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December 19, 2013

Breakdown: Big win for Barnes

It's our bi-monthly look at Big 12 basketball from the play-by-play voice of the Red Raiders, Brian Hanni.

PRIME PERFORMER: Cameron Clark has the Oklahoma Sooners on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble as projected by ESPN's Joe Lunardi. The Sooners are amongst Lunardi's last four in in his projected field of 68, making the Big 12 a five-bid league.

Clark has been integral to OU's 10-1 start. Last week he averaged 18.5 points in a pair of wins over George Mason and Tulsa and then he erupted for 31 Tuesday night in a 91-89 squeaker over UT-Arlington. His 18.9 points per game on the season currently leads the Big 12; Iowa State's Melvin Ejim checks in next at 18.7 points per outing. Of course, it's not only Clark that's clicking in Norman. He's had great help from Buddy Hield, Ryan Spangler and Jordan Woodward.

A week ago, Dustin Hogue of Iowa State was garnering major praise following his distinction as the Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week. The award looked at games Dec. 2-8 and in that stretch Hogue average 19.5 points and 15 rebounds in a pair of wins over Auburn and Northern Iowa.

RISING ROOKIE: Since our last column two weeks ago, Texas freshman guard Isaiah Taylor has scored 15 points in a win at Temple, 15 in a home victory over Texas State and 16 Wednesday night in a victory at No. 14 North Carolina. The performance in Chapel Hill didn't include the greatest shooting line (5-of-16) but it's clear that Taylor has been a key cog in the midst of Texas' six-game winning streak that has them up to 10-1 on the season and finally getting some respect thanks to a win in the Dean Dome.

Elsewhere, OU freshman guard Jordan Woodward posted a career-high 24 points in the Sooners' 101-91 win over Tulsa en route to Big 12 Rookie of the Week honors and Wayman Tisdale National Freshman of the Week honors. Seventeen of his 24 points came from the free throw line as he hit 17-of-22 foul attempts. Woodward backed that effort up with 12 assists on Tuesday night on an evening when his shot was off (2-of-9) but he found other ways to help OU get by UT-Arlington. He now has posted double figures in four of his last six games.

In Waco, JUCO transfer Kenny Cherry continues to impress. After pouring in 18 points in Baylor's upset of Kentucky on Dec. 6, he came back with 20 points and 10 assists in Wednesday night's overtime victory over Northwestern State.

And give KU's Joel Embiid another attaboy following a second half on Saturday in which he erupted 16 points, three blocks and three steals en route to a career-high 18 points against New Mexico. He's started the last two games for Bill Self and could become a mainstay in the starting lineup. He's projected as the No. 4 pick in June's NBA draft by some outlets.

STOCK REPORT: The Oklahoma and Texas fan bases might be more pleased to see their programs rising in football right now but, truth be told, Lon Krueger's and Rick Barnes' hoops teams are two of the better stories in the league so far. Oklahoma's RPI is 33 after a 10-1 start, earning them a projected 11 seed in ESPN's Bracketology. Their lone loss was to Michigan State in New York and a chance at a quality win comes Saturday against Texas A&M in Houston. 10-1 Texas got its big quality win on Wednesday night, topping the Tarheels in Chapel Hill 86-83. It was the signature victory Barnes' team needed to turn some heads around the country and with the way they're rebounding right now (plus-9.6) they may stay in the spotlight for some time to come. Obviously, Baylor's 9-1 start -- including an upset of No. 3 Kentucky -- has them climbing both in the polls and in the Big 12 pecking order as well.

Kansas took a tumble to No. 18 in the polls after a stretch in which the Jayhawks lost three of four games. Self is leaning on five freshmen in his primary rotation and sophomore Perry Ellis has been the team's second-leading scorer (14.1 points per game) behind Andrew Wiggins (15.9). Self has admitted that the strength of KU's non-conference schedule was perhaps overly ambitious for such a young team, but no one will sleep on or feel sorry for the nine-time defending Big 12 champs. They may be tumbling in the polls, but any Big 12 coach to a man would rather be facing the Baby Jays right now in December before they presumably grow up considerably in January and February. There are five Big 12 teams with fewer losses than Kansas right now and two others tied with them in the loss column, but a team with two of the top four projected NBA lottery picks won't likely continue to sputter as the year goes on.

MUST SEE TV: If you missed UT's 86-83 upset at No. 14 North Carolina on Wednesday night, fear not. The Horns host No. 5 Michigan State Saturday at 3 p.m. on CBS. If they win that one, they'll not only be ranked on Monday but could go from receiving no votes to flirting with the top 15.

It's one of several marquee matchups on Saturday. Others include some neutral court delights: No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 24 Colorado in Las Vegas in an old-school Big 8 / Big 12 revival. Another blast from the past: Oklahoma vs. (8-2) Texas A&M in Houston, and I'll also be DVRing K-State vs. Gonzaga in Wichita.

Georgetown and all 350 pounds of Joshua Smith visits Kansas and Texas Tech travels to face 9-2 Arizona State lead by Jahii Carson's 19.9 points per game. The Sun Devils are a projected 11-seed and would represent Tech's biggest win of the non-conference portion of the schedule.

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