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, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Next up is the Big 12:
Coach of the year: Shaka Smart, Texas
The new Longhorns leader looks poised to have a strong debut season. Our projections have Texas finishing 11-7 in league play and in fourth place, both of which should be good enough to go dancing. The formula for coach of the year is normally to pick the man whose team most outperforms expectations. And so while fellow Big 12 newcomer Steve Prohm may have a better year than Smart, his success will be expected—Iowa State returns a ready-built top-15 team. Fair or not, Prohm’s first-year success will be attributed in large part to predecessor Fred Hoiberg, while Smart will be able to take the majority of credit himself.
Player of the year: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
This should be a tight race between Hield and do-everything Iowa State forward Georges Niang. Both are proven high-volume, high-efficiency scorers. Both are senior leaders on teams likely to be in the top 20 all season. Hield has the edge, though, playing in a familiar and fast-paced system. Niang thrived in Hoiberg’s open-floor offense, but how he’ll fit in with Prohm’s scheme is still to be determined. Although our forecast for national player of the year places Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer and LSU's Ben Simmons as a cut above the rest of the field, don’t be surprised if Hield or Niang wedge their way into the conversation.
Freshman of the year: Cheick Diallo, Kansas*
Diallo is clearly the best incoming freshman in the Big 12. But as you can see, there's an asterisk—the five-star freshman has yet to be cleared by the NCAA, which is investigating his high school, Our Savior New American in Centereach, N.Y. And there’s a chance that he never sees the floor for the Jayhawks. If he does, though, he’ll be the runaway winner for this award. Diallo was the MVP of the McDonald’s All-American game and the co-MVP of the Jordan Brand Classic. Paired with Perry Ellis in the frontcourt and benefiting from an experienced backcourt, Diallo won’t be asked to be Kansas’s leading scorer. Instead, he’ll get his points, but more importantly will stuff the stat sheet by grabbing boards on both ends and swatting shots.
Projected conference race
Each team’s outlook in about 68 words
We project Kansas to have the second-most efficient offense and the most efficient defense in the conference. Although it’ll be annoying to hear all year about Bill Self and Kansas’s quest for 12 straight Big 12 titles (don’t you see it, the number 12 is there twice!), it’ll be a small price to pay for watching Ellis, Mason and Graham go to work. If Diallo is cleared, this is a Final Four-caliber team; if he’s not, it’s still a top-three seed with a chance to make a deep run in March.
If the Cyclones can maintain their blistering offensive pace (we think they can) and improve marginally on defense (less clear), they could challenge Kansas for the conference crown. Niang is the centerpiece of the team of course, but Monte Morris is perhaps the best pure point guard in the country. He led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio a year ago.
With the constant conversation around Hield and his outstanding offense, it’s easy to forget that the Sooners boasted the Big 12’s most efficient defense last season. And we predict they’ll be tied with Kansas as the best defense in the league again this year. Add in the electric offensive abilities of Hield, as well as Cousins, Spangler and Woodard, and you have the makings of a March contender.
Don’t let Texas’s mediocre, 20-14 season under Rick Barnes a year ago fool you into thinking that the team is talentless. The Longhorns (nine) trail only the Jayhawks (10) in the number of top-100 recruits on their roster. One of them is Taylor, who was a common pick for breakout player as a sophomore. He struggled at times, however, so expect him to finally emerge as a more consistent force this year.
|Daxter Miles, Jr.||SG||9.0||2.6||1.3||112.5||18%||58%|
On paper, the Mountaineers weren’t spectacular last season—they were 291st in effective field goal percentage and 303rd in that same category defensively. But their full-court defensive pressure helped to cover up a multidude of sins. The Mountaineers had the shortest possession time in the country and were tops in turnover percentage. We predict another strong defensive year with an offense good enough to keep them firmly near the top of the Big 12’s second tier.
Prince, Gathers and Motley form what might be the Big 12’s best frontcourt. All three are efficient scorers and top-notch rebounders, the latter of which is Gathers’s specialty. Prince, meanwhile, can stretch defenses by stepping out to the three-point line, where he shoots nearly 40%. If there’s a darkhorse conference player of the year candidate, he’s probably on the Bears.
The Cowboys have added a D-I transfer (Olivier, from Eastern Illinois) and a juco-transfer (Ibaka) into their six-man rotation this year, making them one of the most difficult teams to predict in the league. If one—or both—emerges and eases the load on Forte and Evans, the Cowboys could compete for a tournament bid. If not, coach Travis Ford could feel his seat warming.
The Horned Frogs lost three of their top four scorers from a team that went 18-15, 4-14 last season. Washburn will be the team’s go-to offensive option, and his offensive rating is barely better than 100. A decent defense can keep TCU in games, but it’ll need much better shooting and defensive rebounding than last year to steal some in-conference upsets.
The good news is that the Red Raiders return almost every significant contributor from last season. The bad news is that last year’s team went 13-19. The key for this year will be for coach Tubby Smith to continue the development of a quartet of sophomores—Evans, Odiase, Smith and Manderson—who could take Tech back to the NCAA tournament in another year.
|Carlbe Ervin II||PG||9.5||3.9||2.9||96.7||20%||76%|
The Wildcats have lost five players to transfer since last season and graduated two top seniors. To replace them, it reeled in the worst recruiting class in the Big 12. In summary, this season shouldn’t be pretty. We project just one player, Edwards, to post an offensive rating better than 100.