Big 12 Preview
Top-heavy league with no clear-cut favorite should make for exciting season
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Defending Conference Champion: Kansas
Top Player: Khris Middleton, Texas A&M
Top Freshman: LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State
Most Underrated Player: Rodney McGruder, Kansas State
Tournament Teams: Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, Kansas, Baylor
1. How great is Kansas’ potentially drop?
Not very. Kansas will not be its typical dominant “Self” (get it?), but this team will still be solid enough to avoid falling below third or fourth in the conference. The question marks and skepticism simply come from what the Jayhawks lose (Marcus and Markieff Morris, Josh Selby, Brady Morningstar, and Tyrel Reed) and the unproven commodities being asked to fill in.
This season’s success hinges on the development of forward Thomas Robinson and the maturation of Tyshawn Taylor, who will be the team’s primary ballhandler. Robinson has all of the tools to be the Big 12’s most troublesome interior matchup: a bull that can move people around on the block but is still agile enough to develop nasty complimentary footwork. With the Morris twins in front of him on the depth chart, he simply hasn’t been asked to use them yet. Taylor, on the other hand, needs to become the next standout Kansas guard for the Jayhawks to defend its title. The senior has been a very solid role player throughout his career, but much more will be required of him this season. Beyond those two, Self needs to hope that some combination of energy-guy Travis Relaford, promising guard Elijah Johnson, and bouncy Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young can provide reliable production.
2. Without traditional Jayhawk dominance, is there a clear-cut favorite in the Big 12?
In arguably the most top-heavy conference in college hoops, there are four schools with legitimate conference title aspirations. None should be considered a favorite. One of Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, and Kansas will win the Big 12, but the teams are so even that choosing one now is pretty much a toss up.
The Aggies’, unlike their Big 12 foes, best players are the ones with the most experience. Generally (unless you’re Kentucky), this is the most proven recipe for success. Khris Middleon and David Labeau lead the most balanced and least glamorous unit in the league. That defensive mantra should keep the Aggies in nearly every contest. Despite a coaching change, Missouri is intriguing for the same reason; the Tigers return most of a roster that disappointed last season but has as much experience and talent as any in the conference. There is plenty left in Lawrence for Kansas to challenge for the title, and even Texas, despite the losses of Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, and Corey Joseph to the NBA, has an outside shot if Myck Kabongo is as good as advertised.
3. Will Fred Hoiberg’s chemistry lab at Iowa State spontaneously combust or yield a snazzy product?
Not since the days of Marcus Fizer and Jamal Tinsley has there been this much buzz around the Iowa State basketball program. Fred Hoiberg has a long way to go to match those awesome squads, but he has at least put Cyclones’ basketball back on the map with his aggressive and unconventional approach to recruiting.
Transfers have the stigma (fair or not – often there are players who relocate to be closer to home or an ill family member) of being players with character issues or red flags. Bringing one big-time transfer into a program is normal. Two may be pushing it. Three is a little crazy. But four? Your coach is moonlighting as a mad scientist. Minnesota transfer Royce White, Michigan State transfer Chris Allen, Penn State transfer Chris Babb, and Southern Illinois transfer Anthony Booker will join incumbent point guard Scott Christopherson in a starting lineup that figures to be 80% transfer blood. Even though this quick-fix method is dicey, there’s no denying the sudden appeal of watching Iowa State in action.
Predicted Finish + Bottom Line:
The most prolific ugly team in the country. And that’s a compliment. The Aggies, whether coached by Mark Turgeon or Billy Kennedy, simply find ways to win basketball games. Having Khris Middleton at small forward doesn’t hurt either. Another year of experience gives the Aggies the edge in a crowded top-tier.
Frank Haith owes Mike Anderson because the Tigers have the goods to turn down the heat on the new coach’s already hot seat really quickly. Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Phil Pressey lead the most experienced roster in Big 12. The loss of Lawrence Bowers to a torn ACL will be significant, though.
The Jayhawks have as good of a shot to win the Big 12 as any of the previous two teams; they just need to work harder for it. Breakout seasons are needed from forward Thomas Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor.
Myck Kabongo is the latest high school stud to enter one of college basketball’s most prolific point-guard factories. After untimely defections to the NBA, the Longhorns return only three scholarship players from a year ago. But if a six-man freshman class can develop quickly, this team is still loaded.
On paper, the Bears have the talent to run every other team in the league out of the gym. But do you know how Perry Jones and Quincy Miller running around on the court at the same time is going to look/work out? Me either, which is the only reason this team is 5th instead of 1st.
6. Kansas State
Big 12 foes will no longer have to “Fear the Beard” now that Jacob Pullen has left the Octagon of Doom, but Rodney McGruder is capable of picking up the torch of go-to Wildcat. With no Pullen or Curtis Kelly, expect a breakout season from the explosive Kansas State leader.
Outside of Quincy Miller, Oklahoma State’s LeBryan Nash is the conference’s most exciting freshman. He will need to grow up quickly if the Cowboys want to compete with Kansas State for what might be the league’s final Tournament bid.
8. Iowa State
If we’ve learned one thing about Fred Hoiberg in his short tenure as a college basketball coach, it’s that the former NBA guard clearly isn’t risk averse. “The Mayor” has brought in four BCS level transfers, including former Michigan State Spartan Chris Allen, to try to jumpstart his program.
A veteran coach like Lon Kruger was definitely the right choice for the Sooners job considering the rebuilding that needs to be done. Exciting sophomore small forward Cameron Clark, a former big sign by former coach Jeff Capel, should make a leap this season.
10. Texas Tech
Billy Gillespie generally wins wherever he goes (even during his short stay with Kentucky, where “winning” is relative). He will need some time with the Red Raiders though. Give him a season or two, and Texas Tech will be winning with classic Gillespie-style 50-55 points per game.