2014-15 Season Preview: Kansas will have competition atop Big 12

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Wayne Selden, Jr. (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Big 12.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

The last time that Kansas did not win at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title was Bill Self’s first season with the Jayhawks. That was back in 2004, when the Big 12 still had 12 teams and the likes of Texas A&M, Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri were still playing in a league that made geographic sense. The Jayhawks finished second that season, two games behind an Oklahoma State team coached by Eddie Sutton and led by now-grizzled Grizzly veteran Tony Allen.

Kansas will, once again, be the favorite to win the league’s regular season title, but it won’t be a cakewalk, as there are four other teams in the league very capable of taking home a regular season title.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

For the first time in a long time, the same ten teams that ended last season in the Big 12 will begin next year in the league as well.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kansas reloads … again. But there are questions at the point … again: The Jayhawks lost two players that were picked in the top three of the 2014 NBA Draft and they could end up being better this season than they were last season. Part of that is the addition Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, and part of that is that Wayne Selden will be healthy. Throw in Perry Ellis, and that’s four guys that can be first team All-Big 12 players this season. But as has been the case since Sherron Collins graduated, the Jayhawks will have point guard question marks. Can Devonte’ Graham or Frank Mason take ownership of the role?

2. But that doesn’t mean the road to Title XI will be easy: Kansas may be the favorite, but there are four other teams capable of winning the Big 12 title. Texas and Iowa State are probably the Jayhawks’ two biggest contenders. Texas returns essentially their entire roster from last year’s tournament team, adding a top ten recruit in Myles Turner to the mix. The Longhorns have a massive front line and one of the nation’s best point guards in sophomore Isaiah Taylor. The question will be how Rick Barnes will get Turner on the floor at the same time as Cam Ridley and Johnathan Holmes.

The Cyclones will be led by Georges Niang, but he’s a known quantity at this point. Iowa State’s three keys are players that are more of a question mark. Monte’ Morris was sensational in limited minutes as a freshman, but how good will he be in a full-time point guard role? Bryce Dejean-Jones has the talent to be a star, but he’s never had the shot selection to play like it. And Jameel McKay can be the rim-protector that Fred Hoiberg has lacked in his tenure in Ames, but what kind of impact will he have when he gets eligible in December?

3. Tashawn Thomas will be the x-factor in the league race: As far as Oklahoma is concerned, their back court of Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard and Isiah Cousins is loaded. Ryan Spangler is one of the most underrated big men in the country. That’s enough to make them a top 25 team. But if Houston transfer Tashawn Thomas gets a waiver to be eligible immediately, than the Sooners are a legitimate Big 12 title contender and a team that will look more like a Final Four contender than a Sweet 16 candidate.

4. No. 2 on that list? Kansas State’s transfers: We know about Marcus Foster, and we know that one of Nigel Johnson or Jevon Thomas will need to own that point guard role. But the key to the season will be their three transfers: Stephen Hurt, Brandon Bolden and Justin Edwards. Edwards is a high-flying wing that can score in bunches and would be a nice compliment to Foster, while Hurt and Bolden will provide the kind of height in the paint the Wildcats have lacked in recent years.

source: AP
Juwan Staten (AP Photo)

5. There may not be a league with more individual talent in the country: And that’s despite losing Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart, Deandre Kane and Isaiah Austin. Kansas has their Big Four. Niang, Hield and Foster could both end up being first-team all-americans. Taylor and Holmes were the stars for Texas last season, and freshman Turner could end up being their best player this season. And all this ignores the fact that Juwan Staten will be the league’s Preseason Player of the Year.

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Juwan Staten, West Virginia

Staten was one of the nation’s most improved players in the country a season ago, averaging 18.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 boards as a junior after spending his sophomore year as “just a guy”. The Mountaineers lose some key pieces from last year’s team, meaning that the 5-foot-11 Staten is going to have his work cut out for him if he wants to play in the NCAA tournament as a senior, but that shouldn’t take away from just how talented of a player he is.

THE REST OF THE ALL-BIG 12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Georges Niang, Iowa State, Jr.: Niang has cut 25 pounds this offseason, meaning one of the toughest matchups in the country will be that much better offensively.
  • Buddy Hield, Oklahoma, Jr.: Hield developed a reputation for being one of the league’s best perimeter defenders as a freshman. As a sophomore, he averaged 16.4 points. What comes next this season?
  • Marcus Foster, Kansas State, So.: Foster was one of the nation’s biggest surprises as a freshman last season. He’ll spend more time with the ball in his hands this year.
  • Perry Ellis, Kansas, Jr.: Once again, Ellis will watch as his teammates — Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander, Wayne Selden — get more acclaim, but don’t be surprised when he ends up as the leading Jayhawk scorer this season.

SIX MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Isaiah Taylor, Texas, So.
  • Kenny Chery, Baylor, Sr.
  • Cliff Alexander, Kansas, Fr.
  • Kelly Oubre, Kansas, Fr.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas, So.
  • Johnathan Holmes, Texas, Sr.

BREAKOUT STAR: The popular pick here is going to be Monte’ Morris; we were on that bandwagon when we picked him for this list, so we’ll give you another option here. Last season, Wayne Selden spent much of the year overshadowed by fellow freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid while he tried to battle through a knee issue that limited his explosiveness. Well, he underwent a procedure this summer on that balky knee and is now back to 100% healthy. With the amount of talent that the Jayhawks have on their roster, Selden’s season long numbers may not look like Marcus Foster’s or Juwan Staten’s, but don’t be surprised if he becomes one of the nation’s best off-guards.

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Travis Ford (Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Last year was the year for Oklahoma State to be a serious contender. Not only did they get a gift with Marcus Smart returning for his sophomore season, but they teamed him up with Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and a roster full of quality role players. But Michael Cobbins blew his achilles tendon, Stevie Clark got himself thrown off the team and Smart spent the season out of control, resulting in a No. 9 seed in the tournament and an opening round exit. Travis Ford has a massive buyout, but that doesn’t mean that his job is safe.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : There’s a chance that three or four Big 12 teams end up in the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT … : The fact that the Big 12 is the lone power conference that still plays a double round-robin. Home-and-homes for the top five teams in this league will be fun.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 18th, Kansas vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • Nov. 26th, Oklahoma at UCLA
  • Nov. 30th, Texas at UConn
  • Dec. 5th, Texas at Kentucky (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
  • Dec. 5th, Florida at Kansas (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @FranFraschilla

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kansas: The Jayhawks are the most talented team in the league despite the fact that they lost two players that were picked in the top three of the 2014 NBA Draft.
2. Texas: The Longhorns have the best front line in the conference, and maybe the best front line in the country outside of Kentucky. Johnathan Holmes play at the three will be the x-factor.
3. Iowa State: The Cyclones could push for a league title if three things happen: Monte’ Morris pans out, Bryce Dejean-Jones buys in and Jameel McKay is a defensive difference-maker.
4. Oklahoma: This is assuming Tashawn Thomas is not given a waiver to play immediately. If he does get a waiver, the Sooners jump up to No. 2.
5. Kansas State: Marcus Foster is one of the best players in the conference, but question marks at the point and at center limit their upside.
6. Baylor: The Bears lost Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson, but Kenny Chery should be able to lead this group back to the NCAA tournament.
7. West Virginia: Getting Juwan Staten back for his senior season was huge, but losing Eron Harris hurt quite a bit as well.
8. Oklahoma State: Everything all falls on Le’Bryan Nash this season. Can he carry the load.
9. TCU: Kyan Anderson, Amric Fields, Trey Zeigler, Devonta Abron, Karviar Shepard, Chris Washburn. There is talent on this roster.
10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders snuck up on some people last year, but after losing four of their top five scorers, they’ll have to prove it again this season.