The start of the college basketball season is always an exciting time, full of hope and promise. This is certainly true for Big 12 fans. The Big 12 is one of the very best conferences in college basketball, and with only ten teams, the conference puts its teams through a difficult round robin schedule. No one ducks anyone else in this league. Making things even more fun, this season's Big 12 brings together a number of teams that appear similar in quality, meaning fans of nearly every school in the conference feels that their team has a shot.
Over the last several weeks, GoHornsGo90 and I have been debating the prospects for each Big 12 team. We shaped this debate so as to come up with our preseason predictions for the final standings in the Big 12 conference. Preseason predictions are difficult, and ours will almost certainly be wrong. In particular, we admit up front that we could be very wrong about Kansas State (who we perhaps have too low) and West Virginia (who we may have too high). The teams we have rated as Nos. 2 through 7 could easily be placed in almost any order, without raising too many eyebrows.
Below, we take our best guesses at the final Big 12 standings, and describe what we like and do not like about each team. At the very end of this article, we list our preseason conference awards, and our preseason all-conference team.
What we like: Kansas basketball is an unstoppable machine. Bill Self might be the best basketball coach in the country. Last season, considered a "down year" by many preseason observers, resulted in a trip to the NCAA championship game. Additionally, Kansas returns center Jeff Withey, the most significant defensive force in the conference. Guard Elijah Johnson is another well known returning player, who could be the next in the long line of Jayhawk roll players who turned into stars as upperclassmen. Kansas will rely on some very talented first year players, including red-shirt freshman Ben McLemore, who sat out last year to become academically eligible. Two other names among the freshman class to remember are Perry Ellis and Andrew White.
What we don't like: Thomas Robinson is gone, as is Tyshawn Taylor. While Taylor was the recipient of a lot of criticism during his career, he had an excellent senior season. Without Taylor running the show, Kansas is going to have to rely on their freshman quite a lot, and maybe they will slip up? Probably not. Anyway, a lot will be asked of McLemore this year.
What we like: this is a Texas blog, and perhaps this feels like a homer pick. But we have some rational reasons for putting Texas this high. Ken Pomeroy's preseason ratings had Texas as the #13 team in the NCAA, so there is that bit of non-homer rationalism to hang our hats on. More significantly, this incoming freshman class should shore up the main weakness of last season's team. This year, the Longhorn front line will be big, which should help a team that wasn't great at interior defense, and was regularly beat on the defensive glass. Also, we anticipate that J'Covan Brown's scoring will be much easier to replace than people think. Depth and size are two things that have not been in abundance for Texas during the last two seasons, but this year, these will be team strengths. Texas has a roster of pieces that seem to fit very well together, making this team diverse at every position, which is something we haven't seen in years.
What we don't like: concerns about Myck Kabongo's eligibility worry us, and could dramatically affect the prospects for this squad. Additionally, back court depth is a question, and an injury to one of the four main Texas guards would lead to trouble. This team will need a few more outside shots to fall this season. Youth is a concern for Texas as well, although their young team includes a class of five sophomores who have already played a lot.
3. West Virginia
What we like: Bob Huggins is the worst-dressed coach in the conference (and it isn't even close) but he knows what the hell he is doing. The West Virginia defense will be good, simply because Huggins' defenses almost always are. Last season was a surprising down year for the Mountaineer defense, but most of their problems can be traced to struggles defending the rim, where opponents made 68 percent of their attempts. West Virginia blocked less than seven percent of opponent attempts last year, but that problem will probably be fixed by La Salle transfer Aaric Murray, who blocked eight percent of opponent attempts during his first two seasons. With the rim protected, we expect that the Mountaineer defense will grind opposing offenses into a tasty sausage.
Despite being the No. 12 team in eFG in the Big East, WVU had the third best offense in the conference, on the strength of offensive rebounding and protecting the rock. These are characteristics of virtually every team Huggins has ever coached. It is an ugly but effective brand of basketball.
What we don't like: WVU lacks name talent, with Kevin Jones' eligibility used up. Lack of name talent is why the Mountaineers seem to be flying even further under the radar than Texas is this year. Aside from Murray, West Virginia has another talented transfer in point guard Juwan Staten. From last season's team, the best returning player is Deniz Kilici. Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne both played a lot last season as freshman.
What we like: Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip make up what should be the best scoring back court in the conference. Jackson is basically unguardable; he can get to the hole off the dribble, but also made 40 percent of his three point shots last season. Jackson also was among the best players in the nation last season when it came to setting up teammates. He could be an All-American. For his part, Heslip was perhaps the most successful catch-and-shoot player in the country last season. He can never be left alone. Freshman Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson can give Baylor the needed rim protection on defense.
What we don't like: Baylor feels like a hodgepodge of random parts that might not fit. Surprisingly, the Bears might have a problem with a lack of firepower, as Baylor may struggle to get consistent scoring from the front line. Jackson is a big time all-around scorer and Heslip will fill it up as usual, but Deuce Bello will have to have improved significantly to even be serviceable on offense. Does that lead to an occasional back court with L.J. Rose at PG and Jackson off the ball? That's a TINY perimeter if they do that. Austin makes Perry Jones look like Karl Malone on offense with regards to primacy and aggression.
And then there is the zone defense and the problems it creates. If Baylor spends most of the season in a zone, it will leave them vulnerable to offensive rebounding in a conference where several of the top teams (Kansas, Texas, and West Virginia) are likely to kill teams on the offensive glass. Playing zone puts a lot of pressure on Austin to be great on defense, and if he is not Baylor will struggle.
5. Iowa State
What we like: We just like the way the Cyclones play, and love Fred Hoiberg as a coach, which is one reason why we have the Cyclones higher than others might. Iowa State has experience and depth from last year, along with high profile transfers Korie Lucious and Will Clyburn, who both have the potential to be all-conference players. Chris Babb is one of the best defenders in the league. The Cyclones will flood the floor with shooters on offense, pack the paint on defense, and will win a lot of games. It is easy to envision scenarios where they finish ahead of Baylor, WVU, and Texas. Look for Iowa State to push the tempo on offense this season with Lucious, which was something that they could not do last season. Hoiberg wants his team to run, and he finally has the horses to do it.
What we don't like: Royce White is not the sort of player who is easy to replace. Multiple guys will be needed to pick up what is lost with White gone. And the Cyclones don't have a big guy inside to protect the paint, like the four teams that we have rated ahead of them. It is always risky relying on transfers to gel, particularly when some of them, like Lucious, transfered for a reason other than playing time.
6. Kansas State
What we like: Rodney McGruder is among the best players in the conference, and Kansas State has a roster full of tough, quality players. Kansas State was a very good team last season, and brings almost the entire team back. New coach Bruce Weber's reputation is as an offensive guru (although his offense last season was bad enough to get him fired). Weber did an outstanding job coaching Bill Self's recruits at Illinois, taking them all the way to the national championship game. This team could be ranked higher than sixth in the conference, and there is a high probability that we have messed this up. But Kansas State is the hardest team to figure out in the conference, because of...
What we don't like: Kansas State could be the biggest mismatch between coaching approach and a roster in recent history. It seems unlikely that Kansas State's current roster is made up of guys who will fit in Weber's motion offense. Well, McGruder will, but he would look good in almost any offense.
Kansas State under Frank Martin basically made their bones on the offensive glass, and by getting to the foul line. Weber's teams haven't gone hard at the offensive glass for the last four years, although some of his earlier Illinois teams did, and Weber's teams seldom draw a lot of fouls. At Illinois, Weber's players took a lot of jump shots, as did Kansas State last season. 37% of Illinois' attempts were two point jump shots in 2012, while 41% of K-State attempts were two point jump shots. The difference is really in what happened after those shots were attempted. Despite having a team that was pretty damn big inside, Illinois only averaged an offensive rebounding percentage of 28 percent in Big Ten play. Kansas State averaged an offensive rebounding percentage of 40 percent. That sort of difference reflects differences in coaching styles as much as anything. Weber's defensive style is also different from the way that Martin's teams played, although Weber has done a decent job coaching defenses over his career, so it makes sense to predict that Kansas State will still be difficult to score on.
What we like: Lon Kruger has a strong track record as a head coach, and the Sooners have an experienced team led by Steven Pledger, and Romero Osby. The Sooners also return Cameron Clark and Andrew Fitzgerald. Last season, Oklahoma did a nice job of not turning the ball over.
What we don't like: This wasn't a very good team last year at either end of the court. On offense, part of the problem was shooting too many jump shots. 53 percent of OU's FG attempts last season were two point jump shots. It is no accident that they were ninth in the conference in effective field goal percentage. Oklahoma needs to become more dynamic on offense and much better on defense in order to compete with the upper half of the conference.
Oklahoma is not a bad team, but the Big 12 is going to be a tough conference.
8. Oklahoma State
What we like: Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash give the Cowboys star power, for whatever that is worth. Jéan-Paul Olukemi is also a good player, who was recently granted a waiver by the NCAA to allow him to play the full season.
What we don't like: The Cowboys weren't very good last year, and now the best offensive player from last season (Keiton Page) is gone. Too much will be asked of Smart and Nash, players who at least for now are defined more by potential than performance. This team was very small last year after part time player Philip Jurick tore his Achilles' tendon. We also wonder who will knock down shots for this team. (The answer to that question is, probably no one.)
Sophomore Brian Williams was actually a much more efficient scorer than Nash was last season, although he didn't shoot as often. Williams got to the rim (38 percent of his field goal attempts last season) and finished (71 percent shooting percentage at the rim). If Nash could finish like that, he would be an All-American. (Nash's FG% at the rim was an NCAA average 61 percent.) Too bad Williams broke his wrist, and is likely to miss the entire season.
Does anybody really trust Travis Ford to do anything other than randomly upset one or two top 10 teams a year, then tank the rest of the games? If only OSU could trade some wings for a big man or someone who handles the ball.
With Smart and Nash, a lot will be expected of the Cowboys, and there is a very good chance that they don't live up to these expectations. We could see this being the team that gets head coach Travis Ford fired.
What we like: Some people say nice things about Fort Worth. TCU has a unique mascot. Trent Johnson is the best coach the Horned Frogs have had since Billy Tubbs left. 6-9 Amric Fields is a very good player who can score inside and can step out and hit the three.
What we don't like: Since Billy Tubbs left in 2002, TCU basketball has hovered around the average level for Division I programs, according to the simple rating system. Average teams get slaughtered in the Big 12. TCU was a middle of the pack team in the Mountain West last season, and had nothing in the way of interior defense.The Frogs will likely be locked in a battle for ninth place this season with Texas Tech.
10. Texas Tech
What we like: The all black uniforms look sort of cool. The Raiders could be better than TCU. Jordan Tolbert had a better freshman year than did Le'Bryan Nash.
What we don't like: This is a program in chaos. The Red Raiders were by far the worst team in the Big 12 last year. If they avoid a tenth place finish, they can thank the fact that football drives realignment, and that TCU now plays in the Big 12.
Preseason conference awards
Conference player of the year: Jeff Withey (Kansas) -- Because defense is half of the game, and Withey may be the best defensive player in the country. Withey is also reasonably good on the offensive end, although he isn't the type of player you build an offense around.
Honorable mentions: Pierre Jackson (Baylor) and Rodney McGruder (Kansas State)
Freshman of the year: Marcus Smart (OSU) -- The best known freshman coming into the season, Smart also plays the position (guard) that tends to attract the most attention. It is difficult to predict how freshman will play, but Smart seems like a solid bet to be the best freshman in the conference.
Honorable mentions: Ben McLemore (Kansas) is a redshirt freshman. Cameron Ridley (Texas) and Isaiah Austin (Baylor) make sense as well.
Newcomer of the year: Will Clyburn (Iowa State) -- Clyburn can score from anywhere on the floor. He is 6-7, and in 2011 playing for Utah he hit over 40 percent from three point range. He also knows how to get to the free throw line.
Honorable mention: Korie Lucious (Iowa State)
All conference team:
C -- Jeff Withey (Kansas)
F -- Rodney McGruder (Kansas State)
F -- Will Clyburn (Iowa State)
G -- Pierre Jackson (Baylor)
G -- Myck Kabongo (Texas)
Honorable mentions: Steven Pledger, Aaric Murray, Ben McLemore, Jordan Tolbert, Le'Bryan Nash, and Amric Fields.