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Looking Forward: Here’s what the Big 12 has in store for the 2016-17 season

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the Big 12 over the next six months. 

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

  1. Will the league expand?: Potential realignment won’t be of consequence to this upcoming season in the Big 12, but the conference appears to be seriously considering adding two programs to the league that has been at 10 since 2012. Of course, the move would be made with football in mind, but it would have vast ramifications on the basketball side of the conference. The Big 12 has been the nation’s best conference in recent years, due in part to the true double round-robin schedule they play with really only one program (TCU) failing to be NCAA-tournament caliber. If the Big 12 does expand, it’ll likely lose its signature schedule, but the schools being mentioned (Cincinnati, Memphis, UConn) would certainly make the league even tougher.
  2. Kansas’ pursuit of 13: It’s one of the most amazing streaks in American sport, really, as Kansas has won 12-straight Big 12 championships. It’s a total anachronism when you look across the rest of the college basketball landscape. The Jayhawks lost significant pieces from last year’s team, but that’s never stopped Bill Self from being the best in the conference before. Kansas will again be the favorite to win the Big 12 as one of the most consistent programs in the sport’s history.
  3. A new talent pool: Of the 15 players named to all-conference teams last season in the Big 12, just four will return to the league next season. Iowa State’s Monte Morris, Kansas’ Frank Mason, Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu and Baylor’s Jonathan Motley are all exceedingly good players, but they don’t have the star power that the league lost with the likes of Buddy Hield, Georges Niang and Perry Ellis all moving on. It will be a very new-look conference this season.
  4. The challengers: Kansas will be the no-doubt favorite in the Big 12, but typically there is an obvious threat or two to their throne every year. That may not be the case this season. Beyond the Jayhawks, the rest of the league is retooling after a season after 70 percent of its membership made the NCAA tournament. Every team in the league seems to have major questions entering this summer.
Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Josh Jackson (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: The country’s consensus No. 1 recruit pledged to the Jayhawks this spring, giving Self yet another NBA-caliber player to his arsenal. Jackson will be compared to 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins given his size, athleticism and position, but he won’t be asked to carry the load Wiggins was during his one season in Lawrence.
  • Udoka Azubuike, Kansas: The Jayhawks have a strong track record under self of impact big men, and Azubuike would appear to be next in line. The 6-foot-11 center is expected to make an immediate impact at Kansas, unlike recent freshmen forwards like Cliff Alexander, Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg, who languished on the bench during their first collegiate seasons.
  • Andrew Jones, Texas: The 6-foot-4 McDonald’s All-American will help ease the transition for Shaka Smart as his roster undergoes a dramatic turnover. The Longhorns will need him to contribute in a big way right away.
  • Austin Grandstaff, Oklahoma: One of the top 2015 recruits in the country, Grandstaff left Ohio State after the first semester last season and enrolled at Oklahoma. He won’t (who could) fill the shoes of Buddy Hield, but he’ll give the Sooners a deadly shooter with size and athleticism.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Isaiah Taylor, Texas: Everyone expected the Texas point guard to test the NBA waters, but few truly expected him to leave Austin behind. He’s not an expected first-round pick and very well could go undrafted. It would have been his show at Texas this season, but instead Shaka Smart will have to find another player to build around.
  • Devin Williams, West Virginia: Another player who could go undrafted, Williams was a huge part of the Mountaineers’ identity last year, but instead of returning for his senior season, he’ll move on to professional basketball.
Arkansas Little Rock head coach Chris Beard reacts after his team draws a foul against Iowa State during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game Saturday, March 19, 2016, in the NCAA Tournament in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Chris Beard (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

COACHING CHANGES

Chris Beard, Texas Tech: After a one-week stint as UNLV’s head coach, Beard jumped to fill Tubby Smith’s vacated spot in Lubbock, where he spent years as an assistant previously. His track record as a head coach isn’t extensive as a head coach after just one year in Little Rock (where he won an NCAA tournament game last year), but Texas Tech is a place he wants to be, which is half the battle such a Big 12 outpost.

Brad Underwood, Oklahoma State: All Underwood did at Stephen F. Austin was win and win big. He could have jumped to a bigger job earlier, but waited and got the gig in Stillwater and the Big 12, where he played his collegiate career for Kansas State. Travis Ford left the program in less than a healthy state, but Underwood will have the T.Boone Pickens resources to rebuild quickly.

Jamie Dixon, TCU: Dixon accomplished so much at Pitt, but the fanbase there had grown restless after seasons of seeming stagnation, paving the way for Dixon to return to his alma mater. The Horned Frogs are investing heavily in basketball since their move to the Big 12, and Dixon very well could be the key to unlocking what could be a powerful program in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, which is teeming with talent.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

Frank Mason (Kansas): Player of the Year
Monte Morris (Iowa State)
Christian James (Oklahoma)
Josh Jackson (Kansas)
Johnathan Motley (Baylor)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

  1. Kansas: All the Jayhawks do is win the Big 12. No reason to think this year will be any different.
  2. West Virginia: Losing Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams hurts, but Bob Huggins has developed a deep bench and effective style in Morgantown.
  3. Oklahoma: Lon Kruger has a lot of spots to fill, but there’s still plenty of talent in Norman to keep things rolling even with the loss of a talented senior class.
  4. Iowa State: Losing All-American Georges Niang along with starters Jameel McKay and Abdel Nader will be hard to overcome, but getting Monte Morris back for his senior season raises expectations in Ames.
  5. Texas: The Longhorns have major holes to fill in Year 2 of the Shaka Smart era, but freshman Andrew Jones will help ease the transition.
  6. Baylor: Johnathan Motley will move from role player to focal point this year for Baylor, which has to replace three all-league players.
  7. TCU: Jamie Dixon will have some talent to work with in his first year back in Fort Worth, including incoming top recruit Jaylen Fisher.
  8. Texas Tech: Beard will have his work cut out for him trying to follow-up an improbable NCAA tournament berth for the Red Raiders and Tubby Smith.
  9. Kansas State: In what could very well be a make or break year for Bruce Weber, the Wildcats will be counting on Wesley Iwundu to be huge.
  10. Oklahoma State: This season will be a total rebuild under first-year coach Brad Underwood, not only from a talent perspective but winning over an apathetic fan base.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.