MANHATTAN — Dean Wade has seen enough of this wacky Big 12 season to realize it must be treated like an episode of Big Brother: Expect the unexpected.
However, Kansas State's junior forward also has seen enough of Texas Tech to know the seventh-ranked Red Raiders are a real threat to finally unseat Kansas as league champion.
"I think every game in the Big 12, every team is so different from each another, it’s hard to really pin the best team," Wade said. "I think it depends on the night and who’s playing well. Injuries and stuff play a huge role, too.
"But they’re a great team, definitely top two in the league. Any night I think they can definitely be the best team."
With only six games remaining in the regular season, the Raiders are the best. With Saturday's 66-47 suffocation of K-State and an eye-popping array of upsets throughout the rest of the conference, Tech (21-4, 9-3) grabbed sole possession of first place, taking a one-game lead over KU (19-6, 8-4) and a two-game advantage over West Virginia (18-7, 7-5).
If that seems odd, it should. The Raiders never have finished higher than a tie for third since the Big 12 was formed in 1996-97, and they haven't placed among the top three since 2005. As recently as three seasons ago, Tech occupied the league's cellar, going 3-15 in conference play and 13-19 overall.
But while the Raiders clearly are in uncharted waters, they also are blessed with plenty of skippers who are well-versed in navigating college basketball's storms. Second-year coach Chris Beard lists former KU coach Larry Brown as a special assistant and former Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton as a special adviser.
Jayhawk fans, of course, remember Brown as the man who led Danny Manning and the Miracles to the 1988 championship.
"Our coaching staff has a lot of experience," Beard said Saturday night. "Some of us have been in this position before, so it is really important to lead our players. We have been trying to do everything we can to help the guys."
Beard developed his coaching approach during a 10-year stint as an assistant at Tech, as well as brief but successful head coaching stops at Fort Scott Community College, Seminole State College, McMurry University, Angelo State and Arkansas-Little Rock. He helped Bob Knight guide the Raiders to four NCAA Tournaments in the early 2000s and led Little Rock to a 30-5 record and the second round of the NCAA tourney in 2015-16.
"The message they have gotten from us is it is one game at a time," Beard said. "In the Big 12, a two-game winning streak gets you right back into the fight and a two-game losing streak has you feeling like life is over. We have experienced both.
"It is not the sexiest of answers, but it is the truth. We are just a program that prides ourselves in getting up every day and going to work."
The Raiders typically do their best work on the defensive end of the floor. They lead the Big 12 in scoring margin (plus-14.2), scoring defense (62.0 points per game), field goal percentage defense (.390) and 3-point percentage defense (.310).
On Saturday night, their tenacity overwhelmed the Wildcats. Tech held K-State to its fewest points at Bramlage Coliseum since 2006, forced 18 turnovers and limited the Wildcats to 28.9 percent shooting.
"Their mindset of guarding the heck out of you, it’s impressive," K-State coach Bruce Weber said.
Tech also is blessed with the league's deepest bench and features arguably the best player not named Trae Young.
Senior guard Keenan Evans currently is battling KU's Devonte' Graham and West Virginia's Jevon Carter for that title. Evans is the league's second-leading scorer at 18.4 points per game and demonstrated his talents with several improvisational drives during a 19-point outing against K-State.
Not bad for a team picked to finish seventh in the league's preseason coaches poll, huh?
For the record, the Raiders weren't all that surprised by the ranking. They're just happy now to be one of the country's biggest surprises.
"We are Texas Tech in Lubbock. Nobody really talks about us that much," Evans said. "That was not really a factor for us. We knew what we were working for, and game by game we are just trying to shock the world."
Tech still has plenty of work to do to complete the shocker and prevent KU from winning a record 14th straight conference crown.
The Raiders' season-ending stretch features three games against ranked opponents — starting Tuesday with a home date against No. 17 Oklahoma — and three road games. It also includes a potentially huge three-day swing from Feb. 24-26, when Tech will be host to KU before traveling to West Virginia for a Big Monday showdown against the Mountaineers.
If you're into marking your calendar, those are two games worth circling. They very well could decide the league race. They very well could deliver Tech its first Big 12 championship.
Then again, maybe they won't. In this crazy race, who knows? Remember: Expect the unexpected.
But, hey, if we're really doing that, if we're really anticipating something unusual, shouldn't we expect the Raiders to finish this improbable job? Shouldn't a team picked seventh in the preseason be considered the favorite?
"They’ve got to be the favorite right now," K-State's Weber said. "But a lot of things can happen."
Tim Bisel is the sports editor of The Topeka Capital-Journal.