And then there were three.
With apologies to Iowa State and Oklahoma, perhaps still clinging to hopes of a miracle, the race for the Big 12 Conference title has come down to a trio of contenders: Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
The Jayhawks and Wildcats, currently atop the league at 12-3, have three games left. The Cowboys (10-4) have four to play.
It doesn’t get much closer than that.
Some argue the conference is down this year. But it would be a much harder case to make that the excitement level is, too.
As we buckle up for what could be a thrilling two weeks in the Big 12, the Avalanche-Journal handicaps the rest of the schedule for its top programs.
Big 12 record: 12-3
Remaining schedule: West Virginia, Texas Tech, at Baylor
The Jayhawks have the easiest road of the three, facing no team that entered the week with a winning conference record.
That may have made Monday’s classic 108-96 overtime win at Iowa State a de facto conference title game for Kansas, which looks far removed from the team that lost three games in a row earlier this month.
Overtime road wins against the Cyclones and Oklahoma State proved this team has the resolve it takes to win the games when they matter most. And their senior point guard Elijah Johnson, fresh-off a 39-point masterpiece in Ames, is apparently finding his confidence at the right time.
That will play big dividends in March, not to mention the last three games of the regular season. At least a share of a ninth straight conference title looks like a safe bet.
Big 12 record: 12-3
Remaining schedule: at Baylor, TCU, at Oklahoma State
The Wildcats have quietly marched along, winning four straight games and eight of their last nine. Last year it was Missouri’s Frank Haith who was taking a team, in his first year as its coach, to the brink of a conference title (the Tigers finished second). This season it is Bruce Weber with the surprise opening act, taking a team picked to finish fifth in the league and putting it in position to capture its first conference since 1977.
Kansas State has reached this point by receiving major contributions from nearly everyone in the lineup at some point. Against Texas Tech on Monday, it was Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams combining for 31 points — about 20 more than their collective season average — to lift a team that was sluggish for much of the contest before turning on the afterburners.
If Kansas State can get by Baylor, it should have no problem taking care of business against TCU. That would set up a huge clash in the regular-season finale against the Cowboys.
As solid a year as Kansas State has had, it will probably need to be perfect in this final three games to win the league.
Big 12 record: 10-4
Remaining schedule: at TCU, Texas, at Iowa State, Kansas State
The Cowboys have no margin for error.
Travis Ford’s bunch was ever so close to putting itself in prime position to win the conference outright, but a one-point, overtime loss to Kansas on Feb. 20 severely hampered those dreams.
Had Oklahoma State won that game, it would have been up one game on the Jayhawks. The Cowboys would have been tied with Kansas State, setting up the possibility that the regular-season finale between the two could have been a winner-take-all affair.
It all matters little now for Oklahoma State, which will also face a stiff challenge at Iowa State before hosting the Wildcats on March 9.
It’s pretty simple for the Cowboys: Win out and you have a chance to win the Big 12. Lose one, and those hopes are done.
... Let the fun begin.
To comment on this story: