Strong Big 12 heads into league play

Thursday, January 8, 2009 | 4:36 p.m. CST; updated 11:14 a.m. CST, Friday, January 9, 2009

COLUMBIA — This was supposed to be a down year for men's basketball in the Big 12 Conference.

Its best team last year, defending national champion Kansas, lost all five starters to graduation or the NBA. The preseason AP poll had just two teams in its top 20.

Saturday's game

Missouri (13-2, 0-0) at Nebraska (10-3, 0-0)

WHEN: 1 p.m.

WHERE: Bob Devaney Center, Lincoln, Neb.



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But with nonconference play almost over — Kansas plays at Michigan State on Saturday, and Kansas State hosts North Carolina Central in February — the Big 12 is comparing favorably to the rest of the country. The conference is 136-36 this season, good for a .791 nonconference winning percentage. That leads the nation and would be the best mark in league history. The Big 12 is 7-7 against nationally ranked opponents, giving it more wins and a better winning percentage than any conference outside of the Big East.

“I think everybody would agree that the Big East is the best,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in Thursday’s Big 12 Teleconference. “But I don’t have any clue on that other stuff. To me it’s hard to evaluate. You have some conferences that the appearance is they’ve had better out-of-conference years than what we’ve had and things like that.”

Conference play begins Saturday for 10 of the league's teams. No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas appear to be the early favorites, even though both have lost at Arkansas in the past two weeks. Baylor is looking like a strong contender as well, even after a surprising one-point loss at home to South Carolina last weekend. The Bears begin conference play Saturday against visiting Texas Tech.

“It’s not really the first place I wanted to go play to open up,” Red Raiders coach Pat Knight said. “But honestly, if you look at our league, where do you want to open up? It’d be better to open up at home. But I don’t care where you go in this league, it’s going to be very tough no matter where you play.”

Home teams dominated conference play last season, posting a 65-31 record and several upsets, including Missouri’s 97-84 win over Texas and Kansas State’s 84-75 victory over Kansas, who was undefeated at the time. Only Colorado, which finished 3-5 in Boulder, didn’t win at least half of its conference games at home.

Missouri senior Matt Lawrence is in his fourth season in the Big 12, and he knows all too well the difficulties of playing in another team’s arena. The Tigers are just 6-18 on the road in conference play over the past three years.

“It’s like you don’t care if you win by one or 20, just to get that win on the road, there’s no greater feeling,” Lawrence said Monday. “So hopefully our guys are going to play every game like we’re playing against our biggest rival or the No. 1 team in the nation and that’s the only way I think we can go into these hostile places and win.”

Texas coach Rick Barnes prepared his team for Big 12 play with a difficult nonconference schedule that featured four top 25 teams, including wins against UCLA and Villanova. He knows these games could be important to his team’s tournament hopes, but he wasn’t interested in how the Big 12 compares to other conferences.

“We’re as good as any league in the country year-in and year out,” Barnes said. “At the end of the year, that’s when we’ll find out, but I think it’s probably too early to tell what is the best league right now.”

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