- Jason King
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It damages the Big 12.
The conference already seemed poised for a down year in 2013-14. Now it’s starting to appear as if the Big 12 will be the worst power conference in the country next season. And, no, I’m not basing that comment solely on Rodriguez’s departure.
It’s merely the cherry on top.
Think about it.
Kansas loses five starters. Oklahoma and Iowa State will say goodbye to four of their top six players. And Big 12 scoring and assists leader Pierre Jackson has played his last game for NIT champion Baylor, which is also expected to lose 7-foot center Isaiah Austin to the NBA draft.
Until Monday, Oklahoma State and Kansas State appeared to be league’s only two NCAA tournament teams that wouldn’t experience much turnover.
Now things have changed.
By leaving Manhattan after a promising sophomore season, Rodriguez has put what appeared to be one of the Big 12’s better teams in a huge bind.
Usually the departure of one player -- even if he’s a semi-star -- isn’t enough to derail a team. But Rodriguez was one of the main catalysts for a Wildcats squad that went 27-8 and won a share of the conference title for the first time since 1977.
Rodriguez led the team in assists (5.2) and ranked second in scoring (11.4 points) behind Rodney McGruder, a senior who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors.
K-State was already likely to take a small step back following the graduation of McGruder and 7-foot center Jordan Henriquez, but losing Rodriguez could make a dramatic difference.
Because he was the starting point guard, Rodriguez was more than just "one player" for the Wildcats. He was the leader, the tone-setter for one of the Big 12’s grittiest, toughest teams and a shoo-in for preseason All-Big 12 honors this fall.
Those things are irreplaceable, especially for a program that will now likely depend on unheralded newcomer Jevon Thomas to play a significant number of minutes at point guard. That’s a lot to ask of a freshman.
Still, by losing its top two players in Rodriguez and McGruder (and some would argue top three if you throw in the enigmatic Henriquez), the Wildcats may be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.
If that happens it’d certainly be a blow to the Big 12, which had only one team (Kansas) advance past the opening weekend of the most recent NCAA tournament.
Oklahoma State returns every key piece of last season’s team including conference player of the year Marcus Smart, who bypassed millions in the NBA draft to return for his sophomore season. The Cowboys probably will open the season ranked in the top 10 or 15.
Beyond that, it’s difficult to imagine a single Big 12 team improving from last season. Well, I supposed TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia will be better -- but only because they can’t get much worse.
Even after losing five starters, Kansas will find a way to contend for a 10th straight conference title. But remember, the Jayhawks return only two players (Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis) who played significant roles on last season’s team. Bill Self’s squad has signed the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class, but most of its members are three- and four-year players -- not one-and-dones. They’ll need time to grow and adjust.
Iowa State graduates four of its top six scorers in Chris Babb, Will Clyburn, Korie Lucious and Tyrus McGee, which means the junior college signees Fred Hoiberg lured to Ames will have to step up in a hurry.
Oklahoma loses Romero Osby, Steven Pledger, Amath M'Baye and Andrew Fitzgerald. The foursome combined for 43.4 points and 19 rebounds per game. Much like the Cyclones, it’s hard to imagine the Sooners getting better.
The loss of Jackson (19.8 points, 7.1 assists) is a massive blow for Baylor. But the Bears could still be decent with the return of Cory Jefferson and Ricardo Gathers in the paint and Brady Heslip on the perimeter. Much of their success will depend on junior college signee Kenny Cherry, a point guard.
Then there’s Texas, which went 16-18 in 2012-13 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years. The top two players from that team are gone, as Myck Kabongo has entered the NBA draft and Sheldon McClellan has transferred. Rick Barnes’ squad could really struggle next season; just like the Big 12, which has only two schools (Kansas and West Virginia) that signed top-20 recruiting classes, according to ESPN.com.
These things are cyclical, of course. The ACC has been subpar in recent years, at least in terms of depth. The Pac-12 was so bad two years ago that its regular-season champion (Washington) wasn’t even granted an NCAA tournament bid. And the SEC was in a transition year last season.
Through it all, the Big 12 has managed to avoid such dips.