NCAA Basketball Tournament - Kansas v North Carolina

Big 12 Preview: Death, taxes and Kansas winning the league?

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

When it comes to the Big 12 there’s been one constant in the standings of late: Kansas at the head of the pack. Bill Self’s program has won eight straight Big 12 regular season titles, and even with the departure of Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor it’s reached a point where you simply pick the Jayhawks to win the league until someone proves otherwise.

Seniors Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey will be asked to lead a large but talented group of newcomers, and if they can do that a ninth straight title is well within Kansas’ reach. But they won’t lack for challengers either, with Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears looking to be the team best equipped to take down Kansas. Point guard Pierre Jackson was one of the best lead guards in the country last season, and if the young bigs are ready to contribute Baylor will once again factor into the Big 12 race.

Kansas State has a new head coach in Bruce Weber but a number of their key contributors from last season are back, and there’s reason for optimism at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia as well. And if Iowa State can properly account for the many things that Royce White provided last season the Cyclones will be heard from as well. Here’s a look at the Big 12 in 2012-13.

Five Things to Know

1. Realignment. The Big 12 will once again be a ten-team league, but replacing Missouri and Texas A&M (both are now in the SEC) are TCU and West Virginia. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins coached a season in the Big 12 at Kansas State before returning to his alma mater, and Trent Johnson takes over at TCU after coaching the last four years at LSU.

2. Only three players who made the league’s all-conference teams at the end of last season are back in 2012-13: Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, Kansas center Jeff Withey and Kansas State shooting guard Rodney McGruder.

3. Texas Tech ended the Billy Gillispie saga this fall, with Chris Walker gets the promotion to interim head coach. Luckily for the Red Raiders forward Jordan Tolbert, who led the team in scoring and rebounding last season, returns for his sophomore campaign but it’s going to be a tough 2012-13 season for a team that doesn’t match up talent-wise in the deep Big 12.

4. Kansas returns three starters from last season’s national runner-up (Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Jeff Withey), but outside of those three the cupboard is bare from an experience standpoint. Freshmen Perry Ellis and Andrew White are two of the newcomers expected to contribute immediately and the same goes for Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor, who had to sit out all of last season for academic issues.

5. Oklahoma State still has the ability to be a promising team this season, thanks in part to the arrival of freshman Marcus Smart. But with Brian Williams (wrist) done for the season and J.P. Olukemi both recovering from a torn ACL and hoping to be cleared by the NCAA to play this season there are questions in regards to backcourt depth.

Impact Newcomers

Ben McLemore and Perry Ellis (Kansas)
The Jayhawks are going to need contributions from their freshmen in order to win a ninth consecutive Big 12 title, and McLemore and Ellis are two of the key first-year players. McLemore has the advantage of being a part of the program last season even though he wasn’t cleared to play, and the versatile shooting guard was a Top 20 prospect coming out of high school. Ellis was one of the top prospects in the 2012 class and should earn major minutes with Thomas Robinson now in the NBA.

Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers (Baylor)
Baylor lost a lot in the paint from last season, but two of the reasons why the Bears are seen by many as Kansas’ biggest challenger are Austin Gathers. Austin is a 7-footer who is more comfortable facing up, and he’s got range out beyond the three-point arc. As for Gathers, his frame makes him an incredibly difficult match-up for opponents and should serve the Bears well this season.

Georges Niang (Iowa State)
Two of Niang’s high school teammates at both the Tilton School and BABC: Nerlens Noel and Wayne Selden. That led to far too many people overlooking the Cyclone freshman, who would simply go about his business in regards to both points and rebounds. Fred Hoiberg has himself a player who could eventually be an All-Big 12 player before his career ends.

Amath M’Baye (Oklahoma)
One thing that Oklahoma sorely needed last season was depth, especially in the front court. Enter M’Baye, who began his college career at Wyoming and is expected to have a significant impact in his first season of play at Oklahoma. As a sophomore the 6-9 M’Baye averaged 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, and he’ll form a nice partnership with senior Romero Osby inside.

Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten (West Virginia)
With Truck Bryant and Kevin Jones out of eligibility the Mountaineers needed players ready to step up. So how about two experienced transfers from the Atlantic 10? Murray, who began his career at La Salle, was a bit of an enigma at times in Philadelphia but there’s no denying his talent. And former Dayton point guard Staten is capable of hitting the ground running this season.

Other newcomers of note: F Will Clyburn and G Korie Lucious (Iowa State), C Aaron Durley (TCU), G Javan Felix and C Cameron Ridley (Texas), G L.J. Rose (Baylor), F Andrew White (Kansas).

Breakout Players

F Romero Osby (Oklahoma)
Osby averaged 12.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in his first season with the Sooners after starting his college career at Mississippi State. Even with the presence of M’Baye and senior guard Steven Pledger, Osby is talented enough to become an All-Big 12 player in his senior campaign.

C Jeff Withey (Kansas)
Withey is well-known, and his work on the defensive end was one reason why the Jayhawks were able to get to the Final Four. But with Robinson and Taylor gone there will be more on his plate offensively, something Withey prepared for this offseason. If Withey can adjust to the changes he’s a player who can earn All-America honors.

G Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State)
After Frank Martin left to take the head coaching job at South Carolina, there was some concern that Rodriguez would leave as well. But the point guard decided to remain in the Little Apple, and along with Rodney McGruder forms one of the best guard tandems in the Big 12. If Rodriguez can improve his turnover percentage (28% last season) there’s no doubt that the Wildcats can return to the NCAA tournament in Bruce Weber’s first season.

G Sheldon McClellan (Texas)
With J’Covan Brown gone who gets to assume the role of Texas’ primary scoring option on the wing? That will likely be McClellan, who averaged 11.3 points and shot 44.8% from the field in his freshman campaign. More will be asked of both he and Myck Kabongo as the Longhorns look to make a move in the Big 12 standings.

F Melvin Ejim (Iowa State)
No more Royce White, who was not only the Big 12’s top newcomer but also Iowa State’s leader in just about every statistical category. That’s an awful lot to replace and one player who will be asked to provide more is Ejim, who accounted for 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season. The Cyclones have other guys who can handle the distribution role (Korie Lucious being one) left vacant by White’s departure, but when it comes to rebounding Ejim should be first in line.

Coach under pressure: Travis Ford (Oklahoma State) 
To be fair Ford did lead the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament in each of his first two seasons in Stillwater. But if Oklahoma State were to miss the Big Dance for the third straight season with this group the natives may begin to ask questions. Unfortunately Oklahoma State lost their best perimeter defender in Brian Williams and there’s still no word on JP Olukemi’s appeal, but with the talent remaining Ford has a group that many will expect to earn an NCAA bid.

Player of the Year: PG Pierre Jackson (Baylor)  
Jackson hit the ground running in his first season in Waco, averaging 13.8 points and 5.9 assists per game in helping to lead the Bears to the Elite 8. With names such as Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller gone Baylor will be young inside, which likely means even more scoring responsibilities for Jackson on the perimeter. He’s more than capable of handling a heavier workload this season.

All-Conference Team 

G Pierre Jackson (Baylor)*
G Rodney McGruder (Kansas State)
G/F Le’Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State)
F Romero Osby (Oklahoma)
C Jeff Withey (Kansas)

Predicted Finish

1. Kansas– A lot of new pieces but three key veterans return, and at this point it’s difficult to pick anyone but the Jayhawks to win the conference
2. Baylor– The Bears lost an awful lot inside but the combination of a deep backcourt and some talented freshmen make Baylor the biggest threat to Kansas
3. Kansas State– Bruce Weber has a nice stable of talent at his disposal in his first season in Manhattan
4. Oklahoma State– the backcourt depth has taken a serious hit, but the presence of Marcus Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown make the Cowboys a tough out
5. West Virginia– Huggins has both Aaric Murray and Deniz Kilicli inside, and if Juwan Staten can mesh with the returning guards (including Jabarie Hinds) WVU will dance again
6. Texas– If the freshmen are able to contribute Rick Barnes has a team capable of finishing in the top half of the standings
7. Oklahoma– Lon Kruger wants his team play faster, and unlike last season the Sooners have the talent and depth needed to do so
8. Iowa State– Korie Lucious will run the point for the Cyclones, who will need to account for the departure of Royce White
9. TCU– Trent Johnson picked up a big win on the recruiting trail with Karviar Shepherd, but those wins will be few and far between on the court this season
10. 9. Texas Tech– Jordan Tolbert remaining in Lubbock may not be enough to get the Red Raiders out of the Big 12 cellar

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.