Big 12 Summer Reset: Kansas is best, but coaching moves shake up league
With spring recruiting having closed and nearly every transfer player in place, SI.com is here to catch you up on the state of each conference heading into the summer. So far we’ve covered the AAC, ACC, A-10, Big East and Big 10. Now, the Big 12.
State of the champions:
Kansas (regular season): This is an offseason of relatively little transition for the Jayhawks, who last year had to recover from losing two of the top picks in the 2014 NBA draft. This time, Kansas will return seven of its nine regulars from 2014-15, with only freshmen Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cliff Alexander having departed for the pros. While Oubre and Alexander (who did not play in the season’s final eight games due to an NCAA investigation about his eligibility) posted the team’s top defensive rebounding rates last season—19.2% and 19.9%, respectively—the Jayhawks are, as always, well-equipped to carry on.
Joining their group of returnees is Rivals.com's No. 7 recruiting class, a three-man group headlined by a pair of big men who rank in the top 25 nationally. Cheick Diallo, a consensus top-5 recruit who lived in Mali until emigrating to Centereach, N.Y., in 2012, is 6'9" and 220 pounds, with a 7’4” wingspan and a high motor that has many gushing about his potential. (He also posted 18 points and 10 boards at the McDonald’s All-American game.) Diallo and fellow freshman forward Carlton Bragg (ranked No. 21 by Rivals) will help senior and first-team All-Big 12 pick Perry Ellis (13.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg) bolster the frontcourt. In the backcourt, starters Frank Mason and Wayne Selden return and will be joined by the third freshman, Lagerald Vick (No. 33 by Rivals). Given the depth and talent in Lawrence, coach Bill Self has every reason to expect his streak of 11 consecutive shared or outright Big 12 regular season titles to continue.
Iowa State (tournament): Things are a bit less stable in Ames, where the Mayor resigned as coach and headed to the NBA. For Cyclones fans, Fred Hoiberg’s departure for the Chicago Bulls must be as worrisome as it is heartbreaking: Over the past five seasons, the hometown hero had built Iowa State into an NCAA tournament regular and back-to-back Big 12 tournament champion thanks to an intriguing blend of entertaining, uptempo play and an embrace of transfers.
But there is good news for Iowa State. For one, successor Steve Prohm, 41, is no schlub. In his first season at Murray State’s helm, in 2011-12, Prohm led a talented Racers squad to a 31-2 season; this past season, Murray State went 16-0 in Ohio Valley play before being upset by Belmont in the conference finals and ending up in the NIT. Even better, he will have ample talent with which to work: Versatile forward Georges Niang will be an All-America candidate, with point guard Monte Morris potentially joining him in that conversation. That should help the Cyclones weather any post-Hoiberg hangover and give Prohm some forward momentum with which to build.
Notable newcomer: Shaka Smart, Texas
Yes, as you may remember, there was another big head coaching shakeup in the Big 12 this offseason. After six seasons and a Final Four appearance at VCU, Shaka Smart finally leapt at one of the many big-time jobs to which his name was linked. And as Smart's predecessor, Rick Barnes, can attest—given the school’s monstrous athletics budget, ESPN-operated cable network, and demanding fanbase—the accompanying expectations at Texas are big-time indeed.
On the one hand, the pairing between Smart and the Longhorns seems natural: premier young coach takes premier open job. But as many, including SI’s Brian Hamilton, have pointed out, Smart is going from a comfortable situation to a pressure-cooker, where he will now be tasked with getting blue-chip recruits to sign up for his relentless Havoc system. Early returns are encouraging. No Longhorns transferred out of the program after Smart’s hiring, nor did any of their committed recruits rescind. As for this season, the roster is adequately stocked and seasoned for yet another NCAA tournament berth—seniors Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert and Javan Felix will anchor Smart's first team in Austin—though returning to the top of the Big 12 and getting back into national contention will likely have to wait.
Notable departure: Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Only one player from last season’s all-conference first team will not be returning to the Big 12 this fall: Staten, the point guard whom the Mountaineers had leaned on heavily since his transfer from Dayton before his sophomore year. Coach Bob Huggins got a glimpse of post-Staten life last March, when the senior missed four games with a knee injury and West Virginia went 1-3 in his absence. True, the timing was poor, with two of those losses being road games at Baylor and Kansas and the third being a rematch with the Bears in the Big 12 tourney. (And it didn’t help that senior backcourt mate Gary Browne was also out for three of those games with an ankle injury.) But that skid spoke to Staten’s importance to the Mountaineers, whose turnover-happy “Press Virginia” defense lapsed in his absence. With Browne gone as well, the onus will be on Bob Huggins’s young guards—sophomores Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr.—to fill his shoes.
Baylor: In graduated point guard Kenny Chery, the Bears lost a dependable distributor and steady hand. Senior Lester Medford, a junior college transfer who primarily played off the ball in his first season with Baylor last year, will need to adjust to running the point full-time.
Iowa State: With so much talent returning from last season’s 25-9 team, the most important thing will be buying in and getting on the same page with new coach Steve Prohm. According to the Des Moines Register, Hoiberg told Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard that Prohm “runs everything that I run,” which should be a good sign.
Kansas: While guard Brannen Greene works his way back from April hip surgery that will likely keep him off the court until September, 6'8" swingman Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (who only turned 18 in June) will have ample opportunity to prove he has gotten closer to the promise that made him a five-star recruit out of Ukraine last summer.
Kansas State: After three guards transferred and two forwards graduated, this is a full-fledged rebuilding effort. The focus will need to be on simply determining who is ready to play alongside returning part-time starters Justin Edwards and Wesley Iwundu.
Oklahoma: The Sooners boasted the Big 12’s tightest defense last season, thanks in no small part to forward Tashawn Thomas, who, according to Synergy Sports, was their best post-up defender. With Thomas graduated, it’s up to promising rising sophomore Khadeem Lattin or juco transfer Akolda Manyang, a rangy 7-footer, to prevent drop-off.
Oklahoma State: Incoming point guard Jawun Evans, a consensus top-25 recruit and strong attacker, already had an eventful summer when he made the U.S. team for the U19 World Championships in Greece. Getting him up to speed quickly once he gets to campus will be key to avoiding another bottom-half Big 12 finish.
TCU: After a disappointing sophomore season that saw him average seven fewer minutes and three fewer points per game, a return to form from big man Karviar Shepherd will go a long way toward helping the Horned Frogs top last season’s Big 12 win total of four.
Texas: Run, run, run. Smart’s high-energy Havoc defense requires an all-in commitment that begins with heavy conditioning work. That’s especially true for bigs like Ridley (6'9", 285 pounds) and Maryland transfer Shaquille Cleare (6'8", 290 pounds), who will need to get up and down the floor more than ever.
Texas Tech: The Red Raiders ranked 300th nationally in effective field goal percentage last season and in just the 11th percentile on spot-up shooting opportunities. Finding some more open shots for Devaughntah Williams and especially Toddrick Gotcher could give their offense a needed boost.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers need to ramp up the pressure. After installing their full-court press just days before their first exhibition game last fall, the Mountaineers led the nation in defensive turnover rate. A season of use and a full offseason of tinkering should help compensate for the turnover in personnel.