Big 12 Season Preview
Baylor, Kansas, K-State. Take your pick.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Kansas
Defending Regular Season Champion: Kansas
1. Kansas State
5. Texas A&M
7. Oklahoma State
9. Texas Tech
11. Iowa State
Summary: The Big 12 went from the verge of disintegration during the summer (before Texas’ refusal to join the Pac-10/12? saved the conference) to the edge of, once again, being one of the country’s elite conferences. Whether they end up becoming the country’s top league depends on the consensus top 3 teams’ ability to replace key players/ build on last season’s successes.
Kansas obviously had one of the more disappointing finishes in the country last March, and it didn’t get much better during the offseason. Xavier Henry left school early for the NBA (seems like he really made a solid decision), Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins are gone as well, and stud recruit Josh Selby’s eligibility is still being investigated by the NCAA. If Selby is cleared, and the Morris twins take the next step in their development (next step = star status), Kansas will have enough depth and talent to remain near the top of the conference.
Their in-state rivals might have the firepower to take the top spot in the Big 12 though. If you don’t think basketball is back at Kansas State, then you clearly didn’t watch a game from the “Octagon” last season or witness the freakish power of the “Fear the Beard” campaign in honor of Jacob Pullen’s facial hair. Frank Martin’s passion, intensity and borderline insane fire has revitalized the Wildcats program and made them one of the more intimidating match-ups in college basketball. Losing Denis Clemente will hurt at first while Martin and his staff adjusts to not having the one-man fastbreak to spark the rest of the team, but the Wildcats return star guard Jacob Pullen (beard or no beard). If Curtis Kelly becomes an elite Big 12 player, Kansas State should be considered a Final Four contender.
Then there is the conference’s true resurgent program. Baylor has gone from NCAA purgatory to legit Final Four contender in a shockingly short time span due to the amazing job Scott Drew has done in consistently bringing top-tier talent to Waco, TX. It seems like one or two blue chip recruits come into the program each year now, and Drew has struck gold this year. Even though Tweety Carter and Ekpe Udoh are gone from a team that challenged Duke in the Elite 8 last March, the Bears snagged Perry Jones, a potential No. 1 overall selection in the NBA Draft next June with the highest ceiling of any Big 12 newcomer. If Jones meshes early with dynamic point guard LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor, not K-State or Kansas, could be the most terrifying team to face in the Big 12.
Teams like Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M seem a year or two away from seriously contending in the conference, but each has the talent to earn a post-season berth. Missouri especially, with Kim English returning and with Mike Anderson’s great equalizer…the “40 Minutes of Hell” he learned under Nolan Richardson (Sit down and watch an entire Mizzou Tigers game. I challenge you to not burn 500 calories just sitting on your couch), the Tigers are never out of any contest, and with the 14th-ranked recruiting class in the country coming in (if highly touted Tony Mitchell — stop me if this sounds familiar — is deemed eligible), Mizzou should be a lock for the NCAA Tournament this season.
Team on the Rise: Not sure if they qualify since they wont be in the league much longer, but the Colorado Buffaloes finally emerged out of a decade long funk to make some noise in conference play last season. They didn’t qualify for a post-season tournament, and their record was still mediocre at best (15-16), but one big win over Baylor plus a handful of competitive losses to the conference’s elite should have people in Boulder excited about both the basketball and ski seasons for once. The Buffs actually have some serious talent on their roster in guards Corey Higgins and Alec Burks, and if the transition to new coach Tad Boyle goes as planned, Colorado could be the Big 12’s biggest sleeper this season.
Team on the Decline: Loading a roster with three McDonald’s All-Americans is every coach’s dream right? Yep, and it also happens to be Oklahoma Sooners coach Jeff Capel’s worst nightmare. As quickly as things blossomed with Blake Griffin on campus, they soured when Tiny Gallon, Tommy Mason-Griffin and Willie Warren took the reigns of last year’s disappointing (to put it gently) squad. Each is gone to the pros, and though Capel is more than happy to see each gone, he is left with a team that is painfully lacking in Big-12 talent. That might make the team more coachable, hardworking and selfless, but that won’t equate to much improvement in the standings in a treacherous conference. A second-to-last place finish would be quite an accomplishment for Oklahoma this season.
Underrated Player: This could also be the “Who gets the most out of the least athletically” category because the most underrated player in the conference has to be Oklahoma State’s undersized floor general Keiton Page. Every time I watch an Okie State game, I’m amazed at how Page’s 5-9 frame (listed height…very generous I’m guessing) can elevate and hoist three point bombs over Big 12 athletes. It’s a good thing he’s adept at doing so, because his three point and scoring totals will have to increase now that last year’s Big 12 scoring champion James Anderson was drafted by the Spurs. The Cowboys will remain a tough opponent this season despite the loss of Anderson, but only if Page steps up and builds on his stellar sophomore campaign. If not the most underrated player in the conference, he is certainly one of the most valuable ones.
Keep an eye on: Whether Texas can manage a roster with “too much talent.” Last year Texas’s epic collapse from No. 1 in the country to first round tourney casualty was a cautionary tale for coaches who, a) try to load up on talent, regardless of position or makeup, or b) don’t have a strategy for managing so many high-profile, usually (with some exceptions obviously) high-maintenance recruits. Rick Barnes proved last year that even the best coaches have trouble with this dicey issue. The wildly talented and mercurial Longhorns never found a lineup that meshed well together, never found a way to promote on court chemistry between their veteran leaders (Damion James, Dexter Pittman) with the freshman studs (Avery Bradley, J’Covan Brown, Jordan Hamilton). As always, Rick Barnes brought in exciting talent, so the question is whether the Texas staff has learned from last year’s mistakes. Canadian freshman Corey Joseph is an exciting point guard that could make those around him, like last year’s freshmen Brown and Hamilton, have breakout seasons. And another Canadian, big man Tristan Thompson should help fill the void left in the frontcourt. The talent, as always, is there for Texas. But if you’re expecting all of these pieces magically come together for a special season, don’t hold your breath.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.