Big 12 Conference Preview
“It’s Kansas’ world, we’re just living in it.” That has to be the mantra of fans of Big 12 schools, whether they like that idea or not. Kansas enters the 2016-17 season having won at least a share of the Big 12 crown for 12 consecutive years. As is often the case, the Jayhawks are the preseason favorites to win the conference this year, their fifth consecutive year of being tops in the preseason coaches’ poll. Not only does Kansas claim the top spot in the Big 12, but it should represent the conference as a top contender for the national championship, having been ranked #3 nationally in the Coaches’ Poll released last week.
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While the Big 12 does lose star players like Buddy Hield and Perry Ellis, the league is still very deep and very talented despite it being a transitional type of year for every school not named Kansas. Kansas is the clear front-runner to win their 13th consecutive title but multiple other teams are projected to make the NCAA Tournament and could play spoiler for Kansas’ crown. West Virginia, Baylor, Texas and Iowa State are all very equal and could finish in any slot behind Kansas. They should all be able to contend throughout the non-conference and conference season, and as we know from last year, anything can happen in the Big 12 when a team goes on the road. Even the lower rung of Big 12 teams sport some intrigue for the season as Texas Tech (Chris Beard), Oklahoma State (Brad Underwood) and TCU (Jamie Dixon) are each led by new head coaches this season.
Below is a run-down of each Big 12 team’s season outlook and my predictions for their order of finish.
1. Kansas Jayhawks (Last Year: 30-4; 15-3 in conference, 1st place)
KenPom (overall): 3
As discussed above, not only will Kansas be a Big 12 title contender, but they will also be a national title contender. Kansas will be led by two seniors guards in Frank Mason and Devonte Graham, both who were named to the Preseason All-Big 12 Team. The guards combined for 24.2 PPG and 8.3 APG last season and will look to build upon that in their senior seasons. Kansas will also employ Josh Jackson, the top-ranked prospect in the freshman recruiting class. The 6’7” Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year will be an NBA lottery pick but will be relied upon while he is at Kansas to be an up-and-down transition player with elite defensive capabilities. Carlton Bragg, sophomore forward and heralded recruit from last season, will also see increased minutes and hope to bring Kansas its first national title since 2008.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers (Last Year: 26-8; 13-5 in conference, 2nd place)
KenPom (overall): 20
Despite no players being named to the All-Big 12 team, West Virginia appears to be Kansas’ main competition for the Big 12 throne. While the Mountaineers do lose leading scorer Jaysean Paige and rebound-machine Devin Williams, Bob Huggins will again employ an athletic crew that will look to score transition buckets and play elite defense like they have in years past. That pressure defense that has made “Press Virginia” famous should give the Mountaineers many opportunities to tally big road wins throughout the season.
3. Baylor Bears (Last Year: 22-11; 10-8 in conference, 5th place)
KenPom (overall): 25
Baylor loses a key cog in the middle as Rico Gathers will no longer be the elite rebounder for the Bears. Also gone is Taurean Prince who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the 1st round. Baylor will look for All-Big 12 junior forward Johnathan Motley to carry the load in the scoring department. A new face that should help to bear that responsibility is Miami transfer Manu Lecomte, who shot 46.5% from behind the arc in his sophomore season at the U. Baylor fans must be dreaming up scenarios to get him the ball, similar to sharpshooter Brady Heslip just a few seasons ago.
4. Texas Longhorns (Last Year: 20-12; 11-7 in conference, 4th place)
KenPom (overall): 45
I have the utmost amount of confidence that Shaka Smart’s Texas team will eventually push Kansas for the Big 12 title. I still think this Longhorns team is a few years away from doing that, but the team is certainly capable of making back-to-back tournament appearances under Smart. Although leading scorer Isaiah Taylor mysteriously opted to enter the NBA Draft (he went undrafted) as well as their other two leading scorers being gone, the Longhorns do add Jarrett Allen, a 6’11” freshman who was not only listed as an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention but is also a member of the watch list for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award. Expect him, Kerwin Roach (7.5 PPG) and Eric Davis Jr. (7.4 PPG) to lead the way for the Longhorns this season.
5. Iowa State Cyclones (Last Year: 121-11; 10-8 in conference, 6th place)
KenPom (overall): 26
Georges Niang is gone but the Cyclones do return senior point guard Monte Morris, who was named the Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. Morris is the top returning scorer in the league this season and also led the Big 12 in assists (6.9) and minutes played (38). No other Cyclone started more than 28 games last season, so it will be up to Morris to be the star of the show in Ames. However, experience is on the Cyclones side as seven seniors should expect to see a majority of minutes for Iowa State. Senior wing Deonte Burton should factor in to that and be a nice secondary option behind Morris for the Cyclones.
6. Oklahoma Sooners (Last Year: 25-7; 12-6 in conrerence, 3rd place)
KenPom (overall): 27
It is certainly a rebuilding year for Lon Kruger and Company as it will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace what Buddy Hield did for the 2015-16 Sooners. Gone with him are underrated Isaiah Cousins and forward Ryan Spangler. That trio combined for 47.9 PPG. In total, Oklahoma loses five of its nine leading scorers, so there is a huge chunk of points and minutes to be doled out elsewhere. Guard Jordan Woodard who shot 45.5 from 3-piont range is back, as is junior forward Khadeem Lattin. Kruger will also rely on top-100 freshman Kristian Doolittle, who could be an impact scoring freshman. Either way, Kruger will have his work cut out for him as the Sooners use this year to rebuild.
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders (Last Year: 19-12; 9-9 in conference, 7th place)
KenPom (overall): 42
Texas Tech made the NCAAs for the first time since 2007 this past year and now has a new man at the helm as Chris Beard was hired from Arkansas-Little Rock after his team had a highly successful 30-5 season. Like he did at UALR, Beard brings in 4 transfer players for immediate help this season. All four players scored above 12 PPG at their previous stops, though that isn’t saying much when two of them are from JUCO schools and the other two are from Quinnipiac and Arkansas State, both mid-majors. If the team gels and Beard’s transfers pan out like they did for him last year, the Red Raiders could be a dark horse to finish near the top of the Big 12 standings.
8. Oklahoma State Cowboys (Last Year: 12-20; 3-15 in conference, 9th place)
KenPom (overall): 6
Brad Underwood is the new coach for the Cowboys and he welcomes back two injured guards from last year, point guard Jawun Evans and shooting guard Phil Forte. Elite guard play wins games in college basketball and with those two healthy and in the fold, Underwood and his team will be capable of winning some tough Big 12 ballgames. Where the Cowboys will struggle will be on the glass and around the rim, as only Mitchell Solomon is a real threat taller than 6’7” down low for OSU. The backcourt may be great, but the team’s frontcourt will be the exact opposite.
9. Kansas State Wildcats (Last Year: 17-16; 5-13 in conference, 8th place)
KenPom (overall): 44
Rumors have been swirling since before last season regarding Bruce Weber’s time as head coach in Manhattan and he will continue to be on the chopping block throughout this year. Many fans wanted to hire Brad Underwood, who actually ended up at Big 12 rival school Oklahoma State. Since joining the Wildcats four season ago (when they were a 4 seed in Weber’s first season as coach), Kansas State has continued a downward trend that will likely continue through this season. Weber will need to replace his leading scorer (Justin Edwards) and big man in the middle (Stephen Hurt). Weber does bring in 3 3-star freshmen but that may not be enough to keep Weber as the K State coach heading into next year.
10. Texas Christian Horned Frogs (Last Year: 12-21; 2-16 in conference, 10th place)
KenPom (overall): 66
TCU has finished in last place in the Big 12 three of four years as a conference member. They’ve only won 8 games in conference play. The Horned Frogs were able to hire alum Jamie Dixon away from Pitt, and they will hope that a fresh face, and someone who will want to see the basketball program truly succeed, will lift them to conference contention. Dixon could very well be building a successful program but it will not be a quick-fix for TCU, as they return only one producing senior. Dixon will rely on two top-100 JUCO transfers in Vladimir Brodziansky and Malique Trent as well as 4-star freshman Jaylen Fisher and Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson. Dixon will be given plenty of time and resources in order to get TCU to compete with the Big 12 elite, but it will likely take a recruiting cycle for him to get there.