Big 12 Primer: Questions aside, Kansas looks to be class of league
If the Jayhawks are going to claim their eighth straight league title, Robinson is going to have to be a huge force in an overhauled frontcourt. Given the luxury of coming off the bench last season, Robinson wasn't shy, especially on the glass, where he posted dominant rebounding rates on both ends -- 18.8 percent offensive and 31.1 percent defensive. (For reference, glasseater Kenneth Faried led Division I in both categories, at 19.9 and 31.6, per
Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello will be large parts of an extremely talented Baylor core, but they should get significant help from returnees Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy. Nash won't have nearly that luxury as he slots in immediately as the Cowboys' primary offensive threat. The Cowboys will be able to surround Nash with a decent supporting cast, so he may be in better position than other candidates like Texas' Myck Kabongo, but he won't have to share the spoils nearly as much as the Baylor duo, which should lead to big numbers and big impact.
With the departure of sturdy forward Nathan Walkup (9.4 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game), there should be an ample increase in minutes available for Roberson, who made an impact on the glass last season while trying to find his offensive footing. A&M will need more initiative from him at that end this season, as the Aggies also lost B.J. Holmes. Khris Middleton and David Loubeau have proved to be capable front-line scorers, but this isn't a team where you expect a guy to regularly pop off for 25 points, so what scoring contributions A&M gets beyond those two will help determine whether the preseason hype was warranted.
That's the number of league games the Big 12 will play this season in its new 10-team setup, with the league now being the only high-major conference that will play a full double round-robin. For once, there will be no need for schedule strength adjustments and debates about uneven divisions. The winner will have earned a conference championship with true meaning. That's a refreshing throwback -- that may be very temporary if conference realignment juggles things up again.
If you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ, and very few have done that over the years in this league. These Jayhawks do not have the talent level of recent KU clubs, but with the rest of the challengers having questions of their own, the Jayhawks are the prudent default choice. Thomas Robinson steps into the frontcourt limelight and will try to make up for the loss of Markieff and Marcus Morris. The backcourt still has senior lead guard Tyshawn Taylor and junior Elijah Johnson. Can a three-man core win a league as deep as the Big 12? Depends on the contributions of players like Travis Releford and Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young, as well as what they can wean from a lower-profile freshman class that lost Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor to eligibility issues. The Jayhawks could go 15-3 or 10-8 and neither would be a complete surprise. With Bill Self and Allen Fieldhouse as the guides, something closer to the former seems more likely.
New coach Billy Kennedy inherited a very nice roster for his first season in College Station. The Aggies shared first place with Kansas in the preseason media poll and could very well win the league. Kennedy, the former Murray State coach, is used to rosters that share the limelight, so having a team built around guys like Khris Middleton and David Loubeau -- very good players, but not Wooden Award finalist types -- should suit him just fine. Losing forward Nathan Walkup means more will be expected from frontcourt contributors like Kourtney Roberson and Ray Turner. Dash Harris provides stability at the point. Washington transfer Elston Turner will help make up for the shooting lost with the departure of B.J. Holmes. Last year, the Aggies struggled against more athletic teams (see: Texas). Outside of maybe Baylor this season, upgrades in athleticism in the rotation should make that less of a concern.
The Bears have the most top-end talent in the league, but last season's disappointment was fueled by a lack of capable point guard play and Baylor still may not have solved that issue. That's a potentially serious problem because the Bears remain heavy with frontcourt players and should see a lot of zone defense again this season. Consistent operation of the offense and feeding of the post will be required to make things work. Incumbent A.J. Walton returns and Scott Drew imported juco transfer Pierre Jackson as another option. It's possible the swap of departed shooting guard LaceDarius Dunn for freshman Deuce Bello, and sharpshooter Brady Heslip will help balance things out, but it's probably all going to come down to the quality of play at the point. If that's there consistently, the Bears will probably win the league.
LeBryan Nash has a nasty edge to go along with the go-to guy potential that the Pokes lacked last season. Nash's size and skill on the wing should help Travis Ford fulfill his hopes for a more up-tempo style this season. The Pokes were a suspect shooting team last season and especially poor from three-point range, where they converted less than 30 percent as a team. If Nash (and a faster tempo) can help create some easier baskets, OSU has the supporting cast to make a dark horse title run. Two returning double-digit scorers -- guard Keiton Page and swingman Jean-Paul Olukemi -- are joined by redshirt freshman forward Michael Cobbins and juco big man Philip Jurick. If Darrell Williams gets reinstated, that adds a quality rebounder to the mix.
Everything was setting up for a big season before both Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph left after their freshmen season for the NBA. Now the Longhorns are really young and really small, which is rarely a good combo. Junior guard J'Covan Brown is the Horns' only returning player who played more than 10 minutes a game last season and four of the five incoming recruits are guards, which leaves Clint Chapman (more of a perimeter-oriented big) as the only player taller than 6-8. Texas should be entertaining, at least. Freshman point guard Myck Kabongo should pair well with the maturing Brown in the backcourt along with former Maryland commit Sterling Gibbs. Throw in contributions from senior forward Alexis Wangmene and some shooting from freshman Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan, and the Horns should have some nights where they score in bunches. Whether they can defend well enough and keep teams off the glass is another question.
Departures may also compromise what was expected to be a blockbuster season in Columbia. In this case, it's the exit of coach Mike Anderson (to Arkansas) and then a preseason injury to Laurence Bowers, the league's best frontcourt defender, that will keep him out for the season. New coach Frank Haith still has some quality options, starting with underrated guard Marcus Denmon, effective forward Ricardo Ratliffe, jitterbug point Phil Pressey and Twitter All-Star Kim English (
The Cyclones will be one of the nation's most interesting teams thanks to a phalanx of transfers that should significantly upgrade the talent level in Ames. If team chemistry and cohesiveness rises to the level of the talent, they could be one of the surprise outfits in the league. ISU welcomes guards Chris Allen (from Michigan State) and Chris Babb (Penn State) along with forwards Royce White (a former elite recruit at Minnesota who hasn't played in college yet) and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois). Three of them likely will start along with sharpshooting senior Scott Christopherson and promising sophomore forward Melvin Ejim. No one in that mix is really a true point guard, so 5-9 freshman Tavon Sledge could get a long look in what will be a crucial role keeping all the newbies (and shooters) happy.
After a rollercoaster campaign that included top-five preseason expectations, midseason suspensions and a period where it looked like they'd miss the NCAAs entirely, the Wildcats now move forward permanently without leading scorer Jacob Pullen and big man Curtis Kelly. The Cats will be young in spots, but do return Rodney McGruder, Will Spradling and Jamar Samuels, plus some promising freshmen and St. John's transfer Omari Lawrence. Frank Martin has established his coaching chops in this league and he should have a lot of options to shuttle in and out. How quickly the large group of newbies matures (and learns to play with Martin's desired defensive intensity) will determine the Cats' NCAA tournament hopes.
The Sooners shelled out big money to lure noted program builder Lon Kruger away from UNLV, and a young core that got a baptism by fire over the last two seasons is starting to mature. OU returns four starters, plus brings in promising Mississippi State transfer Romero Osby, who should help double-digit scorer Andrew Fitzgerald be more efficient. The Sooners were a poor rebounding team last season, and Kruger's Rebels teams weren't particularly good on the glass, either. How well this undersized club can battle on the boards will help determine how successful this initial season under Kruger will be.
Pat Knight wasn't getting it done, so the Red Raiders turned to Billy Gillispie, whose previous successes in the state at UTEP and Texas A&M are hoped to portend better than his quick flameout at Kentucky and rocky off-court start in Lubbock. The roster has undergone a complete overhaul, with just a small handful of scholarship players returning and a big influx of freshmen and juco transfers filling things out. Dynamic scorer Mike Singletary is gone, but solid big man Robert Lewandowski (who has dropped about 25 pounds, according to local reports) returns. No one else on the roster averaged more than 13 minutes a game last season.