by Cub Buenning

–Are the ballers of the Big 12 of the same quality as their pigskin brethren?

This fall, many from around the football universe have taken their SEC-colored glasses off and realized that the most complete and competitive conference in the country is the Big 12. In basketball, the ACC, SEC, and the Big East have long been dubbed the top leagues by both human and computer alike. But with last year’s national champion and a slew of competitive teams this year, the Big 12 just might put itself back on top later this winter.

Like last week’s Pac-10 preview, the teams will appear in order of their finish last year.

Kansas (31-3, 13-3) Regular season and conference tournament champions
The champs may be the most altered team in the country coming into this year with five players from last year’s team being chosen in this past spring’s NBA Draft. Throw in the offseason rumors about Head Coach Bill Self bolting for his alma mater in Stillwater and the Jayhawks were suddenly looking a bit shaky, if not a bit unsure.

Fear not. Junior point guard Sherron Collins is back to lead things on-court and he will be largely aided by sophomore bigman Cole Aldrich. The 6-11 sophomore will be relied on this year with hopes that he can duplicate the display he put on against North Carolina in the national semifinal.

As usual, the Jayhawks were able to bring in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes (spotlighted by the Morris twins from Philly and Quintrell Thomas out of St. Patrick’s in Jersey) which should immediately fill in the gaping holes left by the departed. In addition, Self was able to land two of the nation’s top JuCo players in swingman Mario Little (rated no. 1 by many) and guard Tyrone Appleton.

While this team should look very different without Chalmers or Kahn or Arthur around, I don’t expect to see a major drop in performance. With the conference as stacked as ever, this would seem to be the year that someone will jump up and bite the ‘Hawks, but knowing this program as intimately as I do, I doubt that will happen. KU is still a top three program from the nation’s elite conference.

Texas (28-6, 13-3)
D.J. is gone, A.J. is back and Damion James is the best player you’ve never seen play. The Longhorns come into this season with high hopes despite the Damion Jamesdeparture of their most important player over the past few decades. With all due respect to Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin has been the heart and soul of Coach Rick Barnes’ crew since he stepped foot on campus, and his entrance to the NBA will be felt on and off the court.

Senior A.J. Abrams is more of an off-guard but at 5-11 he will need to handle the ball a lot this season. Abrams also needs to be more consistent from long range as his percentage dropped a bit from his sophomore season when he hit 42 percent of his almost 300 attempted long balls. His range is more than NBA-ready, so the line moving back shouldn’t be a factor. Alongside Abrams will be the stat-sheet stuffer, Justin Mason, who gets a bit of everything done during the course of a game.

The ‘Horns frontcourt should be one of the nation’s deepest and most loaded. The 6-7 230-pound James is a future NBA stud who made enormous strides in his offensive game last year. The junior was just behind K. State’s Michael Beasley in rebounding last year (10 per) and his perimeter game is solid and ever-improving. Alongside James will be the well-rounded and efficient 6-10 senior Conor Atchley, the rugged sophomore Gary Johnson, and the double-wide Dexter Pittman. Johnson, in particular, should get big minutes after a health-issue-riddled freshmen season when he showed flashes of brilliance in limited action.

Replacing Augustin will be borderline impossible, but this Texas team could flirt with 30 wins. Personally, I am excited to watch their early season contest with UCLA Dec. 4.

Kansas State (20-11, 10-6)
This team might struggle this year. Michael Beasley and Bill Walker are both gone and two of KState’s “other” three top players graduated as well. Sophomores Jacob Pullen and Fred Brown return to lead this team and each will have to improve drastically on their positive freshmen campaigns. Unfortunately for Head Coach Frank Martin, the recruiting season was not the most fruitful, bearing little or no hope for this season. It will surely be an interesting item to monitor as this program attempts to move on after their unbelievable one-year bonanza that basically fell at their feet. This team will obviously take a big drop and should by no means threaten the conference or even for a tourney bid.

Hey, at least Manhattan is a beautiful city with a sprawling and energetic culture!

Baylor (21-10, 9-7)
Despite the departure of Aaron Bruce (who had become less a factor as his career progressed) the Curtis Jerrellsbulk of the Baylor team is returning, led by the brutally effective Curtis Jerrells. The 6-1 senior is strong, quick, and can score (albeit a bit too streaky at times) in bunches. Sophomore LaceDarius Dunn emerged last year as a more effective backcourt compliment to Jerrells than Bruce had been and his continued development will go far to determine the Bears’ late season success. Guards Tweety Carter and Henry Dugat return as well, giving the Bears one of the deepest backcourts in not only the conference but the entire nation.

The 6-9 240-pound Kevin Rogers will anchor the interior, but it is the possible emergence of the senior Rogers’ two 7-foot teammates (Mamadou Diene and Josh Lomers) that might dictate whether this team can crack the conference’s elite. Head Coach Scott Drew pulled a major state-wide coup when he landed Houston-area stud, Anthony Jones. The slim 6-9 first-year wingman should fit in nicely between the aforementioned pieces and will surely benefit from some of that college weight room/cafeteria.

The Bears have been named third in the preseason coaches’ poll, so they shouldn’t be sneaking up on anyone around the Big 12. It is in March, however, when Baylor might do the most sneaking, as they should finally be able to make noise in the Big Dance with an experienced senior-laden team.

Oklahoma (22-11, 9-7)
This team starts and ends with their excellent forward Blake Griffin. The man-sized sophomore goes into the season as not only a sure-fire bet for conference Player of the Year, but many experts (myself included) consider him the cream of the 2009 NBA Draft crop. At 6-10 240 pounds, Griffin is more than physically ready for the next level, but this final year in Norman should allow him to develop some of the few shortcomings his game possesses. Griffin’s older brother Taylor is an interesting piece to this team which was the Coaches’ preseason pick to win the Big 12. The elder Griffin has nowhere near the talent Blake Griffinof his younger sibling, but his blue-collar play might be one of the more integral factors to Sooner success.

Gone are Daniel Godbold and Longar Longar, but Head Coach Jeff Capel does have back his experienced backcourt of Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson. Crocker’s largely valued as a long-range shooter (an impressive 43 percent last year) and his ability to hit the deeper 3-point shot will be interesting to watch.

The Sooners are fortunate enough to have one of the top freshmen in this class, as Dallas-area guard Willie Warren brings his athletically strong guard play to the Big 12. My colleague, and high school talent guru, Aggrey Sam noted earlier this summer that Warren may very well lead the league in scoring. If that happens, bank it the Sooners as a top ten team for the entire season.

Texas A&M (24-10, 8-8)
DeAndre Jordan should not have left after his freshmen year. Bryan Davis cannot carry this team up front with the departure of not only Jordan but of four-year player Joseph Jones as well. Donald Sloan cannot carry this team from the backcourt with the graduation of another four-year contributor, Dominique Kirk. Three key pieces are gone (although I would argue how “integral” the freshman Jordan was to this team last year) but on the upside, senior swingman Josh Carter has a smooth game that should blossom into a future professional career. (I would drop the Kevin Martin comparison, for example.) The 6-7 200-pound Carter, one of the many Dallas-area products on this team, was one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters as a sophomore when he hit 50 percent from long-range. Last year his percentage dropped slightly, but look for him to step up big this year for the Aggies.

Unfortunately for bright young Head Coach Mark Sturgeon, this might be another middle-of-the-pack year in the now super competitive Big 12. (Is this team still struggling to replace, Acie Law IV?) Turgeon was able to land a couple top national recruits in power forward David Loubeau and point guard “Dash” Harris, but with the sudden need for help on the frontline, 7-foot freshman, James Blasczyk might be thrown into the fray earlier rather than later.

Nebraska (19-12, 7-9)
Alexs Maric, the Huskers’ only double-figure scorer, has graduated after a stellar career in Lincoln. Back this year is the majority of the big Aussie’s supporting cast from a year ago, in the three-headed guard attack of seniors Steve Harley and Ade Dagundauro, and junior Ryan Anderson. Seven conference wins again for this team seems very unlikely, and I feel this group will take a step back with the loss of their backbone, Maric. Flirting with 20 wins (like they did last year) ain’t gonna happen either this year.

They like football a lot in Nebraska.

Oklahoma State (17-15, 7-9)
This young, but talented squad was on my television airwaves more than any other in the nation last year. I don’t know why, but Okie State and that uncomfortably sweating and sneering Sean Sutton just always seemed to be on! Luckily for the Cowboy faithful, the younger Sutton era ended midstream, when he was canned during the year.

New boss, Travis Ford has the luxury of sophomore swingman James Anderson, a legit scorer who might have been the least talked about dope freshmen from a year ago. Anderson was thrown into the lion’s den way too early last season and was asked to do too much of the scoring load. Henceforth, his play and energy tapered off during the season’s last month. Marcus Dove is really the lone subtraction, but his presence will be missed mostly on the defensive end.

Personally, I am an Ibrihima Thomas fan, and feel that if his progression continues, he is someone that we all might see in the draft sooner rather than later. The near-7-footer is still a project, but he has a nice little perimeter game to go with his defense-first mentality on the court.

This is a team that might make some waves this season. Anderson is a great scorer and the returning backcourt trio of Byron Eaton, Terrel Harris and Obi Muonelo give the ‘Pokes scoring, experience and toughness.

Texas Tech (16-15, 7-9)
Despite the departure of longtime Red Raider Martin Zeno, Head Coach Pat Knight will be starting his first full season in Lubbock with a team that returns the bulk of its remaining players. Senior Alan Voskuil made huge strides last year becoming a major offensive force. Alongside Voskuil in the backcourt will be the sophomore tandem of John Roberson and Mike Singletary, (no relation to the new SF 49ers Head Coach) Texas natives that made big contributions during their freshman years.

Houston-area product Corbin Ray may step in and give Coach Knight some production from the wing.

Missouri (16-16, 6-10)
Despite losing an important piece in Seton Hall transfer Keon Lawrence and their leading scorer Stefhon Hannah to graduation, the Tigers might prove to be a weekly thorn in the sides of the conference elite. Head Coach Mike Anderson does have the luxury of an experienced senior triumvirate of wings DeMarre Carroll and Matt Lawrence and the tireless, bruising body of power forward Leo Lyons. Carroll has never established himself as a competent outside shooter, but he is long, active and rangy on both ends of the court and is a strong rebounder for a guy of his size.

The Tigers are almost like the Arkansas Razorbacks of the 90’s employing a 40-minute pressure attack. With Hannah and K. Lawrence now gone, the team will be without a returning on-court leader. Miami-area freshmen Miguel Paul should step right in right from the beginning and assume that role. To bookend the lineup, fellow first-year guy, Steve Moore should get a chance to back-up Lyons down on the low block, while also providing more protection on the backboards.

Expect the “same old, same old” for the Tigers. In other years, the Big 12 (I still wish it was the Big 8, by the way) would have been more for their taking, but not this year.

Iowa State (14-18, 4-12)
With a couple of its top players moving on, the Cyclones will rely on the sophomore tandem of promising power forward, Craig Brackens and efficient guard, Diante Garrett. To be placed alongside Garrett, freshmen point guard Dominque Buckley should be thrown into the fray, immediately. Freshmen big-men, L.A. Pomlee and Justin Hamilton should immediately bolster the frontcourt, proving this class to be one of ISU’s best in many years.

The team that has had a “perpetual Croat/Czech” dude on their roster is graduating another one, Jiri Hubalek. In my attempt to find “the next one” I came across a 6-5 220-pound sophomore from Germany. That could work! Upon further review, the kid turned out to be one of my first SLAM subjects, a teenage Lucca Staiger. I am not sure how the young German works into Head Coach Greg McDermott’s rotation, but at his size I am sure he would provide some physical support for Garrett and Buckley.

Colorado (12-20, 3-13)
AAAhhhhhh, and finally my hometown, Buffs. I am obviously personally invested in this team despite not following them closely since the David Harrison days. Even though there has been a long run of “thin years,” the Colorado program will improve, bet it. Jeff Bzdelik has been in Boulder for one year and he has already dismissed four or five guys from the team for undisclosed reasons. Coming from an NBA-lifer who recently took a service academy to the NCAA Tournament–this bodes well for long-term.

(I always thought current Arizona “assistant/interim/no, not the interim/assistant” Mike Dunlap would replace Ricardo Patton at CU, but he was determined to check out the pro game. When CU AD Mike Bohn was able to coerce Bzdelik out of Colorado Springs, I knew the school had struck gold.)

Gone are Richard Roby and Marcus Hall, the talented backcourt that gave the Buff faithful years of exciting play and quite possibly the program’s best two players in many years. Xavier Silas, the team’s third leading scorer was released mid-season and will be playing this year for the coach that recruited him to Boulder in Patton, who now is the head at Northern Illinois. What’s left is a group of sophomores and juniors with experience, including the promising second-year guard, Cory Higgins.

Freshmen Toby Veal and Trey Eckloff come in as Bzdelik’s first true recruiting class. Veal is a slender, smooth swingman from Savannah (GA), while Eckloff has flashes of “Kevin Love”-ness, but the local product is too thin right now to battle against the likes of Griffin, James, and the many other strong power forwards in the league (read: hit the weight room/cafeteria).

Not yet, Ralphie, not yet.

Cub Scouts the Big 12: This league will be extremely competitive this year, boasting at least four teams that are viable candidates for conference supremacy. Oklahoma is the trendy pick right now, but those familiar with Big 12 play would never count out the boys from Lawrence.

However, the nation’s no. 1 ranked football school might also have the best team on the basketball court. If the Longhorn big men can unite like Voltron, hell bent on destruction, they might just be able to outlast the competition during the gauntlet which is the Big 12 season. Baylor will be heard from and might just be my “sleeper” pick when it comes time to fill out my bracket (one, just one, only one.) I also hope to see major progress from Oklahoma State, as they look to move past the seemingly century-long reign of Suttons. Five or six teams should be dancing this March.

Next Week: The big, bad boys from the Big East. UConn, Pitt, and Louisville appear to be the league’s elite, but with the enormous size of the league, things are rarely decided until long into the spring thaw.