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Big 12 Conference Reset: Will the league get eight Dance cards?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Big 12.

MIDSEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trae Young, Oklahoma

The McDonald’s All-American said before the season that the weight of expectation of being a star freshman from his hometown program wouldn’t be a pressure point for him this season. Boy, was he not lying. Young has been nothing short of spectacular in the first two months of his career, not only earning him Midseason Big 12 Player of the Year honors here, but making him our frontrunner for National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-2 freshman is leading the Big 12 in scoring (28.7) and assists (10.7) while shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from 3-point range. That’s helped the Sooners to rush out to a 10-1 start to the season to put last year’s 11-20 record well in the rear-view. Young has not only out-shined fellow freshman phenom Mo Bamba of Texas but established veteran stars like Kansas’ Devonte Graham and West Virginia’s Jevon Carter. He has been, simply, remarkable.

THE ALL-BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma
  • JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: Carter was about a 30 percent 3-point shooter is first two years at Morgantown, but upped that to 38 last season and he now sits at 40.6 percent as a senior. That’s made him on of the Big 12’s best scorers – on top of being its best perimeter defender. He’s averaging a league-best 3.7 steals per game for Press Virginia.i
  • DEVONTE GRAHAM, Kansas: Many’s preseason Big 12 player of the year frontrunner, Graham hasn’t quite lived up to that hype or slid into Frank Mason’s shoes, but he’s been quite good. He’s been one of the Big 12’s most efficient offensive players while averaging 16.8 points and 7.6 assists.
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: The 7-footer has been a terror on the offensive end with an effective field goal percentage of 77.9, tops in the country. He’s also among the Big 12’s best rebounder, averaging eight per game while ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. He’s also one of the conference’s top shot blockers.
  • MOHAMED BAMBA, Texas: One of the country’s top recruits hasn’t been a major offensive threat, averaging 10.9 points per game, but he’s been one of the country’s best rebounders and shot blockers. He’s turning away more than four shots of game for a block percentage of 16.6, a top-10 mark nationally. He’s also averaging 9.8 rebounds per game with a defensive rebounding percentage of 27.1

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Kansas, West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas
  • NIT: Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: None
Trae Young (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. THE LEAGUE IS A MONSTER: The Big 12 has been KenPom’s top-ranked conference for four-straight seasons, and it’s seemingly a lock to finish again this season. The difference in ranking between the Big 12 and the second-place ACC is as bigger than the gap between the ACC and the fifth-place Big Ten. Nine of the league’s 10 teams rank in the top-50, and the 10th team, 76th-ranked Iowa State, has won nine-straight with three of those wins coming against top-100 opponents.

Kansas is probably the only team that’s viewed as an elite-tier team with a healthy shot at the Final Four, but the league’s strength comes from its middle and back ends. Texas is the only team with more than two losses, and its setbacks came to Duke, Gonzaga and Michigan. TCU, generally considered a second-tier contender, is undefeated with wins over SMU, St. Bonaventure and Nevada. The consensus bottom three of the conference, Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State, are a combined 29-6. With its round-robin schedule, the Big 12 will undoubtedly be appointment viewing nearly every time its teams take the court over the next three months.

2. KANSAS IS THE FAVORITE, BUT HAS THINGS THEY STILL NEED TO WORK OUT: For 13 years one of the biggest pastimes for Big 12 observers has been to pick apart Kansas and find the reason this will be the year the Jayhawks won’t be league champs. No reason has been big enough yet during this amazing title streak. That’s likely to be the case once again this season, but that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks aren’t without issues.

The most glaring issue is obviously the frontcourt. Udoka Azubuike has been really good in his return from last season’s injury, but beyond the 7-foot sophomore, the Jayhawks’ roster just isn’t quite built right inside. Svi Mykhailiuk has been good, but he’s out of position at the four. He’s not the problem, though. The 6-foot-8 sharpshooter makes for a strong stretch-four, but the issue is that Jayhawks don’t have any other legit options at that position right now, making them predictable and susceptible to a smart gameplan.

3. TCU IS ASCENDANT: Jamie Dixon’s departure from Pittsburgh made sense in a narrow way. The Panthers had plateaued some in Jamie Dixon’s last five years, and after 13 years with Pitt, fans were getting a wandering eye. In a broader way, though, Dixon’s departure from Pitt was crazy dumb for the Panthers. To give up a coach of his caliber for, no offense to Kevin Stallings, a coach that was petering out at Vanderbilt made no sense.

As silly as it seems for Pitt to push Dixon toward the exit, it made perfect sense for TCU to scoop him up. The Horned Frogs were wallowing in the Big 12 since its move to the conference on the strength of their football program, and Dixon, a TCU alum, provided the perfect mix of credibility, talent and fit. Now, after winning the NIT in his first season, Dixon has the Horned Frogs undefeated and looking like a potential threat to Kansas in Year 2. TCU made the decision to prioritize basketball, and Dixon is paying immediate dividends.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO’S THE STRONGEST CONTENDER?: We all now Kansas is the frontrunner. It doesn’t matter that the Jayhawks have roster issues or that they dropped back-to-back games in early December. They’ve got the talent, Bill Self and 13-straight Big 12 titles so it’s not really worth it right now to discuss anyone else as the favorite. But who’s got the best chance to threaten a streak matched only by John Wooden and UCLA?

Is it West Virginia? Bob Huggins has been knocking on the door since this Press Virginia transformation, and the Mountaineers have the ruggedness to win on the road in the Big 12. What about Oklahoma? Trae Young looks like a player capable of shifting the landscape of the league, and Lon Kruger is maybe the most underappreciated coach in the country. Can Shaka Smart and Texas breakthrough on the strength of Mo Bamba and an improved backcourt? What about Jamie Dixon’s undefeated TCU? Or 11-1 Texas Tech or the oft-underrated Baylor Bears? Kansas is No. 1, but there are six teams with a claim to top challenger.

2. ARE REINFORCEMENTS ON THE WAY FOR KANSAS?: We’ve laid out the issues, at length, about Kansas’ issues up front. But, as so often seems to be the case, Bill Self and Co. may have an Ace – or two – up their sleeves.

First is Silvio De Sousa, a top-30 forward from the 2018 class that is enrolling at Kansas at the semester break and could join the Jayhawks in a couple weeks if the NCAA rules him eligible, which Kansas has indicated it expects. The 6-foot-9 forward would immediately help bolster the interior. The other potential option is Billy Preston, who, after being suspended for KU’s opener, hasn’t played due to the questionable ownership of a car he was driving on campus. In Preston’s situation, too, Kansas has indicated they’re confident Preston will eventually suit up in Allen Fieldhouse. The five-star, top-20 recruit would provide instant help as well. If Kansas gets them both, they could be running at full strength come March.

3. IS EIGHT ENOUGH … OR POSSIBLE?: Could the Big 12 get 80 percent of its conference membership into the NCAA tournament? It seems unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out heading into Big 12 play. The league has been that strong in non-conference play, and given that computers love them now, that’ll likely not change as they continue to go after each other.

In 2015, the Big 12 got seven teams in the Big Dance, but an eighth, Kansas State, may have gotten that elusive bid had they avoided a disastrous 7-6 non-conference slate that came before an 8-10 Big 12 mark. If the standings fall like they did in 2015 with all 10 teams having solid non-con resumes, eight might be the number.

Jevon Carter (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. TRAE YOUNG WILL BE THE CONFERENCE’S TOP DRAFT PICK: Coming into the year, it would seem absurd to pick anyone in the Big 12 to go before Mo Bamba – and maybe it still is – but Trae Young has been so good for a long enough time that he could very well be the first player from the conference selected in June.

Bamba has the size and defensive prowess to be a difference-maker in the middle whether or not his offensive game catches up. He’s a safe pick. Young, though, looks to be something potentially special. He’s a huge scorer that distributes willingly and in volume. His teammates and coaches love him, and he’s a well-known workaholic. There may be some risk taking a guard making a quick rise his freshman season, but Young looks worth whatever pitfalls may lay ahead.

2. WEST VIRGINIA IS THE LAST TEAM STANDING IN MARCH: Press Virginia has been wildly successful – and interesting to watch – for Huggins’ program, but it hasn’t produced an NCAA tournament trip that’s extended past the Sweet 16. This is finally the year that changes.

Now, West Virginia’s style may not be suited for the rigors of March, but what it does to is ramp up the volatility of a game, which makes 40 minutes with the Mountaineers more about chance than a lot of other teams you’d encounter in the Big Dance. Behind Jevon Carter and a defense that is as relentless as any, West Virginia is going to at least the Elite Eight, while the rest of the league falls behind.

3. KANSAS ‘ STREAK FINALLY COMES TO AN END: lol jk no it won’t

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”