AMES, Iowa — From top to bottom, the Big 12 hasn't started conference play like this in a decade.
No. 11 Kansas State has already surpassed last season's overall win total and made an impressive Top 25 poll debut this week after being picked to finish last in the 10-team league with new coach Jerome Tang and a completely revamped roster.
The Wildcats (15-1) have won their first four Big 12 games, just like defending national champion No. 2 Kansas and No. 14 Iowa State, which is surging again after a surprise run to the NCAA Sweet 16 last March.
“I’m very thankful. I’ve been really blessed by God to have this opportunity,” Tang said after K-State beat Oklahoma State for its ninth win in a row before he praised his 15-player roster. “I know this is not about me.”
The Big 12 is the only league in the county with half of its teams ranked, and every team still with a winning record. That is with previously ranked teams Texas Tech and West Virginia both 0-4 in the conference.
“We’ve just got to go on a run here," Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. “And it’s not going to be easy.”
The last time the Big 12 had multiple teams open league play 4-0 with multiple other teams 0-4 was 2012-13, the season it became a 10-school league. There is also a lot going on in between those two extremes.
Texas (14-2, 3-1 Big 12), moving forward without fired coach Chris Beard, had its biggest comeback in 10 years by overcoming an 18-point deficit to beat TCU at home Wednesday night. The Horned Frogs (13-3, 2-2) had rallied from 17 down for a win at Baylor a week earlier.
"In the Big 12, we’re going to be in games like this all season long,” said Longhorns interim coach Rodney Terry, who is 7-1 since taking over the program when Beard was suspended after an arrest on a felony domestic violence charge before being fired last week.
TCU, which last March got its first NCAA Tournament victory in 35 years, had an 11-game winning streak until Gabe Kalscheur's 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left gave Iowa State a 69-67 win on Saturday.
“In the second half, we’ve got to pick up our pace and show our will,” TCU guard Emanuel Miller said after the Texas loss. “We’ve got to know every possession matters. In this league, you mess up one possession, it can cost you the game.”
Only six of the 20 conference games played so far have been decided by more than six points and home court hasn't been an advantage so far: Visiting teams have an 11-9 record.
“It’s reality, we play in the toughest conference in college basketball. ... We have literally no off night," Oklahoma State senior forward Kalib Boone said.
The Cowboys now go to preseason Big 12 favorite Baylor (11-5, 1-3), the national champion two seasons ago and two-time defending league champ. The Bears avoided an 0-4 start when freshman Keyonte George had 32 points in an 83-78 victory at West Virginia on Wednesday in their first game as an unranked team since the end of the 2018-19 season.
Baylor was in a school-record 65 consecutive polls until back-to-back home losses last week. The Bears lost 88-87 to TCU before K-State's overtime win in Tang's return to Waco, where he was on Scott Drew's staff the previous 19 seasons.
“Coach Tang has done a great job with their chemistry, their grit, their toughness,” Drew said.
The Wildcats, off to their best overall start since 1958-59, has 10 transfers and three freshmen. The only holdovers from last season are junior forward Ismael Massoud and senior guard Markquis Nowell, the Big 12 leader with 8.8 assists a game and seventh with 17.2 points.
Kansas State debuted just outside the top 10 in the same AP Top 25 that saw Iowa State made a 11-point jump from 25th. The Cyclones have won the two most-lopsided conference games so far, by 15 over Baylor on New Years' Eve and 84-50 over Texas Tech this week.
Big 12 coaches picked Iowa State to finish eighth, even after coach T.J. Otzelberger won 22 games and took the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 in his debut last season after inheriting a two-win team. Their starting lineup has a true freshman guard and four transfers.
The Cyclones play Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas (15-1) just overcame a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes for a 79-75 victory over Oklahoma.
“We told them before the game you might as well enjoy it because it is going to be a grind,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said.
That describes just about every Big 12 game so far this season.