Player of the Year: Thomas Robinson, Jr., Kansas
Robinson has not had an easy time since he’s been in Lawrence. In addition to being stuck behind The Morrii on the Jayhawk’s depth chart over his first two seasons, Robinson had to spent last season coping with the fact that his mother and both of his grandparents passed away within the span of a month. In the aftermath, he was forced to spend time and energy figuring out who his younger sister was going to live with. Through it all, Robinson had an incredibly productive sophomore campaign, averaging 7.6 ppg and 6.4 rpg in limited minutes. Robinson will be the focal point in the paint this season, and he won’t have the benefit of a clone to help him. At 6’9″, 237 lb, he’s a big, physical post presence that can potentially average a double-double if he continues to rebound the ball at a similar rate to what he did as a sophomore.
And a close second goes to…: Perry Jones, So., Baylor
Jones is probably the most talented player in the Big 12. Standing just a shade under seven feet, Jones is some kind of combination of a face-up four and a small forward. While his height and leaping ability makes him an ideal target for players dumping the ball off inside, Jones is also a terrific pick-and-pop option due to his skill-set on the perimeter and fluidity of motion. The biggest issue that Jones faced last season was that he probably didn’t get quite as many touches or attempts as he should have LaceDarius Dunn was a gunner and AJ Walton is turnover prone and doesn’t display much shot selection. This season, as the primary offensive option with a season of college ball under his belt, expect Jones to thrive as the No. 1 option offensively for the Bears.
Breakout Star: Rodney McGruder, Jr., Kansas State
Last season, McGruder — and, frankly, everyone else on Kansas State — went into Witness mode late in the year. That’s what is generally going to happen when a player as talented as Jacob Pullen puts the team on his back. But that doesn’t mean that McGruder didn’t show up. He had a couple of his best games of the season during a late stretch where the Wildcats won eight of nine games. McGruder can do it all. He shoots it well enough from deep to keep defenses honest, he’s able to get to the rim when he wants to, he is a terrific rebounder for his size (6’4″ and led the team) and he can get after it defensively. But the end of the year, you are going to know who Rodney McGruder is.
– POY: Thomas Robinson, Jr., Kansas
– G: Marcus Denmon, Sr., Missouri
– G: Tyshawn Taylor, Sr., Kansas
– F: Khris Middleton, Jr., Texas A&M
– F: Quincy Acy, Sr., Baylor
– C: Perry Jones, So., Baylor
– G: Myck Kabongo, Fr., Texas
– G: Rodney McGruder, Jr., Kansas State
– F: Quincy Miller, Fr., Baylor
– F: Royce White, So., Iowa State
– C: Ricardo Ratliffe, Sr., Missouri
Newcomer of the Year: LeBryan Nash, Fr., Oklahoma State
Nash is the perfect piece to fit into the void left by Marshall Moses as he has a lot of the same skills as the former Okie State forward. Like Moses, Nash is an undersized, energetic and supremely athletic combo-forward, big enough to score in the post but quick enough to get by his defender on the perimeter. With his ability to play both forward spots and also run the floor, he becomes the perfect power forward piece in Okie State’s uptempo attack.
– G: Naadir Tharpe, Kansas
– G: Myck Kabongo, Texas
– G: Jamal Branch, Texas A&M
– F: Quincy Miller, Baylor
– F: LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State
Five summer storylines
– Expansion or defection: With the decision of Colorado and Nebraska to move to the Pac-12 and the Big Ten, respectively, a year ago, the Big 12 was already on unstable ground. Then came along this year’s announcement of the Longhorn Network, which set off an entirely new round of expansion rumors. Its started Texas A&M, who eventually made the decision to make the leap to the SEC. That led to a flurry of news, with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State being heavily involved with the Pac-12 while Texas seemingly approached every league in the country about the possibility of becoming a member. Eventually, instead of departing, the Big 12 got rid of commissioner Dan Beebe and became stronger by snagging TCU from under the nose of the Big East.
– Kansas player’s eligibility: The Jayhawks have had as many issues as any team in the country when it comes to the eligibility of freshmen. Currently, they are waiting for the NCAA to rule on Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor. The latest, as of October 12th, is that both players have been cleared to start attending class and are allowed to play in unsupervised pick-up games and take part in unofficial team workouts, but they cannot practice or receive coaching until they are cleared by the NCAA. (UPDATE: McLemore and Traylor have both been ruled ineligible for 2011-2012. Its a huge blow to the Jayhawk’s depth, as Bill Self will likely be forced to use a seven-man rotation. Foul trouble will be a major issue.) They’ve already lost Braeden Anderson, a big man that had some issues with a decision he made to transfer from Canada to a school in North Carolina. Its a shame, really. Anderson truly is a student, with ambitions of heading to Law School and a 1,450 on his SAT.
And none of that even factors in the drama that occurred between Steve Fisher and Self when Self swooped in and enticed Aztec commit Kevin Young to become a Jayhawk.
– Billy Gillispie is back to his old ways: There is no question about it — Billy Clyde Gillispie is a terrific basketball coach, especially when he is coaching in Texas. Billy Clyde rebuilt two programs in Texas. He turned UTEP from a 6-24 team to a 24-win NCAA Tournament team in the span of one season. That got him to Texas A&M, where he laid the groundwork for the Aggie’s current success despite taking over a team that went 0-16 in the Big 12 the year before he got there. The problem is that Gillispie, the person, is a miserable drunk that is not easy to deal with. Cue Sports by Brooks, who reported earlier this summer that Gillispie’s attitude had already driven out three longtime members of the basketball program, one of whom was in a physical altercation with the coach. Oh, and he was the victim of not one, but two different Ponzi Schemes that cost him millions of dollars. I’d probably be difficult to deal with, too.
– Other coaches on the move: Texas Tech wasn’t the only head coaching position that came open in the spring. Missouri head coach Mike Anderson made the move to return to Arkansas, where he had spent years as an assistant under Nolan Richardson. In his stead came the somewhat surprising hire of Frank Haith from Miami, a move that appeared to back fire when Haith went on the hot set immediately after a Yahoo report claimed he knew about the purchase of a player back in 2008. Lon Kruger was the second hire made, as he was picked up by Oklahoma after the Sooners made the decision to get rid of Jeff Capel. The final change came with Texas A&M, the team on their way out the Big 12 door. Mark Turgeon took the job at Maryland, and in his stead the Aggies went with Billy Kennedy, a homerun hire. Kennedy comes from Murray State, one of the most successful mid-majors at producing high-major coaches, and is a native of Louisiana, a place where he still has connections with the high school coaches.
– Late signees for Texas: Rick Barnes made a couple of huge pickups late in the offseason. He snagged power forward Jaylen Bond, a former Pitt commit, to help bolster his front court. He also landed former Maryland-signee Sterling Gibbs, the younger brother of Ashton. UT is still going to be a team with a short bench
Five storylines heading into the season
– Expansion or defection part two: Its all come down to Missouri. Are they staying or leaving? Does the SEC want them to join or not? If Mizzou does decide to stay, the addition of TCU seems to have finally steadied the conference. If the Tigers leave, the Big 12 will be forced to make a move, bringing in either one team or three teams. Louisville, West Virginia, BYU and a smattering of other schools have had their names thrown out there. Here’s to hoping Missouri doesn’t go anywhere. I’m sick of writing about conferences realigning.
– True round robin: With ten teams in the conference this season, the Big 12 will be playing a true round robin in league play. Every team plays each other twice, meaning that there will be a brutal 18 game schedule. The Big 12 is not as top-heavy as it normally is with Kansas, Texas and Missouri all dealing with some missing pieces. But the league is balanced. Teams like Iowa State and Oklahoma State may end up finishing 7th or 8th overall, but I would be shocked if they didn’t notch a couple of wins against the top of the conference. Playing this schedule is the ideal for any basketball league if you truly want to determine who the best team — the regular season champion — is.
– Will Iowa State’s transfer pan out?: The Cyclones have become a haven for players cast off by different programs around the country. Joining the team this season is Royce White (Minnesota), Chris Babb (Penn State), Chris Allen (Michigan State) and Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois). That doesn’t include Korie Lucious (Michigan State) and Will Clyburn (Utah), who are both sitting out this season after transferring. That’s a risk Hoiberg has to take to try and make this team relevant again. Will it work? Who knows. On the one hand, that is a lot of head cases on one team, and combining all of those head cases has the makings for a disaster. But what if the players buy into the fact that this may be their last chance? I’m sure there is still hope of making the NBA. What better way to prove you are over your issues than by taking a slumping program and turning them into a competitor?
– Can anyone knock Kansas off pedestal?: This is the year to do it. The Jayhawks are going to be as down as they will ever be. With five key pieces — including the Morrii and two back court starters — leaving during the offseason and a recruiting class that wasn’t a typical Bill Self class before players started to get ruled ineligible, there just isn’t the kind of talent on Kansas we are used to seeing. Texas A&M and Missouri both have a shot of taking the throne heading into the season. The most likely team to keep the Jayhawks from winning an eighth straight league title? Baylor, but that’s only if …
– Baylor’s PG play improves: That’s going to be the determining factor for this team. They have size, they have perimeter scoring, they as much athleticism along their front line as most NBA teams and they have two future lottery picks in Perry Jones and Quincy Miller. All they need is a facilitator, a guy that can get a bucket upon occasion, but that understands his role of picking his spots, creating opportunities for his teammates and focusing on the fact he needs too limit his bad shots and turnovers. AJ Walton couldn’t do the latter last season. With JuCo all-american Pierre Jackson and Cal transfer Gary Franklin, a former top 100 player, Walton will have to step up his game if he wants to keep that job.
1. Baylor: The Bears were simply never able to find a rhythm last season. The season started with LaceDarius Dunn getting suspended over a domestic disturbance and ended with Perry Jones being suspended for the Big 12 Tournament due to improper benefits he received from his AAU coach in high school. In between, the Bears struggled after coasting through the easy part of their non-conference schedule. They finished 7-9 in the Big 12 — good for seventh — and were smacked by cellar dweller Oklahoma in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament.
The biggest issue that Baylor faced last season will be their biggest question mark heading into this season. Scott Drew was never able to find a suitable replacement for the point guard play of Tweety Carter. There will be options this season. AJ Walton returns, although he is turnover prone and displayed poor shot selection running the team last season. He’ll be competing with Pierre Jackson, who was a JuCo all-american at the College of Southern Idaho last season, and Gary Franklin, who started at Cal as a freshman before transferring out midway through the year. Franklin will be eligible in December. It will be interesting to see who wins the battle at the point this year, as finding a player that can create and run a team with as much raw talent on it as Baylor has will be vital if the Bears want to get back to the level of their 2010 Elite 8 club.
The talent on this roster in undeniable. We’ll start in the front court, where Drew has a front line with as much size and athleticism as anyone in the country, perfect for his 2-3 zone. Perry Jones, when he gets back from his five-game suspension to start the season, and Quincy Miller, when he gets back to 100% after tearing his acl, are both future lottery picks. Jones is taller and more of a face-up four while Miller is a 6’9″ slasher that’s drawn some comparisons to Kevin Durant. Anthony Jones is a 6’10” lefty with three-point range while J’Mison Morgan is a lumbering, 6’11” center that moved into the starting lineup late in the year. Quincy Acy became the team’s 6th man even though he played starter’s minutes. He’s one of the most athletically powerful players in the country and Baylor’s best rebounder and shot blocker. Brady Heslip, a high-scoring combo-guard that transferred in from Boston College, and Deuce Bello, who may be the best dunker in the country, will split minutes at the off-guard spot. Baylor has as much raw talent as any team in the country, but whether or not Drew can fit all the pieces together will determine whether this group wins the conference or finishes in the middle of the pack. I can see both scenarios happening.
2. Kansas: With the amount of turmoil that Kansas endured throughout the season, its quite impressive that they finished the year 35-3 while winning both Big 12 titles. It started with Josh Selby’s eligibility, as the team didn’t find out until right before the start of the season that their star recruit would be suspended for nine games. That wasn’t the end of the Selby soap opera, either, as the freshman exploded for 21 points and the game-winning bucket in his first game, but never came close to repeating that kind of performance. Tyshawn Taylor was suspended mid-season for “violating team rules” while Mario Little was suspended for an off-campus assault. And, of course, there was the tragedy of Thomas Robinson and the passing of both his grandparents and his mother. That is a lot for one team to go through in a season.
This is going to be a new look Jayhawks team in 2011-2012. Selby and both of the Morris twins entered the NBA Draft. Senior stalwarts Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar both graduated. What that means is the Jayhawks will be bringing back just one full-time starter and only three other players that were consistently in Bill Self’s rotation. The guy that most people are predicting will carry this team is Robinson, a 6’9″ specimen of a power forward. Robinson only played 14 mpg, but he still managed to average 7.6 ppg and 6.4 rpg, which made him one of the most productive players in the country. He’ll need to continue that kind of production playing more minutes next season as the Jayhawks will have a thin front line. Braeden Anderson has already been ruled ineligible. Fellow freshman Jamari Traylor, as well as small forward Ben McLemore, are both still awaiting word from the NCAA on whether or not they will be cleared to play. If they aren’t, that means that seven foot junior Jeff Withey and Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young, who averaged double figures as a freshman, will be it in terms of front court depth.
In the back court, Tyshawn Taylor returns for his senior season. He’ll be counted on for a big year as the Jayhawk’s primary ballhandler and senior leader. The uber-athletic Elijah Johnson, who shows flashes of major talent but no where near enough discipline to see extended minutes under Self, and redshirt junior Travis Releford will also return on the perimeter. Both players will be counted on for big seasons as well, as the Jayhawks will be looking for a go-to scorer on the perimeter. Freshman point guard will be there to provide some depth and will allow Self some flexibility in the lineups he puts on the floor, but if McLemore doesn’t end up getting cleared, the Jayhawks will have a relatively short bench in their back court as well. This will be a bit of a rebuilding year for Kansas made more difficult due to the fact that their recruiting class, which isn’t up to the usual standards for the school, has players that may end up ineligible. Its important to remember that guys like Johnson, Releford, Withey and Robinson — the upper-classmen that have toiled in reserve roles the past couple of seasons — were all highly-regarded recruits as freshmen. There is still talent on this roster, and the Jayhawks will still be competing for the Big 12 regular season title. But if anyone is going to snap their string of seven consecutive regular season titles, this is the year to do it.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies have become one of the most consistent programs in the Big 12. Starting with Billy Gillispie and continuing with Mark Turgeon, A&M has become a program that has prided themselves of stingy defense and a disciplined offense that scores just enough to win games. With Turgeon now at Maryland and Billy Kennedy running the show in College Station, that much shouldn’t change. While the intricacies of the system will differ, Kennedy and Turgeon have similar enough coaching styles that the roster that Kennedy inherits — one that returns a number of critical pieces from a team that won 24 games and finished third in the league — should be able to adapt fairly easily.
The star of this A&M team will be junior wing Khris Middleton. Middleton stands 6’7″, but he’s got a unique flare to his game. He’s not overly explosive and he’s not a lights-out shooter, but he does have a smooth mid-range game, excelling in that 5-15 foot range where so many players these days struggle. He hit a bit of a late-season slump once defenses started keying on him, but with a more consistent jump shot, he should be able to handle that defensive focus better as a junior. Perhaps the most important addition for the Aggies this year is Elston Turner, a transfer from Washington. The Aggies badly needed a three-point sniper, and Turner has the potential to be a double-figure scorer next year. Junior Naji Hibbert should also see some time on the wing, as will freshman Jordan Green — who is an insane athlete. The biggest position battle will probably end up being at the point guard spot. Dash Harris is a terrific on ball defender, but offensively he’s a liability. He can’t shoot — 26.8% from the floor, 16.7% from three — and he turns the ball over too much. That could create an opportunity for freshman Jamal Branch to earn quite a few minutes and possibly start.
The front court will be anchored by David Loubeau, who has developed himself into a solid scorer in the post. He needs to improve the rest of his game — he turns the ball over four times for every assist, he’s not a great rebounder and he’s certainly not a shotblocker — but having a player that can score with his back to the basket is a good thing. Sophomore Kourtney Roberson can also be a scoring threat on the block and may end up being a more productive player than Loubeau, which is meant as a compliment to Roberson more than a shot at Loubeau. Junior Ray Turner also returns inside while sophomore Keith Davis and freshmen Grant Jolly and Daniel Alexander will be in the mix for playing time as well. If Turner can provide a secondary scoring threat on the perimeter, the Aggie’s front line becomes more adept at scoring and rebounding in the paint and A&M gets more consistent point guard play, this team will have a very real shot at winning the league’s regular season title. They are that good.
4. Missouri: Its been a rough offseason for the fans of the Missouri basketball program. Their old head coach, Mike Anderson, took the head coaching job at Arkansas. Their new head coach, Frank Haith, run into plenty of trouble in his short tenure at Missouri, not only committing a violation by speaking with a reporter about a recruit that had not signed with the school, but also because of his involvement with the Nevan Shapiro case that Yahoo broke in August. As if that wasn’t enough, the school has been in constant limbo since conference realignment began last summer, having flirted with both the Big Ten and, this summer, the SEC in an effort to break away from the Big 12. Perhaps most importantly, however, is in the injury suffered by Laurence Bowers.
There is an argument to be made that Bowers was the most important player on Missouri. Last year, he was the team’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder as well as their most versatile defender, the kind of player that could guard three or four different positions. To make matters worse, the Tigers were already exceptionally thin up front. Sure, they still have Ricardo Ratliffe, a physical low-post presence that can score and rebound on the block, but the rest of their front line is limited. Steve Moore is a 6’9″, 270 lb senior that has played limited minutes in his Missouri career. Kadeem Green is a redshirt freshman with some promise, but there is no guarantee he’ll be a major contributor. And that’s it for the front court.
Missouri’s perimeter attack, however, is going to be loaded. It starts with Marcus Denmon, an explosive scorer and sharpshooter at the off-guard spot. Denmon is one of the more underrated guards in the country and a guy that the stat gurus love. He was the 19th most efficient player in the country a season ago thanks to he sniper-esque 44.8% from long range, his impressive shot-selection and the fact that he doesn’t turn the ball over. He averaged 17.2 ppg as a junior, so it will be tough to ask him for more, but the Tigers may end up needing it. Joining him on the perimeter will be Kim English, a 6’6″ wing that had a season-long shooting slump last year. Mizzou will be counting heavily on him to return to his sophomore year form. If English can iron out the kinks in his jumper, he gives Missouri three players that are capable of going for 20 points on a given night. English may also be counted on to play bigger this season, as there will probably be times when he has to play the four spot if Haith is forced to use four guards. Another senior, Matt Pressey, rounds out the perimeter rotation. Missouri also has two quality point guards on their roster in sophomore Phil Pressey, Matt’s younger brother, and junior Michael Dixon. Pressey is smaller, but quicker, and a better on-ball defender and playmaker while Dixon is the better scorer and has more size. They are a quality combination and will likely share the court. With Bowers, Missouri had a very good shot at making a run to the Big 12 title. Without him, they still have that chance, but its going to be a much tougher road.
5. Kansas State: The 2010-2011 looked like it was going to be a disaster for the Wildcats. They struggled in their three marquee non-conference games and they kicked off Big 12 play with a 2-5 start which, combined with a three games suspension for Jacob Pullen, nine games worth of suspensions for Curtis Kelly and the mid-season defections of Wally Judge and Freddy Asprilla, left the preseason No. 3 team in the country on the garbage heap. That’s before Jacob Pullen took over. The senior guard went for 38 points as the Wildcats knocked off then-No. 1 Kansas at home and proceeded to carry the Wildcats to wins in eight of their last nine league games, which was enough to get K-State dancing.
The bad news is that the Wildcats lose Pullen to graduation, which is a hole that will be impossible to fill. But they also graduate Curtis Kelly which, when combined with the four transfers Kansas State has lost over the last year, should mean that Kansas State head coach Frank Martin now has a roster full of players that want to play for him. The star of this year’s team will, in all likelihood, be Rodney McGruder. A 6’4″ shooting guard with a solid offensive arsenal, McGruder was the Wildcats’ second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and second on the team in assists last year. He should be primed for a big junior season. Sophomore point guard Will Spradling should also have a good year. He impressed at times as a freshman. St. John’s transfer Omari Lawrence, Shane Southwell and Martavious Irving will give K-State some depth on the perimeter. The x-factor may end up being Nino Williams, a top 100 recruit that enrolled at Kansas State early but redshirted last season after getting two concussions. JuCo transfer Jeremy Jones and freshman Angel Rodriguez may see minutes as well.
The front court for Kansas State may be a bit of an issue. Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts do both return. Samuels is an athletic power forward that can really get after it on the glass and has the ability to step out onto the perimeter and knock down a jumper. Henriquez-Roberts is a 6’11” center that was a terror in the paint last season. He blocked a lot of shots and he got a lot of rebounds while playing just 13.4 mpg. If he can bring the same kind of energy and production for 25-30 mpg, he’ll be a very good player. After that, however, the front court is young. Two freshmen — Adrian Diaz and Thomas Gibson — and a JuCo transfer — James Watson — join the seldom-used Victor Ojeleye. The Wildcats should still compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but replacing Pullen is not going to be an easy thing to do.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones finished last season with a 16-16 record and a 3-13 mark in the Big 12. And while those numbers weren’t nearly as bad as they seem on paper — Fred Hoiberg’s club lost a lot of close games — they are also fairly irrelevant, as the team that will be on the floor in Ames next season will look completely different from the one that played last season. Three of the Cyclones top four scorers graduate, and that includes star point guard Diante Garrett. That production should be replaced as Hoiberg brings in four Division I transfers, a JuCo transfers and three freshmen.
The name that everyone is going to recognize on this roster is Royce White, a former top 30 recruit who flamed out at Minnesota when he couldn’t handle playing in his home city and found himself in trouble with the law. White hasn’t played basketball in two seasons, but based on his performances in summer leagues — averaging a triple double? — and during Iowa State’s trip to Italy, its obvious that the 6’8″, 270 lb power forward can still play. Also joining the team this season is Southern Illinois transfer Anthony Booker, another former top 50 recruit. Booker is a bit bigger and more athletic than White, although he doesn’t have the same level of skill offensively. Melvin Ejim, an undersized-but-energetic forward, averaged double figures as a freshman and led the team in offensive rebounds. Sophomore Jordan Railey and freshman Percy Gibson round out the front court.
The perimeter attack will be flush, as Hoiberg will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. It starts with all-Big 12 honorable mention Scott Christopherson, who is one of the deadliest shooters in the country and the leading returning scorer for the Cyclones at 13.4 ppg. He’ll be joined on the wing by Chris Allen and Chris Babb. Allen started off and on during his three seasons at Michigan State before getting kicked off the team last year. Babb was a double-figure scorer at Penn State. Both players have an all-around game, but base their ability to get to the basket off of their jump shot. JuCo transfer Tyrus McGee will also see time. He is another guy that comes in with the reputation of being a big-time shooter — sense a trend here? Iowa State lived by the three in Hoiberg’s uptempo system, thriving off of the ability of Darius Garrett to create. With Garrett gone and a legitimate scoring option on the block in White, the Cyclones will not need to rely on the three-ball as much, but finding consistent point guard play to allow them to continue to run will be important. Freshman Tavon Sledge, who went to the same high school as Tobias Harris, and local product Bubu Palo, a former walk-on that spelled Garrett last season, will be responsible for filling that role. What kind of product Hoiberg’s club puts on the floor this season is unclear; its difficult to build a mercedes with pieces you pull off of the scrap heap. The talent is there to finish in the top half of the league, however.
7. Texas: For the second straight season, Texas played their way to the top of the national rankings only to fall apart late in the year. In 2009-2010, the Longhorns started the season 17-0 and earned their first No. 1 ranking ever before losing 10 of their last 17 games and flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the Longhorns won their first 11 Big 12 games and once again climbed into the top five, but after losing five of their last 10 games, UT found themselves heading home after losing to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
I think its safe to say that no program in the country was hit as hard by early entry to the NBA Draft as Texas was this past season. Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph left school with a combined eight seasons of eligibility left, leaving the Longhorns without much talent on their roster. The strength of this team is going to be in their back court, and whether or not they are able to compete with the big boys in the league is going to depend quite a bit on what kind of player Myck Kabongo ends up being. He’s a pure point guard and a leader, but Texas needs a guy that can take over a game this season. Kabongo has drawn some comparisons to Chris Paul, and while he makes his teammates better, is there enough talent around him that he will be able to take this team to the tournament? The only back court returner is J’Covan Brown, who will have to be a big time scorer for the Longhorns this season. Freshmen Ashton Gibbs, Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis were all highly-regarded recruits that are going to have to perform immediately.
The front court may end up being a major issue for the Longhorns. Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman both return, but neither is much of a low-post scoring threat. Both players are better-suited to being role players and energy guys than the anchor of a front line. Jaylen Bond is a former Pitt commit and was a late signee, and his addition helps, as will Jonathon Holmes, another freshman big man. That’s it, however. Someone is going to have to step up and be a playmaker in the paint for the Longhorns. For a program that has been able to recruit the way Texas has over the past four years, its astonishing to think that this team may end up being in the bottom half of the Big 12.
8. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys simply never appeared to be on the same page last season. Anywhere. Offensively, the Pokes struggled when Keiton Page, JP Olukemi and Marshall Moses were missing shots, as they simply didn’t have the offensively talent surrounding those two. Part of the issue was, likely, the lack of consistency in the lineup and the rotation. Head coach Travis Ford lost his top two point guards by season’s end, with Fred Gulley needing shoulder surgery and Ray Penn getting kicked off the team. Darrell Williams was suspended in February due to a sexual assault allegation, and his trial won’t be until January. Matt Pilgrim was suspended multiple times during his tenure at Oklahoma State and had issues with dedication to the team. That lack of continuity showed, especially on the road. The Pokes went 6-2 at home in Big 12 play, but 0-8 away from Gallagher-Iba.
There will be a lot of new faces for Oklahoma State next season, but that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. Penn has transferred out of the program. Pilgrim graduated. Williams probably won’t suit up until his legal issues are cleared up, and its unclear when, exactly, that happens. And while losing Moses is going to hurt, his production should be made up for by the addition of LeBryan Nash. Nash is a physical specimen, a chiseled, 6’7″ combo-forward that looks like he could be playing tight end in the NFL. He’s a freak athlete and an aggressive rebounder, but he’s developed his perimeter game to the point that its evident his future is as a small forward. But, like Nash, the rest of OSU’s front line is unproved. Philip Jurick was once a Tennessee commit and a four-star recruit, but that was in the Class of 2008. He’s redshirted a year and spent two at JuCos since then. Michael Cobbins, a top 100 recruit last year, was called a “future player of the year” and a “skinny Marcus Morris” by Marshal Moses, but he’s a 190 lb redshirt freshman right now. Seven foot freshman Marek Souček should also see minutes.
Ford has always wanted to bring a more uptempo style to Stillwater, and this may be the year to do it as he finally has some depth — and some young, talented players — on the perimeter. At the point, sophomore Fred Gulley should be fully recovered from his shoulder surgery this season, and even if he isn’t, junior Reger Dowell played well when he got a chance late in the season. Keiton Page also returns, and while he is less of a point guard than he is a scorer that handles the ball, he would still be an effective option in an uptempo system. Olukemi proved to be an effective slasher on the wing, averaging 11.2 ppg last year, while Markel Brown had a promising freshman campaign. Throw in a handful of couple freshman — Cezar Guerrero, Brian Williams — and Ford has options if he wants his club to get up and down the floor, particularly if Nash proves to be effective on the defensive end if he slides over to a big man spot. If anything, the most important aspect for this team is going to be improving their assist-to-turnover ratio (.74:1 last year) and their three-point shooting (29.5%, 333rd in the country). If those areas improve, the Pokes will become a better road team and sneak up on a couple of opponents.
9. Oklahoma: The Jeff Capel era didn’t last very long in Norman. He lost 36 games in two years in the post-Blake Griffin era, may some massive mistakes on the recruiting trail that ended up costing him his job. Capel had the all-headcase back court of Willie Warren and Tommy Mason-Griffin in 2009-2010 leave school as well as Tiny Gallon, a lumbering, 6’9″ forward that got caught up in a scandal over $3,000 that was wired to him by a financial investor in Florida. Without those three, the Sooners were left with a roster full of inexperience, and it showed. They finished 10th in the Big 12 and only won a tournament game because Baylor learned about the news of Perry Jones’ suspension the day of the game.
The Sooners brought in Lon Kruger during the offseason, but success certainly won’t be immediate as the Sooners lost their leading scorer in Cade Davis. The cupboard certainly isn’t bare, however. The strength of Oklahoma is going to be on their front line. Andrew Fitzgerald was probably Oklahoma’s most consistent player a year ago. At 6’8″, he’s a solid option on the block and does have the ability to score with his back to the basket. He’ll be joined by Mississippi State transfer Romero Osby, another hefty 6’8″ post player that Capel repeatedly said was one of the best players in the program last season as Osby sat out due to transfer rules. Osby should be able to help out on the glass, an area that is not Fitzgerald’s strong suit. It will be interesting to see if Kruger can develop some depth up front. Senior CJ Washington and sophomore Tyler Neal both saw minutes last season, as did senior Barry Honore. JuCo transfer Casey Arent should get time as well.
The back court also has some pieces returning. Point guard Carl Blair, a transfer from the University of New Orleans, was one of the best assist men in the conference a year ago, and that shouldn’t change this season. Blair, a junior, does need to cut down his turnovers, however. Senior Steven Pledger will be counted on to up his scoring to fill the void left by Davis, and it will be nice if he can become a more consistent shooter from beyond the arc as well. Cameron Clark could end up being an x-factor for this team. He’ll likely be playing more of a wing role this season — he was essentially the four last year — and he is certainly a talented kid. Can he become a go-to scorer on the perimeter? The back court won’t be all that deep this season. JuCo transfer Sam Grooms and sophomore Calvin Newell should be the first two guys Kruger turns too. Oklahoma will be more experienced next season, which should lead to a couple more victories. But they lack the star power and the overall talent level to truly compete at the top of the league.
10. Texas Tech: Pat Knight knew he was going to lose his job. During the summer, he said that his contract should not be renewed if he couldn’t get his Red Raider team to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. With a talented group of seniors that were coming off of a trip to the NIT quarterfinals in a season where they cracked the top 25, Knight’s club lost seven games in non-conference play and then started league play with four straight losses. Tech would go on to end the year with a 13-20 record and a 5-11 mark in league play. Knight, to his credit, handled it extremely professionally, telling the school to announce their decision before the Big 12 Tournament started so as to make their search for a replacement go that much quicker.
The replacement they got, as we mentioned earlier, was Billy Gillispie. Personal issues aside, Tech is a perfect fit for Gillispie. He built both UTEP and Texas A&M into the programs they are today, and did so quickly. There is no question that this guy knows how to coach in Texas. It may take a while before he is able to rebuild this program, however. Only three players return from last year’s team. Robert Lewandowski is a 6’10’ senior that started 26 games and was the team’s fifth-leading scorer. Sophomores Javarez Willis and Jaye Crockett both came off the bench and had their moments. After that, its all newcomers. Gillispie brings in nine freshmen and three JuCo transfers. Some of them are fairly talented as well — Kevin Wagner, Terran Petteway, Jordan Tolbert and Todrick Gotcher. I would not be surprised to se Gillispie turn this program around. I just don’t expect it to happen this season.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.