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College Basketball Preview - Big 12 Conference

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -

OUTLOOK: It was another banner for the Big 12 in 2012-13, as six teams recorded at least 20 wins. No conference has produced more NBA draft picks over the last five years, and there are a handful of projected lottery picks among this year's group, with Andrew Wiggins of Kansas and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart leading the charge. In fact, four teams from the Big 12 rank among several notable top-25 lists for the 2013 recruiting class.

As far as projecting the field, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor are at the head of the class, as all three enter the season nationally ranked. While Kansas is once again a popular pick, Oklahoma State received just as many votes as the Jayhawks in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll.

Don't sleep on Baylor; the have the starting frontcourt to match up with any pair of bigs in the country.

Among the notable challengers outside the top three, Iowa State is a team to keep an eye on. The Cyclones' preseason ranking (fourth) is their highest since 2000-01. Kansas State, Oklahoma and West Virginia all appear to have lost more talent than they gained. Texas was particularly gutted, as longtime coach Rick Barnes has his work cut out for him in trying to replace his top three scorers from a year ago. At Texas Tech, Tubby Smith takes the reins and will become the school's fourth head coach in four seasons. TCU is a sound defensive squad, but the Horned Frogs will likely struggle to keep pace in the conference this season.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kansas

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kansas, 2. Oklahoma State, 3. Baylor, 4. Iowa State, 5. Kansas State, 6. Oklahoma, 7. West Virginia, 8. Texas Tech, 9. Texas, 10. TCU

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

KANSAS: In Lawrence, all eyes are on consensus No. 1 recruit Andrew Wiggins and how he goes about living up to early comparisons to NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant. As if the pressure wasn't already high enough, the national high school Player of the Year is the first freshman in Big 12 history to be named to the preseason all-conference team. Fellow incoming freshman Joel Embiid, a shot-blocker who stands seven feet tall, was widely regarded as the top center in the 2013 recruiting class. He'll be asked to try and replace center Jeff Withey, who graduated after breaking his own single-season Big 12 record with 146 blocks a year ago. Also new to KU is forward Tarik Black, a Memphis transfer who was named the Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year. He averaged nine points and five boards per game for the Tigers, also notching 129 blocks and 71 steals. Returning for the Jayhawks are juniors Perry Ellis (5.8 ppg) and Naadir Tharpe (35 3-pointers, 3.1 assists per game). Put simply, there is more than enough talent in the cupboard for a Jayhawks program that has won or shared the last nine regular-season league titles, to win it all again.

OKLAHOMA STATE: Among the teams in the conference that are best suited to give Kansas a run, Oklahoma State is right up there after winning 13 conference games for only the third time in school history. The team boasts the top two returning scorers in the Big 12 last season and returns four starters overall (and 95 percent of its scoring production) from last year's 24-9 squad. Reigning Big 12 Player of the Year and national freshman of the year Marcus Smart is the headliner, as he spurned monetary riches and instead decided to return for his sophomore season despite being projected as a lottery pick in last April's NBA Draft. Smart (15.4 ppg), who set a Big 12 record with 99 steals, is only the second player in league history to return after winning Player of the Year honors. Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash also decided to return for another go-around in Stillwater. Brown is the league's No. 2 returning scorer after averaging 15.3 ppg as a junior, while Nash averaged 14.0 points as a sophomore. Phil Forte enters his sophomore campaign after setting a Cowboys single-season freshman record with 68 3-pointers. He also shot 91.3 percent from the foul line and has made 27 in a row. Rounding out the key returnees is junior Michael Cobbins, a Big 12 All-Defensive Team selection who has averaged 1.5 blocks per game over his first two seasons.

BAYLOR: Baylor won the first NIT Championship in school history and the first by a Big 12 squad since the league's inception in 1996-97. And prospects are looking up for the 2013-14 campaign. After all, the team returns one of the most dynamic frontcourts in the country, featuring senior Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin, both of whom are preseason All-Big 12 first-team selections. The Bears' top two returning scorers from last season, Jefferson and Austin also combined for nearly 600 rebounds. In NIT play, Jefferson averaged 21.6 points per game and shot a ridiculous 72 percent from the field (41-of-57). However, another player who starred in that tournament run, guard Pierre Jackson (19.6 points and 11.0 assists in five games), graduated with the school's single-season scoring record. Replacing his production is the biggest challenge facing this once-futile program that now boasts four 20-win seasons and a 15-4 postseason record under 11th-year head coach Scott Drew.

IOWA STATE: Slowly but surely, the pendulum is swinging in the Cyclones' direction. Iowa State is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons in conference play for just the second time in school history (2000-01). It has been a gauntlet for opposing teams traveling to Ames, where the Cyclones have gone 32-3 at home over the past two years. They've parlayed that success into back- to-back NCAA Tournament appearances under Fred Hoiberg, who inked a 10-year, $20 million contract extension back in March to remain the head coach through the 2022-23 season. Hoiberg's go-to player is senior Melvin Ejim, a preseason All-Big 12 selection and the owner of 22 career double-doubles. Ejim (11.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg) was the Big 12's top rebounder in 2012-13, however, his 2013 debut will be delayed a bit following a knee injury suffered in the preseason. Ejim is expected to miss 4-to-6 weeks to begin the year. The Cyclones will present challenges along the perimeter, where they led the nation with 356 3- pointers made. That mark also broke their own school record and set the new Big 12 mark, as ISU became the first Big 12 school ever to lead the nation in threes.

KANSAS STATE: The Wildcats tied the school record for most conference wins in Bruce Weber's first season in Manhattan, as they went 14-4 in the Big 12 to capture a share of their first league title since 1977. The team finished 27-8 overall, marking the most victories ever by a first-year coach at K-State. As a result, Weber's contract was extended by one year in April. He and the Wildcats have some unfinished business in 2013-14, as they were upset by No. 13 seed La Salle in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. To get back to the Big Dance, they'll have to replace standout wing Rodney McGruder, who graduated as the school's seventh-leading scorer all-time. He is one of two players in school history to rank in the top 10 in both career scoring and rebounding. Guard Shane Southwell, a three-year letterwinner, will be counted on for senior leadership. Southwell (8.4 ppg) started the final 26 games of last season after Weber switched to a four-guard lineup, and he went on to shoot 43.6 percent (48-of-110) from 3-point range.

OKLAHOMA: The Sooners have some firepower to replace from last year's lineup that posted the school's first 20-win season since 2008-09. Amath M'Baye decided to forego his senior season and enter the NBA Draft, joining fellow forward Romero Osby who graduated last Spring. M'Baye, a native of France who spent two seasons at Wyoming before transferring to OU, averaged 10.1 points and 5.2 rebounds en route to third-team All-Big 12 honors last year. Osby closed out his final campaign by scoring in double figures in 11 straight games, averaging 20.2 points and 8.0 boards in that span. Coach Lon Kruger said at the Big 12's media day that senior forward Cameron Clark will be given more scoring opportunities on the offensive end. Clark (6.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg) came off the bench in all 32 games in 2012-13 after starting 60 of 63 contests in his first two seasons. Buddy Hield, a sophomore guard, averaged 7.8 points last year as a freshman and ranked among the conference leaders in steals (33) despite missing five games while recovering from surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot. However, nine of the team's 15 players have never played a minute at the collegiate level, and they'll now be asked to learn on the fly.

WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers finished toward the bottom of the pack last season, as they went just 6-12 in the Big 12 and posted a 13-19 record overall. The lineup was devoid of offensive firepower, as no player averaged double figures in the scoring column. The 2013-14 roster figures to present similar challenges for coach Bob Huggins, the third-winningest active coach in the nation. Forward Aaric Murray, the No. 3 scorer and top rebounder (8.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), left the program over the summer. No. 2 scorer Deniz Kilicli (8.9 ppg) has also moved on, leaving sophomores Eron Harris and Terry Henderson to shoulder the load. Harris was just the second freshman in school history to lead the team in scoring (9.8 ppg), and he reached double figures in 13 of his last 18 contests. Henderson (8.0 ppg) started 11 of 30 games and shot a team- best 40 percent from 3-point range (42-of-105). While they showed promising rookie campaigns, that duo will need some help from the supporting cast if Huggins is to rebound from his first losing season in league play since 1985.

TEXAS TECH: The immediate challenge facing new head coach Tubby Smith is to try and reinvigorate fan interest in a team that has won a combined four conference games over the last two seasons. Still, four starters return, although the loss of freshman sensation Josh Gray will sting. Gray was only the fourth freshman in school history to lead the Red Raiders in assists (99), but he decided to transfer after going through two coaches in one season. Billy Gillispie was forced to resign before the 2012-13 season even began after reports had surfaced that he mistreated players, then assistant Chris Walker stepped in and guided Tech to a 3-15 Big 12 record. Now the head coaching job belongs to Smith, who was fired from his post at Minnesota after leading the Golden Gophers to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Among the key returnees are senior forward Jaye Crockett and junior forward Dejan Kravic. Crockett led the Red Raiders in scoring (11.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg) despite starting only four games. Kravic came on strong at the end of last season, scoring in double figures in four of the last five games.

TEXAS: The Longhorns will enter the season without several members of last year's 16-18 squad that was bounced in the first round of the CBI. Scoring leader and team MVP Myck Kabongo left school to enter the NBA Draft (14.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 5.0 rpg), Sheldon McClellan (13.4 ppg) transferred to Miami, and Julien Lewis (11.2 ppg) transferred to Fresno State. If those departures weren't already enough, promising sophomore Ioannis Papapetrou (8.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) signed a professional contract in August to play in his native Greece. That leaves Rick Barnes -- the second-winningest coach in Big 12 history -- without his top four scorers from a year ago. McClellan and Lewis often clashed with the longtime head coach, who is now minus five of the six players from his 2011 recruiting class in addition to Papapetrou. So, with an underwhelming recruiting class, where will the scoring come from this season? Barnes was asked that very question at Big 12 media day and said he expects increased production from big men Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes. Still, this is a program that is clearly in disarray. After all, the Longhorns missed out on the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in Barnes' 15-year tenure and they have not advanced in the postseason since 2008.

TCU: Defense is once again the name of the game for a TCU team that limited foes to 62.6 ppg and gave up more than 80 points on only two occasions last season. Leading the way are juniors Devonta Abron and Kyan Anderson. Abron is the team's top returning rebounder, as he averaged 8.6 boards over the last seven games. He started 15-of-32 games and also paced the Horned Frogs in rebounding and blocked shots. Anderson is a scoring point guard who posted 19 double-digit scoring games in 2012-13, including nine of the last 10. He averaged a team-best 12.0 points and 3.4 assists, dishing out seven or more assists in three of the final 10 games. Anderson also ranked among the Big 12 leaders in minutes (third), steals (sixth) and 3-pointers (ninth). In addition, forward Amric Fields returns for his junior season. The 2011-12 Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year started each of the first three games for TCU last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury against SMU.