Crème de la Crème
As much as it pains me to separate the Big 12 categories this way, there really is no other option. After 12 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles, it would be completely naïve for the Jayhawks not to be listed at the top. Granted, Kansas has lost a few major pieces, the biggest of which is 14 year veteran Perry Ellis. Wayne "He-Has-Green-Eyes?" Selden, Brannen "Doghouse" Greene and Cheick "Wasted-College-Career" Diallo are all declared for the NBA draft. Selden has hired an agent and hopefully the others will pull a Curtis Stinson and do the same. Either way, we’ll know by May 25, when underclassmen have to remove their name if they wish to return to school.
Bill Self’s team returns one of the Big 12’s best backcourts in Frank Mason and Devonte Graham. Mason has been solid for years. Graham broke out last year and won some tough games for Kansas basically by himself. Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg are projected to get the majority of the minutes down low. I’ve ruined Lucas’ offensive game with some digital ink here, but he really is very effective on defense. He defends ball screens, protects the rim and sets great picks on offense. Bragg received spot minutes last season, but was a highly regarded recruit and reminds some of a young Wayne Simien.
The Serbian Sniper, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is also back to chuck threes and we can’t forget Tyler Self’s legacy spot on the Jayhawk squad. Nearly double digit anonymous sources say he is poised to break out as a senior and explode in the Big 12 after averaging 3.9 points per game in his senior year of high school.
Kansas also adds Joshua Jackson, Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot from their recruiting class. Jackson is going to be a freshman star in the Big 12 and may be a one and done type. Of the others, it is anyone’s guess what Self chooses to do with them.
Kansas is going to be nasty as always and are the clear favorites here.
Whether we expected it or not, I don’t think nearly enough people are hyped enough that Monte Morris decided to come back. Georges Niang put together one of the best years a Cyclone has ever had last year, but the main reason Iowa State’s offense was as good as it was is because of Morris. He played almost every possession and helped create looks on a huge percentage of plays excluding Niang isolations. Morris is indispensable and Cyclone fans should be stoked to watch Iowa State’s offense destroy people at similar levels again next year.
Other than Morris, Iowa State returns three part-time starters in Matt Thomas, Deonte Burton and Naz Mitrou-Long to rival Kansas for the best guards in the Big 12. They'll provide killer spacing around Morris with their 3-point shooting. Burton and Mitrou-Long are 100% capable of making plays off the dribble as well. I could easily see Burton leading the Cyclones in scoring next year. He is a matchup nightmare for bigs and smalls alike. Thomas even showed flashes last year when he finally stopped settling for those inefficient one dribble pull-ups and drove into the paint to keep the offense moving.
Besides those main three, Jordan Ashton has decided to transfer to UNI and Hallice Cookie decided to find greener pastures as well. Despite all of the flack Cooke gets, I still think he is a good player and will be successful on another team.
Iowa State adds a ton of new bodies into the mix with Nick Weiler-Babb, Donovan Jackson, Manny Malou, Cameron Lard, Solomon Young, Darrell Bowie, JaKolby Long and hopefully a grad transfer down low (looking at you Merrill Holden). At this point it is incredibly tough to tell who will get meaningful minutes. However, we do know that Steve Prohm returns exactly 0 bigs who have played, so some combination of Malou, Lard, Bowie and another grad transfer will have to take the floor.
Simeon Carter and Brady Ernst could also earn time and contribute up front, depending on how their off-seasons go. No matter who gets the minutes, the posts that play will not have to be relied on to score outside of lobs and dump-down finishes. Iowa State is not going to go into many post-ups for buckets when the returning guards will be creating juicy looks every time down the floor.
On the other hand, the bigs will be counted on heavily to rebound, protect the rim and battle Big 12 posts down low. This is far and away the biggest question mark and will make or break Iowa State in conference play. The Cyclones got shredded on defense and on the glass last year, but made up for it with a historically great offense. The new bigs hopefully can match last season’s rebounding and defense because the offense will be almost, if not as robust as last year.
Either way, Iowa State will be really good again, but will lose a couple that they shouldn’t and compete with the rest of the contenders chasing the Jayhawks.
Rico Gathers was just drafted into the NFL and Taurean Prince is gone. But no matter what, Baylor seems to repeat the same themes every year. They are in the top half of the Big 12, ranked in the top 25 most of the year, win a few big games, lose a few and then crap out early in the Dance. They still have Jonathan Motley, who abused anyone the Cyclones threw at him on the block last year and will probably do the same next season. They also bring back Al Freeman, Terry Maston and Ishmail Wainwright. Freeman was excellent as a sophomore and should continue to get better. Maston has shown flashes of becoming a big time player and Wainwright is a steady contributor. All signs point to Baylor repeating their standard year again next season.
Shaka Smart’s first season was looking disappointing, but the Longhorns went on an impressive run in Big 12 play before getting Paul Jesperson’d to slam the door on their season. Prince Ibeh, Javan Felix and Connor Lammert and Cameron Ridley all have moved on. Isaiah Taylor is hiring an agent for the NBA Draft and will also not be returning.
Texas has a core of young players that are either freshman or sophomores that will step into larger roles next year. They will have a decent squad that will either be true contenders or fall into the middle of the Big 12 pack depending on how their underclassmen fare under a bigger spotlight. Tevin Mack, Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach were all freshmen who played heavy minutes for the Longhorns. Those three, along with Kendall Yancy, have to fill up the stat sheet for Smart's squad to move up the list of contenders.
The Bob Huggins Referee Intimidation Show continues next year without big man Devin Williams, Jaysean Paige and Jonathan Holton, but WVU brings back a slew of athletic wings and bigs who aren't afraid to body people for 40 minutes.
Honestly, I don’t think Huggy’s intimidation is that massive of a factor on referees. The problem is that the Mountaineers play such physical basketball at all times by pushing the boundaries between what is considered clean, hard play and what is a foul. Many times they cross that boundary, but that line is so incredibly blurry and their players are tip toeing it constantly so that refs can’t justify calling every instance a foul. The result is that because refs refuse to call all of them, West Virginia gets called for a ton of fouls, but they also get away with a ton of hacks that translate into turnovers. We’re going to see it again next year at least twice, so we might as well prepare for it.
Offensively, the Mountaineers live off of chucking the ball at the rim and retrieving it for more chucks at the hoop until it goes in. As said above, they play hard-nosed, pressure defense and rely on turnovers to create an offensive boost and if those two things go their way, they usually come out victorious.
They bring back a number of contributors that will be using the same blueprint as last year. They will be a tough team and will win a number of Big 12 games, but are clearly a rung below the Jayhawks.
The Sooners barely make the Contender cut here. They lose not only the Wooden Award winner last year in Buddy Hield, but arguably their two other best players as well. Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins, who was inexplicably picked to be on USA Basketball’s Pan American team last year over Monte Morris, have both run out of eligibility. Cousins, although prone to turnovers and terrible shots, was an outstanding playmaker. Besides Buddy, Cousins was the only other regular on Lon Kruger’s squad that could create offense. Spangler was a big body that the Sooners consistently counted on to clean up the glass on both ends of the court and was a streaky shooter.
The Sooners bring back starters Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Latin, both are effective players, but neither have shown the ability to carry an offense. Rotation players Dante Buford, Akolda Manyang and Christian James are back, but Sooners fans should be worried about where their offense is going to come from. It’s not that no one will replace Hield’s production because D1 kids are going to score points – the major issue is will they come close to being as efficient as Buddy with all of the possessions he was using.
In their loss to Villanova in the Final Four, the Wildcats were shading Buddy with multiple defenders and daring anyone else to make a play and no one could. The Oklahoma coaching staff should be worried about how they’re going to manufacture points this upcoming season because I don’t see Woodard or Latin being able to create for themselves, so Buford and James will have to step up in a major way if this team wants to contend. Usually, when underclassmen are thrust into such prominent roles, it will take them awhile to adjust, so Oklahoma could see a rebuilding period.
Coming Up in the Game
This squad has bunch of potential. Last year, freshman point guard Jawun Evans was hurt for much of the year, but he showed more than a few flashes of brilliance when he played. They return sharpshooter Phil Forte, who is trying to match Perry Ellis for most years in the league. Remember, this team smacked Kansas by 20 last year. Some may call that a fluke, but that is not easy to do. There has to be some talent there.
However, beyond Forte and Evans, there isn't much to brag about. They have a couple of returners coming back, but will have to rely on their development and pray that Evans turns into a Marcus Smart type of star next year.
We will see what the Red Raiders can muster up without the miracle-working Tubby Smith roaming the sidelines. With Smith gone to Memphis, the Texas Tech program will be challenged to improve upon their recent success. No one thought they had a shot in the world at making the Big Dance last year, yet they did. Smith’s run was impressive, but we will see whether the current players can keep up the trend.
The Red Raiders deal with second tier Texas recruits, but it helps when you have a coach that can wring optimal production out of them. A meaty chunk of contributors return to a team that had a couple really, really nice Big 12 wins. A change in coaching staff is always hard to deal with and although this team could be decent, last year will be a tough act to follow.
Race to the Bottom
Bruce Weber’s tenure in Manhattan has not been a successful one so far. The Wildcats have lost a lot of games in the past few years and have not come close to making the NCAA Tournament. The worst part is Frank Martin was much more successful at the school only a couple years ago. The program is not producing the Danny Clementes, the Jacob Pullens or the Michael Beasleys of old. They are producing perennial lower tier Big 12 players like Wesley Iwundu, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade. It's like they are all replicas of Will Spradling. These guys just can’t compete night in and night out. The Wildcats are perennially offensively challenged and unlike a team like Cinncinnati, they don’t strap up enough defensively to make up for it.
We will see if Weber’s team can make any headway up the Big 12 standings next season, but it’s highly doubtful. Bruce Weber might be on the coaching hotseat and if there is no improvement he’ll probably get canned.
Despite the high profile hire in Jamie Dixon, the Horned Frogs will again be at the bottom of the Big 12. They lose mediocre players, and gain more mediocre players. Unlike their football program, they cannot churn stars out of lower tier recruits. No Texas high school ballers want to come play in their crappy gym, lose a ton of games, never play in the post season and just have an overall bad college athletic experience.
They return a few guys who are okay Big 12 players in Chauncey Collins and Malique Trent, but they are going to continue this streak of getting thrashed almost every time they take the floor in conference play. If Dixon can turn the program around it will take a Tubby Smith-like Texas Tech multiyear reconstruction.