Big 12 Off-Season Report: Power Rankings, Burning Questions
- Can anyone catch Kansas? The Jayhawks are relying on transfers to stay atop the Big 12.
Big 12 off-season Power Rankings
Who else? The Jayhawks have won 13 straight regular-season Big 12 titles, repeatedly showing they shouldn’t be doubted. Frank Mason II and Josh Jackson are gone, but Devonte' Graham is back and Bill Self has filled out his roster via transfers and recruiting.
Losing four seniors from their rotation hurts, but the Mountaineers are set up well. Leading scorers Jevon Carter and Esa Ahmad are back, and Press Virginia should once again be a frightening sight for opposing offenses.
All eyes will be on senior guard Manu Lecomte and 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. Johnathan Motley is a massive loss, however, so Lual-Acuil and senior Terry Maston will need to step up.
This may seem ambitious for the school that finished dead last in the conference last season, but the Longhorns should be much improved in 2017–18, especially now that Mohamed Bamba has been ruled eligible by the NCAA.
The Horned Frogs nearly earned their first NCAA bid since 1998 in Jamie Dixon’s first season as head coach, but in the long run, their five additional NIT games—which culminated in an NIT championship—will likely prove valuable for a team that returns its top six scorers.
Hometown kid and five-star recruit Trae Young arrives and will be ready to run the show in Norman. The Sooners struggled after losing a lot from their Final Four run, but they have the tools to be in the mix this year.
The Red Raiders were one of the most experienced teams in the country last season and bring back their top two scorers, Keenan Evans and top rebounder Zach Smith.
Juwan Evans and Phil Forte III are gone, but Jeffrey Carroll returns to lead an offense that finished 2016–17 ranked No. 1 in the country in adjusted efficiency on kenpom.com. St. John’s transfer Yankuba Sima will be eligible in December.
The Cyclones have to replace 86% of their scoring, including long-time program stalwarts Monte Morris and Nazareth Mitrou-Long, but touted incoming freshman Lindell Wigginton will help. Grad transfers Hans Brase and Jeff Beverly should also provide immediate assistance and experience.
The backcourt duo of Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown return, but the Wildcats’ frontcourt situation is less defined. Keep an eye on rising sophomore Xavier Sneed, who’s in line for a starting role at wing. Kansas State may be in the basement for now, but it’s easy to see them not finishing there.
Burning Questions in the Big 12
Can the Bears keep dominating the boards without their best rebounder?
Led by recent players Rico Gathers and Johnathan Motley, the Bears have been beasts of the offensive boards over the last four seasons, finishing in the top four in the country each year in offensive rebounding rate. Baylor posted an 8.7 rebounding margin last season, tied for fourth-best in the country, and its advantage on the boards in recent years has been a valuable strength. When Gathers graduated (he’s now a tight end in the Cowboys organization, by the way), Motley was there to step up and command the boards—now, the Bears will need someone else to. Senior center Jo Lual-Acuil is the natural choice—he was second on the team in rebounding with 6.7 per game in 26.1 minutes per game last season. With Ishmail Wainright also gone, Baylor will need more than Lual-Acuil regardless. Senior Terry Maston and incoming freshmen Tristan Clark and 7-footer Leonard Allen are possibilities to help shore up the boards.
How much will the now-departed seniors be missed?
The obvious answer is “a lot.” It would be incredibly tough for any team to reload after graduating the likes of Monte Morris, Nazareth Mitrou-Long, Deonte Burton and Matt Thomas, among others. After the Cyclones earned six straight NCAA tournament bids, a seventh will be difficult, but it isn’t unattainable. If grad transfer Hans Brase can stay healthy, he should be a nice boost to the frontcourt. The former Princeton forward sat out 2015–16 with an ACL tear and played in just five games last season due to another knee injury. But in his last full season, he was a strong defensive rebounder and averaged 11.5 points. Top-40 recruit Lindell Wigginton is also coming in and should get plenty of opportunities in the backcourt, while senior guard Donovan Jackson is Iowa State’s top returning scorer (6.4 ppg) and 6’9” Cameron Lard will suit up after redshirting. The Cyclones are about to enter a new era, but there are some solid pieces around which to build.
Will Bill Self’s utilization of the transfer market pan out?
The Jayhawks will feature plenty of new faces on the hardwood next year, which in itself isn’t an odd sight in the era of one-and-dones. But most of Kansas’s 2017 newcomers come via the transfer market. Six transfers will be on the roster, three of whom are eligible this season (including Sam Cunliffe, who cannot play until the spring semester).
The most notable of the currently eligible crop is Malik Newman, a former top-10 recruit who spent his freshman season at Mississippi State before sitting out 2016–17. Newman has plenty of talent but struggled with efficiency in his first collegiate season. That likely led to his decision to withdraw from the NBA draft and transfer, delaying his professional dreams for at least two years. How Newman fits in with and plays within the Kansas offense will be key. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by Devonte' Graham, who is back for his senior season and carries a boatload of experience. The Jayhawks’ new faces also include five-star power forward recruit Billy Preston and four-star small forward Marcus Garrett.
Who will emerge in the frontcourt?
In saying goodbye Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson, the Wildcats lose their top two rebounders from a team that already struggled greatly on the defensive boards. Kansas State’s June dismissal of rising sophomore forward Isaiah Maurice, who rebounded well in limited minutes, further complicated its frontcourt situation. There are multiple options, but rising junior Dean Wade (9.3 points, 4.5 rebounds) and Mount St. Mary’s grad transfer Mawdo Sallah (6.1 points, 5.3 rebounds) are the only big men with notable Division I experience. Sallah had solid rebounding rates as a sophomore in the Northeast Conference last season, but it remains to be seen how he will adjust to a jump to the Big 12. Other frontcourt contributors for the Wildcats include James Love III, a 6’10” redshirt freshman who missed the 2016–17 season due to a broken foot, 6’9” junior college transfer Makol Mawein, and freshmen Nigel Shadd and Levi Stockard.
Are the Sooners’ young players ready to make the leap?
As expected, the Sooners underwent a rebuilding year after losing Buddy Hield and Co. from their 2016 Final Four team. Those departures left Oklahoma with one of the nation’s youngest rosters, and despite the expected growing pains, the Sooners are now set up well for the future. Kameron McGusty and Kristian Doolittle will look to build on strong freshman seasons, while Rashard Odomes and Christian James will cross the threshold into upperclassmen. Most notably, five-star point guard recruit Trae Young arrives and should provide an instant boost to the backcourt. Khadeem Lattin, who struggled at times in his junior season but was Oklahoma’s top rebounder, will also be back for one last go-around. If Young lives up to the hype and McGusty and Doolittle progress as expected, the rebuild should be short-lived.
Can Jeffrey Carroll have another big year?
Carroll had a breakout year as a junior but was often overshadowed by the dynamic Juwan Evans. With Evans off to the NBA, Carroll will be “the guy” as a senior, and the play of the 6’6” guard will be critical to the Cowboys’ success.
Not having Evans around also means losing his 44.1% assist rate, which ranked third in the nation. Rising sophomore Brandon Averette backed up Evans last season, averaging 5.2 points and 1.8 assists, and his development will likewise have a big impact on Carroll and how well the offense runs. Carroll had a very strong shooting year, with a true shooting percentage of 65.4% and a 44.4% mark from three. Now the task will be replicating that even when defenses key in on him.
Can the Horned Frogs finally break through?
It’s been a long time since TCU has gone dancing—19 years, to be exact—but there’s reason to think this will be the year it goes back to the NCAAs. After a 12–21 season in 2015–16 led to the firing of Trent Johnson, Jamie Dixon’s first year as head coach was a relatively big success, even despite a 6–12 mark in a crowded Big 12. Winning the NIT title could be the springboard the Horned Frogs needed, especially considering their top six scorers are all returning, including senior big man Vladimir Brodziansky. TCU will have several new faces as well, including VCU grad transfer Ahmed Hamdy and four-star incoming freshmen R.J. Nembhard and Kevin Samuel.
Will the recruiting class live up to the hype this time?
Mohamed Bamba, who was a late spring commit, is the crown jewel of Shaka Smart’s 2017 recruiting class, but there’s plenty of talent arriving with him. All five of Texas’s incoming freshmen were ranked in Scout’s top 100, including four in the top 50. Bamba, guards Matt Coleman and Jase Febres, and big men Jericho Sims and Royce Hamm make up the nation’s No. 4 class. But having a top recruiting class doesn’t guarantee success—just ask the 2016–17 Longhorns, who welcomed the nation’s fifth-ranked class but suffered many growing pains en route to an 11–22 record and a last-place finish in the Big 12.
The good news is that even with the transfer of Tevin Mack and the departure of Jarrett Allen to the NBA, the 2017–18 Longhorns won’t be quite as inexperienced. The return of former five-star recruit Andrew Jones for his sophomore year was huge, and Kerwin Roach Jr. and Eric Davis Jr. will now be upperclassmen, a distinction last year’s Longhorns were largely lacking. Despite that experience, Texas’s true ceiling will hinge on their heralded freshman class.
Can the Red Raiders return to the NCAA tournament in Year 2 under Chris Beard?
Chris Beard’s first season in Lubbock started strong with an 11–1 mark against a soft nonconference schedule and wins over West Virginia, Kansas State and TCU within the Raiders’ first six Big 12 games. But things went downhill from there with a 4–10 mark the rest of the way. Now, Texas Tech will look to make its second NCAA tourney in three years behind the senior duo of point guard Keenan Evans and big man Zach Smith. Shooting guard Niem Stevenson and wing Justin Gray also make up the core of the returners.
The team will feature a number of new faces as well. Florida transfer Brandone Francis, a former four-star recruit who struggled with the Gators, is now eligible, and a number of incoming freshman and juco transfers arrive, including Jarrett Culver and Daniel Mading. The Red Raiders will need to put their disappointing end to 2016–17 behind them as they begin a fresh start next season.
Is Esa Ahmad ready for a breakout year?
The rising junior forward is a prime candidate for a big season, and his play will likely determine how far the Mountaineers can go. Ahmad and senior Jevon Carter are expected to lead the West Virginia offense, while the defense will be gunning for its third straight top-10 finish in adjusted efficiency. Ahmad had the highest offensive usage on the team last season, per kenpom.com, but the interesting part was that no one on the Mountaineers had a possession usage higher than 24.5% when on the floor. In essence, the Mountaineers didn’t have the kind of “go-to guy” that many teams rely on. Before the NCAA tournament, SI.com’s Dan Greene detailed how, had West Virginia gone on to win the title, it would have done so “with the most equal distribution of shots among starters on record” (based on their regular season totals). With Nathan Adrian and Tarik Phillip among the departed, the Mountaineers’ offense may be less balanced next season, leaving room for someone like Ahmad or Carter to seize the role of a traditional No. 1 option.