Loss leadersAPBrandon Rush and the Jayhawks can lean on last season's learning experience.
Good thing Kansas lost to Bradley in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
Without the loss, coach Bill Self wouldn't have anything to hold over the Jayhawks' heads. He has it, and that could be enough to drive one of the most talented Kansas teams in recent memory all the way to the Final Four.
Remember, this is a program that, under Roy Williams, had NBA-level players like Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich, Drew Gooden, Wayne Simien, Paul Pierce and Jacque Vaughn (all in the last 10 years). That speaks volumes for this current stable of players in Lawrence, many of whom could be NBA types in a year or two. Certainly, in this era, Self's roster is also loaded.
Talent alone, though, isn't always enough. That's why being pushed aside by Bradley in the NCAAs after the Jayhawks surged to a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship and the league's tournament title might help this season's edition.
"By that happening, the young guys went through something they hadn't been [through] before," Self said. "If things had gone differently in the tournament and we had won a few games, then these guys might be feeling too good about themselves. Hopefully, that laid the groundwork that there is more work to be done."
OK, we know what you're thinking: It's easy to say that after they lost. No one around the KU program wanted to lose in the first round. Still, after seven games, last season's Jayhawks were 3-4 -- but they ended up as the toast of the Big 12, stealing Texas' thunder in early March.
And don't compare the Bradley loss to the previous year's first-round loss to another mid-major, Bucknell. As Self points out, not one guy who played a major role in that loss was part of the Bradley game.
"That team in the previous year with Wayne [Simien], Keith [Langford] and Aaron [Miles] was a tired team, and for whatever reason played its worst game of the year [against Bucknell]," Self said. "To me, that was an upset. But if you had told me that we would win the conference and the [conference] tournament [last season] after a 3-4 start, I would have said that was a helluva year.
"These players didn't feel the criticism of the Bucknell loss, because they didn't play in it," Self said.
Let's also remember that Self didn't forget how to coach in the NCAA Tournament. He did lead three different schools to the Elite Eight -- Tulsa and Illinois, in addition to Kansas (in his first year in Lawrence).
Make no mistake about it, though. Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, Sasha Kaun, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, C.J. Giles and Darnell Jackson -- and even newcomers like highly touted Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins and Brady Morningstar -- won't get a free pass this season. It's on now, with Kansas sitting at No. 2 in ESPN.com's June Top 25.
"They'll operate under more pressure this year," Self said. "Operating under more pressure in the season will help us in the postseason. We didn't feel any pressure [last season] until the NCAA Tournament."
The Jayhawks are embracing the heat now.
"I think this could be a special team because we're so hungry," Self said.
The Hot Zone
Hottest school: Texas A&M
The Aggies are the new buzz in the Big 12, with a top-10 ranking (courtesy of ESPN.com), a coach coveted by other athletic directors (Billy Gillispie) and a fan base that everyone knew would be rabid once it had a winner.
Hot name: Bob Huggins, Kansas State
He is as much of a lightning rod as Bob Knight. Huggins attracts a higher-profile recruit, but he is just as much of an attraction. Everything Huggins does at Kansas State this season will be news, just as it was for Knight when he arrived in Lubbock.
Hot player: Kevin Durant, Texas
Texas recruits nationally (if you didn't already know), and landing Durant from the Maryland/D.C. area is yet another example of how the Longhorns can go anywhere for any player. Durant will be one to watch throughout the season, as he is the ultimate one-and-done candidate.
Hot returnee: Jarrius Jackson, Texas Tech
League coaches say he gets no national love but would be welcomed by almost every school in the conference. The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 20.5 points per game as a junior and is a legit Big 12 preseason Player of the Year candidate.
Hot arena: Hilton Coliseum, Iowa State
The one constant that came up in talking to Big 12 coaches is that regardless of talent, the Cyclones have a home court like no other. That's why the expectation is that Iowa State will win games at home against more talented teams this season, likely impacting the league race.
Hot lineup: Jarrius Jackson, Texas Tech; Richard Roby, Colorado; Kevin Durant, Texas; Joseph Jones, Texas A&M; Brandon Rush, Kansas; Julian Wright, Kansas
You can argue about the top six teams in this league, but it's hard to dismiss a top six like this one. The names still aren't completely common for the casual fan, but they will be by season's end.
Hot predictions: Kansas and Texas A&M
We informally polled league coaches, asking them to rank (or at least group) the Big 12. As such, the likely NCAA Tournament teams -- at least in July -- appear to be KU, Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma State and Kansas State. The middle tier (shall we say NIT?) includes Texas Tech and Baylor. The unknowns are Missouri and Nebraska. The likely bottom-feeders are Iowa State, Oklahoma and Colorado.
Side Dishes Never have we seen a team so jazzed about an ESPN.com ranking.
Texas A&M loves the No. 10 ESPN.com slapped on it last month. The coaches like the hype it creates for their program, especially when it's at a place like A&M, where basketball has been just something to watch until spring football arrived.
Not anymore. The Aggies are the new boys in the Big 12 and clearly are national players.
"It was a lot of fun to look up there and see Texas A&M at No. 10," said junior forward Joseph Jones, a legit Big 12 player of the year candidate. "Everyone is saying that ESPN put us at No. 10. We want that. We want to be a Top 25 team."
The Aggies return everyone of note from a 22-9 team, except for ultimate glue guy Chris Walker and role player Eddie Smith (both were seniors). The core of this squad, though, is back, led by Jones and guard Acie Law, and it will be joined by a newcomer class heralded as one of the best in the league, with impact players like power forward Bryan Davis and shooting guard Donald Sloan.
Texas A&M made the NCAA Tournament with a 10-6 league record, beat Syracuse in the first round and was a missed last-second 3-pointer away from beating LSU and moving on to the Sweet 16. LSU, as you may remember, went on to the Final Four.
The Aggies haven't forgotten.
"Every game after we played them, we watched and said that could have been us," Jones said.
As soon as the season ended, A&M coach Billy Gillispie talked to Jones about the NBA draft -- talk Jones scoffed at, saying that he never even considered it.
"We're having too much fun here," Jones said. "I knew I was coming back."
Gillispie upgraded the schedule, with a game against UCLA in the John Wooden Classic in Anaheim and a road game at LSU -- both in the same week.
For the first time in who knows how long, the Aggies actually are a target in the league, along with Kansas. Beating A&M will become a happening, and the Aggies will be subject to a court-storming on the road if they lose.
"We understand all of that. We've had two good seasons and the expectations are higher," Law said. "We've just got to live up to it now."
But boy, do they love being a top-10 team, at least in June. It won't matter much, though, if they're not in March.
* * *
Texas was gutted by the draft and graduation. Now, much like North Carolina a year ago and Connecticut this season, the Longhorns are all about the fresh faces. And those faces are talented enough to take Texas deep into March, led by small forwards Kevin Durant and Damion James (by way of Oklahoma) and point guard D.J. Augustin.
Texas fans shouldn't necessarily fret over the loss of P.J. Tucker, LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson. The '06-07 squad ultimately could be just as talented, albeit incredibly inexperienced.
How is Rick Barnes going to coach this crew?
"I'm going to assume they know nothing," Barnes said. "I'm going to simplify things. But the most important thing is to teach them defense. I have to make them understand how hard they have to play."
Texas isn't shying away from anything in its nonconference slate, either. The Longhorns will play Gonzaga in Phoenix, Arkansas at home, Tennessee and Villanova on the road and also against preseason top-five LSU in Houston.
Barnes is taking the approach that he's building the program up again. The difference is that he doesn't have to introduce himself to the community. The only thing that is established with this Texas team is Barnes, but that could be enough with the loads of talent he brought in.
* -- NCAA Tournament
A lot of the coaches may be new, but the top five returning scorers have very familiar names for Big 12 fans.
* -- Currently suspended from program
Colorado: The Buffs were thrilled with Richard Roby's attitude once he withdrew from the draft. He has apparently been a leader in the weight room and on the court with the host of young players in the program. The Buffs expect Xavier Silas, a shooting guard out of Brewster Academy (N.H.), to be the hit of the newcomers.
Iowa State: The one thing we can tell you about Iowa State is that every other league coach expects Greg McDermott to be successful in the state. It seems that everyone thinks he will turn the program into a consistent winner. Now, having said that, the Cyclones lost their starting backcourt early to the draft, so this season will be a wash.
Kansas: Kansas coach Bill Self said junior forward C.J. Giles is shooting again after having surgery in mid-June to correct torn ligaments in his right thumb. Self said he doesn't anticipate any issues with Giles come the fall.
Kansas State: Cartier Martin, the Wildcats' 18-point scorer, is still in limbo for this season. Coach Bob Huggins said "it's up to Martin" as to whether he'll return for his senior season after being suspended for a violation of team rules. Translation: If he adheres to the parameters placed on him, he'll be back for the fall.
Missouri: New coach Mike Anderson said juco point guard Stefhon Hannah and shooting guard John Tiller are getting what he's trying to teach about his frenetic style. That's a good sign, since Anderson needs the newcomers to be ready to go from Day One if his UAB-style is going to fly in his first year in Columbia.
Nebraska: The Huskers are still searching for an identity, that one player who is going to be a standout. If he is found, expect the Huskers to be a surprise. This isn't just smoke -- other coaches consistently say it's hard to prepare for Nebraska's Barry Collier. The thinking among coaches is that he is a much better coach than his record and that it comes across when watching tape.
Oklahoma: The expectation is that the Sooners will be just as defensively oriented with the hiring of Rod Barnes as an assistant. Barnes' Ole Miss teams were stingy, and his hiring could turn out to be one of Jeff Capel's best moves as head coach.
Oklahoma State: Newly named head coach Sean Sutton couldn't be more pleased with his returnees, since everyone stayed in Stillwater and is working out in the offseason. The succession plan may have worked out perfectly, with Eddie Sutton passing on an experienced team for Sean's first season as the full-time head coach.
Texas: The Longhorns were gutted by the draft but aren't sweating the leadership void as much as they could be. Sophomore A.J. Abrams, who will be pushed by incoming point guard D.J. Augustin, will be the one Rick Barnes counts on throughout the summer and fall in preparation for preseason practice. Abrams, who injured his right foot in a recent pickup game, is expected to be fully cleared ahead of the start of the fall semester in August.
Texas A&M: Joseph Jones and Acie Law both said junior guard Beau Muhlbach will be this season's glue guy. Muhlbach played in only four games last season, but the vibe out of College Station is that he will be the screen setter, the loose-ball and dive-on-the-floor guy, and the one who ends up being the ultimate utility player for the Aggies.
Texas Tech: Associate head coach Pat Knight says the Red Raiders are going back to the original plan that was put in place when his dad arrived. Texas Tech wants to go with 90 percent junior college recruits from now on. The early success Tech had under Knight was through landing juco talent that was already hardened by the time it arrived. The Red Raiders subsequently went to more of a high school approach, but that led to increased losing, so as of last January, the prep plan was dead. By the way, head coach Bob Knight is 10 wins away from tying Dean Smith (879 wins) on the all-time list. He will coach next season -- and the hope among the staff is that Knight will coach the 2007-08 season, too.
Expert takeAs the Big 12 welcomes an unprecedented five new coaches and a bevy of outstanding newcomers, the only thing I see as a given is that Kansas will be the preseason favorite.
Otherwise the league is wide open. Fourteen players who garnered All-Big 12 honors are back, and five players who were named to the McDonald's All-American team arrive.
While coach Bill Self's Jayhawks ended the season on a downer, with a first-round NCAA Tournament loss at the hands of Bradley, the Jayhawks return as talented a starting five as there is in the country -- including NCAA champion Florida. When you add a couple of McDonald's All-Americans (forward Darrell Arthur and point guard Sherron Collins), the only danger that may lurk is chemistry, but too much talent is a good problem to have.
No one in the league lost more talent and gained more talent than Texas. After losing five starters, including three to the NBA draft, coach Rick Barnes has more quality young basketball players than the Forty Acres has ever seen. Kevin Durant, a 6-9 freshman, is smoother than butter and has range beyond the NBA 3-point line. He'll likely be a top-three pick in next June's NBA draft if he declares. This team could be very similar to last year's Kansas team that got off to a 3-4 start but ended up winning the conference tournament.
Three young teams on the rise -- with essentially 14 of the combined 15 starters back -- are Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Baylor. There is no better fit in college basketball than coach Billy Gillespie and College Station. His Aggies posted their most wins in 26 seasons and took LSU to the wire in the NCAA Tournament's second round. They also return two of the league's stars: inside-out duo Joseph Jones and Acie Law IV.
If Aussie Aaron Bruce returns to his freshman form, Baylor could be the surprise of the conference. Bears sophomore guard Curtis Jerrells is the real deal.
In Stillwater, coach Sean Sutton's first full year at the helm will be buffeted by the return of the Cowboys' top-10 scorers. Sophomore guard Terrell Harris could be a rising star.
The story of the year in the Big 12 should be Texas Tech coach Bob Knight's assault on the all-time Division I win record. He currently is 11 wins away from a new mark. When he does break the record, it will be with the help of one of the country's most underrated players. Senior Jarrius Jackson led all scorers in the league last season (20.5 ppg). I love his fearlessness and toughness.
I can't wait for the electricity of the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry now that Bob Huggins has returned to the sidelines. That means more trips to Manhattan, Kan., are in store for our ESPN crew. As I have said before, it doesn't matter whether Hugs is in Alaska, Maine or Kansas -- he will get players and he will win. The Wildcats certainly would be helped by the return of suspended senior Cartier Martin if he can handle some off-the-court issues.
Quietly and effectively, three other new coaches will begin rebuilding processes at Missouri, Iowa State and Oklahoma. Mike Anderson's frenetic style at Missouri will be something the league has never seen. Greg McDermott's Iowa roots and success at Northern Iowa give him instant credibility with Cyclones fans. Jeff Capel brings Oklahoma a youthful energy that already has paid off in recruiting success.
Colorado, coming off a 20-win season, reloads around potential first-rounder Richard Roby, while Nebraska's Barry Collier, who posted his best season in Lincoln, has one of the league's best big men in junior center Aleks Maric.
Last year, the Big 12 was perceived to be down. Because of outstanding recruiting successes, the league right now is loaded with very good young players. With the addition of new blood to the coaching ranks, the Big 12 has some of the best recruiting head coaches in the country. That is about to pay off this season and for years to come.
It's a long way down from top-seeded Kansas (think two No. 5 seeds), but resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi still sees five from the Big 12 making it into the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
What are the other four teams that make it in our early look at the bracket? Click below to find out...
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