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As Big 12 bolsters its reputation, No. 13 Texas looks for a conference win against Kansas

Texas guard Joanne Allen-Taylor gets tangled up with Iowa State's Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw while going after a loose ball in Austin on Jan. 3. The Longhorns have split their first two games in Big 12 play. This week, five conference schools are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

Back in October, the Big 12 released its preseason poll for the upcoming basketball season.

To no one's surprise, Baylor topped the poll. The Bears received seven first-place votes. Texas, though, was favored by two of the conference's coaches who voted. One coach picked Iowa State.

The 2015-16 season was the last time that three schools received a first-place vote in the preseason poll. (Coaches aren't allowed to vote for their own teams.) Baylor last failed to secure eight first-place votes ahead of the 2014-15 campaign.

Three months later, the Big 12 standings haven't gotten any easier to predict. The waters may have even gotten muddier.

This week, No. 9 Iowa State, No. 13 Texas and No. 14 Baylor were joined by No. 23 Oklahoma and No. 25 Kansas State in the Associated Press Top 25. While unranked now, West Virginia has ascended as high as 19th this season.

"You're not going to have anybody go through (the Big 12) perfect, I don't think," Texas coach Vic Schaefer said last week. "We've got great coaches in the league, Hall of Fame coaches. You've got players in the league that are going to be in the big league next year and the year after. I think there's going to be multiple losses to potentially the champion."

Texas forward Audrey Warren struggles to find a shot against Texas-Rio Grande Valley forward Jessica Martino during the Longhorns' 93-58 win on Sunday. "Every time we get a chance to play, we're going to get somebody's best and we just have to be ready," Texas center Lauren Ebo said.

Schaefer is probably right. Since the Big 12's first season in 1996-97, only six league champions have gone undefeated. And Iowa State and Kansas State — the only two teams without a conference loss — were scheduled to play Tuesday night in Manhattan.

That first-place battle was just the latest headline worth noting in Big 12 play, which started less than two weeks ago. Kansas State, for example, snapped a 36-game losing streak against Baylor on Jan. 2. Oklahoma has lost to Iowa State but averaged 89.5 points in its two conference wins.

Kansas has had to postpone two conference games because of COVID-19 protocols. Baylor's games against TCU and Texas were delayed for the same reasons. (Schaefer said this week that he has been informed that Texas and Baylor will make up that game in Waco on Feb. 4, two days before Texas' regularly-scheduled home game against the Bears.)

Last Wednesday, Texas was beaten soundly at home by Texas Tech. That same Texas Tech team lost three days later at home to Oklahoma State. That same Oklahoma State team was defeated in its home gym by, you guessed it, Texas.

"I think the Big 12 is probably tougher than it's been in years from top to bottom," Texas Tech coach Krista Gerlich said. "There's a lot of people in the hunt."

Gerlich continued: "Everybody wants the Big 12 to be a power conference, especially in women's basketball. I believe this year, it really is. Every single night is going to be a war. The matchups are going to be incredibly difficult. We have some different styles in the Big 12, and I think that's why no one's gonna go undefeated because the styles are hard to match up with sometimes."

According to RealTimeRPI.com, the Big 12 can currently claim the best RPI among the nation's conferences. Texas (11-2) has split its two conference games thus far. The Longhorns recorded a 62-51 win at Oklahoma State on Jan. 2. Three days later, UT dropped a 74-61 decision to Texas Tech.

Up next is Wednesday's test at the Erwin Center against Kansas. The Jayhawks (10-2, 1-1 Big 12) are coming off their first conference triumph, a 78-72 win at TCU on Monday.

"Now we're running into the real Kansas team," said Schaefer before adding that KU coach Brandon Schneider has "done a great job all year. I mean, they've won a lot of games. We've got our hands full."

In each of its conference clashes, Texas has allowed its opponent to land the first punch. The Longhorns were able to bounce back from the nine-point deficit that they faced in the first quarter against Oklahoma State. But they never recovered after Texas Tech took a 5-4 lead last week.

"Every time we get a chance to play, we're going to get somebody's best and we just have to be ready," Texas center Lauren Ebo said. "We weren't ready (against Texas Tech) and we have to be locked in and focused every single game because it's not an easy conference, it doesn't matter if you're ranked or not."