College basketball conference previews: Big 12
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn -- read more about it here -- we've projected the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at the Big 12 -- can any team stop Kansas from an 11th straight Big 12 title?
Projected conference race
Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas
Self has as much talent to work with as anyone. But he’s trading two glitzy freshmen (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid) for two others (Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander), which means teaching proper habits all over again. And he’s dealing with a first-year point guard in Devonte Graham. It’s not a hard-knock life, but it’s complicated. And the general strength of the league actually will help Self’s case; he’ll get credit for managing the personnel turnover and leading the team to at least another share of the title when there are several strong challengers in that pursuit.
Player of the Year: Georges Niang, Iowa State
There may be flashier and more talented players elsewhere, but few, if any, will impact every facet of the team like the 6-foot-8 Niang. On a team with dynamic scorers like DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim last season, Niang used a higher percentage of possessions than anyone. This offseason, he changed his diet and his workout regiment, dropping 25 pounds and cutting his body fat to less than 10 percent. That should help him boost his numbers – the 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists from a year ago – into more eye-grabbing territory. As long as the Cyclones are in the Big 12 hunt, Niang will be in the mix for individual honors.
Freshman of the Year: Myles Turner, Texas
The Longhorns bring those five starters back, which doesn't preempt the Turner, the consensus No. 6 recruit in the country per RSCIhoops’ composite rankings, putting up good numbers … but it’s not like he must be an instant 20-and-10 performer. Then again, no one averaged more than 12.8 points or 8.2 rebounds for Texas last season, and coach Rick Barnes would be happy for Turner to offer a threat as a face-up shooter. All in all, the Longhorns probably will fit to Turner more than he fits to them. Which means he’ll be effective enough to separate from the rest of the first-year pack.
It’ll be a struggle to win consecutive title No. 11. The confidence that it’ll happen stems from the presence of freshman point guard Devonte Graham, who can be the kinetic facilitator Jayhawks fans have craved. Top-10 recruits Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre must produce, too, though improved long-range efficiency from Wayne Selden Jr. (9.7 ppg, 32.8% 3-point shooting in 2013-14) can turn this team into a Final Four favorite.
The expectation is that the Longhorns will match the Jayhawks step by step and share the regular season title. Every starter returns, though one will hit the bench as touted freshman Myles Turner slides in perfectly at power forward. It’s an impeccable match of fit and need. The only possible downfall would be continued poor shooting from Isaiah Taylor (39.1%) and Javan Felix (35.8%).
The top two scorers, Kane and Ejim, departed. But Niang (16.7 ppg in 2013-14) facilitated a ton with a team-high usage rate of 28.6 percent. Meanwhile, in secondary roles, Dustin Hogue and Monte Morris had the top two offensive ratings on the team (128.9 and 128.0, respectively). If transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones can be more team guy than volume shooter, the Cyclones are dangerous again.
Bruce Weber ran a lot through Marcus Foster (28.8% usage rate) and Thomas Gipson (23.4%) last year, and both return. That’s stability the Wildcats count on. Transfer Justin Edwards averaged 16.7 points in one season at Maine, so if he limits his turnovers (4.1 per game), he’s a nice complement for Foster. They’ll be good, but not good enough for a Big 12 crown.
The Sooners might be a favorite in any other year, with four returning starters from a second-place team that won 23 games. Buddy Hield (16.8 ppg in 2013-14) improving to All-America levels could change that, as could breakouts from Isaiah Cousins (11 ppg) or Ryan Spangler (9.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg). A slight defensive uptick would be nice: Oklahoma ranked 91st in defensive efficiency last season, per kenpom.com.
It was the Marcus Smart show, for better or worse, for two years. But this isn’t addition by subtraction. There’s significant production to replace. LeBryan Nash (13.9 ppg in 2013-14) and Phil Forte (13.3 ppg) are fine places to start, a healthy Michael Cobbins can offer defense in the paint, and LSU transfer Anthony Hickey offers some stability. Is it a tournament-worthy group? That’s unclear.
The Bears lost 56.5 percent of their scoring and 52.1 percent of their rebounding from last season, not to mention just 35 of 203 blocked shots with rim-defender Isaiah Austin gone. The league is generally unforgiving of such overhaul. Neither junior college recruit was on campus over summer, either. There’s a floor general in Kenny Chery (11.5 ppg in 2013-14) but a lot else that has to come together.
There’s Juwan Staten, arguably one of the best guards in America, coming off a season with monster production: 18.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.8 apg. But he lost his running mate, Eron Harris, who transferred to Michigan State. The Mountaineers need answers at the rim, so 6-9 sophomore Devin Williams (8.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) must become borderline all-league guy for an NCAA tournament berth to become reality.
A 14-win team lost four players who started 29 games or more, returning no one who averaged double-digit scoring. The generous assessment is that the departed players can’t be missed that much if they played for a sub-.500 team, and Tubby Smith has six newcomers on the roster. None appear to be impact additions, so it’s Robert Turner (9.3 ppg in 2013-14) and hope.
There are four returning starters, including guard Kyan Anderson (17 ppg in 2013-14) and forward Amric Fields (13.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg). It’s not the worst place to start, but we’re talking about a team that went 9-22 a year ago … so is experience any good if it’s untalented experience? Can peripatetic transfer guard Trey Zeigler (15.8 ppg at Central Michigan, then 4.4 ppg at Pittsburgh) settle down and offer a boost?