Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Big 12.
The Big 12 has been arguably the best conference in the country the last few seasons but their play in the postseason last year leaves a lot to be desired. While 70 percent of the league’s membership made the NCAA tournament last season, nobody in that group of seven advanced past the Sweet 16.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:
1. Kansas remains atop the league until proven otherwise, with or without Cheick Diallo: Kansas has won at least a share of 11 consecutive Big 12 regular season conference titles, and they return plenty of talent from last year’s team. While one-and-done freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander are gone, experienced players like Frank Mason, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis return as the Jayhawks appear to be even deeper this season. One thing to monitor in terms of Kansas potentially being an elite team: the NCAA situation with freshman big man Cheick Diallo. The McDonald’s All-American was one of the best players during the senior all-star games last spring and his high motor and ability to defend the rim could put the Jayhawks over the top. He has yet to be cleared to play this season as the NCAA is looking into his high school, Our Savior New American in New York.
2. Iowa State is transitioning from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, but they still have title aspirations: Fred Hoiberg and his innovative offensive attack has moved on to the Chicago Bulls, but Iowa State is returning nearly its entire roster from a team that was a No. 3 seed last season. Now enters former Murray State head coach Steve Prohm, who is letting an experienced group do a lot of what they were doing before while also adding some of his own new wrinkles. Senior forward Georges Niang is an All-American candidate and point guard Monte Morris remains as steady as any floor leader in the nation. If the Cyclones have enough depth and their defense improves, they are also potentially an elite team.
3. Texas is moving from Rick Barnes to Shaka Smart. Can they adjust to “Havoc”?: Texas has moved on from the Rick Barnes era as they made the decision to pursue VCU’s Shaka Smart instead of Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Now that the popular Smart is in the fold, Texas is hoping to become a perennial power in basketball, and the most intriguing part of Shaka taking the job is how he’ll incorporate his “Havoc” style of play into the equation. Many believe that “Havoc” can’t work at the highest level of college basketball, but at the same time Smart hasn’t had this kind of talent at his disposal. Junior point guard Isaiah Taylor is back and the Longhorns have plenty of size and senior leadership.
4. Oklahoma returns Buddy Hield and plenty of talent: Reigning Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield returned for his senior season and gives the Sooners a chance to be in the Big 12 title picture. While the Sooners will miss the play of TaShawn Thomas inside, they return most of the roster. Dependable big man Ryan Spangler is back along with the backcourt of upperclassmen Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. Cousins has drawn rave reviews from scouts and coaches this fall and could be poised for a big senior season as Hield’s second banana.
5. Baylor and West Virginia are still lurking: Baylor and West Virginia both took some lumps this offseason with key losses, but they both still have plenty of talent to win a lot of games and potentially make the NCAA tournament. The Bears still have the tremendously talented duo of Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers to work with and a team that has a lot of length on the defensive end. West Virginia has to replace Juwan Staten, but Bob Huggins has a roster that completely bought into the press that he was selling last season as they made the Sweet 16.
Favorite: “You can certainly make a strong case for a few teams, but until proven otherwise, it’s probably Kansas.”
“West Virginia lost Juwan Staten but they’ll have just another chip on their shoulder. Their style of play will help them with the shorter shot clock.”
“Most of the guys in our office believe that Baylor has the length and talent to be a factor.”
Best player: “It’s close between Buddy Hield and Georges Niang but Hield gets it done on both ends of the floor. Plus, Buddy is more of an emotional leader and his big plays seem to lift his teammates.”
Most underrated player:
“Isaiah Cousins seems to be getting a lot of attention this fall — and deservedly so. He can really play.”
“I haven’t seen Johnathan Motley’s name in a lot of preseason stuff, but he could be a problem.”
PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
He won this award for real last season, so it’s only right that Hield starts the season atop this list as well. A dynamic scorer, Hield can hit 3-pointers in bunches and also got to the free-throw line 130 times last season. In addition to his scoring, Hield also led Big 12 guards in rebounding last season.
THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM:
Georges Niang, Iowa State: As versatile as any forward in the country, Niang is looking to close out his career by knocking Kansas out of the top spot. Watching Niang play for Prohm should be a fascinating early-season study.
Monte Morris, Iowa State: The nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio the last two seasons, now Morris gets to work with a new head coach who put Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne in the NBA.
Taurean Prince, Baylor: Arguably the nation’s best sixth man a year ago, Prince is incredibly versatile on both ends of the floor. Not many forwards around can knock down nearly 40 percent of 3-pointers and defend multiple positions the way Prince can.
Perry Ellis, Kansas: Before getting hurt during the tail end of Big 12 play, Ellis was playing at an incredibly high level. The Jayhawks are hoping that version of their senior forward comes to play every night this season.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:
Rico Gathers, Baylor
Frank Mason, Kansas
Isaiah Taylor, Texas
Devin Williams, West Virginia
Phil Forte, Oklahoma State
BREAKOUT STAR: Jevon Carter, West Virginia
With the departure of Juwan Staten, the sophomore will be tasked with taking over full-time point guard responsibilities. After leading West Virginia in both steals and 3-pointers as a freshman, Carter is ready to be one of the focal points for the Mountaineers.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Travis Ford needs to have a solid year at Oklahoma State in order to keep the heat off of him from fans. You know things are getting a little testy when both the athletic director and the school’s largest donor, T. Boone Pickens, have to publicly show signs of support.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Big 12 regular season was exciting, but did these teams beat each other up too much for big tournament runs?
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how “Havoc” is going to work with the Texas players and against Big 12 defenses. This debate has been raging among college basketball types for a long time and now Shaka gets to see if his system can translate to the highest level.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
1. Kansas: This won’t be like the Kansas team we’ve seen the past two seasons with jumbo wings in Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre. The Jayhawks plan to go smaller with Frank Mason and Devonte Graham in the backcourt while Wayne Selden will likely slide over to the three.
2. Iowa State: We already know Iowa State can put points on the board but how will they look defensively during the final year this core group is together?
3. Oklahoma: Oklahoma seems to be flying a bit under-the-radar nationally this preseason. Remember when TaShawn Thomas became eligible and the Sooners turned into a darkhorse national title contender last preseason? Essentially the same team is back, minus Thomas, and college basketball is weaker this season.
4. Baylor: Baylor’s imposing frontline is well-established but the backcourt is the key question for the Bears this season. With the loss of Kenny Chery, who does Drew pair with Lester Medford?
5. West Virginia: This West Virginia roster perfectly fits what Huggins wants to do — especially with toughness and defense — but without Juwan Staten, scoring is going to be a major concern. The new focus on officiating could also hurt the way the Mountaineers like to defend, but the 30-second shot clock should help them.
6. Texas: The (multi) million dollar question is whether Havoc works against the likes of Monte Morris and Frank Mason? How do big men like Cameron Ridley and Shaquille Cleare fit in Shaka Smart’s system? One thing will be certain: Texas will play hard and bring a lot of energy under its new coach and there’s a lot of upperclass leadership on the roster.
7. Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State’s backcourt will be among the Big 12’s most talented, as Phil Forte returns and McDonald’s All-American point guard Jawun Evans enters Stillwater. Replacing the front court of LeBryan Nash and Michael Cobbins is the bigger issue. The Cowboys have size on the roster, but not many have produced highly at the Big 12 level.
8. Texas Tech: There weren’t a lot of positives from last season’s 3-15 Big 12 showing, but the Red Raiders return 85 percent of its scoring and 86 percent of its rebounding. With some of the other teams in the league adding a lot of new pieces, Texas Tech should be more cohesive out of the gate.
9. Kansas State: Kansas State’s roster was gutted this offseason and it’s hard to say if it will be a good or a bad thing entering this season. While a lot of talent left the Wildcats, a lot of bad apples walked out the door as well. Can improved chemistry lead to a better season for Bruce Weber’s ballclub? Almost the entire roster is unproven.
10. TCU: TCU started 13-0 last season, but played a cupcake schedule, as a 4-14 conference mark brought them back down to Earth. After losing Kyan Anderson, Trey Zeigler and Amric Fields, it’s difficult to say that the Horned Frogs will be much better.