First Look: Kansas and Texas will battle in a top-heavy Big 12
For the majority of last season, the Big 12 was considered the best league in all of college basketball. Then came a fairly spectacular NCAA tournament flameout, with seven teams entered into the field but none advancing farther than Iowa State and Baylor, which both lost in the Sweet 16.
The dynamic for next season suggests a more top-heavy league. Kansas has reloaded. Texas could jump into the nation's elite. Oklahoma returns four of its top five scorers from a 23-10 team. Iowa State returns key playmakers and welcomes more impact transfers.
Here's an early look at what's in store for the Big 12:
State of the champions
Kansas, the regular season champion, and Iowa State, the conference tournament champ, begin 2014-15 in similar circumstances to 2013-14. The Jayhawks counted on a pair of freshman stars last season (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, both of whom could be top 3 NBA draft picks this summer) while wondering what they would get from the point guard spot. Next year, Bill Self's crew counts on another pair of consensus top-10 recruits in forward Cliff Alexander and swingman Kelly Oubre while wondering what it will get from the point guard spot, where sophomores Connor Frankamp and Frank Mason and top-40 recruit Devonte Graham will compete for time. Iowa State, meanwhile, thrived in 2013-14 thanks to some homegrown parts (Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang) augmented by an impact transfer, point guard DeAndre Kane. Ejim and Kane are gone, but Niang (16.7 points per game) and Dustin Hogue (11.6 ppg) return for the Cyclones and should get help from transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, who led UNLV in scoring (13.6 ppg) last season and who will be eligible immediately. Once again, Kansas should be a favorite for a league title. And once again, Iowa State should be a close contender.
Texas returns all five starters from a team that surprisingly won 24 games and advanced to the round of 32, and those players along positioned the Longhorns well in the Big 12 -- and nationally. Then, on April 30, Myles Turner reached into a black hat box and pulled out a burnt orange fisherman's hat with a Longhorns logo on it. The top uncommitted recruit in the nation – the No. 2 prospect overall per ESPN and No. 9 recruit according to Rivals.com – joined Rick Barnes' roster and immediately recalibrated the race for the league and the national titles. The 6-foot-11 Turner slides in naturally as a power forward who can stretch the floor and defend the rim. Aside from one starter accepting a sixth-man role, the returning Texas players won't have to adjust to accommodate Turner's presence. It's a terrific addition and a terrific fit, and it means the Longhorns can set their sights on some trophies.
Devonte Graham, Kansas. The easy choice is Turner or Alexander, and neither would be wrong. We'll go with Graham, who signed late with Kansas after initially being denied his release from a letter of intent to Appalachian State. Graham could be the difference between the Jayhawks becoming a national title contender or another March disappointment. He might not be the impact producer that Turner or Alexander will be, but he doesn't have to be. The 6-2, 175-pound Graham merely needs to be more consistent conduit than his predecessor, Naadir Tharpe, who transferred away to be closer to his Massachusetts hometown and his young daughter. Graham's Rivals.com profile describes him as a player who “doesn't take a lot of risks” and who is “usually quite efficient.” If that translates on to the floor – if Graham orchestrates the offense with aplomb and delivers the ball effectively to Kansas' many scoring options – he'll have as profound an impact on the league race as any first-year player.
Jameel McKay, Iowa State. Once McKay is eligible to play on Dec. 20 – he left Marquette without playing a game and can't take the floor until the first semester is in the books – he'll give the Cyclones something not all their transfers have offered: Defense. McKay averaged 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in two seasons at Indian Hills Community College, but the 6-9 forward's 86-inch wingspan and ability to protect the rim can add a dimension to a team that won't have any issues scoring with Niang, Hogue, Dejean-Jones and Naz Long on the floor.
Coach on the hot seat
Trent Johnson, TCU. In Johnson's first season at TCU, the Horned Frogs won two Big 12 games; last year, they went 0-18 in league play. TCU is 20-43 overall on his watch. It is a sad commentary that a third season becomes a make-or-break prospect for any coach, but school administrators, seeing the leap SMU has made and the renewed relevance of Texas, must be wondering why their program can't tap into that momentum in a region replete with talent. (The state of Texas featured seven top-100 prospects in Rivals.com's Class of 2014 rankings.) But here's an increasingly interesting question: If Oklahoma State again fails to win an NCAA tournament game under Travis Ford -- and it hasn't yet -- will some big donors try to get rid of Ford after he signed a 10-year contract in 2009? As The Oklahoman noted in March, there's no buyout; the school is on the hook for the rest of the deal should it fire Ford, and that amounts to $11.85 million. Due to early departures to the NBA by Marcus Smart and Markel Brown plus personnel attrition via transfers and other issues, Oklahoma State will have just six scholarship players remaining from last year's team, though returnees Le'Bryan Nash (13.9 ppg) and Phil Forte III (13.3 ppg) were steady producers.