Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big 12 conference.
There’s plenty to know about this year’s Big 12, but the headline remains the same as it’s been for over a dozen years: Kansas is probably going to win the league.
The Jayhawks have won at least a share of the conference title for 13-straight years. This year, they’re not only a Big 12 favorite, but a national title contender.
They aren’t, though, the only storyline in a conference that consistently fields one of the strongest groups in the country. West Virginia looks like a contender again. Texas is relevant again (probably), as is Baylor (I think) and Oklahoma (maybe). Even the perennial bottom-feeders – TCU and Texas Tech – look like they’ll be in the mix for an NCAA tournament.
That, like Kansas, is no different this season.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Kansas has the most talent, but the fit is odd: The Jayhawks have a first-team All-American Devonte Graham, a McDonald’s All-American in Billy Preston, a former McDonald’s All-American in Malik Newman and plenty of other talented pieces, but the Jayhawks are thin inside and don’t have an abundance of shooting. The roster construction isn’t perfect – that’s what happens when you’ve got sit-out transfers like the Lawson brothers – but Self usually figures out how to get the most out of his teams. Weird isn’t necessarily bad, but it does present a challenge.
The other pressing question is how Graham adjusts to moving back to a more traditional point guard role. Graham and last year’s national player of the year Frank Mason shared duties the previous three years, but Mason more often than not had the ball in his hands. That led to plenty of spot-up 3-point opportunities that may have to go elsewhere this season for the Jayhawks, likely to Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk. Graham could also be asked to be involved a lot more pick-and-roll situations, something that he is capable of but that Mason excelled at.
Most believe that Graham is a better pure point guard than Mason, but that doesn’t mean that Graham is necessarily a better player. We took a deep dive on Kansas here.
2. Havoc in Austin, Year 3: The second season of Shaka Smart’s tenure at Texas was an abject failure. The Longhorns went 11-22, lost their final seven regular season games and finished last in the Big 12. The problem was largely offensive, with the Longhorns delivering the least-efficient season a Smart team has ever had. Three-point shooting was in no small way a culprit as Texas couldn’t even crack 30 percent as a team. Not great.
Reinforcements are on the way, though, as Smart signed five top-100 recruits in the 2017, most notably center Mo Bamba and point guard Matt Coleman. Bamba is a potential program-changer as a potential No. 1 draft pick and the type of kid who attended the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference. Bamba is the kind of defensive presence that Havoc needs to anchor around. He’s an elite rim protector at 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, and his ability to erase shots at the rim when gambling perimeter defenders get beaten will make it that much easier for those guards to fly around and force turnovers. So the defense should be better, and the combination of a natural point guard in Coleman plus the return of Andrew Jones should mean the Longhorns are more effective offensively.
Bringing in this type of recruiting class to join a solid core (albeit one without Jarrett Allen after he decided to go pro) puts Texas in a spot to excel. It should also be a pretty good indication of what type of teams Smart is going to have and build in Austin as he’s unlikely to have many teams with a ton more talent than the one that will take the floor this winter.
Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami
3. Will TCU see return on investment?: The first four seasons in the Big 12 for TCU were a disaster. The Horned Frogs proved completely overmatched in their new league, winning just eight over those four seasons. After that, it appears the school decided to get serious about hoops. They fired Trent Johnson and hired alum Jamie Dixon, reportedly to a salary of more than $3 million a year. There was also the $72 million arena renovation. TCU is investing seriously in making their basketball program something worthwhile.
This could be the first season it truly pays off.
TCU looked to be tournament-bound last year when they were 17-7 overall and 6-5 in the Big 12 before a seven-game losing streak scuttled their chances. Nearly everyone is back, including all-Big 12 center Vladimir Brodziansky, promising point guard Jaylen Fisher and talented wing Kenrich Williams. TCU was solid if unspectacular on both ends of the floor last year, which means the standard growth you’d expect with a returning roster under a second-year coach (especially one as accomplished as Dixon) means TCU should see its NCAA tournament drought end at 20 years. They very well could find themselves in the upper echelon of the league, no small feat for a program that is yet to finish better than second-to-last in their new conference.
4. Cyclone rebuild: The Iowa State program didn’t fold up shop when superstar alum and program savior Fred Hoiberg left his hometown to take the head job with the Chicago Bulls in 2015. The Cyclones continued to flourish with Steve Prohm at the helm, making the Sweet 16 in his first year and winning a Big 12 tournament championship while making a program-best sixth-straight NCAA tournament last season. Those two successful seasons, though, were built with Hoiberg players like Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Monte Morris.
This season marks the unofficial start to Prohm’s tenure as the roster has completely turned over with four starters, all of whom were all-Big 12 players, gone and eight newcomers among the ranks. Competing at the top of the league and advancing to a seventh NCAA tournament in a row seems unlikely for ISU, but the young talent – both on the roster and committed in 2018 – is plenty of reason for optimism in Ames. This year’s group will be led by Lindell Wigginton, a top-25 recruit who picked the Cyclones over the likes Oregon and Arizona State. The 6-foot-1 point guard is athletic and skilled, putting him on track to be the fourth point guard in a row that Prohm has had drafted (Morris, Cam Payne and Isaiah Canaan).
Under both Hoiberg and Prohm, ISU has been an elite offensive team, but this team has plenty of question marks on that end, especially in the shooting department. The Cyclones are due to take a step back this season, but if they can show promise, a quick return to prominence could be in the offing.
5. Press on: It’s now Year 4 of Press Virginia in Morgantown, and Bob Huggins has had enough success with the scheme to think that the roster matters less than the system at this point. Thing is, though, that Huggs has a pretty dang good roster this season.
Jevon Carter may be the Big 12 player of the year when all is said and done, and he’s the engine powering the Mountaineers. He’s one of the best defenders in the country and a turnover-generating machine, with a steal rate of over 4 percent. West Virginia’s defense is built to create chaos, and Carter is an agent of chaos.
Esa Ahmad will miss the first half of the season due to academic issues, but Huggins has all the depth he needs to keep rolling out fresh bodies, a critical component of their pressing style. What has evaded West Virginia in recent years has been consistent offense when it can’t just get transition buckets. That’s probably going to be an issue again this year as shooting probably won’t be a strength. If the Mountaineers can find some reliable deep threats, that can change their ceiling dramatically.
PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
Taking the reins for Frank Mason is a big job in Lawrence, but Graham looks to be more than equipped to do it. He’ll be quarterbacking the conference’s best team back at his natural position. A monster year is in order for Graham, who is already a potential first round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. This season will be the one where he proves himself.
THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM
- Jeffrey Carroll, Oklahoma State: The 6-foot-6 wing has taken himself from three-star recruit to NBA prospect
- Vladimir Brodziansky, TCU: A force inside, on the boards and on defense, Brodziansky is the league’s best returning big man
- Jevon Carter, West Virginia: Just a prototypical Bob Huggins player with grit and production.
- Mo Bamba, Texas: The league’s best freshman will be in a spot to put up big numbers.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
- Trae Young, Oklahoma
- Zach Smith, Texas Tech
- Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
- Malik Newman, Kansas
- Manu Lecomte, Baylor
BREAKOUT STAR: Malik Newman, Kansas
A disappointing freshman year at Mississippi State and a year sitting out in Lawrence has many forgetting that Malik Newman was one of the top players in the 2015 class. Kansas is the conference’s most talented team, but there’s a spot for a big role for Newman.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Bruce Weber got a two-year extension after Kansas State snuck into the NCAA tournament, but the Manhattan faithful are still not sold on Weber’s future there. This may not be a make-or-break year, but it’ll certainly be setting up one if Kansas State struggles.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
Kansas, West Virginia and Texas will all have chances at deep runs.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT
The freshman of the year race between Mo Bamba and Trae Young.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
- Nov. 14, Kansas vs. Kentucky
- Dec. 5, Texas vs. VCU
- Nov. 10, Iowa State vs. Missouri
- Dec. 2, Baylor vs. Wichita State
- Jan. 27, West Virginia vs. Kentucky
ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @FakeBobHuggins
1. Kansas: Jayhawks have won 13 league titles in a row, and this isn’t the season the streak comes to an end.
2. West Virginia: The style isn’t always pretty, but the results are for Bob Huggins’ crew.
3. Texas: The Longhorns add serious pieces to an already talented core that should make it the best year of Shaka Smart’s short tenure.
4. TCU: Jamie Dixon’s has a dynamic group at his alma mater, which likely means the first NCAA tournament in Fort Worth since 1998.
5. Baylor: Johnathan Motley left a year early for the NBA, but Scott Drew’s cupboard isn’t bare.
6. Texas Tech: Chris Beard nearly got the Red Raiders into the dance in his first season, but the second won’t likely end short of it.
7. Oklahoma: A lot of the Sooners’ season will rest on how quickly freshman phenom Trae Young adjusts to the college game.
8. Kansas State: Without Wesley Iwundu, who will get buckets for the Wildcats?
9. Iowa State: Eight newcomers means the Cyclones will go through plenty of growing pains.
10. Oklahoma State: Jeffrey Carroll is a pro, but how much talent is around him remains to be seen – as does how much the FBI corruption investigation impacts the program.