Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: No conference sent more teams to the NCAA Tournament last season than the Big 12 with seven, or, 70 percent of the league's members. The Big 12 also boasted the top RPI of any conference in the country.
It should surprise no one at this point that Kansas won another regular-season title, its 10th straight. Iowa State won the Big 12 Tournament and ultimately fell to eventual national champion Kentucky in the Sweet 16, after the Cyclones lost their best low-post defender to injury in the previous round.
Those two teams figure to once again be near the top of the Big 12 pecking order in 2014-15, along with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas State. Of course, it takes talented players to have the kind of overall success the league enjoyed last season, and a lot of that talent has since moved on to the NBA. In fact, three of the top six draft selections hailed from Big 12 schools in Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart.
Still, the Jayhawks enter the season ranked No. 5 in the AP preseason poll, followed by No. 10 Texas, No. 14 Iowa State and No. 19 Oklahoma. The Big 12 is one of only two conferences with four teams ranked in the top-20.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kansas
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kansas, 2. Texas, 3. Iowa State, 4. Oklahoma, 5. Kansas State, 6. Baylor, 7. Oklahoma State, 8. West Virginia, 9. Texas Tech, 10. TCU
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KANSAS: The Jayhawks are seeking an unprecedented 11th straight Big 12 regular-season title. Of course, pulling off that feat won't be easy without the services of Wiggins and Embiid. In addition, point guard Naadir Tharpe (8.5 ppg, 5.0 apg) decided back in May to leave school after three years for personal reasons. Second-leading scorer Perry Ellis (13.5 ppg) returns for his junior campaign and is a unanimous preseason all-conference pick. Also back is Wayne Selden, who averaged 9.7 ppg as a freshman but must improve his 32.8 percent accuracy from beyond the arc. The focus, as is often the case with a program like Kansas, is on the recruiting class, which was widely ranked in the top-10. Five-star recruits Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre headline that group, as both were McDonald's All-Americans. In fact, Alexander was the 2014 Naismith High School Player of the Year after averaging 25 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks per game. Incoming freshman Devonte Graham, a 6-foot-2 point guard, also has a chance to contribute right away, as does 6-foot-8 guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk from Ukraine.
TEXAS: Not many (any?) pundits foresaw the Longhorns' 24-11 campaign that ended in the NCAA Tournament round of 32. As a result, Rick Barnes picked up Big 12 Coach of the Year honors for his efforts. This time around, however, Texas won't be sneaking up on anybody, not with virtually the entire roster back, along with prized recruits Myles Turner and Jordan Barnhart solidifying things down low. Not since Kevin Durant have the Longhorns landed a recruit as hyped as the 6-foot-11 Turner, a consensus five-star prospect at power forward and the highest rated Texas commit since Avery Bradley. Turner averaged 18.1 points, 12.2 rebounds and 6.8 blocks during his senior year and was named to the McDonald's All-America Team. But he won't be asked to do all of the heavy lifting as a rookie, considering point guard Isaiah Taylor (12.7 ppg, 4.0 apg) and frontcourt standouts Cameron Ridley (11.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Jonathan Holmes (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) each have established significant roles. Javan Felix (11.6 ppg) launched more than twice the number of 3-point attempts as any of his teammates last season, but he'll need to improve his 34 percent accuracy in order to truly stretch the floor. Demarcus Holland (7.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg) provides sound perimeter defense. Can Texas challenge the likes of Kansas and Iowa State for league supremacy? The Longhorns certainly shape up as one of the league's more formidable squads, at least on paper.
IOWA STATE: Three starters are back from Fred Hoiberg's squad that won the Big 12 Championship and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 14 years. But that did not stop the league's coaches from picking the Cyclones to finish fifth in the preseason poll, which senior Dustin Hogue called a slap in the face. Then again, Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and honorable- mention All-American DeAndre Kane have both moved on. While the team can look to that fifth-place prediction as motivation, 6-foot-7 junior forward Georges Niang, a preseason All-Big 12 selection, found his own motivation and shed nearly 30 pounds off his frame with diet and exercise. A quicker and more energized Niang should be a scary thought for opposing coaches, considering he averaged 16.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 2013-14. Niang and Hogue are joined by point guard Monte Morris, who set the NCAA record with an assist-to- turnover ratio of 4.79-to-1 as a freshman last season. New to the fold is 6- foot-6 senior combo guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, a transfer from UNLV and all- around contributor who was picked as the preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the year. Dejean-Jones is eligible to play immediately after averaging a team-best 13.6 points to go along with 3.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game a year ago in 31 games (26 starts). The team also welcomes Northern Illinois transfer Abdel Nader, a versatile 6-foot-7 wing, and Marquette transfer Jameel McKay, a rim protector and two-time All-American at Indian Community College in Iowa who becomes eligible Dec. 20.
OKLAHOMA: In Norman, a lot is riding on the pending eligibility status of TaShawn Thomas, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound senior transfer from Houston. Thomas, an All-AAC power forward, transferred following a coaching change at his former school and is still awaiting a decision from the NCAA on whether he can play this season rather than sit out a year. He would fill a huge void at the 4- spot for the Sooners. Regardless of that decision, the team will once again lean heavily on junior guard Buddy Hield, a potential player of the year candidate in the Big 12. Hield shot 39 percent from 3-point range and averaged a team-best 16.5 ppg last season to go along with 4.4 rpg. His shooting prowess helped lead the Sooners to their highest scoring average (81.9 ppg) since 1993-94. Hield is one of four returning starters along with big man Ryan Spangler, who averaged 9.6 points on 58.4-percent shooting and a league-best 9.3 rebounds per tilt. Also back are Isaiah Cousins (11.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who displayed improved accuracy out on the perimeter (.404), and point guard Jordan Woodard (10.3 ppg), whose 4.6 assists per game was the best average among Big 12 freshmen. Lon Kruger's Sooners certainly have the offensive firepower to get back to the Big Dance for the third straight year. With a renewed defensive focus, they could make some real noise come March.
KANSAS STATE: The Wildcats welcome back three starters from last year's NCAA Tournament squad. Sophomore combo guard Marcus Foster, a Preseason All-Big 12 pick, headlines the roster. Foster averaged a team-best 15.5 ppg and shot 40 percent from the perimeter as a freshman, and now he has what many believe is a deeper supporting cast. Thomas Gipson is back for his senior campaign after averaging 11.7 points on 56.2 percent shooting from the floor to go along with a team-best 6.5 rebounds. Justin Edwards, an athletic transfer from Maine who averaged 16.7 ppg there, can help shoulder some of the scoring load. Coach Bruce Weber also brought on board 6-foot-11 Stephen Hurt, the Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year at Lipscomb, along with Georgetown transfer Brandon Bolden to help solidify the frontcourt. If the Wildcats get the expected contributions from their newcomers, and assuming Foster continues his development, the team has a very good shot at its sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
BAYLOR: The Bears have to replace a few key contributors in Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip. That trio accounted for three of the team's top four scorers a year ago. But coach Scott Drew can still lead on senior point guard and floor general Kenny Chery (11.5 ppg, 4.7 apg), who was instrumental in helping Baylor advance to its fourth Sweet 16. At the Big 12's media day, Drew lauded Chery for taking on a leadership role with the younger players. Also back in the fold are 6-foot-6 senior wing Royce O'Neale (7.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and 6-foot-8, 270-pound Rico Gathers (6.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Redshirt freshman forward Johnathan Motley could also see action early, given the lack of depth along the front line.
OKLAHOMA STATE: The Cowboys have a pretty big void to fill with the departures of NBA Draft picks Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. Le'Bryan Nash, once a blue chip prospect and now a senior captain, gets his turn at the wheel after a solid 2013-14 campaign that saw him shoot 52 percent from the floor and average 13.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Sharpshooter Phil Forte will also be asked to pick up some of the scoring slack. He averaged 13.3 ppg as a sophomore last season and knocked down 100 3-pointers at a 44-percent clip. Redshirt senior Michael Cobbins (4.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.5 bpg) returns from an Achilles injury that ended his season after 13 games. He provides a much- needed defensive presence in the paint. But the most anticipated addition is that of senior point guard Anthony Hickey, who earned SEC All-Defensive Team accolades as a sophomore at LSU in 2012-13 when he averaged 11.2 points, 3.8 assists and ranked third in the nation with 2.93 steals per game. While Hickey is not on par with his predecessor Smart as a scorer, his presence should help get the Cowboys into the NCAA Tournament field for the third straight year.
WEST VIRGINIA: Guard Juwan Staten is the first WVU player to be tabbed the Big 12's Preseason Player of the Year. The league's top returning scorer, Staten (18.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) also ranked second in the Big 12 in assists (5.8 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8), and third in field goal percentage (.486). Unfortunately, former teammates Eron Harris (17.2 ppg) transferred to Michigan State, and Terry Henderson (11.7 ppg) moved on to NC State, leaving Staten as the Mountaineers' only double-digit scorer from a year ago. West Virginia will need 6-foot-9 sophomore Devin Williams (8.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg) to continue grabbing rebounds as he develops his offensive game. The team also welcomes two players who are eligible after sitting out last season in 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman forward Elijah Macon and 6-foot-7 transfer Jonathan Holton. Holton is an intriguing player who averaged 17.5 points and 14.1 rebounds per game and shot 40 percent from 3-point range at Palm Beach State Community College in 2012-13.
TEXAS TECH: While the Red Raiders' 6-12 league mark was not exactly cause for celebration, the six victories did represent their most in Big 12 play since 2008. However, four regular starters from that squad have since moved on, as no double-digit scorers return. Jordan Tolbert (10.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg) transferred to SMU, and top 3-point threat Dusty Hannahs (7.7 ppg) transferred to Arkansas. The top returnee is Robert Turner (9.3 ppg), who shot just 40.5 percent from the field. Toddrick Gotcher (7.3 ppg) is also back, but coach Tubby Smith will look to a group of five freshmen and a couple of transfers, juco teammates Justin Jamison and Devaugntah Williams to eat up minutes. However, it may be a reach to expect Smith to improve upon last season's win total with such an inexperienced group. Redshirt sophomore Aaron Ross will sit out the fall semester as he rehabs from his second season-ending knee injury, and while Ross showed flashes while healthy, he cannot be counted on as a savior.
TCU: The Horned Frogs are still searching for their first victory in the calendar year 2014 after going 0-18 in conference play last season. Understandably, coach Trent Johnson is under pressure to turn things around in his third year at the helm. He brings back four starters, including top scorers in guard Kyan Anderson (17.0 ppg, .407 3pt) and forward Amric Fields (13.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg). But after last season's disappointment, help is obviously needed. Transfer Trey Zeigler joins Anderson in the backcourt after averaging 15.8 ppg at Central Michigan and then transferring to Pittsburgh in 2012-13. Zeigler has already eclipsed 1,000 points in his career between both stops. Fields is healthy after being limited to 18 games a year ago due to injury, and Devonta Abron (15 starts as a sophomore) is also back after sitting out the entire 2013-14 season. Sophomore Chris Washburn, a transfer from UTEP, provides some additional depth in the frontcourt. The team faces an additional challenge with Daniel-Meyer Coliseum undergoing a $59 million renovation. Of course, well-traveled OU and OSU fans already had a penchant for filling up that gym, and now the Horned Frogs will call the Fort Worth Independent School District's Wilkerson-Greines Athletic Center their home in 2014-15. That venue holds only 4,750, so homecourt advantage won't be much of a factor.