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Conference Catch-up: Big 12

Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins has the potential of being the second straight No. 1 NBA draft pick from Canada. (Sam Forencich/Getty Images) Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins has the potential of being the second straight No. 1 NBA draft pick from Canada. (Sam Forencich/Getty Images)

It was expected to be a year full of transitions in the Big 12, with the NBA draft claiming a bunch of the league’s best talents. Then Marcus Smart shocked just about everyone and turned down a likely top-five slot in the NBA draft to return to Oklahoma State. Then the Cowboys were touted as maybe, possibly, finally the team that could knock Kansas off its annual perch, with the Jayhawks building around a very young (albeit talented) core. Then Andrew Wiggins surprised many recruiting analysts by choosing Kansas over Kentucky, Florida State and North Carolina. Suddenly, the Jayhawks were once again considered the league favorite. The two KU-OSU games will be epic, and the two teams should be significant threats to keep playing deep into March. The rest of the conference will be playing catchup, and it’s not a bad year to be rebuilding, as you’re not going to win the conference, but there are wins to be had elsewhere outside the top two or three.

Game Changer

It has to be Wiggins making the call to be a Jayhawk. Smart is a dynamic college player, but he’s not a once-in-a-decade kind of prospect like the Canadian, who stands a very strong chance to be the second straight No. 1 overall pick from his country (after Anthony Bennett this season). His arrival in Lawrence changed pretty much everything about the league in terms of expectations. Kansas went from “they could be pretty good” to a likely top-five team in the preseason and a Final Four contender. Oklahoma State went from a lot of people’s favorite to maybe a more comfortable role as an underdog. The conference will stay enormously relevant now, with everyone wanting to get a look at KU, especially when it faces Oklahoma State and Baylor. With all due respect to what should be a great show in Stillwater, the megastar (at least in terms of his one college season ) is in Lawrence.

Player to Watch

All of that said, if I had a vote for Big 12 player of the year, I would pick Smart. He’s a sophomore, has the experience of a run through the league and a full college season, and will be in position to put up some really big numbers across the stat sheet. With Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash also back, and Smart seeking to refine his skills as a 1 in order to be more NBA-ready, his season should be a fascinating exploration of all he’s able to do on both ends. Wiggins will have some extraordinary moments, but Kansas isn’t typically set up for one guy to average over 20 a game.

In non-Wiggins/Smart news, it will be interesting to see how Baylor picks up for the loss of point guard Pierre Jackson, who was laughably left off the league’s first-team postseason honors last year. The Bears have a lot of returning talent and experience except at the lead guard spot (which is never a good thing).

Current Favorite

It’s Kansas. Whenever you’ve won at least a share of nine straight league titles and you have a roster that includes Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden, Naadir Tharpe, Perry Ellis, Tarik Black and more, you’re going to be the pick. It may take Kansas much of the nonconference schedule to sort out how many they want to play, but by league play, they should be fully ready to go.

Presumed Challenger(s)

Oklahoma State looks like the only team that has the firepower to stay with Kansas over 18 games. They have the experience, the guard quality and the physicality to not only go head-to-head with the Jayhawks (they won last season in Lawrence), but also take care of business like they’ll need to against the lesser teams in the league. Consistency is needed, and OK State should show it this season.

Potential Darkhorse(s)

If Baylor figures out its point guard situation, there’s a lot to like about the Bears. Cory Jefferson had a big summer and looks primed to play his way into NBA lottery pick status. They also have Isaiah Austin and Ricardo Gathers in the frontcourt. Brady Heslip is still there to knock down shots and they got a strong late commitment from Allerik Freeman to help on the perimeter. This should be the third-best team in the conference, and really the only other team that could threaten the top two. Oklahoma and Iowa State should be pretty solid, but likely not good enough to win the league.

Three Big Questions

1) How high should expectations be for the top two?

The sky seems to be the limit for Kansas if everything comes together quickly enough. They’ll miss Jeff Withey’s shotblocking, for sure, but they still have the size and athletes to be a very good defensive club while also being much more explosive than last season’s team offensively. When you’re counting on so many freshmen and sophomores to be good, you never are 100 percent certain with what you’ll get, but the talent (and the coaching track record) is here to believe Kansas can make it to Dallas.

Oklahoma State isn’t as deep or as loaded talent-wise, and still has the scars of last season’s disappointing exit against Oregon in the Round of 64, but that experience should fuel this year’s team. If Smart stays healthy down the stretch and helps lift everyone’s level a notch, the second weekend of the NCAAs should be a legit target, and then from there, it’s draw and individual excellence.

2) Is this season the end for Rick Barnes at Texas?

With the departure of Ioannis Papapetrou to Greece on a pro contract, the Longhorns have lost the top four scorers from last season’s team, and there isn’t the incoming talent to staunch the slide. This is going to be another very tough season in Austin, and then it will be up to DeLoss Dodds to see how much patience he wants to have. At the end of this season, the Longhorns will likely have missed back-to-back NCAA tournaments and only have two NCAA wins in the last six years. They’re also losing in-state high school talent to others at an alarming rate. If the Texas job opens, everybody will want in on that, so it won’t be for a lack of replacements if Barnes is retained. It’s an interesting story to watch because if this job opens, it could make for a lot of dominoes falling in the annual coaching carousel.

3) What is the March prospectus?

Kansas should be a top-two seed on Selection Sunday. Oklahoma State should be a top-four, with some upside. Baylor should find a way back into the NCAAs, and I like Iowa State’s chances to get in. If Oklahoma can make it, the league could get five bids without anyone surprising, in a year where a lot of programs are trying to reload. That wouldn’t be bad in the slightest.

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