College basketball season is now just a month away. In early November, non-conference action will start. Not long after that, January will be here, and with it the start of college basketball conference play.
Much like the last few years, the Big 12 double round robin format promises to deliver some of the best basketball in Division I. The Big 12 will be absolute murder this year, likely starting the season with three teams in the preseason AP top 10, as many as five in the top 25, and seven or eight teams contemplating a run at the NCAA tournament.
Let's take an early run through the teams of the Big 12, and take a look at what the league has in store for this year.
Key returning players: Frank Mason, Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden, Devonte' Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Brannen Greene, Jamari Traylor
Key newcomers: Cheick Diallo (Fr), Lagerald Vick (Fr), Carlton Bragg (Fr)
Kansas is on an incredible streak of Big 12 championships, and this does not look like the year where Bill Self's run of league domination will stop; in fact, the Jayhawks should have their eyes on an even bigger prize this season. On paper, this group has the potential to be the best Kansas team we have seen in a few years, assuming star freshman big man Cheick Diallo is eventually blessed by the NCAA eligibility center.
If he plays, Diallo can give the Jayhawks the rim-protecting center that Self's best teams always have, and can help take some pressure off of Perry Ellis, who struggled through a somewhat disappointing junior season. Even if Diallo cannot play, Kansas has plenty of depth and experience in the front court to help pick up the slack.
The mark of Self's best teams has been great inside scoring, but last season it didn't happen that way. Somewhat amazingly, the Jayhawks only connected on 46 percent of their attempts from inside the arc last year, which represented a nine percentage point drop off from the previous year. This percentage was the lowest by one of Self's teams since the 1994-5 season, when Self was a second year head coach at Oral Roberts.
Kansas is ready to go on the perimeter, returning a number of high impact players. Frank Mason will push for all conference honors at point guard, and he is ably backed up by Devonte' Graham. Wayne Selden hasn't always lived up to his five star billing, but the junior guard has been a solid player, and this could be the year where it all finally clicks. Sophomore wing Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is supremely talented, and with Kelly Oubre moving on to the NBA will now be the next man up for playing time. And don't forget sharpshooter Brannen Greene, who ended up beating the young Mykhailiuk out for playing time last season, and four star freshman wing Lagerald Vick.
In the league this year, I believe Kansas will be in a class by itself, and I expect that the Jayhawks will spend at least part of the season with the top ranking in the AP poll.
Key returning players: Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Jameel McKay, Nazareth Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas, Abdel Nader
Key newcomers: Deonte Burton (Transfer: Marquette, eligible in January), Hallice Cooke (Transfer: Oregon St.)
No new coach walked into a team with a better roster than did Steve Prohm when he took over for the departing Fred Hoiberg. All-American candidate Georges Niang is finally a senior, and for his final year in college will remain impossible to defend. Front court mate Jameel McKay is a stealth NBA prospect who does so many of the things that a team needs to do to win. His combination of athleticism and nonstop effort makes him miserable to play against. Point guard/cult hero Monte Morris is an efficiency superstar, although it will be interesting to see how he adapts to likely playing with the ball in his hands much more often this season. Trading some of his efficiency off for higher scoring volume wouldn't be a bad thing in his case.
And of course around the big three there are a crapload of shooters, including Marquette transfer Deonte Burton, who has been named the Big 12's preseason Newcomer of the Year.
Here has been the offensive formula for Iowa State. Play fast, don't run a lot of plays (while Hoiberg was known for his "NBA sets" his teams mostly just attacked on the fly), spread the floor, attack where you have the advantage, and shoot those threes. I don't anticipate Prohm will dramatically alter this approach, but it is a little hard to figure out exactly what his preferred style will be, as his offense for the past two seasons has basically consisted of giving the ball to Cam Payne and letting him do stuff. It worked pretty well, as Murray State was 29-3 over the last two seasons in the Ohio Valley Conference. (Cam Payne is a hell of a player, and likely would have been the best guard in the Big 12 last year. There is a reason why he was the 14th pick of the NBA draft.)
Iowa State has scored points like crazy in recent years, but their success has frequently been tempered by what happens at the other end of the court. Prohm's Murray State teams were among the better defenses in the high scoring OVC, and the Cyclones' upside will all come on D; it would be virtually impossible to improve upon the offensive output of Hoiberg's recent teams.
I think the Cyclones are really good. I just don't think they are as good as Kansas.
Key returning players: Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard, Ryan Spangler
Key newcomers: Dante Buford (R-Fr), Jamuni McNeace (R-Fr), Akolda Manyang (Junior college transfer)
Oklahoma took a step backwards on offense last season, but mostly made up the difference at the defensive end. To keep pace with Iowa State, the Sooners probably need to find a way to recover some of their lost scoring from 2014, as with the end of TaShawn Thomas' eligibility, it could be difficult to maintain their defensive performance.
But offense shouldn't be much of a problem when you have Buddy Hield. Hield can fill it up, and is on the list of early favorites for national player of the year honors. The trouble last year came from underwhelming seasons by Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. I am betting on both to bounce back, and suspect Lon Kruger's back court will be fine.
I have bigger concerns in the front court, although none are about senior Ryan Spangler. Spangler needs some help, and multiple guys will get chances to play alongside him. Redshirt freshman Dante Buford and Jamuni McNeace, and the returning Khadeem Lattin will get their chances, but I am betting junior college transfer Akolda Manyang will also get to play. Manyang is a 7-0 shot blocking center (2.8 BPG at Indian Hills CC) who has the potential to provide an interior defensive presence of the sort that the Sooners are losing in Thomas.
Oklahoma and Iowa State have fiercely battled over the number two slot in the league for the last two years, and I think this has a good chance of happening again.
Key returning players: Devin Williams, Jonathan Holton, Nathan Adrian, Tarik Phillip, Daxter Miles Jr, Jaysean Paige, Jevon Carter
Key newcomers: Teyvon Myers (Junior college transfer), Esa Ahmad (Fr), Lamont West (Fr)
If you could combine West Virginia's front court with the guards of Oklahoma State (more on them below), you would get a team that would likely end up near the top of the Big 12 standings. But you don't get to do that.
Assuming we see year two of "Press Virginia" in Morgantown, no one is going to have fun playing Bob Huggins' team. Last year Huggins surprised the league by rolling out a defensive approach reminiscent of his early days in Cincinnati, having his men pick up 94 feet from the basket while denying every pass. It worked; the Mountaineers led the nation both in steal rate and opponent turnover percentage, and pressed and scrapped their way into an NCAA tournament bid.
I really like the West Virginia front court. Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton are both talented and athletic big men who don't take crap from anyone. This is particularly true for Williams, who seems to get into some sort of scrap in about half of his games. I don't mean this as criticism; Williams is fearless and will back down from no one, and I like it.
The back court is far less proven. Some of the upside for West Virginia is tied up in sorting out who will do what on the perimeter with the departure of Juwan Staten. Daxter Miles and Jevon Carter both had solid freshman campaigns last season, and so I think the transition may not be so difficult.
West Virginia looks like an NCAA tournament and top 25 team to me.
Key returning players: Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley, Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Connor Lammert, Prince Ibeh, Kendal Yancy, Jordan Barnett
Key newcomers: Tevin Mack (Fr), Eric Davis (Fr), Kerwin Roach (Fr)
To improve upon last season, Texas really needs to do two things better without losing too much ground in other areas. The Longhorns have to force more turnovers, and they have to hit more shots.
Improving on what was a staggeringly low opponent turnover rate last season is 100 percent going to happen. It is an absolute lock. I promise.
The shooting is a little less certain. Shaka Smart inherits only one proven high volume three point shooter -- Javan Felix. He also has Demarcus Holland, who a season ago began knocking down the wide open looks from three that opponents typically allow him, and Connor Lammert, a big man who can stretch the floor with his shot. And Smart gets a class of three freshman who can all stroke it.
While Smart may not have the best three point shooting club in the league, he does pick up a roster full of upperclassmen, including the very difficult to defend Isaiah Taylor and some really good big guys. The roster is an odd fit for his approach to basketball, but he has some guys who can play, and is probably smart enough to meet his players half way when it comes to playing style.
Texas has enough talent to be a top 25 team and finish in the upper half of the Big 12.
Key returning players: Lester Medford, Ishmail Wainright, Al Freeman, Taurean Prince, Rico Gathers, Johnathan Motley
Key newcomers: King McClure (Fr), Jo Acuil (Junior college transfer)
I don't have a good read on this Baylor team, and could conceivably see them finishing just about anywhere in the conference standings, although my best guess is somewhere between fourth and seventh. I look at the Bear back court with no obvious ball handler (I guess the turnover prone Lester Medford is the default choice) and wonder how they will hold up. It reminds me of the 2010-2011 season, the last time Scott Drew didn't have a point guard to get the ball to his talented big men and wings.
On the other hand, this is a team still has guys that can play, and will likely enter the 2015-2016 season ranked in the AP poll. Last season, Baylor had a top 20 offense that only did two things well: the Bears hit 38 percent of their threes and had the second highest offensive rebounding rate in the nation.
Rico Gathers is a force on the boards, and he has some help from Johnathan Motley and 7-0 junior college transfer Jo Acuil. Taurean Prince is a versatile scorer that is one of the better players in the Big 12. Medford can shoot, and freshman King McClure will probably be a pretty good player.
Is all of that enough? I just don't know.
Key returning players: Phil Forte, Jeff Newberry, Tavarius Shine, Joe Burton
Key newcomers: Jawun Evans (Fr), Davon Dillard (Fr), Igor Ibaka (Junior college transfer), Chris Olivier (Transfer: Eastern Illinois)
Oklahoma State returns Phil Forte -- the league's most dangerous shooter -- in the back court. Defenses will have to account for him at all times. Forte will be joined by Jeff Newberry, another steady shooter, and talented freshman lead guard Jawun Evans.
It will be a strong back court, and coach Travis Ford will get his team to play hard on defense. But I am concerned about the front line after the departures of Le'Bryan Nash and Michael Cobbins. Sophomore wing Joe Burton and transfers Igor Ibaka and Chris Olivier will have to try to help fill the void.
The Cowboys should be a quality basketball team, but it may or may not translate into much of a record in the Big 12.
Key returning players: Karviar Sheperd, Cris Washburn, Devonta Abron, Brandon Parrish, Chauncy Collins
Key newcomers: JD Miller (FR), Vladimir Brodziansky (Junior college transfer), Malique Trent (junior college transfer)
I sometimes wonder what it would take for TCU to become more competitive in the Big 12. While the Horned Frogs did manage to win four league games last year, a significant improvement over previous seasons, it is unclear to me how Trent Johnson can best close or cover over the considerable talent gap that exists between his squad and the rest of the league. (I suspect a possible solution would be to do something radical, like committing to a more idiosyncratic style of play. This is what West Virginia did last year after two subpar seasons.)
I am not saying that TCU doesn't have good players -- it does -- it is just that the Frogs simply don't have enough of them. Most of the talent this year is in the front court, with Karviar Sheperd, Chris Washburn, and Devonta Abron all returning. In the back court, Johnson will have to cover for the loss of the now departed Kyan Anderson, which will be very hard -- Anderson was one of the best guards in the Big 12 over the last two years. Sophomore Chauncey Collins will likely get the first shot.
TCU hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1998, and has only made two trips in the era of the 64 (or more) team format. With six or seven tournament spots likely to go to teams from the Big 12 (based on both past history and my expectations for league quality this year) the Frogs are good enough to start thinking about playing in the premier end of year event, but probably not quite good enough to do it.
Key returning players: Devaugntah Williams, Toddrick Gotcher, Keenan Evans, Zach Smith, Aaron Ross, Justin Gray, Norense Odiase, Isaiah Manderson
Key newcomers: Jordan Jackson (Fr), CJ Williamson (Fr), Devon Thomas (Junior college transfer)
Last season was year two of Tubby Smith's attempt to rebuild the Texas Tech basketball program. Because of the roster attrition that typically goes along with a coaching change, and because of the sorry state that Red Raider hoops was in prior to his arrival, Smith had to play a lot of freshman last year. The results were predictable; Texas Tech wasn't very good.
But last season likely represents the bottom. Smith's freshmen from last year are now sophomores, and he will surely be able to develop a few decent forwards out of the group of Zach Smith, Norense Odiase, Aaron Ross, Justin Gray, and Isaiah Manderson.
What I don't know is if this group will be good enough yet to overtake the mess that is likely to be Kansas State basketball, or the TCU Horned Frogs.
Key returning players: Wesley Iwundu, Stephen Hurt, Justin Edwards
Key newcomers: Carlbe Ervin (Junior college transfer), Austin Budke (Junior college transfer), Kamau Stokes (Fr), Dean Wade (Fr)
It been a bad off season for Kansas State. Marcus Foster, Malek Harris, and Tre Harris all were kicked off the team, while Jevon Thomas and Nigel Johnson elected to transfer. With so much attrition on top of the departure of seniors Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams, things look grim in Manhattan.
Wesley Iwundu, Justin Edwards, and Stephen Hurt are the best returning players for Bruce Weber, and while all three are good enough to contribute, none will be the centerpiece of a good team.
So bring in the newcomers. Carlbe Ervin, a junior college transfer, and freshman Kamau Stokes will handle the ball, and are likely the best of the incoming players. A slew of other JuCos, transfers, and freshmen will fill out the rest of the spots.
It is possible that Bruce Weber will have this group playing competitive basketball -- stranger things have happened. It is also possible that the Wildcats will sink like a rock in the league standings while Kansas State fans spend the season dreaming about Stephen F. Austin head coach and Kansas State alumnus Brad Underwood.