Eric Angevine

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Jeronne Maymon is ready to get back to the grind at Tennessee

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source: AP
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This will be an interesting season for Jeronne Maymon. NCAA rule changes have made defense something of a dirty word this year, and the Tennessee big man happens to play for Cuonzo Martin. That presents a bit of a dilemma.

“It’s definitely very hard to please him on defense,” Maymon told NBCSports via phone. “He really doesn’t care too much about offense. He says some nights your shots will be falling and some nights they won’t, so defense is your consistency every night.”

Maymon is jonesing for consistency this season. He sat out 2012-13 to rehab a nagging knee injury, and he logged very few minutes early in his career as he transferred from Marquette to Tennessee. The Vols were also in turmoil, making the transition from charismatic Bruce Pearl – the coach who coaxed Maymon to Knoxville in the first place – to the more taciturn Martin.

Maymon tries to see the positives in the meandering road he took to this final collegiate season.

“I don’t have as much on-court experience as other seniors, but I’ll tell you I gained a lot of knowledge just being on the bench as far as slowing the game down and getting the mental part,” he said. “Most fifth-year seniors get that mental capacity for processing the game down, but I really grew quite a bit from sitting on the sidelines just watching the game, just picking my coaches’ brains and talking to my players. I think that really helped me.”

A healthy Maymon is the missing piece that makes Tennessee a legitimate contender for the SEC crown, which will be hotly contested by past national title winners Kentucky and Florida as well this season. The strategic and tactical advantages of having Maymon back in the frontcourt alongside last season’s All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes should have Vols fans salivating.

“He and Jarnell are two of the better rebounders in college basketball, two of the most physical guys,” Cuonzo Martin told NBCSports by phone. “You can play those two guys as your four and your five and they feed off of each other. But he’s also a guy with tremendous leadership skills. Jarnell missed him most last season, just having another guy who can control the glass on the back side and draw some of the double-teams. So now Jarnelle becomes a better player with Jeronne back, because he learned how to play without him.”

Martin isn’t taking any chances, either. He has his dominant frontcourt tandem work over their understudies whenever possible. “We try to separate those guys as much in practice as we can, get them going against other guys so those guys can get the experience of how physical the game is played,” Martin said.

The combination of Stokes and Maymon landed at No. 6 on our preseason list of the game’s top backcourts, but the ranking is a bit precarious. If injuries strike, the bench can be a bit thin on big men. Junior college transfer Rawane Ndaiye, nicknamed “Pops”, will see a fair amount of time off the bench. Ndaiye has earned the confidence of his teammates the hard way.

“In practice it’s a lot more chaotic than in games, because coach doesn’t call any fouls; he lets you play. So Pops has shown a lot of poise,” Maymon said. “Him banging up against me and Jarnell has really shown how much he can withstand, and he can play ball.”

Tennessee’s strength extends beyond the frontcourt as well this season; an absolute must in a league featuring the Harrisons, Scottie Wilbekin and hot-shooting Marshall Henderson, amongst other perimeter terrors. Martin will look to Antonio Barton, who traversed the state as a transfer from Memphis to UT, to take some pressure off the inside players.

“You’re talking about a guy who can make shots and push the basketball,” Martin said. “He’s been in big games before and made big shots; he’s a career 40% three-point shooter. Those things help.”

Toss Barton in the mix with 6-foot-6 senior Jordan McRae, who averaged 15.7 points per game last season, and talented freshman Darius Thompson, and you’ll see a pattern emerging. Grit and brawn on the inside, deadly accuracy on the perimeter. It’s the classic basketball yin-yang. If the Vols get lucky and keep everyone out of the trainer’s room, this could be a special season in Knoxville.

It’ll be special for Jeronne Maymon no matter what. He knows this is his last go-round, and he can’t wait to get on the floor in front of a regular-season crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“The first game in front of our fans, being able to step back and hear all that noise and see that Tennessee orange, that’s when I’ll feel like I’m back,” Maymon said. “I’ll probably be very nervous, probably miss a couple of layups maybe turn the ball over once or twice, but I’m pretty sure I can get my feet wet and get back.”

The undercurrent of bold-faced honesty in the Tennessee program these days is refreshing. Maymon can acknowledge his rust, his fear and his potential mistakes because his coach sets a clear standard: you can screw up and be forgiven as long as you own it and learn from it.

source: AP
Cuonzo Martin cares about the grind. It’s as important to his team as it is to his morning coffee.

“The idea is to be perfect, but we always fall short of that,” Maymon said. “We might make some mistakes, but we know we’ll get that corrected as the year goes on. (Coach Martin) sets a standard. He doesn’t bend or waver on anything; once he puts his foot down, it’s set. That’s what keeps us players on balance. I really appreciate his consistency.”

Consistency is what this season will boil down to for the Vols. They start the season on the road against an always-dangerous Xavier team, and they’ll travel to face last year’s Final Four darling Wichita State as well. In the SEC, Maymon and company will battle big men like LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant III and Florida’s own terrible tandem of Will Yeguete and Patric Young. As if that weren’t bad enough, they have assigned dates with the uber-young and uber-talented Kentucky Wildcats to prepare for.

Maymon knows what’s coming, but he refuses to get caught up in the preps-to-pros hype.

“You can’t approach every game with the same mindset. You’ve got to kind of pick your poison with some teams, and some teams are better at one aspect of the game than others. I’m probably just more focused in on the night-in, night-out grind of each game.”

The grind: it’s not glamorous, but it gets the job done.

Kentucky needs super glue to avoid another letdown

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He doesn’t stand on tables and make speeches. He’s no lock to make a start or even see much in the way of minutes on an uber-talented roster, but Jarrod Polson will be a crucial part of Kentucky’s projected success this season. How does a former walk-on matter so much to a team full of future NBA lottery picks?

“I’ve been around the block a couple of times now,” Jarrod Polson told NBCSports by phone. “I’ve seen some successful seasons and some not-so-successful seasons. I’m just letting them know how hard we have to work to achieve our goals.”

The successful season would be 2012, when the Wildcats captured the national title in New Orleans, and sent six players into the NBA draft’s first round. Then there was last year’s team, which had no less talent, but stumbled to an NIT berth and a humiliating first-round road loss at Robert Morris.

What’s the difference between wild success and the letdown of missing the tournament? Where’s the magic ingredient?

“Definitely just working as hard as we can in practice,” Polson said. “Coach Cal is always telling us we need to have a good practice or a great practice. You can’t have a bad one. So the biggest thing is just trying to have a great practice every day. If we can do that, we’ll get a lot better and we’ll be there at the end.”

All this may sound like so much brown-nosing, but we have to understand that Kentucky is in another universe as far as expectations are concerned. There are guys riding the bench in Lexington who would be the best player at most DI programs. Success for this team is almost the humdrum. The fear of any sort of letdown could be crippling. It doesn’t help that the school of hard knocks convenes on day one.

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“We’ve got Michigan State coming up in less than a week,” Polson said with a rueful chuckle in his voice. “We’re looking forward to that. We’re going to be put right in the fire, and I think that’s going to help us.”

The holiday season means something different for Polson and his mega-talented teammates. While everyone else is scarfing pumpkin pie and doing last-minute Christmas shopping, the Wildcats will be hard at work.

“Yeah, all the students go home for break and we’re doing two-a-days and three-a-days. It’s a hard time of year, but we’re together 24/7 during that time, and it brings us closer together. I think that really helps us in March and April.”

Turning talented individuals into a team means working while others take downtime. With the relaxation of NCAA rules, summer break is actually boot camp for college basketball players. And the stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day can set the table for a real feast in March and April. There’s a perception that Coach Cal and his staff earn titles during the live recruiting period, but last year’s disjointed effort points to the notion that some genuine, down-in-the-mud coaching, as well as a full buy-in from the troops, is equally important.

So what’s the role of a Jarrod Polson? He drew praise for his play in Kentucky’s exhibhition win over Transylvania. “I thought Jarrod (Polson) was good. All that Jarrod did was run really hard and push the ball,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “We have a lot of guys that running has always been good enough, and, this is me. You can’t be on the court then. You know, it’s okay, but you can’t be out there.”

Polson’s role is to lead by example, then, and not be crushed when his minutes end up going to someone more naturally talented. He can deal with that.

“I came in here as a walk-on and I never knew if I would hit the court at all,” Polson said. “Personally, I’m not the most vocal person in the world. I like to bring someone to the side and tell them what they need to know. A lot of this stuff they’ve never even heard of, and I’ve been here for three years now and I know the offense in and out. I’m not a crazy vocal leader, but I can show them where to be and I think that can help.”

Which brings me to a crucial point. Jarrod Polson is the glue guy for this Kentucky team. He’s reminiscent of Josh “Jorts” Harrellson in some respects. So doesn’t he need a quality nickname of his own?

“Man, I don’t wear jean shorts, so I don’t know that an article of clothing will give me my nickname,” Polson said, laughing. “I don’t have one right now, so we’ll see.”

Well, that just won’t do. So I’m going to lend a hand. You remember the film The Avengers, where all these supremely talented, larger-than-life superheroes had to work together to win the day? Do you remember how much trouble they had finding the chemistry they needed along the way? There was one guy, just an ordinary guy, really, who did the little things to pull the team together. That’s who Jarrod Polson will be for this year’s Wildcats.

So I’m calling it right now: The senior from Nicholasville has a new nickname.

Agent Polson.

Who else can get Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor et. al together? That’s what needs to happen for Kentucky to end up celebrating in a hail of confetti this April.

The rest will be history. But for now, it’s the future we’re all very much looking forward to.

2013-14 SEC Preview: Can anyone catch Kentucky?

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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.

Kentucky is the most talented team in the SEC. Stipulated for the foreseeable future, counselor. It’s appropriate that a blue-blood program from the heart of horse country is stocked with powerful blue chip athletes who have obvious physical advantages. They can, should and probably will win the SEC. But there’s always a chance that Seabiscuit will emerge from the pack and energize the race. The Wildcats will get everyone’s best effort in every game, and the league is studded with contenders and wily veterans who can make things interesting. Kentucky’s stumble into and immediately out of the NIT last season has put the gleam of hope in the eye of every challenger the league has to offer.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky will put an NBA-caliber team on the floor every night: We can pick Kentucky No. 1 in the nation every year, that’s no joke. Some of us resisted that notion this season, because we’ve seen that work spectacularly (2012’s national title) and fail miserably (2013’s NIT washout). Michael Jordan said it best: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” We can see the talent, so if the other two sides of the triangle fall into place, well, quite frankly, nobody else has a chance.

2. Jeronne Maymon is back in Knoxville: I used the thoroughbred as a metaphor for Kentucky’s makeup, but Tennessee’s strength is different. Former Vols coach Bruce Pearl called Maymon a “junkyard dog” when he landed the Marquette transfer, and the burly forward pairs well with current coach Cuonzo Martin’s gritty style of play. Maymon redshirted last year with a persistent knee injury, but he’s back this season and ready to pair with Jarnell Stokes to form our No. 6 frontcourt in the nation.

3. The Marshall Henderson Show gets a tenative renewal: Marshall Henderson is a shooter. He can shoot you into a huge win with his gutsy deep stroke, or he can shoot himself in the foot with his own middle finger. Henderson will be sitting out three games this season, including his team’s first two SEC contests, and his notoriety is now a double-edged sword. Everyone knows Ole Miss has a star, including the refs and the NCAA’s shell-shocked PR department.

source: AP
AP photo

4. Haithers gonna Haith: When Frank Haith nabbed the Missouri job in 2011, two questions dogged his heels. First, was he better than his 56% winning percentage at Miami would seem to indicate? So far, the answer is yes to that one, as Haith has won 53 games in two seasons in Columbia. Second, would infractions from his time with the Hurricanes dog him in his new gig? That question was answered recently, when the NCAA suspended Haith for his first five games of this season. With another quality team in place, led by transfer Jordan Clarkson and junior Jabari Brown, Haith should be ready to put it all behind him and win 20-plus games again.

5. LSU is back: Standing 6-foot-9 and weighing in at 260 lbs., Johnny O’Bryant III may not be the second coming of Shaq, but he’s bringing back some of the excitement of the Dale Brown era in Baton Rouge. Second year Tigers coach Johnny Jones has three more of his top scorers returning to back up O’Bryant, and his recruiting touch has the Tigers sitting pretty for the future as well.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Julius Randle (Kentucky)

Well, duh. This guy could likely start in the NBA right now. He’s the combination of size, strength and speed that comes along extremely rarely, even in DI basketball. If his basketball IQ is on track, he will find plenty of room underneath alongside his massively talented teammates. He’s the very definition of “one to watch”.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • G Jordan McRae (Tennessee): When the media voted for preseason POY, Randle got the lion’s share of the votes, but McRae grabbed five votes to come in second on the ballot. The lanky 6-foot-6 wing had some monster games last season, scoring 34 on LSU and 35 at Georgia. With a solid team around him, he could steal some more of the spotlight.
  • F Johnny O’Bryant III (LSU): It’s been a while since Tiger fans had a big man to write home about. O’Bryant is on the cusp of a breakout season, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him average a double-double for the season and get LSU back to the NCAA tournament, where they last ventured in 2009.
  • G Trevor Releford (Alabama): Releford jacked up his scoring (14.9 ppg) and defense (2.1 spg) last season,  and he’s always been a pretty good distributor. He’s on the Cousy Award watch list this season, and he’ll be driving the bus in Tuscaloosa.
  • F Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee): Stokes averaged nearly a double-double last season while holding down the post. Imagine what he’ll do with Maymon healthy and ready to step in next to him?

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • G Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss)
  • F Patric Young (Florida)
  • G Andrew Harrison (Kentucky)
  • G Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
  • C Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky)

BREAKOUT STAR: Jordan Clarkson (Missouri)

Clarkson wasn’t exactly hidden under a bushel at Tulsa, where he averaged 14.2 points per game over two seasons, but he’ll definitely be on the biggest stage now that he’s eligible to finish out his career at Mizzou. He stands 6-foot-5 and definitely has a scorer’s mentality, but Clarkson revealed that he’s been working out at point and off-guard this summer, so his versatility and nose for the ball will have him in the mix from day one in Columbia.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tony Barbee (Auburn)

Auburn hasn’t been to the Big Dance in a decade, and make no mistake, they hired Calipari disciple Barbee away from a successful stint at UTEP to rectify that situation. Instead they’ve had a rash of transfers and three losing seasons in a row. Last season was the worst, as the Tigers limped to a 9-23 overall record. Nothing short of a 20-win season and a postseason appearance can save Barbee’s job.

source:
AP photo

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Has anyone seen my Marshall Henderson-to-English dictionary lying around?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Finding out what this year’s iteration of the Big Blue NBA Express can do.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 12: Kentucky vs. Michigan State (in Chicago)
  • December 10: Kansas at Florida
  • December 14: Kentucky at North Carolina
  • December 14: Tennessee at Wichita State
  • December 28: Louisville at Kentucky

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: I’m running out of new ways to say it: these guys are the ish. Their bench could beat 95% of DI teams.
2. Florida: Billy Donovan has another well-built roster in Gainesville, with size and toughness up front.
3. Tennessee: With experience, a towering frontcourt and a gritty defense, Cuonzo Martin has the Vols loaded for bear.
4. LSU: We’ll hear a lot about Johnny O’Bryant, but he’s not going to have to get it done by himself. Anthony Hickey (11.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) will have plenty of options to score or dish to an open teammate on this roster.
5. Missouri: Plenty of question marks with Flip and Laurence Bowers gone, but Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson should pick up the slack.
6. Alabama: Led by Trevor Releford, the Tide can roll this season, but can they make the tourney?
7. Mississippi: Could go higher or lower based on what side of the bed Marshall Henderson wakes up on any given day.
8. Arkansas: With Mike Anderson at the helm, running a legacy version of 40 minutes of hell, this team could easily make a leap this season.
9. Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings just doesn’t have the talent of years past.
10. Texas A&M: Does Johnny Football have a decent handle? I’m sure the Aggies would give him a try.
11. Georgia: They love Mark Fox in Athens, but he’s going to need to ramp up the recruiting to do business in the SEC consistently.
12. South Carolina: Frank Martin will have success wherever he goes, but this roster just isn’t there yet.
13. Auburn: See above, re: hot seat.
14. Mississippi State: Rick Ray has some talent on the roster, with Jalen Steele, Trivante Bloodman and Craig Sword sounding like characters in a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Give him another couple of years before you judge what this program can do.

Can Tubby Smith save Texas Tech?

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I couldn’t get anyone to say anything interesting about Tubby Smith. I thought this might hinder my efforts to write a feature about his first season at Texas Tech, until I realized something important..

Tubby Smith isn’t in the business of being interesting.

That’s part of what made him an ill fit at Kentucky, where the slowed-down style dubbed “Tubbyball” helped him win the 1998 national title that is still his calling card in coaching circles. It also got him on the bad side of Big Blue Nation, who howled with frustration watching prize recruit Rajon Rondo walking the ball up the court between 2005-2006. A couple of 12+ loss seasons put the writing on the wall, so Smith jumped to Minnesota before he could be pushed out.

Billy Gillispie followed Smith at Kentucky and preceded him at his current posting at Texas Tech. Gillispie’s antics in Lexington and Lubbock served very well to show fans that they could do worse than Orlando Smith… a lot worse.

Which begs the question: outside of Gillispiean context, is Tubby Smith a good coach? Is he what Texas Tech needs to survive the shark-infested Big 12?

I’m going to say yes, and I’m going to tell you why.

First of all, let’s look at the culture of Texas Tech over the past few years. The school has made national waves by hiring brilliant mavericks – Bobby Knight, Billy Gillispie and former football coach Mike Leach – and that’s been good and bad. Talented athletes have made their way to Lubbock and the school is a known quantity to recruits and fans. On the flipside, altercations between high-strung coaches and the players under their charge have added a powerful negative stigma to the headlines.

You’ve heard the saying “There’s no such thing as bad press,” but we might have to re-evaluate that statement from time to time. Tech’s reputation was damaged by those reports, which has affected the school’s ability to attract top talent of the coaching and athletic variety ever since.

From that vantage point, Tubby Smith looks like the safe choice. He wins, and he doesn’t cause controversy. He attracts positive attention. I mean, here I am writing about a program I tabbed to finish dead last in the Big 12 this season. That’s the Tubby effect.

source: Getty Images
Tubby Smith will bring joy back to the Texas Tech sidelines. (Getty)

And Tubby Smith wins games. His career mark of 511 wins to 226 losses (a .693 winning percentage) is somewhat distorted by that single national title, representing a career achievement that somehow detracts from every subsequent season in which he fails to approach the same lofty heights. He won at Tulsa, he won at Georgia and he won at Minnesota. He’ll win at Texas Tech, though not right away by any stretch of the imagination.

In fact, I don’t expect Tubby Smith to work miracles in Lubbock. I’ll be impressed if he gets the Red Raiders to play better than .500 ball in the rugged Big 12 by the 2016 season. But he’ll bring in good players, he’ll win a few games, and he’ll lend an invincible aura of even-handed, avuncular fairness to the proceedings. He’ll rehabilitate the Texas Tech name and prepare it to take the next step under an up-and-coming younger man; perhaps current Tech assistant coach Pooh Williamson, who played under Smith at Tulsa. Maybe someone else.

For now, however, Smith is the Texas Tech program’s physical therapist: He’ll supervise those first slow steps toward recovery, and make sure his team doesn’t face-plant. Soon, he’ll have the program walking and even running.

Tubby Smith represents a positive view of the near future in Lubbock. He can, and likely will, have the Red Raiders back in the Big Dance some day, and that’s a pretty good carrot for a program that hasn’t been there since 2007.

If he wears a suit and smiles like your granddad and nobody says anything interesting about him along the way, is that really such a bad thing?

Andrew Wiggins won’t be The One at Kansas this season

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

In The Matrix, Neo might have been The One, but he needed Morpheus, Trinity and Tank to show him the way and watch his back while he learned Kung Fu.

Andrew Wiggins will have that same luxury at Kansas this year. Bill Self will make sure his star takes the crimson and blue pill so he can walk the fine line between artistry and hard work. Wiggins’ teammates will help carry the load. It’s the only way the Jayhawks can lock down yet another Big 12 title, and possibly another trip to the Final Four.

The team concept is vital. It’s a lesson other Big 12 teams have learned the hard way in recent seasons. Remember Michael Beasley at K-State? His single season was a marvel of individual effort, but Kansas won the 2008 league (and national) title in spite of Beasley’s 28 double-doubles. One year prior, Kevin Durant was transcendent at Texas, winning national player of the year honors, but even the Durantula couldn’t wrest the Big 12 trophy from Bill Self’s hands all by his lonesome.

So what’s to keep the same fate from befalling Andrew Wiggins? The Canadian wunderkind has the inside track on the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick and the Naismith Award, and most pundits favor him to be one of the game’s all-time greats over the next two decades. That’s a lot of expectation on one guy.

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Wayne Selden, also a freshman, will be Wiggins’ superstar wingman. (youtube.com screencap)

Here’s the thing – Kansas doesn’t do the one man show. Take a look at the talent arrayed around Wiggins, and you’ll see the makings of a national title contender, though maybe not one as flashy as the one John Calipari has built at Kentucky. Junior Naadir Tharpe will become the primary ballhandler, and he’ll share the backcourt with Wayne Selden, a freshman who would be the team’s most notable player if not for a certain Canadian.

(MORE: Read NBCSports.com’s Big 12 Preview)

In the frontcourt, Self has another newbie in Joel Embiid, an experienced transfer in Memphis’ Tarik Black, and the hard-won wisdom of sophomore Perry Ellis, who learned patience in his own unpredictable freshman campaign.

“I had a lot of ups and downs,” Ellis told NBCSports.com via phone. “I realized I still had a lot to learn about the game. Just by becoming more mentally tough and learning little aspects of the game that coach was teaching.”

Bill Self has never asked one player to carry his squad. His dalliances with one-and-done talent in the past have driven home the point: no one man, no matter how talented, can do the whole job. Xavier Henry needed his teammates to pick up the slack while he learned how to be aggressive and hit the mid-range jumper. Josh Selby had to sit out nine games of his freshman season, and never really became a star as he was expected to. Ben McLemore was Self’s biggest success to date, but last season was hardly a solo performance by the eventual lottery pick.

Wiggins is a different sort of superstar – he can, and likely will, take over games on his own – but he’ll have the support system he needs if things don’t go as planned. Ellis, a blue-chip recruit in his own right, knows that those days will come. He’ll have advice for Wiggins, Selden and especially freshman big man Embiid when things get tough.

“He’ll get down sometimes,” Ellis said. “I went through that too my freshman year. I can relate to him on that. Jeff (Withey) and them would take me under their wing when I wasn’t doing well or got down on myself. That’s what I’m really trying to help them with. When things aren’t going well, just keep competing.”

Wiggins is hard to nail down. He’s the sort of player who can thrive anywhere on the court. He’ll explode eyeballs if his teammates can do the little things that create space for a superstar – setting picks, knocking down zone-busting shots, sealing off defenders in the paint – and that’s the kind of thing Bill Self teams excel at. Ellis pointed out that some of the bench players who will see their time dwindle as the stars take the court will have vital roles to play.

“Andrew White and Brannen Green are good shooters. In practice, we’ve been meshing real well, with guys knocking in shots, or I can get it in the post and kick it back out. I think that will be great for us.”

If you look at Kansas teams of the past, there’s always talent. That’s a given. But Bill Self’s Final Four teams, including his national title winners of 2008, haven’t yet produced a bona fide NBA superstar. With a consensus stud on the roster this season, it’ll be up to the head coach to make sure his supporting cast is never standing and watching as Wiggins defies gravity. Ellis, who struggled to learn his role as McLemore lit up the scoreboard, knows that hard work pays off, even if you’re not the star every night.

“The game started really slowing down for me,” Ellis said. “I realized that my freshman season. It’s a long season but I turned it around at the end.”

Self’s troops, though young, should be primed to hear that wisdom. Even the younger players on the team ooze maturity. Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News – the polar opposite of an attention-hungry internet troll – lobbed a stunning compliment at one of the other freshmen earlier this season.

Wayne Selden does not relent. I’ll say this as directly as possible: Selden is the hardest-practicing freshman I’ve encountered in more than a quarter-century on the college basketball beat.

Wiggins’s athleticism will permit him to do some things college opponents can’t prevent. But those same young men simply won’t want to get in Selden’s way.

Kansas will certainly never turn up its nose at the uber-talented. But a decade’s worth of league titles won over an opponent’s superstar or two ought to prove that Bill Self’s Jayhawks will always win with more than one man, even when that man is the amazing Andrew Wiggins.

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

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