Baylor made the Elite 8 of the 2012 NCAA tournament with a team that had three players selected in the top 40 of the NBA draft. Would you be surprised, then, if I told you that it was Jackson, and not any of Baylor's three future pros, that finished the season as the team's leading scorer? What if I told you that not only did Jackson score last season, but he also finished third in the Big 12 in assists and second in steals? His importance to the Bears will only increase this year. They are going to be a younger, more inexperienced group relying on the talented veteran to be a leader and a playmaker.
The top 10 recruit from Findlay Prep entered Texas with all kinds of hype and has drawn comparisons to Chris Paul. In this day and age of one-and-done talents, that kind of resume excites fan bases and media members alike, which is why Kabongo's inconsistent freshman year were viewed by some as a disappointment. But with J'Covan Brown graduating and a young, albeit talented, perimeter attack looking for someone to take the reins, don't be surprised if Kabongo becomes one of the country's best point guards as a sophomore before heading off to the NBA. Just like Paul.
The Big 12 has a number of high-profile recruits entering the league this season, but I went with Oklahoma State's Smart here because I think he'll have the biggest impact on his team. Even with Brian Williams out for the season and J.P. Olukemi's eligibility status for the second semester still in question, the Pokes have an abundance of talented wing players, but they enter this season lacking some leadership and point guard play. Smart earned a reputation for being a winner and a leader at the high school level. He'll be asked to play that role while manning the point guard spot -- he's more of a natural off-guard -- this season. If he can find some level of success, Oklahoma State has the pieces to make a run at the NCAA tournament.
These are the two best teams in the conference. March 9 is the last day of the regular season. Given how long it has been since Kansas wasn't the Big 12 champ, the Jayhawks heading into the final game of the year with the Big 12 title on the line, taking on the team that's hoping to usurp the throne, sounds like a pretty entertaining way to end Big 12 play.
That's the number of consecutive regular season Big 12 titles Kansas has won at least a share of. The Jayhawks have captured five Big 12 tournament titles during that span as well. You want another number? How about 1998. That's the last time that Bill Self finished worse than second in any regular season since 1998, his first year at Tulsa. He finished third in the WAC that season. No one dominates regular seasons like Bill Self, and no one dominates a conference like Kansas dominates the Big 12. With so much of last season's scoring off to the NBA with Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, is this the year the Jayhawks get picked off?
Before I get an angry email from Oklahoma State, let me clarify this statement: I don't think that Travis Ford's job is truly in danger. I don't think anyone in the conference is in jeopardy of being fired. Think about it: Texas Tech already got rid of Billy Gillispie. TCU's Trent Johnson is in his first season as is Bruce Weber at Kansas State. Lon Kruger (Oklahoma) and Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State) are off to great starts and should continue to improve this season. Self, Bobby Huggins, Scott Drew and Rick Barnes? Yeah, they're not going anywhere.
That leaves us with Ford, who, again, isn't sitting on a seat that's anything more than lukewarm. But with a roster that features more consensus top 10 recruits -- including Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash -- than the entire ACC, there is the expectation that the Pokes will be NCAA tournament bound this year. If Oklahoma State has another disappointing season, Smart and Nash both bolt to the NBA, and Ford is left with yet another rebuilding job? Anything's possible, I guess. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Can the Big 12 get 70 percent of the conference into the NCAA tournament? Kansas, Baylor, Texas, West Virginia and Kansas State look like tournament teams. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State look like they have the potential to earn bids. Given the lack of depth in some of the power conferences around the country, the Big 12 getting seven (or eight) teams isn't as crazy as it sounds.
1. Kansas: The Jayhawks have earned the right to be considered the favorite to win the Big 12 until they drop down a notch, even if this year's group has quite a scoring void to fill. Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson, the two guys that the Jayhawks ran everything through last season, are gone, but the good news is that every report about redshirt freshman Ben McLemore is that he's good enough to immediately step in and provide a major scoring pop. The transition will be easier if Elijah Johnson can build off of the way he ended last season -- he averaged 15.1 points in eight postseason games -- and become this group's floor general. It will be interesting to see the kind of production that seniors Travis Releford and Jeff Withey provide offensively, as well as the impact that the rest of Self's loaded recruiting class -- headlined by power forward Perry Ellis -- has. What may end up happening is that Kansas becomes a team built around their defense. Withey was the best shot blocker in the country last season, and with the kind of length the Jayhawks have on their perimeter, Kansas should be a very difficult to score against.
2. Baylor: A talented, athletic and promising group that needs to prove they can come together and win big games. That's been the standard for Baylor in recent years under Scott Drew, and it's no different this season. He brings in another loaded recruiting class -- headlined by a versatile, 7-foot-1 shooter in Isaiah Austin and 6-7 forward Ricardo Gathers -- and returns a handful of veteran role players, the best of whom is sharpshooting Canadian Brady Heslip. The difference between this team and the past two Baylor squads is that there is no questioning who this group's leader will be. Perry Jones III is gone, meaning that Pierre Jackson no longer needs to share the limelight. This is his team, and he's the kind of point guard that wants the ball in his hands and the leadership responsibility on his shoulders. He's not the same kind of player, but I see him being cut out of the same mold as a Jacob Pullen or a Sherron Collins. Give him the rock and let him lead.
3. Kansas State: The irony of Frank Martin leaving the Little Apple for South Carolina is that he might actually have had his best team since Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen left town. The other irony? The man hired to replace Martin, Bruce Weber, may actually be a better fit to coach this team than Martin was. The Wildcats return one of the most underrated backcourts in the country in Rodney McGruder, a contender for Big 12 Player of the Year, and Angel Rodriguez, a sophomore point guard who showed flashes of greatness last season. Weber had his struggles at Illinois, but there's no question that talented guards had success in his system. The Wildcats will need a couple big men to emerge alongside Jordan Henriquez, and someone other than Will Spradling needs to develop into a perimeter threat off the bench, but the pieces are there. Weber runs a more free-flowing offensive system, and don't think for a second that the toughness and defensive mentality engrained by Martin is gone. Keep an eye on this team.
4. West Virginia: Bob Huggins makes his return to the Big 12 with a team that could end up being a factor, although much of his team's success is going to depend on how he is able to integrate a trio of transfers. The most notable is big man Aaric Murray, who averaged 15.2 points and 7.7 boards at La Salle as a sophomore. Murray seems like he should be able to fill the void left by Kevin Jones, but he has his issues -- he bumped heads with the La Salle coaches too much and he was arrested for possession of marijuana at WVU. Murray should complement Turkish center Deniz Kilicli well, and with a backcourt consisting of Jabarie Hinds and Dayton transfer Juwan Staten, Huggins should have plenty of ball-handling and playmaking at his disposal. The Mountaineers still need some depth as well as some perimeter scoring pop, but one thing that seems to be a constant in college basketball is that Huggins fields competitive teams. This year will be no different.
5. Texas: The Longhorns are the x-factor in the Big 12 this season. Think about this: Texas doesn't have a single scholarship upperclassmen on its roster. The Longhorns have five sophomores and seven freshmen. The two seniors are walk-ons. The good news? Those youngsters are really talented. We've seen what Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis are capable of on the wings, and Myck Kabongo has the ability to be a terrific point guard. With a recruiting class that includes three four-star frontcourt recruits -- including Cameron Ridley, who was one of the most sought after centers in the country -- Rick Barnes has plenty of pieces. Usually, I would call this group a year away from being a true contender, but given the lack of a dominant team in the conference (and the country), who knows? If everything comes together, I can see Texas fighting for the league title. I can also see them fighting just to make the NCAA tournament.
6. Oklahoma: Oklahoma is the sleeper in the conference. Lon Kruger's club returns the top six scorers from last year's team, including a first-team All-Big 12 caliber performer in Steven Pledger. The Sooners also have a nice influx of talent, as they add a pair of talented shooting guards to their rotation while Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye finally gets eligible after sitting out last season. The biggest thing to like with this team is they seem to have great balance. The Sooners have perimeter weapons and capable big men. They have a number of seniors in the rotation, but plenty of talented youngsters will get a chance to play major minutes. Oklahoma hasn't been relevant since Blake Griffin left. They should be this season.
7. Oklahoma State: I'm torn on the Cowboys this season. I think they have the talent to be a tournament team because they have two guys on their roster that should be lottery picks in Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash. And when you have two guys that are good enough to be lottery picks, than you should be good enough to make the NCAA tournament. It's that simple. But what complicates matters for the Pokes is that they have so many question marks on the rest of their roster. Brian Williams is out for the season with a wrist injury. JP Olukemi is still waiting to hear if he'll be allowed to play the second semester and is coming off of a torn ACL. Philip Jurick is coming off of a torn Achilles and is dealing with his own legal issues. Travis Ford's team is thin up front and will be forced to use Smart out of position at point guard . All this is to say nothing of the legal issues involving Darrell Williams. Those are a lot of question marks to work out in a season.
8. Iowa State: As they did last season, the Cyclones will once again be forced to rely heavily on transfers this year. Unfortunately for Fred Hoiberg, he won't have Royce White at his disposal. There are going to be some pieces there -- Korie Lucious and Chris Babb should be one of the better backcourts in the Big 12, while a frontcourt that consists of Will Clyburn (who averaged 17 points and seven boards at Utah as a junior), Anthony Booker, Melvin Ejim and freshman Georges Niang has potential. But the question, as it always is when a team is overloaded with transfers, is how this group will come together. Did anyone get rusty or put on a couple of extra pounds? What was the cause of the transfer from the previous school? Are there off-the-court issues that need to be dealt with?
9. TCU: The good news for TCU fans is that new coach Trent Johnson is already doing well on the recruiting trail. He has two four-star recruits committed in the Class of 2013 while managing to land Arkansas transfer Devonta Abron, who got cleared to play immediately. The bad news? Johnson takes over a team that went 7-7 in the Mountain West last season, lost their two best players -- including star point guard Hank Thorns -- and is now trying to make the jump to the Big 12. I don't think the Horned Frogs will be embarrassed this season, not when Amric Fields and Garlon Green (not to be confused with Garland Greene) are a pair of solid forwards and Kyan Anderson had a promising freshman season sharing backcourt duties with Thorns. But given how tough the conference is, Johnson may have to settle for simply being competitive.
10. Texas Tech: What can you really expect out of Texas Tech this season? The Red Raiders won one game in league play last season and saw more than half of its projected roster leave during the summer. That includes top 100 recruit Wannah Bail. All that roster turnover stemmed from a scandal involving coach Billy Gillispie. Depending on which side of the story you believe, Gillispie either was mercilessly -- and dangerously -- tough on his team, forcing kids to run sprints and stairs until they developed stress fractures, or he recruited too many players that didn't have enough of a desire to work hard. Whatever the case, his team complained to the AD and resigned after a series of medical issues. He was replaced by interim head coach Chris Walker. The good news? Walker does have some pieces to work with, as the top three scorers -- led by sophomore forward Jordan Tolbert -- all return and will be joined by talented freshman Aaron Ross and athletic junior college transfer Trency Jackson.