|Big 12 Conference Outlook|
|By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Basketball Editor|
OUTLOOK: The Big 12 Conference has undergone a bit of a makeover since last season. Missouri and Texas A&M defected to the SEC, and in their place step West Virginia and TCU. While the new squads figure to take some time adapting to life in the Big 12, the top of the conference should look familiar. Kansas and Baylor both finished in the top-10 last season, and both are primed for more success in 2012-13. Of course, the conference loses a bit of luster with Missouri's departure, as the Tigers were one of three 30-win teams in the Big 12, the only conference to accomplish that feat last season.
Still, Kansas takes aim at an unprecedented ninth straight Big 12 title under Bill Self after finishing as the national runner-up. Baylor may have something to say about that with its locked and loaded backcourt. Texas is coming off a 20-win campaign, but went just 1-9 against ranked opponents.
Elsewhere, Frank Martin and his Death Stare are out at Kansas State, where former Illinois coach Bruce Weber takes over. Weber inherits a talented team, and one that has gone to the NCAA Tournament four times in the last five years. Oklahoma State is another squad with promise, but the team will rely on quite a few underclassmen.
Oklahoma has talent returning, while Iowa State has had quite a bit of turnover from last year's 23-win squad. TCU, West Virginia and Texas Tech all welcome lots of new faces and figure to go through some growing pains.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kansas
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kansas, 2. Baylor, 3. Texas, 4. Kansas State, 5. Oklahoma State, 6. Iowa State, 7. Oklahoma, 8. TCU, 9. West Virginia, 10. Texas Tech
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
Back from last season's Final Four squad are starters Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey. Johnson is the leading returning scorer after averaging 10.2 ppg, while Withey came up big in conference play, tallying 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per tilt and shooting 53.8 percent from the floor. Releford (8.5 ppg), a 6-6 senior swingman, has a chance to be more involved at the offensive end. The Jayhawks were among the top defensive squads in the nation last year, and that end of the court remains a strength. Ultimately, the key to another Big 12 crown for the Jayhawks is how quickly the newcomers get up to speed. Self has eight freshmen on the roster, and he is counting on contributions from several of those new faces. Perry Ellis, who stands at 6-8, was a top-25 recruit, while redshirts Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor have had some time to integrate and will log some minutes on the wing. Self has raved about McLemore's talent, while Ellis, a local product, has solid shooting and ball handling skills to complement his size.
Despite losing three players to the NBA, Baylor will start the season ranked No. 18 and could move up if the guard play is as advertised. Senior point guard Pierre Jackson is among the best players in the nation at his position, and he returns after leading the Bears with 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game. He'll team with sharpshooter Brady Heslip (10.2 ppg), who shot 46 percent from beyond the arc and 92 percent from the free-throw line a year ago. Cal transfer Gary Franklin, sophomore Deuce Bello, and freshman L.J. Rose round out the guard rotation. Down low, 7-1 top-rated freshman Isaiah Austin already has the attention of every NBA scout, while 6-9 junior Cory Jefferson is ready to step into a bigger role. Another freshman, Ricardo Gathers (6-7, 240), has the body type to bang around in the paint and the touch to hit the mid-range jumper. If the young forwards can adapt to the college game smoothly, the Bears are as dangerous a team as any in the conference, and perhaps the nation.
The Longhorns are eyeing up a 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, but the road got a bit tougher when leading scorer J'Covan Brown (20.1 ppg) decided to bolt for the NBA following his junior season. Still, there is plenty of talent in Austin. Starting point guard Myck Kabongo and wing Sheldon McClellan will be asked to pick up some of the scoring slack from Brown's departure. Kabongo (9.6 ppg, 5.2 apg) is a solid floor general, but he shot just 39 percent from the field and 68 percent from the free-throw line last year as a freshman. He also must improve upon his three turnovers per game. McClellan is the top returning scorer after averaging 11.3 ppg. Julien Lewis (7.8 ppg) is also poised to take a step forward in his sophomore season. But the player who has coach Rick Barnes most excited is 6-10 freshman center Cameron Ridley, who was one of the highest-rated players in the 2012 recruiting class. Ridley will be counted on to make an immediate impact and provide the low-post presence the Longhorns have been missing since LaMarcus Aldridge. If he can handle that type of pressure, UT is in good shape. Fellow highly-rated freshmen Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert will also lend a hand in the paint.
Bruce Weber is walking into a pretty favorable situation at Kansas State. The former Illinois coach, who was hired in March to replace Frank Martin, returns just about everyone from last season's 22-win team. What's more, Weber's in-your-face, man-to-man defense should translate well to an already tough defensive squad. But for the Wildcats to improve upon last year's win total, they'll need to step things up at the offensive end and limit turnovers. That starts with senior guard/forward Rodney McGruder, one of the premier players in the Big 12. McGruder averaged 15.8 ppg last season and he certainly has the ability to increase that number. Center Jordan Henriquez (7.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) came on strong at the end of last season and will give the Wildcats a legitimate inside presence if he can pick up where he left off. Also back in the fold are guards Will Spradling (9.3 ppg) and Angel Rodriguez (8.3 ppg), as K-State returns four starters and 12 lettermen in all.
The Cowboys may have notched only 15 wins last season, but they were victorious in the recruiting ranks for a second straight year, and that young talent will eventually start paying dividends. Last year it was McDonald's All-American Le'Bryan Nash who came on board, and after a rocky start he finished second on the team in scoring with 13.3 ppg to go along with 5.0 rpg. This year, coach Travis Ford will turn to another McDonald's All- American in Marcus Smart, who was tabbed as the preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Smart is a versatile backcourt player who excels at creating shots for himself. Also new to the fold is freshman guard Phil Forte, who played on the same 5-A Texas state championship team as Smart and was named MVP of the state tourney. Forte is known as a strong outside shooter, and his presence could certainly help a team that shot just 33 percent from the perimeter last season. For now, he may have to bide his time behind fellow guards Markel Brown (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Brian Williams (9.6 ppg), both of whom played well in their first extensive action a year ago.
The Cyclones won 23 games last season and went 12-6 in the conference, mostly on the backs of transfers. They also ended a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought. One of those transfers, Royce White, went in the first round of the NBA draft this spring, while two others are no longer around. Fortunately for coach Fred Hoiberg, he can turn to another transfer in dynamic point guard Korie Lucious (Michigan State), who immediately takes the reins of the offense. Hoiberg has also brought in swingman Will Clyburn from Utah. Perhaps the biggest question facing the Cyclones has to do with their size down low, or lack thereof. Melvin Ejim stands at 6-6 and will take on much of the grunt work in the paint. He averaged 10.9 points and 7.1 rebounds in conference play last season. Iowa State also welcomes prized freshman recruit Georges Niang, a 6-7 forward who will be thrust into action right away. Key returnees from last year's squad include Chris Babb (7.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Tyrus McGee (7.7 ppg, .394 3-pointers).
Replacing ousted coach Jeff Capel amidst an NCAA investigation, Lon Kruger guided the Sooners to a 15-16 record in his debut season. With all five starters and most of the key members from that squad back for the 2012-13 campaign, OU is now looking to get over that .500 hump, and perhaps more. After all, Kruger has taken four different schools to the NCAA Tournament multiple times. He'll once again lean on sharpshooter Steven Pledger, who started 30 games a year ago and led the team with 16.2 ppg and 72 3-pointers (.416). Down low, Romero Osby (12.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Andrew Fitzgerald (12.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) also return after starting all 31 games. A couple of newcomers also figure into the mix. Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye will be a welcome addition to the front line. Two years ago as a sophomore in the Mountain West, he started all 31 games and averaged 12.0 points and a team-high 5.7 rebounds. Freshman shooting guard Buddy Hield will also see the floor. Kruger is maybe a year or two away from really putting his stamp on the program with time to recruit, but OU certainly appears headed in the right direction and is capable of contending this season.
Coming off an 18-15 season, the Horned Frogs aren't ready to contend for a title in their new conference just yet, but they are building toward that goal. Trent Johnson, who takes over for Jim Christian as head coach, is the right man for the job. Johnson had success in previous stops at LSU (2008-12), Stanford (2004-08) and Nevada (1999-2004). However, the roster he inherits at TCU isn't exactly Tournament ready. Kyan Anderson averaged 8.3 ppg last year as a freshman on the strength of 36 percent shooting from beyond the arc, although he shot just 41 percent from the field. The Horned Frogs will need more from Anderson in his sophomore campaign. Senior Garlon Green, a 6-7 forward, is the top returning scorer (9.9 ppg) but has not proven capable of shouldering the offensive load. Amric Fields (9.6 ppg) earned MWC Sixth Man of the Year honors last year as a sophomore and will step into a more prominent role. Still, replacing top players J.R. Cadot and Hank Thorns will be a difficult task in the much tougher Big 12.
Bob Huggins is back in the Big 12, albeit with one of the youngest teams in the nation. On the surface, the Mountaineers figure to struggle to replace All-Big East power forward Kevin Jones and second-leading scorer Truck Bryant. However, the arrival of La Salle transfer Aaric Murray should soften the blow. Murray, a talented 6-10 center, averaged 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for the Explorers in 2010-11. Joining him down low is 6-11 senior Deniz Kilicli, the team's top returning scorer (10.7 ppg) and rebounder (5.3 rpg). Kilicli started 32 games last season and shot 50.4 percent from the floor. Sophomore point guard Jabarie Hinds (7.4 ppg) heads up the backcourt replacing Bryant, while Dayton transfer Juwan Staten adds some depth at guard. Gary Browne (6.5 ppg) also earned some valuable starting experience last season. Ultimately, the Mountaineers are feeling out not just a new conference, but also a new identity with the offense no longer filtering through Jones in the paint. A finish in the .500 neighborhood sounds like a reasonable expectation after last year's squad went 19-14.
Citing health concerns, Billy Gillispie resigned as head coach in September, although there were also allegations of player mistreatment. Chris Walker, who served as associate head coach last season, takes over for Gillispie. However, turning around an 8-23 team on the fly is certainly no easy task, particularly when a half-dozen players have since left the program. In their place, the Red Raiders have a slew of new faces, including four junior college transfers. Sophomore forward Jordan Tolbert is something of an elder statesman after leading the team in scoring (11.5 ppg) and rebounding (5.7 rpg) as a freshman. True freshman Josh Gray likely steps into a starting role at point guard. Fellow freshman Wannah Bail, Gillispie's prized recruit, left campus after one semester. Simply stated, the Red Raiders, who won just one conference game a year ago, will need a lot to break their way in order to stay out of the Big 12 cellar.