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.
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.
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
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.