Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart will battle for Big 12 (and possibly national) POY honors this season. (AP)

2013-14 Big 12 Preview: Wiggin’ out? Smart money’s on KU and OSU for a battle royale

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

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

Every season, the Big 12 story line starts out as “who can dethrone Kansas?” Usually, hope comes from one of two sources: either KU graduates a stalwart class, leaving a seemingly unbridgeable experience gap, or another program in the league assembles a quality group that seems primed for the league title. This season, both happened, as the Jayhawks lost their entire starting lineup, headlined by Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey. Then Marcus Smart elected to stay in Stillwater, making Oklahoma State into the best team in the league. So what does Bill Self do? He goes out and signs Andrew Wiggins, a polite, mind-bendingly athletic Canadian who’s a lock to go No. 1 in the next NBA draft; a guy who’s being casually mentioned in the same breath with Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

That sets us up for a fantastic season. Even the Big 12 media don’t see a clear favorite. Kansas and Oklahoma State each garnered 77 overall votes in the annual preseason poll, and each landed five first-place votes. It’s a tie that can only be broken on the court.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky has the most NBA prospects, Kansas has The One: Bill Self has never embraced the one-and-done phenomenon to the degree that John Calipari has, but he seems to be learning how to pick his spots. This is a young, talented Kansas team that may take a little time to develop, but the presence of Andrew Wiggins in Lawrence will be, quite literally, a game changer.

2. Oklahoma State can put an end to KU’s dominance: Marcus Smart said it best, regarding Andrew Wiggins: “I’m not saying he can’t do it, but he hasn’t done it yet.” Smart has done it, averaging 15.4 points, 5.8 boards, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals for a 24-win team last year. With an experienced high-quality lineup around him – LeBryan Nash, Phil Forte, Markel Brown et al – Smart has the tools to lead the Cowboys to the pinnacle of the league and beyond.

source: AP
Isaiah Austin leads the Big 12’s most dangerous inside attack. (AP)

3. Baylor’s got the inside track: Much of the excitement surrounding KU and OSU is centered on wing players. In Waco, it’s the muscle inside that will bring the pain. The Bears earned praise as our No. 4 frontcourt earlier this preseason, which makes them a force to be reckoned with, not only in the Big 12, but nationally.

4. Tubby’s in Lubb(ock): Texas Tech has had a rough… existence. Basketball-wise, the past decade has brought the program into the national eye, often for the wrong reasons. Bobby Knight resurrected his career in Lubbock, then handed things over to his son for a short-lived head coaching debut. Billy Gillispie took his second chance and drove his career and the program all the way off the rails. Now the reins have been handed to the even-keeled, title-toting Tubby Smith. He’s the right guy to keep things chill in Lubbock, but can he bring the noise when it’s needed?

5. Rick Barnes in danger of becoming a Texas Ex: Let me state this in no uncertain terms: Longhorn basketball was an afterthought before Barnes took over. A 2003 Final Four appearance turned that around, and Kevin Durant’s one year in Austin made Texas a high-profile destination program for some of the nation’s top one-and-done talent in recent seasons. Somehow, all that talent is resulting in diminishing returns; the Longhorns missed the tournament entirely last season, and haven’t made the second weekend of the Big Dance since 2008. Nowhere else to lay that but on Barnes’ doorstep.

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)

Andrew Wiggins may have the last laugh, but Smart is just so well positioned to make the most of his talent. He exhibited genius last season, he’s surrounded by experienced talent in Stillwater and he’ll be the guy with the ball in his hands. I’ll hand him this honor by the slimmest of margins, with full confidence that he’ll run with it.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM:

  • G/F Andrew Wiggins (Kansas): Will Wiggins make me look foolish for making him POY 1b? I like his chances. Bill Self does a great job of integrating talent into a team concept, but Wiggins will stand out in a big way.
  • C Isaiah Austin (Baylor): Austin tallied eleven double-doubles last season, and he’s in line to improve on those numbers. With a forest of big men to share the load, and Brady Heslip creating space with his long-range jumper, I like Ike to destroy some rims this season.
  • G Markel Brown (Oklahoma State): Allow me to quote former CBT dunk aficionado Troy Machir: “Markel Brown is a freak athlete, a composer of beautiful yet precise violence, and has very little regard for human life.” When someone dunks so hard that officials have to eject him from the game to protect the innocent, he’s kind of a big deal.
  • F Melvin Ejim (Iowa State): Ejim is almost a prototype of what Fred Hoiberg is doing in Ames. Standing just 6-foot-6, Ejim tallied fifteen double-doubles last season while also stretching the floor with his shooting touch. Ejim gives the Cyclones a puncher’s chance every night out in the Big 12.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G Shane Southwell (Kansas State)
  • F Corey Jefferson (Baylor)
  • F Perry Ellis (Kansas)
  • G/F LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State)
  • C Joel Embiid (Kansas)

BREAKOUT STAR: Wayne Selden (Kansas)

In any other season, Selden would be the toast of Lawrence, Kansas. The presence of Wiggins means this likely lottery pick is actually being overlooked to some degree. Physical and quick, Selden can be the complete package for Bill Self, and his playmaking ability, level head and monster work ethic should make the freshman a factor for the Jayhawks sooner rather than later.

source: AP
What has Rick Barnes done for Texas lately? (AP)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Rick Barnes (Texas)

As laid out earlier in this article, Barnes – the longest-tenured coach in the Big 12 by a wide margin – helped make Texas hoops into a household name. He’s rested on his laurels long enough, however. It’s Big Dance or Bust for Barnes this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …: Can Kansas and Oklahoma State both get No. 1 seeds?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: OSU and Kansas will definitely meet twice, and probably three times this season. This is proof that the Universe is not cold and aloof.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 12: Kansas vs. Duke (in Chicago)
  • December 6: Baylor vs. Kentucky (in Arlington, TX)
  • December 10: Kansas at Florida
  • December 14: Kansas at New Mexico
  • December 21: Oklahoma St. vs. Colorado (in Las Vegas)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kansas: Until the streak is finally broken, this spot is reserved for the Jayhawks.
2. Oklahoma State: Really more of a co-number-one, but Travis Ford has to pull all the right strings to unseat Kansas.
3. Baylor: Overshadowed, but definitely primed to pull some upsets.
4. Iowa State: The Mayor has done an amazing job with transfers and undersized forwards. We don’t see that changing much this season.
5. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger is patiently rebuilding the Sooners, and he’ll likely notch a couple of upsets this season.
6. Kansas State: Graduation hurt this squad, but the backcourt of Spradling and Southwell gives the Wildcats a fighting chance.
7. West Virginia: Huggy Bear’s troops need to make a concerted effort to stay out of the doghouse and on the court this season.
8. Texas: What more can we say? It’s a make-or-break season in Austin.
9. TCU: The Horned Frogs could again play spoiler this year, but they’re hoping for more.
10. Texas Tech: Even Tubby Smith will need some time to rebuild this program in total disarray.

Self pays freshman Jackson a major compliment

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
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Freshman phenom production under Bill Self has been something of a contentious topic. Many fault the coach, who has won one national title and 12-straight Big 12 championships, for not developing one-and-done talent to their fullest potential during their single-season stays in Lawrence. Cliff Alexander and Cheick Diallo are Exhibit 1-A and 1-B for this argument in recent years.

Whatever outside criticism there is (Andrew Wiggins did go No. 1 overall just 2 years ago, after all), Self isn’t shying away from hyping the latest freshman with big expectations to come to KU. When asked who the greatest athlete of all-time is at the school’s annual Tradition Night last week, Self had a simple, if tongue-and-cheek, response.

“I’ll say Josh Jackson,” Self said of the the 6-foot-8 shooting guard ranked No. 1 in his class, according to Lawrence Journal-World.

With others answering with the likes of Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali, it’s pretty fair to say Self was playing to the crowd with the answer, but it’s still telling that he was willing to deliver such a sound bite, even if it was before a welcoming audience. Self didn’t try to seriously depress expectations for Wiggins, a player Jackson is often compared to, and it looks like he won’t for Jackson as well.

Jackson, though, won’t have the burden Wiggins had as there’s one of the country’s best backcourts in Frank Mason II and Devonte Graham to help shoulder the workload for the Jayhawks.

 

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

John Swofford
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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

The Champions Classic renewed through 2019

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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The Champions Classic is back, baby!!!

On Wednesday, the four schools that participate in the event — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State — announced that they have signed deals to extend the life of the doubleheader for another three years.

This is terrific news. The Champions Classic is always the best early-season event of the season, an annual double-header that always ends up putting together two of the best non-conference games in packed NBA arenas. This year, it features Duke, the consensus preseason No. 1 team in the country, squaring off with Kansas, who is a consensus top three team with the No. 1 freshman in the class, Josh Jackson, on their roster, in one game.

The other game? Kentucky, the third consensus top three team nationally, going up against Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who will be, at worst, a top 15 team in the preseason polls.

So yeah, we’re going to get a pair of sensational basketball games in Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th. MSG also just so happens to be the best arena to watch a great neutral site basketball game.

It’s going to be awesome.

There’s only one possible way to make it better: turn it into a two-day event, with the winners squaring off for the Champions Classic title the following night.

Make it happen.

Anyway, here’s the schedule:

Nov. 14, 2017 (United Center, Chicago)
Kansas vs. Kentucky
Duke vs. Michigan State

Nov. 13, 2018 (Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis)
Michigan State vs. Kansas
Duke vs. Kentucky

Nov. 12, 2019 (Madison Square Garden, New York)
Kansas vs. Duke
Michigan State vs. Kentucky

Hartford makes smart decision to allow ‘Pancake’ Thomas transfer

AP Photo
Hartford coach John Gallagher, AP Photo
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Another talented graduate transfer has hit the market.

Cleveland ‘Pancake’ Thomas — that’s a helluva name, isn’t it? — has been granted a release by Hartford and will be allowed to transfer to another program for his fifth season.

“Our biggest priority for Cleveland was that he graduate from the University of Hartford with a valuable degree,” Hartford head coach John Gallagher said in a statement released to ESPN after some speculation that Thomas wasn’t going to be given a release. “That happened. Beyond wishing him the very best, we don’t comment on other program’s players. We are very excited about our group and the upcoming season.”

The term “release” is needed here because Thomas, a 6-foot-3 guard who averaged 18.9 points and shot 42.6 percent from three this past season, spent his first two years of eligibility at New Mexico. A graduate transfer exception is granted to any player making their first transfer after receiving an undergraduate degree. But since Pancake had already transferred once, he was only eligible to apply for a graduate transfer waiver, which the school he is leaving must support.

Remember the saga of Todd O’Brien? He tried to leave St. Joseph’s to spend his fifth-year at UAB but made headlines everywhere when Phil Martelli wouldn’t let it happen? That’s because O’Brien had started his career at Bucknell and needed Martelli to support the waiver.

Gallagher could have done the same to Pancake.

He made the right decision not to — Martelli has enough coaching cache to withstand the onslaught on criticism he received, I’m not sure that is true for Gallagher — even if it will result in Thomas playing elsewhere, hence the cold-hearted nature of that statement.

Anyway, Thomas never averaged more than 3.9 points at New Mexico, so while he’s a tantalizing prospect for programs that are dying for perimeter depth and shooting, this isn’t exactly a kid that’s going to launch himself into the NBA Draft’s first round by jumping up to a higher level.

Shawn Forrest named assistant coach for Jankovich at SMU

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 22:  Head coach Larry Brown (L) and associate head coach Tim Jankovich of the Southern Methodist Mustangs look on during the team's game against the Kent State Golden Flashes during the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena on December 22, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Southern Methodist won 90-74. The game marks Brown's return from a nine-game suspension.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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DALLAS (AP) Shawn Forrest has been named an assistant basketball coach at SMU, his third school since the end of last season.

Mustangs coach Tim Jankovich announced Forrest’s hiring Tuesday.

Forrest spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Western Kentucky before head coach Ray Harper resigned. Forrest was named a UTSA assistant in May, but two weeks later left for Louisiana Tech before the unexpected opening at SMU.

Jankovich was SMU’s associate head coach before the abrupt resignation last month of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown. Forrest fills the open assistant spot created on the staff when Jankovich was promoted to head coach.

Before Western Kentucky, Forrest was an assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette, North Texas, Arkansas State and Florida A&M.