Lessons learned as players at Montana aid three Division I head coaches

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There are 15 college programs can claim at least three alums among the 351 Division I head coaches. Name-brand programs — Duke and North Carolina, Arizona and Kentucky — are on that list. So are smaller schools, like Howard and Division III Catholic University.

Montana is on that list as well, as Larry Krystkowiak, Wayne Tinkle and Travis DeCuire have all followed a similar path in their respective coaching careers — former Montana player who eventually becomes a head coach at Montana at some point. You often hear about about the Carolina family or the Duke coaching tree, but up in Missoula, the Grizzlies have developed their very own coaching tree; a coaching tree that has produced the two favorites for Pac-12 Coach of the Year; a coaching tree that includes a Hall of Famer and dates all the way back to Jud Heathcote.

Heathcote served as head coach at Montana from 1971-76, posting an overall record of 80-53 before moving on to Michigan State. And after Jim Brandenburg took the reins for two seasons Mike Montgomery moved into the head coaching position, where he would eventually be followed by Stew Morrill and Blaine Taylor.

All three of those coaches would experience success at other stops in their respective careers. Montgomery made his name at Stanford before a short-lived stint in the NBA and, eventually, a few years at Cal. Taylor found success at Old Dominion, while Morrill turned Utah State into one of the nation’s best mid-major programs.

What’s noteworthy about the time those three spent in Missoula is that it intersected with that of Krystkowiak, Tinkle and DeCuire. Morrill, who will retire at the end of this season, coached both Krystkowiak and Tinkle, and he also added DeCuire to the program as a transfer before moving on to Colorado State.

And, according to him, it’s been administration’s willingness to foster continuity helped make Montana a successful basketball program.

“Jud Heathcote got it started, and we were all very fortunate that the administration was willing to hire the assistant coach time after time,” Morrill told NBCSports.com. “And it’s worked very well for them over the years. I got my start that way as a head coach, and I felt very fortunate to be in that position.”

It wasn’t an easy gig, however.

“There were high expectations; most of us only had one-year contracts,” Morrill added. “I was an assistant for Mike Montgomery for eight years and a head coach for five, and I always tell people that ‘I’ve been a coach for 29 years, but Montana was the most pressure I’ve felt.’ It was my first head coaching job, and the tradition had been established by the coaches who came before me.”

Krystkowiak was the first to arrive on the scene, as he was recruited by Montgomery and Morrill and went on to become the program’s greatest player. He won three Big Sky Player of the Year awards at Montana, and to this day he remains the school’s all-time leader in both points and rebounds. After playing more than a decade in the NBA, Krystkowiak embarked on what has been a successful coaching career, which includes a two-year stint at his alma mater (2004-06).

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Now in his fourth season as the head coach at Utah, Krystkowiak has revamped a storied program that fell on hard times prior to its move from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. The Utes, led by senior guard Delon Wright, are currently ranked ninth in both the AP and Coaches’ polls, and with a host of contributors having eligibility remaining beyond the current season, the future is bright in Salt Lake City as well.

Something that has helped Krystkowiak in the process is his time at Montana, where he was able to play for coaches who not only knew the game but also knew what it took to build a quality program.

“It’s just the grind, the process of having to start over, and how to tackle it,” Krystkowiak told NBCSports.com. “It can be overwhelming I think, so the important thing was to have a target of what you’re trying to accomplish in short periods of time and move on to the next thing. If you don’t have some patience and a blueprint for how to attack it, then it’s probably not going to be very successful.”

“So we just tried to stay consistent and try to make a little progress each day. There weren’t too many long-term goals; it’s more about ‘whatever the fire is right now, let’s put it out.'”

Tinkle, now the head coach at Oregon State, was a teammate of Krystkowiak’s for two seasons at Montana and also served on his coaching staff from 2004-06. And during the time they spent together as teammates, Tinkle saw qualities in Krystkowiak that have translated into him being a good head coach.

“Looking back on his playing days, the work ethic and the energy he brought is what I’ll always remember about him,” Tinkle told NBCSports.com last month. “Nobody outworked him, nobody out-hustled him; he was super-competitive. We got in scraps in pickup games during the spring and summer because if you lost, you had to sit awhile. That’s where I learned a lot about the level of competitiveness you needed to play with.”

“The two years I got to coach with him is really when I got to see the ‘intelligent’ part of his mind as far as scheming, X’s and O’s, and his understanding of the game,” Tinkle continued. “And then his demeanor, personality and drive all set pretty good standards as far as never getting too emotional and keeping yourself in control.”

Tinkle arrived on the Montana campus as a player in 1985, with Krystkowiak coming off of a sophomore season in which he won the first of his three Big Sky Player of the Year awards. Both Montgomery (one season) and Morrill (three seasons) served as head coach during Tinkle’s playing career, one in which he would earn first team All-Big Sky honors in each of his final three seasons and be named team MVP as both a junior and a senior. Tinkle’s playing career took him overseas for more than a decade, before returning to his alma mater as an assistant in 2003.

And like his former teammate, the times spent in Missoula have helped Tinkle put together an impressive head coaching record. Taking over for Krystkowiak in 2006, Tinkle went on an eight-year run in which the program won more than 63 percent of its games and made three NCAA tournament appearances. The success at Montana is what led to some being surprised when he made the decision to take over at Oregon State last spring.

After being an integral figure in a program that considers contending for conference titles to be the norm, Tinkle was moving to one that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since the father — Gary Payton — of the best player on this year’s team — Gary Payton II — was in Corvallis. But in deciding to make the move, Tinkle saw some similarities between the two communities that lead him to believe that he can turn Oregon State into a consistent winner.

“They’re both college towns that really rally behind the university,” Tinkle said. “And the fact that they’re blue-collar communities that just want to see the kids play their tails off and do things the right way.”

The first season at Oregon State has been much better than anyone anticipated back in October. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll, Oregon State is currently tied for fifth and 16-9 overall (7-6 Pac-12). The Beavers aren’t the deepest team, but with players such as Payton II, Malcolm Duvivier and Langston Morris-Walker leading the way Oregon State has relied on its defense to this point in the season.

In conference games Oregon State is ranked second in the Pac-12 in both field goal and three-point percentage defense, and they also lead the Pac-12 in blocked shots per game. With a respected recruiting class signed up for next season, the future appears bright for Oregon State. But the current players can help set the tone, since the majority of them will return next season, and that’s something Tinkle’s players have embraced.

“We brought that up early on, with the hype of [the 2015 recruiting] class. They’re here right now, and in some respects we’re all kind of auditioning for the future,” Tinkle noted. “This is the way we want to do things and if you guys do it, we’re going to build something really neat and if you don’t you might not be here. But then we also said, ‘those guys are going to have to go through the rigors and the hard times just like you, nothing’s going to be handed to them’ and I think they appreciated hearing that.

“They did say, ‘why wait, let’s buy in and see what we can make happen in year one.’ Because I think they saw the effort that the staff was putting in. We’re all earning paychecks this year so we’re all grinding away, and we didn’t want to be anyone’s doormat.”

With Tinkle moving on, Montana made the decision in June to hire Travis DeCuire as its new head coach. Like Krystkowiak and Tinkle before him DeCuire was also a productive player at Montana, earning first-team All-Big Sky honors as both a junior and senior and remains the school’s all-time assists leader. DeCuire landed at Montana as a transfer after spending one season at Hawaii Pacific, and while he didn’t get to play for Morrill in actual games (his redshirt year was Morrill’s final one at Montana) the point guard certainly made an impression on the coach.

“He came from a great high school program in Mercer Island, Washington, and his high school coach Ed Pepple swore by him. I mean this in the most positive way: he was just a cocky little point guard,” Morrill said. “He had great days ahead of him as a player, and you could see that he had the things you hoped to have in a point guard even though he wasn’t playing in games.”

DeCuire’s last coaching stop prior to returning to Montana was at Cal, where he served on Montgomery’s staff for six seasons (assistant for four, associate head coach for the last two). Like Krystkowiak and Tinkle before him, DeCuire can speak from experience the impact that the school and community have had on Montana basketball over the years.

The relationship has helped Montana not only become one of the Big Sky’s preeminent programs, but to establish a level of consistency that allows them to enter most seasons with realistic thoughts of winning a conference title and reaching the NCAA tournament. That relationship is also what sold DeCuire as a player when he was going through the recruiting process.

“The dream was there, and I believed in what was being sold,” DeCuire noted when asked about his recruitment, with the passion of the Montana fan base also standing out. “There weren’t many programs that were comparable in terms of fan passion and attendance.”

It’s with the tradition of success and a passionate fan base that DeCuire looks to lead Montana back to the top of the Big Sky, and with two starters and seven lettermen returning from last season’s 17-win squad he wasn’t left with an empty cupboard. After going through a tough non-conference slate that included double-overtime losses at Boise State and California, Montana’s 10-3 in Big Sky play with two of the defeats being close losses to Sacramento State (10-3) and Eastern Washington (10-2).

Martin Bruenig (16.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), who sat out last season after transferring in from Washington, is averaging just under 17 points per game in conference play and has been one of the Big Sky’s best front court players. And in guards Jordan Gregory (16.8, 3.3 apg) and Mario Dunn (8.9, 4.0 apg), the Grizzlies have a solid perimeter tandem to lean on as they look to make a run at their third Big Sky title in the last four seasons.

The key in doing that boils down to one word: consistency, especially when it comes to turnovers. If Montana can play more efficiently, they’ll have a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament after missing out a season ago.

“Our efficiency needs to improve down the stretch,” DeCuire said. “We were up 13 at Sacramento State before losing that game, and turnovers hurt us against Eastern Washington as well.”

While DeCuire adds his chapter to the Montana history books, what helps is the fact that the blueprint has been set for years. From Heathcote to Montgomery, and from Montgomery to Morrill and Taylor, the Montana program has led to success not only in Missoula but in other locales as well. And given what Krystkowiak, Tinkle and DeCuire have been able to do in their respective coaching careers, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

“I just think back to [Montgomery and Morrill’s] commitment to the fundamentals of the game, and how you went about life in general, were the main ingredients of what Montana basketball was and is.” Tinkle noted. “A lot of times you can get lost in all the nonsense. What winning programs come down to are the small things that become big things in the ‘big picture.'”

Mid-Majors that will crash the dance in March

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It’s always fun to root for the little guy.

When March Madness rolls around next spring, there will be a number of conferences with one bid to cheer for against bigger, power conference opponents. What makes this year’s mid-major crop particularly intriguing is the number of returning NCAA tournament teams who have almost full teams coming back.

In an era where smaller schools are getting hit harder with transfers each offseason, seeing NCAA tournament teams like Liberty, Vermont, New Mexico State, Colgate and North Dakota State stay together should be a fun storyline to follow as they are some of a handful of mid-major teams to keep tabs on this season.

A programming note: We did not include schools from the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West while Saint Mary’s and BYU were left off the list as well. It’s not that those programs aren’t good or worth talking about, but at this point I think we all know schools like VCU and Utah State are going to be pretty good. 



LIBERTY (Atlantic Sun)

Making the Round of 32 and knocking out Mississippi State last season, Liberty has another chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament with four returning starters. Two fifth-year seniors have a chance to earn Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors as wing Caleb Homesley and forward Scottie James are standout players. Homesley lit up the Bulldogs for 30 in the first-round NCAA upset while James is a three-year starter and double-double threat. Senior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and junior guard Elijah Cuffee both started every game and logged heavy minutes for a 29-win team last season as the Flames have a ton of returning talent and experience. With six neutral site games and road games at Vanderbilt and LSU, Liberty will also test themselves in non-conference play.

VERMONT (America East)

Putting a scare into Florida State in the first round last season, Vermont could easily win multiple games in the NCAA tournament with many key players returning. Once America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb pulled his name out of the NBA Draft the senior became the league’s best returning player. The last three years, the Catamounts are a ridiculous 45-3 in the America East with 83 overall wins. This could be the season they finally break through. Lamb will have significant help on the interior with grad transfer big man Daniel Giddens. The former four-star recruit spent time at Ohio State and Alabama and adds instant experience and credibility inside that the Catamounts lacked.

Junior Stef Smith is another returning double-figure scorer to keep tabs on, and, of course, there are two more Duncans still at Vermont after Ernie Duncan moved on from a prolific four-year career. Robin Duncan was an All-Rookie Team selection in the conference while Everett Duncan is a noted floor spacer with some starts in his career. Vermont has early road tests at St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale and Cincinnati.

NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

Before Auburn made a surprising Final Four run last season they were nearly ousted by the Aggies in the first round in a one-point game. Although New Mexico State loses experienced rebounding ace Eli Chuha from that group, they return 10 of their 13 rotation players — including eight seniors. A deep and balanced team coming off of a 30-win season, New Mexico State has continued to dominate the WAC under head coach Chris Jans. Terrell Brown and AJ Harris are the top scorers to return as they form a great backcourt along with productive forward Ivan Aurrecoechea and WAC Tournament MVP Trevelin Queen. With a top 40 offense on KenPom, this group gets it done a number of different ways on offense while wearing you down with the deepest rotation in the country (per KenPom) last season.

HARVARD (Ivy)

The Ivy League’s most experienced team combines the conference’s top recruiting class to form a very dangerous team. The Crimson have two Ivy Player of the Year candidates in point guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns — who missed all of last season due to injury. Aiken is capable of scoring outbursts on any night while having Towns back will be huge for Harvard’s frontcourt. Even without Towns playing last season, Harvard managed an NIT appearance and win over Georgetown. Now, all five starters from last season, Towns and a recruiting class led by four-star forward Chris Ledlum have their sights set on an Ivy title and possibly more. Head coach Tommy Amaker has had plenty of talented teams at Harvard but this group will have some of the highest expectations in recent years.

COLGATE (Patriot)

For only the third time in program history, Colgate made the NCAA tournament last season. Expectations are sky high this season after the Raiders gave Tennessee a solid game in the first round with four starters coming back. Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas returns as the solid-shooting forward is skilled and capable of big games. Dynamic point guard Jordan Burns is also back as he can get hot from the perimeter while also being a very good distributor. Senior forward Will Rayman also returns along with reigning Patriot Rookie of the Year Tucker Richardson at guard. The Raiders have star power from multiple spots and veteran shot makers at multiple positions. If Colgate plugs its hole from center and finds some bench pop they could roll through the Patriot once again.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA)

Rick Stansbury could finally have the talent to take Western Kentucky back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. With the return of potential All-American big man Charles Bassey, the Hilltoppers have four starters back as Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage are three double-figure scorers around Bassey. Perimeter shooting, a major weakness for Western Kentucky a season ago, should also be improved with the addition of IUPUI transfer Camron Justice. Replacing Lamonte Bearden at point guard will be key to the Hilltoppers’ ceiling. If Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper is cleared right away by the NCAA then he’d help a ton while talented four-star freshman Jordan Rawls could also be called on. After falling in the Conference USA Tournament title game in back-to-back seasons, this could be the Western Kentucky team that makes a run.

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit)

Winning a First Four battle against NC Central before losing to Duke in the NCAA tournament, the Bison return all five starters and most of a deep rotation from a 19-win team. A team that is designed to space the floor at multiple spots and limit turnovers, North Dakota State doesn’t have any individual star but they should be one of the deepest mid-major teams in the country. Senior guards Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward are the team’s leading scorers while vital role players return throughout the roster. As long as the Bison are knocking down three-pointers and improve on their No. 292 KenPom defense from last season and they’ll be in good position to make it back to the Dance.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon)

Coming off of a 24-win campaign, the Bucs have six key players coming back as the return of double-double forward Jeromy Rodriguez was huge. A program that has averaged 25 wins per season in four years under head coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State has two very strong shooters in elite bench scorer Tray Boyd III and junior guard Patrick Good. All-conference guard Bo Hodges is also back for the Bucs along with emerging sophomore guard Daivien Williamson. For a program that is consistently competing for the the postseason, this could be the most talented team Forbes has had during his time with the Bucs.

BUFFALO (MAC)

Head coach Nate Oats (Alabama) and five seniors moved on from the Bulls but there is still plenty of talent back for a program looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six seasons. Veteran coach Jim Whitesell takes over after four years as an Oats assistant. The former Loyola coach has returning talent at his disposal. Two starting guards return in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan as they form a strong defensive backcourt who should score more. Sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu are also expected to contribute more with Williams being a potential breakout star. Transfers will also help as wing Gabe Grant (Houston) and guard Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) are both eligible after sitting out last season. New pieces have to fit together under a new coach but Oats didn’t leave the roster bare when he left for the SEC. There is still plenty of talent for Buffalo to have another strong season.

BRADLEY (MVC)

Surprisingly winning the Missouri Valley tournament and giving Final Four team Michigan State a tough first-round matchup, the Braves return their three top scorers. Senior guard and first-team All-Valley guard Darrell Brown has nearly 100 starts under his belt as he’s a tough-minded two-way leader. Junior forward Elijah Childs, a third-team all-conference player, also showed flurries of elite play in becoming one of the league’s most improved players last season. And senior sharpshooter Nate Kennel can knock down shots from nearly anywhere on the floor. The Braves lose three vital senior glue guys but figure to replace those minutes with emerging sophomore Ja’Shon Henry and two bigs in Koch Bar and Ari Boya. LSU transfer guard Danya Kingsby is also a potential perimeter option to run alongside Brown.

Bulked up, Jack Nunge aims to bolster Iowa after redshirting

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — In an era when many college basketball players want to speed up their careers in hopes of going pro, Iowa’s Jack Nunge took an unusual step back last season.

The sophomore redshirted for the Hawkeyes, and they hope that will help him blossom into an impact post player this winter.

The 6-foot-11 Nunge, who started 14 games as a freshman in 2017-18, took the next season off partly because Iowa wanted to balance out its frontcourt depth for the next few seasons and partly so he could bulk up. Nunge’s work behind the scenes — along with the expected loss of star forward Tyler Cook to the NBA — should put him in position to compete for significant minutes this season.

Iowa (23-12 in 2018-19), which is coming off its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons, opens on Nov. 8 against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.

“I just thought it was the best decision for me, my skill development and to get to, ultimately, where I want to be,” Nunge said Wednesday during the team’s annual media day. “I got a lot stronger. I got to work on my game a lot.”

Nunge undoubtedly could have helped the Hawkeyes a season ago. He and the coaching staff instead bet that Nunge — one of a staggering seven forwards on Iowa’s roster in 2018-19 — would best help the program moving forward by redshirting.

Nunge had a promising freshman season, ranking second on the team with 25 blocked shots, fourth with 21 steals and fifth with 5.7 points a game. He said he has put on between 10-15 pounds since last playing.

“Physically, he is in a completely different place, especially as it relates to his ability to do things in the post,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He was always a good post player, but he was on the thin side. He’s not on the thin side anymore. He’s finishing plays. Defensively, he’s always had tremendous defensive instincts, so now you have a bigger body to combat talented players in this league.”

How the Hawkeyes use Nunge in nonconference play will be one of their more interesting story lines ahead of Big Ten play.

Nunge is now listed at 245 pounds, but he also has a surprisingly strong shot for a guy his size, shooting 40% on 3s and 80% from the line in earning Mr. Basketball finalist honors as a prep senior in Indiana.

Those numbers dipped to 33.3% from beyond the arc and 75.5% from the line as a college freshman, but Nunge’s potential as a big man who can stretch the floor and create space for All-Big Ten honorable mention Luka Garza, emerging scorer Joe Wieskamp and others remains intriguing.

“Being a mismatch guy,” Nunge said when asked about his role. “Taking somebody who may not be as good on defense on the outside, or posting up a smaller guy down below.”

Nunge won’t be guaranteed a starting spot, with Ryan Kriener and Cordell Pemsl also competing for frontcourt minutes. Nunge might have an inside track at playing alongside Garza quite a bit at power forward.

“He’s a great shooter. Tremendous shooter. Really stretches the floor well,” Garza said. “He’s really comfortable on the block now as opposed to earlier in his career.”

Oregon freshman Dante ruled ineligible

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Oregon’s freshman N’Faly Dante will be ineligible to play until at least Dec. 14th.

The five-star freshman released a statement to Shams Charania of Stadium on Tuesday morning indicating that he will will not be allowed to play during the first six weeks of the season.

“On December 14, 2019, I plan to enroll and play college basketball with the University of Oregon,” Dante’s statement read. “I have completed my academic requirements and am currently waiting for the NCAA eligibility process to finalize.

“Every prospective student athletes that purchases an NCAA Eligibility Center ID, regardless of their gender or origin, should be entitled to a timely and transparent process that’s in line with the student’s targeted enrollment date.”

Dante is one of eight newcomers to the Oregon program this season. The Ducks are a preseason top 25 team, currently sitting 12th in the NBC Sports Top 25. Dante is their highest-rated freshmen, but with UNLV grad transfer Shakur Juiston in Eugene, Dante was not necessarily going to be a starter from day one.

Big 12 Preview Podcast: Kings stay King in … Kansas?

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Rob Dauster was joined this week by Travis Hines to talk through each and every team in the Big 12. Can Kansas start a new streak? Is everything happening around the program going to be too much for them to overcome? Just how good is Texas Tech? Can Baylor make a run at the league title? Where does Kansas State drop off to? Why is Texas so interesting this year?

Here is the full rundown or the league:

Baylor: 4:20

Iowa State: 10:15

Kansas: 18:51

Kansas State: 31:19

TCU: 37:05

Oklahoma State: 42:40

Oklahoma: 47:00

Texas: 53:15

Texas Tech: 1:05:30

West Virginia: 1:12:35

Big 12 Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and a return to glory for the Kansas Jayhawks

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.



It finally happened.

For the first time since President George W. Bush’s first term, Kansas did not win the Big 12 regular season title.

It was a remarkable run of 14 years, but it came to an end thanks to a roster that just wasn’t up to the task after an injury to Udoka Azubuike when combined with the ascendancy of Texas Tech and Kansas State. Those Red Raiders now look to be potentially a perennial threat to the Jayhawks after Chris Beard got them to within seconds of a national championship last April despite roster losses from the previous year that looked too large to overcome.

Despite last year’s results, Kansas is again the heavy favorite heading into this season after retooling the roster. Other 2019 contenders suffered major losses, but there is enough talent and experience across the league to think the Jayhawks will have to truly earn the start of a second streak.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. KANSAS REMAINS KING

The Jayhawks’ 14-year streak of winning at least a share of the Big 12 title came to an end last spring, but don’t get it twisted. The Jayhawks remain the class of this conference. They struck gold with Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson electing to return alongside Silvio De Sousa, whose impermissible benefits suspension was reduced by the NCAA to make him eligible this season. Other contributors return while Iowa sharpshooter Isaiah Moss grad-transferred in. Kansas is not only the Big 12 favorite, but a leading national title contender.

Of course, the on-court exploits is just half the story this year for Kansas. The NCAA leveled an aggressive notice of allegations on the program stemming from the FBI’s investigation into the sport, and the Jayhawks, along with Bill Self, will be facing plenty of questions – and perhaps developments from – the situation all year. There may not be, however, a program more adept at successfully dealing with controversy than Kansas.

Unless it involves Snoop Dogg. Then they’re not great at it. So just avoid Snoop for the foreseeable future, fellas.

2. TEXAS TECH ISN’T GOING ANYWHERE

We all came to appreciate just how great Texas Tech was last year, but it’s worth revisiting how they got there. Remember back to the spring of 2018. That’s when Chris Beard and Keenan Evans being a badass and Zhaire Smith turning into a top-20 NBA draft pick as the Red Raiders made the Elite Eight. Those two then left, along with Zach Smith and Justin Gray. Those are massive losses to endure, and, yet, somehow, Texas Tech got even better. Seconds away from a national title better. Pretty insane.

So despite another spring of heavy losses, including top-10 pick Jarrett Culver, the prevailing wisdom is not only will Beard’s team be a Big 12 contender again, they’re a preseason top-10 team. Doubt them at your own peril after what they pulled off last year. Graduate transfers Chris Clarke and TJ Holyfield are probably going to be the keys to how far Texas Tech can go in replicating last year’s success.

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3. BAYLOR IS A TITLE CONTENDER

Scott Drew really has done an amazing job in Waco. It’s been fascinating to watch his career progression, from being the butt of national jokes to now being nationally recognized for being a legitimately skilled coach. The Bears used to be a team that would load up on huge talent, but have been a grittier group as of late.

Now it seems like Drew has a nice mixture of both, even if it doesn’t feature the NBA draft lottery talent of yesteryear. Tristan Clark returns after a knee injury cost him the second half of last season after he had been on a tear. Much of the nucleus from last year’s team also returns while transfers MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell are also going to contribute.

The Bears are going to be good.

4. THE BEST NBA PROSPECT IN THE LEAGUE LIVES IN AMES

Iowa State was the Big 12’s most talented team last year, and it saw two players (Talen Horton-Tucker and Marial Shayok) go in the second round of the NBA draft and a third (Lindell Wigginton) land an Exhibit 10 contract. The Cyclones’ best NBA prospect, however, returned to school for his sophomore season without so much as even testing the NBA waters.

Tyrese Haliburton is the envy of plenty NBA decision makers as a lengthy 6-foot-5 guard with high shooting percentages and an even higher basketball IQ. He was relegated to a supporting role last year on a loaded Cyclone roster, but he’ll take on a huge amount of responsibility this season. If he can show that he can shoulder it – and more of a scoring load – he could find himself in the lottery conversation.

5. TEXAS IS NOTHING IF NOT INTERESTING

I think there’s only one of two ways this goes for Texas this season. Either the Longhorns are really good, and Shaka Smart is lauded for finally having his breakthrough season in Austin despite not having the lottery picks he’s had in the past, or the Longhorns aren’t great and the only discussion anyone wants to have about them is regarding Smart’s job security.

If Texas is so-so or even just merely good, that’s probably not enough to quell the questions given the level of expectations – and piles of cash – that were heaped on Smart when he arrived from VCU. So, either win big or face a lot of questions. Either way, it’ll interesting to track from the outside.

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PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This will be the fourth season on campus for the 7-foot-1, 270-pound, but we’ve only seen one healthy season from him. That year was pretty dang impressive, though, as Azubuike averaged 13 points, seven rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 77 percent from the floor (insert eye and flame emoji here). He missed most of last season with a bum wrist, but eschewed going pro to return to Lawrence, where he’s likely a preseason All-American. He’s a old-school, back-to-the-basket big, which while out of vogue, is incredible difficult to stop when it comes in such a large and skilled package like Azubuike. He’s a singular force in the league – and maybe the country.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State: An NBA draftnik darling, Haliburton had a strong freshman season, but will step into a much bigger role as a sophomore.
  • DEREK CULVER, West Virginia: West Virginia won’t have a ton of talent this year, but Culver is the exception.
  • DEVON DOTSON, Kansas: After a bumpy start, Dotson blossomed late last season and should be even better this season.
  • CHRIS CLARKE, Texas Tech: Clarke put up nice numbers at Virginia Tech, but this is a bet that Chris Beard can wring even more out of him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • DESMOND BANE, TCU
  • OSCAR TSHIEBWE, West Virginia
  • TRISTAN CLARK, Baylor
  • DAVIDE MORETTI, Texas Tech
  • BRADY MANEK, Oklahoma

BREAKOUT STAR: Lindy Waters, Oklahoma State

At 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds with athleticism and a pure jumper, Lindy Waters is the type of player coaches across the country covet. He’s steadily improved all three years he’s been in Stillwater, and now looks poised to potentially be the type of star that could propel Oklahoma State into the surprise team in the league. A double-digit scorer with length that shot 45 percent from 3-point range last year, Waters has a lot of tools to be great.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Shaka Smart, Texas

After years of turning down big jobs, Shaka Smart finally left VCU in 2015 to take one of the plummest jobs in the country. Texas has big money and a big brand, but modest expectations. Smart’s arrival was supposed to awaken the Longhorns after years of malaise under Rick Barnes. Instead, Barnes has made Tennessee a national contender while Smart and Texas have languished in mediocrity. It, simply, just hasn’t worked out very well.

That’s not to say it’s been a catastrophe – it hasn’t been – but two NCAA tournament appearances, zero tournament wins and one last-place finish just doesn’t match the expectations of what Texas could and should be. This year’s team is probably going to be just fine, but, again, is that the goal? Texas doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to move on from Smart – or his $10 million buyout – but if it’s another so-so year, does Smart look for the exit on his own, potentially with a lucrative landing spot that’s a better fit?

Shaka Smart (Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Big 12 is again one of the strongest leagues in the country, but probably doesn’t have as many Final Four threats as it’s had in years past.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Kansas winning a national title and giving Snoop Dogg – and his acrobatic dancers? – a championship ring.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 5, Kansas vs. Duke
  • Dec. 8, Iowa State vs. Seton Hall
  • Dec. 7, Baylor vs. Arizona
  • Dec. 10, Texas Tech vs. Louisville
  • Dec. 21, Kansas vs. Villanova

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Last year would have been perfectly acceptable for most programs across the country, but the Jayhawks ain’t that, are they? So they’re back this season as one of the two or three best teams in the country, and not only will they likely start a new Big 12 streak, but they could get Bill Self that second national title as well.

2. BAYLOR: It’s easy to forget that Tristan Clark was one of the most productive players in the Big 12 last year before his injury, but his return to Waco makes the Bears formidable with much of last year’s core also back and transfers MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell also in the fold.

3. TEXAS TECH: The Red Raiders are essentially trying to do this year what they did last: Replace a huge amount of talent and production without missing a beat. Given they’re projected by most as a top-10 team, there’s a lot of confidence they’ll be able to pull it off. That’s a vote of confidence in Chris Beard that few other coaches – especially with a relatively limited head-coaching track record – are given. Beard, though, is that good.

4. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones lost five of their top seven players from last year’s team, but there’s optimism in Ames with starters Tyrese Haliburton and Michael Jacobson returning, Solomon Young back from injury and the injury sophomore center George Conditt IV stepping into a bigger role. The reason to be real bullish on Iowa State, though, the newcomers who should bolster the roster in a big way. Prentiss Nixon is eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from Colorado State while Rasir Bolton, who averaged 11 ppg as a freshman at Penn State, is immediately eligible and fills a huge scoring need on the perimeter. The Cyclones lost a ton, but probably won’t take a significant step back.

5. OKLAHOMA STATE: Last year was a total and complete train wreck for the Cowboys. Players got kicked off the team, and the team mostly got kicked around the Big 12. Here’s guessing that changes this year. All five starters are back, including the aforementioned Lindy Waters. Isaac Likekele was one of the standouts at the FIBA U19s for Team USA. Yor Anei is one of the best shot blockers in the country. Thomas Dziagwa and Cameron McGriff are proven Big 12 players. That’s a great foundation.

Mike Boynton (John Weast/Getty Images)

And on top of that, Mike Boynton welcomes a top-25 recruiting class and UMass grad transfer Jonathan Laurent, who shot 46.7 percent from 3-point range last year. They could easily be the surprise contender in the conference this season.

6. TEXAS: There are a lot of nice pieces in Austin, but probably no lottery pick, which is something Shaka Smart has had the benefit of early in his tenure. You could argue this might be Smart’s least-talented team. Again, plenty of solid players, but are there any true gamechangers?

7. OKLAHOMA: Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek return from last year’s NCAA tournament team while Long Kruger also gets Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves and top-50 recruit De’Vion Harmon, but the rest of the roster looks thin.

Kruger is one of the country’s best coaches, so he could get enough out of this group to get another tourney appearance, but it’ll be tough sledding against the rest of the Big 12. Luckily for them, flirting with .500 in this league keeps you in the Selection Sunday discussion.

8. KANSAS STATE: Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade are gone, ending an era in Manhattan that saw an Elite Eight and a Big 12 title. Those three, particularly Wade, were really the face and heart of the program in its recent run of success. Their losses will be hard to overcome.

The Wildcats do, though, return Xavier Sneed, a bona fide NBA prospect along with Makol Mawein, Carter Diarra and Mike McGuirl. That’s a solid group, but is there enough scoring there? And can they be as excellent defensively as the last two years?

9. TCU: By many accounts, Jamie Dixon would be the coach at UCLA in his native southern California if the Bruins would have ponied up the $8 million it would have cost to buy him out of Fort Worth. That didn’t happen, though, and Dixon remains with his alma mater, albeit with a weaker roster than he’s had the past couple seasons.

The Horned Frogs suffered quite a bit of attrition, but still have Desmond Bane, one of the league’s best shooters, and Kevin Samuel, one of the conference’s promising young big men. RJ Nembhard, who has shown promising flashes, steps into a bigger role and George Mason transfer Jaire Grayer will help, but it’s hard to see this TCU team competing near the upper-half of the conference.

10. WEST VIRGINIA: Bob Huggins didn’t hide his disdain for his team throughout last year’s last-place finish, but the Mountaineers did show some signs of life late in the year after booting a couple players. Still, Huggins called last year’s campaign “miserable” as losses mounted.

West Virginia could be in line for a similar season despite bringing in McDonald’s All-american Oscar Tsheibwe, a center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan that could remind those in Morgantown of Sagaba Konate. It’s usually not a good idea to doubt what Huggins can get out of his teams, but looking at his roster relative to the rest of the Big 12, it looks like another last-place finish is in order.