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SEC Preview: Kentucky’s favored, but watch for Vandy, Texas A&M

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

As has been the case for much of the recent past, the SEC shakes out like this: Kentucky, and then everyone else. Part of that is a result of just how good the Wildcats are and have been. Part of that is due to the fact that the SEC is a football league with the hoops side of things playing catchup. And while the gap is closing, it may be a few years before the impact is truly apparent.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is loaded again … obviously: It’s standard at this point. This group is likely not going to be making a run at 40-0 like last year’s group, but they will be making a run at a national title. Skal Labissiere will be the nation’s best big man. Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe will make up the nation’s best back court. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress will get their shot, finally.

2. But they may not have the best freshman in the league: That title could end up going to LSU’s Ben Simmons, who, along with Skal, is a favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Tigers are loaded with talent this year. Along with Simmons, they bring in McDonald’s All-American Antonio Blakeney, top 40 recruit Brandon Sampson and Arizona transfer Craig Victor. Throw in returnees like Tim Quarterman, Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, and LSU, on paper, is a top 15 team. But head coach Johnny Jones has underachieved with talented rosters before. Is this the year they break through?

3. Vanderbilt will be the second-best team in the conference: It’s tough to call them a sleeper at this point because they’re getting plenty of pub, but the Commodores are the odds-on pick to finish second in the conference behind the Wildcats. They’re anchored by Damian James, who may be the most under-appreciated player in college basketball. The 6-foot-10 junior is a legitimate All-American candidate. Throw in talented sophomores Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance, and another promising recruiting class, and head coach Kevin Stallings has more than enough pieces to put together something special in Nashville. Vandy won eight of their last ten regular season games last year after starting SEC play 1-7.

4. Coaching turnover: There has been an impressive influx of coaching talent into the SEC this year, although the league did lose arguably the best coach in the sport.

  • Billy Donovan left for Oklahoma City, leaving Florida in an interesting spot with new coach Mike White. More on them in a minute.
  • Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland took over for Rick Ray at Mississippi State and immediately reeled in Malik Newman, a top ten freshman in the class.
  • Donnie Tyndall was fired due to the scandal he was involved in at Southern Miss, but Tennessee went out and picked up former Texas coach Rick Barnes.
  • Alabama missed on Gregg Marshall but they did land Avery Johnson.
  • And don’t forget, in his second season at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has things rolling on the recruiting trail

5. Keep an eye on Texas A&M, too: Billy Kennedy is not a new hire by any stretch of the imagination, but his new assistant coach — Rick Stansbury — is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail. The Aggies have a loaded recruiting class, one that is going to be afforded the luxury of a year’s worth of seasoning as veterans Danuel House, Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Alex Robinson lead the way this year. This is a group that can reach the Sweet 16.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Kentucky. For sure. One pro leaves, and any pro comes in. Skal is as good as anyone they’ve had and Jamal Murray can play either guard spot, but Tyler Ulis will make them go. He can lead, and he’s perfect in his role with those other guys around them.
  • Sleeper:
    • “Mississippi State is under the radar, with Malik Newman and Ben Howland coming in. But they’re starting to get attention, so I’ll go with South Carolina. They have a lot returning. Their ability to shoot is always a question, but [freshman P.J.]Dozier can really open things up.”
    • “Georgia. They’ve got really good guards and seemingly no one is talking about them.”
  • Best player: “Skal or Ben Simmons. Simmons versatility and his passing ability — he can use both hands as well as anyone — sets him apart.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “[Mississippi State’s Craig] Sword on the wing. He’s as athletic as can be. His shooting can be streaky at times, he’s kind of hit and miss, but he will be better this year. He’s a really good fit in their system. Also, [Vandy’s Luke] Hornet has grown. He can really shoot it from deep, and with Damian Jones focal point, Luke’s ability to stretch the court will be key.”
    • “Stefan Moody. Dude is the SEC’s leading returning scorer and can’t even make a preseason watch list.”

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

I’m still of the belief that Labissiere is the best player on Kentucky and, feasibly, the most talented player in the entire country. He’s a seven-footer with a back-to-the-basket game, perimeter skills and a soft jumper and that shows up when he squares up opponents. The Anthony Davis comparisons are going to flow because the they’re both No. 1 recruits and centers at Kentucky with similar body-types, but Labissiere is much more skilled offensively and much less dominant defensively. Think LaMarcus Aldridge.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Newman is a high-volume scorer that can drop 25 in a half without breaking a sweat. He’ll be playing on a team where he’s going to be asked to take a lot of shots. His efficiency numbers likely won’t be great, but he’s going to score a lot.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: For my money, Jones is the single-most underrated player in college basketball this season. He may be the best big man in the country this side of Labissiere.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not sold on Murray being a future NBA star, but based on his performance at the Pan-Am Games this summer, I think he’ll end up being a very good combo-guard in college.
  • Ben Simmons, LSU: Casual fans are going to love watching Simmons play. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward that is so talented. He’d be the National Player of the Year if he was in a different program.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
  • Tim Quarterman, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt

BREAKOUT STAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt was an intriguing pick here, but I’m going with Maten. The 6-foot-8, 240 pound big man was somewhat buried on Georgia’s bench as a freshman last season, averaging just 18.2 minutes while watching Marcus Thornton and Nikola Djurisic. But while his playing time was limited, Maten did manage to average 5.0 points, 4.3 boards and 1.4 blocks. He’ll now step into a starting role in Georgia’s front court.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson, Missouri

This is just Anderson’s second season in Columbia, but things have not gone well for him. The Tigers went 9-23 last season, finished just 3-15 in the SEC and lost their top two players — freshman Teki Gill-Cesear and sophomore Johnathan Williams III — to transfer. Does Anderson have what it takes to turn the program around? If the Tigers don’t show signs of improvement this season, he may not get a chance.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Kentucky isn’t the only team from the SEC eyeing a run to the Final Four. Ain’t that right, Vanderbilt?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching those freshmen play. Skal Labissiere — assuming he eventually gets eligible — and Ben Simmons could end up going Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2016 NBA Draft, while Jamal Murray and Malik Newman won’t be all that far behind.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • 12/6, Vanderbilt vs. Baylor
  • 1/30, Kentucky at Kansas
  • 1/30, LSU vs. Oklahoma
  • 1/30, Iowa State vs. Texas A&M

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @kyletucker_cj

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats have a very strong argument to be the No. 1 team in the entire country heading into the season. Of course they’re going to be No. 1 in the SEC power rankings.
2. Vanderbilt: It’s hard not to love what Kevin Stallings brings back this season. One of the best X’s-and-O’s coaches in the sport has one of the nation’s best big men at his disposal and surrounds him with a myriad of talented shooters and scorers on the perimeter. I think this is a Sweet 16 team.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies are in a great spot this year. Not only are they built for the future thanks to Billy Kennedy’s recruiting class, but they have enough veteran talent on their roster that they can make a run in an SEC that isn’t overly strong at the top. Daneul House and Alex Caruso get slept-on nationally.
4. LSU: From a talent perspective, LSU is second only to Kentucky in this league. But talent hasn’t kept Johnny Jones from underachieving before, so until this group proves that they can compete for an SEC title, I’ll expect them to be a borderline top 25 team that won’t feel comfortable about their NCAA tournament prospects until March.
5. Georgia: Georgia returns their veteran back court but graduates key pieces in their front court. The key to their season could end up being the development of YantTagse Maten. If he turns into an all-SEC caliber player, they should end up being a tournament team.
6. Florida: The Gators are one of the most interesting teams in college hoops this season. They lost Billy Donovan to the NBA after a disappointing year, but they also return plenty of elite talent from a team that was far more competitive than their record shows; no one in the country suffered more heart-breaking losses than the Gators last season, as it felt like they kept inventing new ways to lose basketball games. There’s talent, depth and athleticism on their perimeter (Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, KeVaughn Allen, Brandone Francis) and South Florida transfer John Egbunu will sneak up on some people on the interior. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike White led this group to a top four finish in the league. I can also see them heading to the NIT.
7. Auburn: I think Bruce Pearl is still a year or two away from really making Auburn competitive in the conference. That said, to me, Pearl’s presence on the sideline makes the Tigers two or three games better in league play.
8. Ole Miss: Stefan Moody is back for the Rebels this season, but they lose a ton of talent off of last year’s tournament team. Moody will put up some big numbers, but the Rebels would do well to finish in the top half of the conference this season.
9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have some sleeper potential this season. They return five of their top six players and add top 30 recruit P.J. Dozier to the mix. But will Dozier be the difference between finishing 6-12 last season and reaching the top half of the league this season?
10. Mississippi State: Ben Howland is a terrific coach and he has a dynamic lead guard in Malik Newman, but it’s going to take more than one year and one player to turn things around in Starkville.
11. Arkansas: Mike Anderson lost the underrated Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA and had three players get arrested for using counterfeit bills. It was a rough offseason in Fayetteville.
12. Tennessee: Rick Barnes takes over for Donnie Tyndall in Knoxville. The Vols overachieved last season and lost their best player, Josh Richardson, to graduation. Barnes will build Tennessee back up, but it will take a few years.
13. Alabama: Avery Johnson did a great job landing Terrence Ferguson, a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2016, but he really could use Ferguson this season.
14. Missouri: The Tigers went 9-23 in Kim Anderson’s first season and then proceeded to lose their two best players to transfer during the offseason. It’s going to be a long year in Columbia.

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.

(David Purdy/Getty Images)

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.