A Quick Look Around The League
Louisiana natives Tweety Carter
and LaceDarius Dunn
, the first McDonald's All-Americans to ever come to Baylor, will need to live up to their credentials for the Bears to continue to climb out of the ashes. Baylor loses the winningest class in school history, a class that included Curtis Jerrells. Help, however, is on the way in the form of a six-man recruiting class ranked in the top 25 nationally. It counts Nolan Dennis
and A.J. Walton
among its members.
The problem for the Buffaloes is simple: Even if they are markedly better (and they should be since so many players got valuable experience last season) climbing up the Big 12 ladder will be difficult in a season when the conference is so good. So Colorado may have to value its progress on something more than wins and losses. The continued growth of guys like Cory Higgins
, who finished fifth in the league in scoring (17.3 ppg) last season, will bode well for Colorado in the long term.
The Cyclones haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2005, but Greg McDermott has reason to believe this year could be the one. Craig Brackins' stunning decision to return to school despite skyrocketing NBA cred immediately put Iowa State back in the tourney discussion. Brackins gets help from three other returning starters, including hot-shooting Lucca Staiger
, plus talented JUCO transfer Marquis Gilstrap
So the Jayhawks are going to be pretty good. If you don't know that, it's not likely you're reading this anyway. Only a hoops fan stranded in Alabama (or some other state where the moon looks mysteriously like a football all fall) or a person who doesn't know a box-and-one from Botox doesn't know that Kansas will be, and deserves to be, the national championship favorite when this season officially tips off.
This is not Michael Beasley, Part II. When Beasley came to Manhattan, he was the superstar with a seriously lacking supporting cast. Frank Martin has a great recruiting class -- as in more than one player -- to complement a host of solid veterans, led by Denis Clemente
(he of the 44-point explosion at Texas last season). In other words, the Wildcats appear to be building for the long haul this season, not the one-and-done success that Beasley brought to town.
The Tigers opened eyes to Mike Anderson's version of Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of hell when they mopped up Memphis in the Sweet 16. In order to avoid becoming just a decent 20 minutes of heck, Mizzou needs consistent scorers to replace Leo Lyons
and DeMarre Carroll
. Zaire Taylor
and J.T. Tiller
, two great defensive players, need to up the offense.
, the starting point guard for the past two years, has transferred to Miami (Ohio). Christopher Niemann, the man Doc Sadler thought could be his starting center, tore his ACL this summer. In other words, the Cornhuskers have more questions than answers right now. Niemann, who was ruled ineligible last year because he played for a German pro team, would have given Nebraska some much-needed size. Now the Huskers, who have mastered Sadler's defensive approach but need to find more ways to score, will have to hope JUCO transfer Lance Jeter
finds his scoring touch in a hurry.
The temptation is easy: Blake Griffin
is gone, the Sooners are rebuilding. Not so fast. Replacing Griffin is impossible -- he's a once-in-a-decade kind of player -- but that doesn't mean Oklahoma is a mess. Jeff Capel has a strong nucleus of returning players and a hot newcomer class that, together, should help ease the loss of Griffin. The biggest question: Can role players such as Tony Crocker
and Austin Johnson
step into the spotlight? They're going to have to.
By the end of the season, Travis Ford had the Cowboys playing well enough to earn an NCAA tourney berth. They even won a game once they got there. But with veteran point guard Byron Eaton
and backcourt mate Terrel Harris
gone, can Okie State continue to progress? Ford has a host of freshmen to call on, plus Matt Pilgram, who transferred to Stillwater after John Calipari decided he didn't need him at Kentucky. He was granted a waiver by the NCAA that allows him to play immediately.
The Longhorns are in the sweet spot. Everyone is talking about Kansas, putting Texas off in the shadows of the Big 12 race. That's dangerous with a team that, as one Big 12 coach said simply, "has guys.'' Along with the ridiculously deep and talented backcourt -- that's one way to replace D.J. Augustin -- the Longhorns welcome back inside powers Damion James
, Gary Johnson
and Dexter Pittman
. This team is Final Four-good.
Another year, another stunning departure for the Aggies to deal with. A year after A&M lost DeAndre Jordan to the draft, Mark Turgeon was shocked to see Chinemelu Elonu
take his talents to the NBA. Elonu's decision leaves the Aggies with less experience than they had hoped, especially coupled with the graduation of Josh Carter
. Bryan Davis
and Donald Sloan
need to become consistently productive for A&M to earn its fifth consecutive NCAA tourney invite.
Defense plagued the Red Raiders last season and will continue to be their downfall in this loaded league if they don't figure out how to stop somebody. Tech allowed 78 points per game, way too many for a team simply not yet equipped to outscore people. John Roberson
and Mike Singletary
can't do it alone, though it's sure fun watching the latter try. Like when he came off the bench to score 29 straight points against Texas A&M last season, part of a 43-point attack in TTU's upset win.
By Fran Fraschilla
It's never too early for predictions. Fran Fraschilla offers up his thoughts on the upcoming season in the Big 12:
Bill Self may have a deeper team than the one that won the NCAA title in 2008. All five starters from last year's Sweet 16 team return and when Cole Aldrich
and Sherron Collins
eschewed the NBA draft, the Jayhawks became the favorite to win a second title in three years. Sophomore shooting guard Tyshawn Taylor
is back after leading the USA to an Under-19 World Championship in July. Juniors Brady Morningstar
and Tyrel Reed
give Self depth off the bench, especially if ESPNU's third-ranked player in the Class of 2009, 6-6 Xavier Henry
, is ready to step in at small forward. Two big keys for Kansas will be the continued maturity of 6-9 sophomore twins, Markieff
and Marcus Morris
, both of whom garnered a lot of minutes a year ago. If they don't step up, 6-8 freshman Thomas Robinson
The Longhorns have won 20 or more games in 10 consecutive seasons and the safest bet in college basketball this year is that that streak will continue. In fact, this is the program's best chance to get back to the Final Four since 2003. It has been a great offseason for Texas. Senior Damion James
is back after flirting with the NBA draft. His 16 double-doubles were the second most in the Big 12 last season. Junior big man Dexter Pittman
has rapidly improved and should make another huge jump this year. And it's no surprise that Rick Barnes racked up another monster recruiting class, led by 6-3 shooting guard Avery Bradley
(ESPNU's No.1-ranked high school recruit). His intensity level on both ends of the court will be to his new coach's liking.
3. Oklahoma State:
Four of the Cowboys' top six scorers return this season, along with a promising first full recruiting class for Travis Ford. Although guards Byron Eaton
and Terrel Harris
will be missed, 6-5 junior James Anderson
returns as one of college basketball's best scorers. Juniors Obi Muonelo
and Marshall Moses
and sophomore Keiton Page
have all become very effective role players for the Cowboys. The key in this frenetic offense will be at point guard. While there are several quality newcomers on the way, the most pressure will be on 5-9 Raymond Penn out of Houston. All he has to do is replace Eaton, OSU's heart and soul.
How does Jeff Capel replace National Player of the Year Blake Griffin
? Start by building around another potential player of the year candidate, Willie Warren
, whom KU coach Bill Self once told me was the best offensive player he's ever recruited. The 6-2 Warren, a scoring machine in high school, fit in unselfishly as a freshman but will be asked to take on more of the scoring burden this season. Senior Tony Crocker
, a proven long-range sniper, is the other returning starter. If the freshman class, including McDonald's All-Americans Tommy Mason-Griffin and Keith Gallon, is a good as advertised, the pain of losing Griffin will be lessened. Gallon, a strong and agile post player who has had maturity issues in the past, should benefit from Capel's youth and energy. If he plays to his ability, the Sooners should dance again in March.
5. Kansas State:
The Wildcats are another one of those sneaky teams that lurk right below Kansas and Texas. Frank Martin has a solid core of returnees, led by guards Denis Clemente
and Jacob Pullen
. Combined, those two led Kansas State in scoring in 25 of 34 games a year ago. The front line will be improved with 6-10 UConn transfer Curtis Kelly, and a top-25 recruit from Martin's Washington, D.C., pipeline, Wally Judge
. Martin's teams get kudos from Big 12 coaches for their defensive intensity. That should bode well for another postseason finish.
6. Texas A&M:
The Aggies suffered a minor blow in their quest for a school-record fifth straight NCAA appearance when junior center Chinemelu Elonu
left his name in the NBA draft and was selected in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers. Mark Turgeon will also have to replace four-year starter Josh Carter
, no easy task. The good news is that there is enough experience and talent returning, along with Turgeon's best recruiting class, that the Aggies will fight for the third spot on the Big 12 ladder. High school teammates Donald Sloan
and Derrick Roland
give the Aggies a hard-nosed backcourt. Senior Bryan Davis
is a workhorse inside and 6-8 sophomore power forward David Loubeau
could be a breakout player this year.
The Bears are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for only the second time in school history and represent one of college basketball's most miraculous rebuilding jobs. All coach Scott Drew has to do now is to replace the three 1,000-point scorers, Curtis Jerrells
, Henry Dugat
and Kevin Rogers
, who laid the groundwork for the program. The good news is that Drew has some firepower returning in rising junior LaceDarius Dunn
and solid 3-point shooter Tweety Carter
. And Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh will be a 6-10 force inside. The Bears caught a break late in the recruiting process when Dallas shooting guard Nolan Dennis (No. 44 overall in his class) was released from his letter of intent by Memphis after John Calipari left for Kentucky.
How do you top a record-setting, 31-win season if you are Tigers coach Mike Anderson? The first thing he must do is to replace three key seniors in DeMarre Carroll
, Leo Lyons
and Matt Lawrence
. Fortunately, Missouri has one of the most underrated backcourts in the league. Point guard Zaire Taylor
is a no-mistake player, J.T. Tiller
was Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year and sophomore Kim English
has the potential to be an all-conference performer. A huge key for the Tigers will be the development of promising 6-9 sophomore Laurence Bowers
, a typical under-the-radar recruit for Anderson who had moments of brilliance as a freshman.
9. Iowa State:
No one has suffered through more hard luck, via injuries and player defections, than ISU coach Greg McDermott. Happily, his luck may be about to change. Junior Craig Brackins
, the league's most improved player a year ago, would have been a first-round pick in last June's NBA draft but chose to return to school. A first-team All-Big 12 selection, Brackins scored 20 points a game from all over the floor and is just as aggressive on the glass, where he grabbed nearly 10 boards a game. German import Lucca Staiger
, currently playing with his national team in the European Championships, is a long-range shooter. But the missing link to McDermott's first postseason appearance as a Cyclone could be 6-6 junior college transfer Marquis Gilstrap
, who has only one year of eligibility so he must make the most of it.
10. Texas Tech:
Junior guard Mike Singletary
provided some fireworks for the Red Raiders in the Big 12 tournament last March when he torched Texas A&M for 43 points, including 29 straight, the second-longest string in NCAA history. He returns along with junior playmaker John Roberson
and senior Nick Okorie
to provide TTU with a solid nucleus in his backcourt. Coach Pat Knight will have improved depth in his second full season by adding three JUCO transfers, including highly regarded guard David Tairu. By the way, sophomore Robert Lewandowski
is 15 pounds away from being an effective Big 12 low post scorer and should make nice strides this season.
Doc Sadler's team was the smallest in college basketball last season, but may have played with the biggest heart. The Huskers squeezed 18 wins and an NIT bid out of average talent. While this year's NU team may be bigger, the offensive woes that plagued it, at times, may still be apparent. The 43.9 field goal percentage a year ago was 10th in the conference. Sek Henry
, Ryan Anderson
and Paul Velander
return for Sadler and he has dipped into the JUCO ranks, where he was a highly successful head coach, for three recruits.
The bright side of last season's 9-22 disaster is that the CU freshmen and sophomores accounted for 72 percent of its points. Junior guard Cory Higgins
, Colorado's most prolific scorer, was third-team All-Big 12 during a wonderful freshman season. Backcourt mate Dwight Thorne II
has improved under head coach Jeff Bzdelik and is a good complement to Higgins. No one in the league doubts Bzdelik's coaching ability and there is hope that his first real recruiting class is enough to begin the rebuilding process.