing its due diligence.
And through the first couple of weeks of January, those with votes have recognized six Big 12 teams as six of the top 25 teams in the country. Those teams include:
Kansas (No. 8)
Oklahoma State (No. 11)
Iowa State (No. 16)
Kansas State (No. 22)
Baylor (No. 24)
Oklahoma (No. 25)
That’s perhaps the easiest way to make a case for the Big 12 being one of the better conferences in college basketball. But there are others.
Three Big 12 teams — Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — rank among the top 10 teams in the country in scoring. Three of the top six players eligible for the 2014 NBA Draft play in the league. Seven Big 12 teams have won at least 13 games in 17.
But I’ve always thought a conference is only as good as its weakest members. That means taking a hard look at how good West Virginia, Texas Tech and Texas Christian have been.
WVU and Tech have each found a way to remain above .500 in a league many thought they would be utterly dominated by, and they still might. Right now though, they’re each sitting on a 10-8 (2-3 Big 12) record.
In his first year in charge, Tech coach Tubby Smith has already begun to turn around the program. The Red Raiders won back-to-back Big 12 games for the first time in nearly three years last week.
They need just two more wins to notch more victories this year than they had last season. They also only need two wins to amass more Big 12 victories than they had last season. Who knows what Tech might have been capable of if Josh Gray didn’t decide to play junior college ball this year?
WVU has sophomore guard Eron Harris and junior Juwan Staten to point to. Harris averages 17.6 points a game, and Staten scores 17.3 a game. With all this scoring going on in the Big 12, only the Mountaineers claim two of the top 5 scorers in the league on the same team.
West Virginia has shown it can play with the best in the league, losing to Oklahoma State by just one point at home. The Mountaineers are beating the teams they should, and if one of the upper echelon teams in the league slips, WVU is capable of beating them.
TCU is the only Big 12 team without a win in league play. In fact, the Horned Frogs have only played one game since 2014 began where they haven’t lost by double-digits.
They travel to Norman on Wednesday. The last time TCU played Lloyd Noble they lost by 27, and TCU coach Trent Johnson kept it real in the postgame presser.
“Without looking at the tape, the bottom line for me is you can look at the score, you can cut it anyway you want it, they just gave us a good old fashion ass-whooping,” Johnson said.
And so it was.
But the Horned Frogs returned the favor nearly a month later. When it was all said and done, they’d beaten a tournament team and a co-Big 12 champion. This TCU team is better than last year’s and capable, on the right night, of beating anyone.
I think that’s what makes the Big 12 so good. In this league, any team has the talent to beat another. While that was true last year, there are rankings — a subtle gesture — to show that’s likely true not only inside the Big 12 Conference but of Big 12 teams playing against the nation’s elite.