Pistol Pete courtesy of Oklahoma State Athletics

Conference Catchup: Best Cowboy up if you want to beat Kansas

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Big 12 Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Kansas

Yep. Again. You may feel like one of these other Big 12 programs is about due to win the league, but this sure isn’t looking like the year to bet the ranch on it. Jeff Withey has become a force majeure under his own basket, and Ben McLemore is the enfant terrible who collects outlet passes and embarrasses his elders any chance he gets. They’re such an effective one-two punch that I had to speak in tongues to do it justice. Surrounded by steady, capable upperclassmen like Travis Releford, Kevin Young and Elijah Johnson, the dynamic duo doesn’t even have to do it all.

Contenders: Oklahoma State is coming on fast and strong, with a super-solid nucleus of Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte. Gallagher-Iba’s going to be a miserable place for opponents to visit this season, and quite a few will want to roll up the welcome mat when the Cowboys take to the road as well. It’s not just about offensive fireworks, either. The Cowboys are playing elite-level defense as well.

Kansas State is rolling in their first season under Bruce Weber, but we’ll hold off on getting too excited about that just yet. Baylor needs to locate a little defense to go with a high-powered offense, but they’re very much in this race. Iowa State seems to be lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike.

Biggest Surprise: Kansas State

We’ve all come to expect some pretty uneven results from Bruce Weber, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that his Wildcats were chosen to finish fifth in the league after he took over for the hastily-departed Frank Martin. So far, he’s wisely played to his team’s strengths, keeping them in the top-25 of defensive efficiency and taking offensive opportunities as they come. Michigan and Gonzaga were able to crack the code, but Florida was not, and the Wildcats carry a national ranking into the new year.

Biggest Disappointment: Texas

It’s popular to lay blame for the Longhorns’ deficiencies on the NCAA, for not letting Myck Kabongo play most of this season. That seems a bit naive. Great as Kabongo is as a point guard, shouldn’t Rick Barnes — who’s coached in the Big 12 since 1998 — be able to get a little more out of the talent he’s accumulated in Austin this season? The guy used to be able to win 20+ games with Dogus Balbay and a spool of baling wire.

Player of the Year: Ben McLemore, Kansas

McLemore’s situation last season had to be galling to Bill Self. He made it to the national title game with one of his best players sitting out a season. Bygones are bygones, however, and now Self has a nominal freshman who spent a year getting his house in order and stepped on the court ready to dominate this season. McLemore can drive and dunk or splash a three, making him exceptionally hard to guard, and he creates his own opportunities on defense, swiping 1.2 steals per game. This may be his only season in Lawrence, but it’s bound to be a memorable one.

Best Freshman: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

I know. That’s two freshmen. But they’re both worthy of a nod. Smart caught the nation’s attention with this stat line against NC State: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 4 blocks. The only team that’s really slowed him down since is Missouri State, by being so inept that Travis Ford decided to sit Smart for half the game rather than humiliate the Bears any further. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the McLemore/Smart battles coming our way this season.

Three Predictions

  • Texas will bounce back. The offense is struggling, granted. But Texas is playing lights-out defense, coming in third nationally in defensive efficiency according to Kenpom. That includes a DI-best perimeter defense. All it will take is for one or two things to start clicking offensively, and this team will be a threat.
  • TCU will win a single league game. Trent Johnson will start his first season in the Big 12 off with a win over Texas Tech, then proceed to lose every game thereafter. What the Big 12 is, the basketball Horned Frogs ain’t ready for.
  • Hardin-Simmons will wish they had asked for more money. Baylor travels to Kansas on January 14, then hosts Oklahoma State on the 21st. In-between, they’ll paste the tar out of the poor, frightened Hardin-Simmons Cowboys of DIII for no apparent reason except that they can. I’m with Harten – can’t we just end these shenanigans?

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Kansas*
2. Oklahoma State*
3. Kansas State*
4. Baylor*
5. Iowa State*
6. Texas
7. Oklahoma
8. West Virginia
9. Texas Tech
10. Texas Christian

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

South Dakota State gets two commits

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Tuesday was a busy and productive one for South Dakota State on the recruiting trail.

The Jackrabbits secured two 2017 commitments from the state of Wisconsin in Ryan Krueger and Alex Arians, a source tells NBCSports.com.

Krueger is a 6-foot-5 wing player from New London, Wisc. while Arians is a 6-foot-4 guard from Madison, Wisc., who also held an offer from Wright State, which is coached by former SDSU coach Scott Nagy. Both players spend their summers playing for the Wisconsin Swing grassroots program.

The pair make it a trio of commits for the Jackrabbits in 2017 with another Wisconsinite, Alou Dillon, pledging to first-year Jackrabbits coach T.J. Otzelberger, himself a Wisconsin native, earlier this summer.

South Dakota State went 26-8 last year and the bulk of the team that made the NCAA tournament last year, including sophomore Mike Daum, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a freshman.

Incoming Gator freshman ineligible for upcoming season

Mike White
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Florida will need to wait a year before seeing 6-foot-11 recruit Gorjok Gak playing games for the Gators.

The NCAA ruled that the incoming freshman will be able to enroll at Florida this year and practice with the team, but will be ineligible for games this season, the school announced Tuesday.

Should he meet all his progress marks during his freshman year, he’ll have three seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2017-18.

Gak’s eligibility issue centered on his playing games during his postgraduate year at Victory Rock Prep, according to his coach there.

“Following his graduate year from Australia, he was supposed to play from December to December,” Loren Jackson told the Gainesville Sun, “but instead played from December until the following May.”

Gak originally signed with Oklahoma State, but de-committed following Travis Ford’s firing in Stillwater this past spring. Gak averaged 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds last season at Victory Rock in Bradenton, Fla.

Florida went 21-15 last season under first-year coach Mike White.

Video: Coach K talks Team USA with Dan Patrick

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Team USA has blown through its competition in its first two exhibition games ahead of next month’s Olympics in Rio De Janeiro with wins over Argentina and China by a combined a combined 96 points.

Tonight, they’ll have a rematch against China, which they defeated 106-57 on Sunday, but it will also serve as the unofficial debut of Kevin Durant in front of his new hometown fans with the game taking place at the home of the Golden State Warriors, Oracle Arena, in Oakland.

“Excited for Kevin tonight to make his debut in front of the Golden State fans,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday on the Dan Patrick Show. “He got a great reception (Monday) at a function. He was, as he should be, warmly welcomed.”

The team has been together since July 18 in the run-up to its first Olympic contest on Aug. 6 against China. For Krzyzewski, a couple of players have made an impression already.

“You see these guys on TV,” the Duke coach said, “but I don’t get a chance to see them in person. (Clipper) DeAndre Jordan is such a good player. A great athlete, a great guy. To see him run, defend, holy mackerel. He’ s really good.

“I haven’t seen Paul George in two years when he had that horrific (leg) injury in Las Vegas at one of our camps, and he’s so darn good. On defense, tremendous.”

It’s on the defensive side of the floor that Coach K believes his team can really make its mark even with the incredible collection of offensive talent the roster has.

“We’re very athletic so defensively we could be a very good defensive team,” he said. “We’ve shown a willingness to want to do that in the first two games.”

As usual, Team USA is the prohibitive favorite to bring back gold for the third consecutive Olympics, which will be Coach K’s last at the helm after taking over after the 2004 bronze medal debacle.

“I’m excited about the team,” he said. “It’s a short time. to see our guys working so hard and they get along so well, I’m excited about the team we might be in Rio. We’ll use tonight to get a little bit better.

“I kind of have the blinders on. You only have a short time. It’s a little over a month, and we want to win the gold medal in Rio.”

Rose’s transfer to BYU becomes official

Ge'Lawn Guyn, L.J. Rose
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His commitment came more than a month ago, but L.J. Rose’s transfer to BYU became official Tuesday.

The former Houston guard was officially announced as an immediately-eligible graduate transfer by BYU on Tuesday. He’ll bring much needed help to a Cougars backcourt that lost Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer to graduation and Jordan Chatman and Jack Toolson to transfers.

“L.J. will add great experience and talent to our guard line,” BYU coach Dave Rose said in a statement released by BYU. “We’re excited about the leadership he will bring on the court and in the locker room. He will make us a deeper and more versatile team.”

As a junior, L.J. Rose averaged 9.8 points and 5.3 assists, but a foot injury limited him to just two games last season and allowed him to receive a medical redshirt and the opportunity to be a graduate transfer for his final collegiate season. He’ll be a big part of BYU’s attempt to build on last year’s 26-11 season as a former top-100 recruit, who began his career at Baylor, on a team in need of an infusion of talent after absorbing the losses from last year’s roster.

His father, Lynden, Sr., was a teammate of BYU coach Dave Rose at Houston during the program’s Phi Slama Jama era.

UCLA loses key forward to professional ranks

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 02:  Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks steals the ball from Jonah Bolden #43 of the UCLA Bruins during a 76-68 Ducks win at Pauley Pavilion on March 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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UCLA announced on Tuesday afternoon that Jonah Bolden will be forgoing his college eligibility to turn professional.

“Jonah Bolden has informed the coaching staff that he has opted to play professionally this season,” the release said.

Bolden is a versatile, 6-foot-10 forward with some NBA potential. In his only season playing with the Bruins, he averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 boards while starting 11 games. His ability on the defensive end of the floor was something the UCLA staff was counting on this season.

A sophomore this past season, Bolden was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA as a freshman, meaning that he was allowed to be on scholarship and in class but could not play during the 2014-15 season.

He had two seasons of eligibility remaining. Without Bolden, T.J Leaf will likely be counted on to play more minutes at the four.