And then there were … six?
That’s probably premature. But the Big 12’s pool of potential tournament teams is much deeper than it appeared to be last month. Or even last week.
Texas’ commendable 86-83 road win over a North Carolina squad that had knocked off Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville (but lost to UAB and Belmont) changed perceptions about Rick Barnes’ squad -- and his job security.
Before the Longhorns beat the Tar Heels on Wednesday, I had my doubts. I thought they were just the beneficiaries of a soft schedule.
And there were too many indicators that they wouldn’t excel anytime soon.
When the Longhorns announced that Javan Felix would be sidelined indefinitely following hip surgery prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, Texas was without its top five scorers from last year. Two players had transferred, Myck Kabongo turned pro (but was not drafted) and Ioannis Papapetrou accepted a deal to play overseas.
Texas was college basketball’s version of “Survivor,” with another player leaving each week, it seemed. But now the Longhorns are 10-1 with a road win over nationally-ranked North Carolina.
And if the Longhorns can win in Chapel Hill, they can win in Lawrence. And Stillwater. And Ames.
That’s the new narrative for America’s most intriguing league, which lacks a true front-runner.
The Big 12 had everything settled in May when Andrew Wiggins picked Kansas. Then, it seemed, the Big 12 race was clearly a battle between Marcus Smart’s Oklahoma State squad and the Jayhawks. The rest of the conference would fight for third.
With a few weeks to go before Big 12 play begins, however, it’s clear that things have changed.
Yes, Kansas is still a threat to win its 10th consecutive conference crown. And Oklahoma State can earn a ring too, especially if Markel Brown (15.7 PPG, 43 percent from the 3-point line) continues to play such an efficient complementary role.
But undefeated Iowa State might be the best team in the conference. The Cyclones have wins over Iowa and Michigan. And Fred Hoiberg’s program possesses the top scoring offense in the country (90.9 PPG).
Scott Drew has a good squad in Waco, too. Baylor dismissed Kentucky at Cowboys Stadium. Point guard Kenny Chery looked very comfortable with the Bears that night. That’s key. With Cory Jefferson, Gary Franklin and other veterans, Baylor is definitely a Big 12 contender, too.
That, however, is not the most interesting element of Big 12 basketball right now.
Leagues are judged according to their depth. That’s why the Big Ten has held the “best league in America” title in recent years. Just because the top is tough doesn’t mean that league is.
But Texas just made this Big 12 race more interesting and compelling and unpredictable.
We know that Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Kansas can finish the season as the best team in the Big 12. The Jayhawks are inexperienced, but they’re also more talented than any squad in the conference.
We know Oklahoma State can win the Big 12. That’s one of the reasons Smart returned. And if he’s on the floor, who could doubt the Cowboys?
Baylor and Iowa State were difficult to assess entering the year, although we know where they stand now.
Oklahoma could enter the mix as well. The Sooners are 10-1, with their only loss coming to Michigan State, and have five players averaging double figures right now.
But we didn’t know how much Texas would be in the conversation. Not after an offseason that was as rocky as Adrien Broner’s early rounds against Marcos Maidana over the weekend. Not after losing some of its best players from last season’s squad.
So the Longhorns proved something in Chapel Hill. Yes, they’re young. But young teams can mature quickly. One week, they’re sloppy. The next week, things begin to come together.
That’s what happened on Wednesday.
Felix is obviously clutch. And he’s surrounded by some young standouts who’ve helped legitimize Texas’ 9-1 start -- Demarcus Holland, Isaiah Taylor and Jonathan Holmes were all poised and effective in the win.
And now, Texas might be a factor in the Big 12. A sleeper. A team in the mix.
I’m not saying that Texas will win the Big 12 title, although it doesn’t get much tougher than a road win over a confident Tar Heels squad.
I am saying, however, that there are more unknowns about the league now. Certainly more unknowns about the Big 12 compared to the day that Wiggins signed with Kansas.
Texas, somehow, is relevant again just a few weeks before the commencement of Big 12 competition.
And it’s definitely not a two-team race.