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Big 12 Conference Preview: It’s Kansas and everybody else. Again.

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 conference.

The Big 12 is in a bit of a year of transition, but one things remains the same as it ever has: Kansas is the class of the conference. The Jayhawks have won at least a piece of 12 straight league titles and are the heavy favorite to claim a 13th this season. In many years, there’s a clear contender to the crown, but this season there’s not a lot of separation between programs after Kansas. Texas, West Virginia and Iowa State all have arguments as the league’s preseason No. 2 while Baylor and Oklahoma are tricky to predict as well.

At the end of the day, though, they’re all looking up at Kansas.

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | ACC Pod | Big Ten | Big Ten Pod

Kansas' Frank Mason III (0), Landen Lucas (33), Devonte' Graham (4), Wayne Selden Jr. (1) and Perry Ellis (34) gather during the second half of a second-round men's college basketball game against Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa. Kansas won 73-61. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Kansas’ Frank Mason III (0), Landen Lucas (33), Devonte’ Graham (4) (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. A league in flux: The Big 12 is going to have a different look to it this year. Not a single player from the all-Big 12 first team returns this season and just four from the three all-conference teams are back. The days of Buddy Hield, Georges Niang and Perry Ellis as the faces of the league are over. There’s still some familiar names like Frank Mason III, Monte’ Morris, Johnathan Motley and Wesley Iwundu, but the Big 12 is otherwise rolling over to a new generation.

2. Freshman infusion: The league, despite its losses, isn’t without some top-line talent, specifically in its freshman class. The Class of 2016’s consensus top player, Josh Jackson, committed to the Jayhawks and is already garnering Andrew Wiggins comparisons. He could be in the discussion as the top pick in June’s NBA draft. He’ll be teammates with a fellow McDonald’s All-American in Udoka Azubuike while Texas has a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans as well in Jarrett Allen and Andrew Jones. Oklahoma’s Kameron McGusty is also a top-50 recruit, not to mention a serious all-name team candidate.

3. Who’s No. 2?: With Kansas in the fold, there’s not much discussion about who the league’s best team is. When it comes to the runner-up, there’s not much consensus. West Virginia was the conference coaches’ choice, but only 12 points separated them from fifth-place Baylor in the preseason poll. The Mountaineers lost Jaysean Paige and Devin Williams, but it’s hard to bet against Bob Huggins. Iowa State has preseason All-American Monte’ Morris along with senior starters Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas to boast one of the country’s best backcourts, but there are questions up front. Texas has tons of talent, but it’s young and they lost Isaiah Taylor somewhat unexpectedly to the pros. Johnathan Motley is one of the conference’s best pro prospects, but does Baylor have enough around him?

4. Kruger’s kids: The league’s makeover may not have hit any program harder than it did Oklahoma with the loss not only of National Player of the Year and everybody’s favorite always-smarting sharpshooter, Buddy Hield, but the Sooners also are without program stalwarts Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins. Can Jordan Woodard step into the void? What about sophomore Christian James, who looked to breakout as a serious threat in March? Forward Khadeem Lattin will also be asked to take on a much bigger workload. Lon Kruger is one of the sport’s most underrated coaches, which makes the Sooners’ new group super intriguing.

5. TCU rising: The Horned Frogs have eight Big 12 wins in four years since joining the conference in 2012-13. They’ve finished anything but last in the league just once in that time. Yet, there’s now belief the program could quickly jet up the standings. First, TCU invested more than $70 million to update its basketball facilities, then it acted aggressively in dismissing coach Trent Johnson and nabbing Jamie Dixon, an alum of the school who had major success at Pitt but found himself on the outs with a fanbase feeling stagnant. TCU is already recruiting at a higher level and should be playing at one soon enough as well.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

TCU guard Michael Williams (2) defends as Iowa State guard Monte Morris (11) leaps to the basket for a shot in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. Morris had 18 points and six assists and No. 19 Iowa State followed a win over top-ranked Oklahoma with a 73-60 victory over TCU on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Iowa State guard Monte Morris (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Monte’ Morris, Iowa State

He’s not the league best pro prospect, but Morris is the top returning scorer and assist man in the conference and he’ll be taking on a huge role in a post-Georges Niang world in Ames. A preseason All-American, Morris shown flashes of the capability to score in bunches, something ISU will be asking him to do full-time this season. He’s got a legitimate shot at leading the Big 12 in scoring and assists.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas: Josh Jackson may be Kansas’ most talented player, but Mason will be its leader.
  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: The freshman phenom should instantly be one of the league’s top players.
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The 6-foot-10 junior’s task this season is to turn pro potential into college production.
  • Jarrett Allen, Texas: With few dominant big men in the league, Allen has a chance to make a major impact immediately.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Phil Forte, Oklahoma State
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
  • Jordan Woodard, Oklahoma
  • Wesley Iwundu, Kansas State

BREAKOUT STAR: Baylor’s Manu Lecomte shot 45.6 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore at Miami before transferring to Waco, where he’ll likely on the Brady Heslip Plan that should give him tons of opportunities to fire away.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: More than a few Kansas State fans wanted the Wildcats to dump Bruce Weber at season’s end for a run at alum Brad Underwood, who ended up in the conference at Oklahoma State. Weber and Kansas State have steadily trended downward since sharing a conference title in his first season four years ago. This may be the last year he has to reverse the slide.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : For the first time in some time, the Big 12 wasn’t the country’s best conference. They certainly won’t get seven bids like last season and it’s conceivable they only get four or five.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: As lame as it is, the race for second, as it seems unlikely anyone will challenge the Jayhawks but there could be a ton of competition behind them.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 15, Kansas vs. Duke
  • December 3, West Virginia vs. Virginia
  • November 11, Kansas vs. Indiana
  • December 1, Iowa State vs. Cincinnati
  • November 15, Baylor vs. Oregon

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Big12Refs

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)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kansas: The question isn’t if Kansas can win the Big 12, it’s whether or not they can capture another national title.
2. Iowa State: Georges Niang is gone along with two other starters, but Monte Morris headlines an elite backcourt that should keep the Cyclones near the top of the league.
3. Texas: The somewhat surprising departure of Isaiah Taylor hurts, but Shaka Smart still has oodles of talent to work with.
4. West Virginia: This is a bet on Bob Huggins making it work with a roster without much wow-factor, but certainly some intriguing players.
5. Baylor: Johnathan Motley has to be big, but Ish Wainright and Al Freeman, along with Manu Lecomte, will have to be major contributors, too.
6. Oklahoma: It wouldn’t shock to see Lon Kruger maneuver this team further up the standings, but the roster doesn’t suggest a top-half of the league finish.
7. Texas Tech: Tubby Smith got this group to overachieve last year, and first-year coach Chris Beard will be hard-pressed to repeat that feat.
8. Oklahoma State: The cupboard isn’t fully stocked for first-year coach Brad Underwood, but with Jawun Evans and Phil Forte in the fold, they’ll pull off some upsets this season.
9. TCU: Jamie Dixon looks to be building something in Fort Worth, but he’s starting at the foundation and has a way to go before the Horned Frogs are ready to compete for an NCAA tournament spot.
10. Kansas State: If the Wildcats are going to finish closer to the middle of the conference – and keep Bruce Weber employed in Manhattan – some relatively average Big 12 players are going to have to show major improvement.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

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.