Big 12 Primer: Pullen-led K-State tops highly competitive conference
The senior guard averaged 19.3 points per game last season and will have the opportunity to do it all in the Wildcats' backcourt in 2010-11 with the departure of talented point guard Denis Clemente. Pullen is a worthy pick and also a "safe" one, with the lingering uncertainty around the eligibility of Baylor senior shooting guard LaceDarius Dunn and Kansas stud freshman point guard Josh Selby (Selby's situation also impacts the POY potential for KU forward Marcus Morris).
If Selby becomes eligible (more on that issue below), this is a two-horse race. Actually, if Tony Mitchell gets eligible at Missouri, throw him in, too. Jones, a top-10 recruit himself, probably will have more of an obvious statistical impact, though, for a Baylor team expected to do a lot despite significant personnel losses from last season's Elite Eight team. With Ekpe Udoh leaving early, there's ample room for Jones to step in, providing the inside complement to Dunn's outside scoring (assuming he is reinstated).
The Buffaloes escaped the Big 12 basement last year for the first time in four seasons. While leading scorer Cory Higgins is back, CU's success in Tad Boyle's first season will be determined by how much of a next step Burks takes. As a freshman last season, the wing averaged more than 17 points and five rebounds and was incredibly efficient while maintaining a star-level possession-usage rate. Burks could be a potential NBA lottery pick in 2011 if he can round out his game (and continue to fill out his frame) this season.
That was the Big 12's record last season against other BCS-conference teams -- by far the best mark of any of those conferences against their peers. The next-best league was the ACC at 24-21. The Big East, Big Ten and SEC were all slightly under .500 and the Pac-10 was 9-24. The Big 12's 13-4 mark against the down Pac-10 helped pad the numbers, and it matters who plays whom and where, but outperforming its peer group to that extent is a good indication of how solid and deep the league was. Expect more of the same this season.
How well the Wildcats can replace Denis Clemente as the primary ballhandler will determine how far they go. The Cats have enough in the frontcourt with Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels and transfer Freddy Asprilla to supplement Jacob Pullen's expected scoring, but questions remain as to how well Pullen will adjust to orchestrating and who will spot him some minutes at the point. If both those issues are answered to some level of satisfaction, K-State could end the season in Houston for the Final Four.
The status of coveted point guard recruit Josh Selby remains the key question with this team. The NCAA has cleared Selby academically, but his amateurism status is still under review, and Bill Self doesn't expect a decision before the season begins. If Selby eventually gets eligible to go with Marcus Morris and Tyshawn Taylor, that's a terrific nucleus around which Kansas can layer some athletic and/or experienced complementary pieces. KU lost a lot with the departures of Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry. This year's Jayhawks could end up being more explosive, but it will take some time to gel before they can be as good. Don't doubt that they can, though. This is a really talented team that, with Selby at the point, is Final Four quality.
Every year Missouri seems to be overlooked nationally, and this season is no exception, especially if prized forward recruit Tony Mitchell can get eligible for the spring semester. Mitchell would immediately help answer Missouri's questions in the frontcourt, although Laurence Bowers should also take another big step this season. Mix in sharpshooting Kim English, top point guard recruit Phil Pressey and a bunch of other talented pieces, and the deep, athletic Tigers could make a run at the Big 12 crown if they get Mitchell into the lineup.
If LaceDarius Dunn regains his eligibility after a domestic incident in which he allegedly hit his girlfriend (she denies it happened), Baylor is the fourth team that could challenge for the league title. If he's back and Perry Jones lives up to his billing, guys like Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones can be the prototypical supporting cast on an elite team. Point guard, with the departure of Tweety Carter, could be a major Achilles' heel. Baylor has the talent to back up what it did last season, but expectations may be running a bit high at this point, given what the Bears lost from the roster and their new status as the hunted.
The Longhorns should be an interesting team, especially if their two prized recruits (and high school teammates), point guard Cory Joseph and forward Tristan Thompson, can step in and deliver as advertised. Texas' season was compromised last year in part by injuries at the point guard spot, but there are a number of returning options to mix and match with Joseph and emerging sophomore wing Jordan Hamilton. Gary Johnson will have to fill a bigger role in the frontcourt, as well, with the losses of Damion James and Dexter Pittman.
In Cory Higgins and Alec Burks, Colorado has two of the league's top 10 players. If third-leading scorer Marcus Relphorde and the rest of the Buffaloes supporting cast can emerge, CU can be the surprise team in the league this season. A lot will depend on whether the Buffs can improve on the glass. It would be hard not to; they were in the nation's bottom 15 in rebounding rate at both ends of the floor last season under Jeff Bzdelik. New coach Tad Boyle will need to find a way to coax more physicality out of essentially the same cast of players.
Losing James Anderson and Obi Muonelo was a big enough issue, but now the Cowboys have suspended returning forward Matt Pilgrim indefinitely. Assuming he's back sooner than later, though, he should pair with Marshall Moses and juco transfer Darrell Williams to provide a solid frontcourt complement to the cadre of returning small and/or decent shooting guards. Freshman Markel Brown, the Louisiana high school player of the year, could be a breakout newcomer in the backcourt.
It wasn't an easy offseason in College Station. Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis are big losses, as is the non-return of Derrick Roland, who was not granted an extra year by the NCAA after shattering his leg last season. Plus, heralded recruit Tobi Oyedeji died in a car accident in the spring. It's hard to know where the scoring will come from. Can B.J. Holmes be consistent enough to lead a team? Will Khris Middleton blossom? You know Mark Turgeon's Aggies will defend well, though. Watch for freshman Kourtney Roberson, former A&M star Bernard King's half-brother, to have an impact.
The Red Raiders have most of their scoring punch back from an NIT quarterfinal squad last season, but they must improve defensively to have a chance to make the NCAAs. The top half of the Big 12 shredded the Red Raiders' defense in league games last year, with eight different opponents posting at least 1.10 points per possession against Tech. In Mike Singletary and John Roberson, they definitely have the explosive scorers to compete, but need them and the complementary pieces to be more consistent and efficient.
The Huskers' relative lack of size last year was exploited. Sophomore Jorge Brian Diaz will hope to get some help from beefy Brazilian juco transfer Andre Almeida. This is Nebraska's final season in the league before moving to the Big Ten, so it will be a transitional campaign in more ways than one. New rivalries and a new arena are coming, and despite a lack of obvious scoring punch, likely a few more league wins this season, too.
The Sooners fell off badly last season with on- and off-court problems leading to a 13-18 campaign and then a postseason house cleaning by coach Jeff Capel. This year won't be good, as there's very little returning talent on the roster to help support the wave of newcomers. Senior guard Cade Davis is the best returnee and he'll get help from University of New Orleans transfer Carl Blair. Freshman wing Cameron Clark will be expected to provide immediate perimeter punch.
Getting school legend Fred Hoiberg to take over as head coach was a p.r. coup, but the arrival of "The Mayor" probably will be the best thing Cyclones fans get this season. After losing forwards Craig Brackens and Marquis Gilstrap from last year's team that went 4-12 in league play, Iowa State is really hurting for high-major talent. It could be a year or two before all this season's newcomers start to pan out, so spending this season watching native son Harrison Barnes' one year at North Carolina may have to do.