Throughout the history of the Big 12 Conference there has been one measuring stick for the rest of the league: Kansas. The Kansas (14-3, 4-0) program has won seven straight Big 12 regular season titles, and despite the early-season doubts of many Bill Self's team has the ability to extend that streak. And while there are multiple challengers there may not be a more talented one than #4 Baylor (17-0, 4-0), and Scott Drew's team is well-equipped to be the last team standing in April as well. And the guards, who were a cause for concern before the season began, have shown themselves capable of making plays and running the show this season.
Junior college transfer Pierre Jackson (12.3 ppg, 5.1 apg) has put together solid assist-to-turnover marks after a stretch early in the season that saw him struggle with turnovers. Over the last three games, Jackson has accounted for 26 assists and nine turnovers, more than double his A/T ratio for the season (1.4). Jackson's third on the team in minutes per game despite coming off the bench, as A.J. Walton (3.8 apg, 3.1 rpg) is the starter. In addition to those two there's Boston College transfer Brady Heslip (10.5 ppg, 48.1% 3PT), who has shown himself to be one of the Big 12's best shooters.
Kansas has talent on the perimeter as well, but the one player who has stepped up his production of late has been Travis Releford (10.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who had a stretch of four straight games in double figures snapped in the Jayhawks' win over Iowa State. The redshirt junior has already gone for a double-double in conference play (16 and 11 in the win over Kansas State) and he led Kansas to a win at Oklahoma with 28 points. Senior Tyshawn Taylor (15.5 ppg, 5.2 apg) runs the show and while he's had his moments when it comes to turnovers, Taylor's been solid for most of the season. And in Elijah Johnson the Jayhawks have a guard that can be a pest on the defensive end of the floor (1.6 spg).
But the frontcourts will be what the majority of people watching will focus on and with good reason. Baylor's one of the deepest teams in the country inside, led by Perry Jones III (13.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Quincy Acy (12.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg) and Quincy Miller (11.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Be it their man-to-man or matchup zone defense, the wingspan of the Baylor frontline (which also includes Anthony Jones and Corey Jefferson) can be problematic for opponents. But while the Bears are very good at getting out and challenging shots (teams shoot 32.0% from three) they're only blocking 6.4 shots per game.
Kansas doesn't have the depth that Baylor possesses inside but in junior Thomas Robinson (17.2 ppg, 12.2 rpg) the Jayhawks have an absolute warrior they can rely on. Robinson has the muscle needed to go inside and bang around while also being able to step out and knock down the occasional mid-range jumper. He'll likely be fine against Baylor, but the concern lies in how Jeff Withey and Kevin Young will play. Withey's shown promise this season, but he scored 17 points in three league games before scoring 13 against Iowa State. Young isn't called on for points but rather help when either Robinson or Withey needs a breather. He'll need to be more productive if the Jayhawks are to slow down the Bears' frontcourt.
Turnovers will likely decide the outcome, as both teams have been good at forcing them but not necessarily great at avoiding them on the offensive end. That means Taylor and Jackson will be the guys to watch for each team, with the point guard that makes better decisions likely being a big reason as to why their team wins. Baylor's taken on some formidable opposition this season, and their win at BYU sticks out when it comes to dealing with rowdy crowds. How much will that matter at Allen Fieldhouse? One would think that the experience would help the Bears out, but that first trip into "The Phog" can be a tough one for newcomers. Veterans such as Acy, Jones III and Walton will need to lead the way in areas that can't be measured on the stat sheet.
Also in the Big 12 Missouri host Texas A&M in a game the Aggies desperately need to perform well in as their resume is meager, and a blowout loss in Columbia would mean big trouble. But can A&M match up with Missouri point guard Phil Pressey? It's difficult to see them being able to do so, and that will likely mean big trouble. Another team that needs a good showing on the road is Pittsburgh, who visits top-ranked Syracuse.
While their 0-5 start to Big East play say that the Panthers could get blown out, keep in mind two interesting facts regarding this series. One, no current Syracuse player has beaten Pittsburgh, and secondly Jamie Dixon has never lost in the Carrier Dome. Will that help Ashton Gibbs and company? Who knows, but the move of Isaiah Epps into the starting lineup coincided with Gibbs' best game of the year. The Panthers will need to limit the impact of reserves Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair if they're to have any chance of beating the Orange.
Also in the Big East, Louisville visits Marquette in a matchup of teams coming off of wins on Saturday. Louisville's Russ Smith is one of the more explosive scorers in the conference but his aggressive nature can get him in trouble as well. Against Marquette's backcourt, led by Darius Johnson-Odom and an improving Junior Cadougan, Smith and Peyton Siva will need to make plays without getting out of control. And it's going to be interesting to see how Louisville goes about defending Jae Crowder as well.
In the SWAC try to keep an eye on Southern's trip to Mississippi Valley State, with these being two of the four teams within a game of each other in the loss column atop the standings. MVSU, led by Terrence Joyner and Paul Crosby, has won three of its four league games by 12 points or more (4-0). Southern is 4-1 in league play and guard Derrick Beltran leads four players averaging at least 9.6 ppg with an average of 11.6 ppg.
Top 25 Games
7:30 PM Pittsburgh at (1) Syracuse (ESPN)
9:30 PM (4) Baylor at (10) Kansas (ESPN)
5:30 PM Texas A&M at (9) Missouri (ESPN)
3:30 PM (15) Louisville at (24) Marquette (ESPN)
NCAA Division I Games
2:00 PM Longwood at Fairleigh Dickinson
5:00 PM New Hampshire at Stony Brook
7:00 PM Albany at Boston University (CBS SN)
7:00 PM Maine at Vermont
7:00 PM USC Upstate at Jacksonville
7:00 PM Hampton at Morgan State (ESPNU)
7:00 PM East Tennessee State at North Florida
7:30 PM Stetson at Lipscomb
7:30 PM Rider at Fairfield
8:00 PM North Carolina Central at Howard
8:00 PM South Carolina State at Florida A&M
8:00 PM Florida Gulf Coast at Belmont
8:00 PM Savannah State at Bethune-Cookman
8:00 PM Norfolk State at Coppin State
8:00 PM Prairie View A&M vs. Grambling State*
8:45 PM Tennessee State at Austin Peay
9:00 PM Notre Dame at Rutgers (ESPNU)
9:00 PM Alcorn State at Arkansas-Pine Bluff
9:00 PM Texas Southern at Jackson State
9:00 PM Southern at Mississippi Valley State
9:05 PM Saint Mary at Utah Valley
10:00 PM BYU at San Diego (BYU TV)
10:05 PM Idaho State at Portland State
10:10 PM Eastern Washington at Seattle