Sagaba Konate’s presence blocks ‘Press Virginia’s’ regression

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — College basketball’s most electrifying defender was using his feet to change games just a few years ago.

Growing up in Mali, soccer was the game for Sagaba Konate.

“How would you like that guy bearing down on you?” asked West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.

The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Konate doesn’t work much in pursuit these days. Instead, he mostly huddles at the rim, waiting to unleash his game-changing skill.

“I just block shots,” Konate told NBC Sports last month at Big 12 media day. “I just do it. That’s the thing I like to do.”

Konate’s ability to block in the manner and with the frequency he does is a big reason for the belief that 13th-ranked West Virginia’s vaunted press won’t regress without All-American guard Jevon Carter. Instead of having a harassing guard at the tip of the spear, Press Virginia will have a bear trap in the rear.

“We have the best shot blocker in the country in the back of it,” Huggins said, “which helps considerably.”

Konate, who measured a 7-foot wingspan and a 35-inch vertical at the NBA Draft combine, blocked 3.2 shots per game last year, swatting away an astounding 15.6 percent of a team’s shot attempts when he was on the floor. If Konate is in the game, essentially one out of six shots has a zero percent chance of going in.

It’s a weapon nearly no other team in the country has at their disposal, and one that Konate has developed in just a few short years since picking up the sport when he emigrated from Mali to the U.S. midway through high school in 2014.

“It’s kind of natural,” Konate said of his blocking ability. “No one taught me how to block shots.”

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

There was something that drew him to it, though.

“I just saw it was pretty cool,” Konate said, “and I love doing it. So that’s what I do.”

It’s not simply the volume of shots he turns away that makes Konate such a menace defensively. It’s the substance and situation, too.

Konate has seemingly perfected the volleyball-style block, that keeps the ball in play and can kick-start the break.

“You don’t see people block shots with two hands very often,” Huggins said. “He blocks shots with two hands regularly.”

Maybe the most impressive tool in Konate’s repertoire, though, is his ability to deny dunks. He never concedes a slam, and often wins the aerial confrontation at the rim.

“For me, I really don’t care,” Konate said. “I don’t care if I get dunked on. It’s just fearless. I don’t play scared. I’m going to jump, make a play.

“If he dunks on me, the play goes on, but I’m going to get you.”

Konate’s panache for contesting jams puts him in the same company as the best player Huggins has ever had, Kenyon Martin.

“Kenyon could have,” Huggins said, “but nobody tried. They kind of tried to stay away from him as much as they could. They come at Sags.”

But why would anyone be foolish enough to do that?

“I don’t know,” Huggins said. “The challenge of it, maybe.”

The Mountaineers, who host our No. 1 mid-major Buffalo tonight, certainly have to welcome anyone brave enough to try to test their best.

“It motivates me if he dunks on me the first time,” Konate said. “The second time, I’m 100 percent sure I’m going to block you.”

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

College Basketball’s Top Frontcourts

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What defines a big man in college basketball these days?

In the NBA, there are clearly defined types of bigs.

There are stretch-fours, stretch-fives, switchable rim-runners, rim-protecters, skilled fives.

And these days, those bigs come in all shapes and sizes, from Draymond Green to Clint Capela, from Joel Embiid to Giannis Antetokuonmpo.

In college, it’s a little bit different.

Since the Golden State Warriors haven’t broken the sport like they have at the highest level, teams can play different styles and have success. Villanova won the 2018 national title by going all in on spacing, shooting and skill while the 2017 national title was played between North Carolina and Gonzaga, two teams that played with massive frontcourts.

Styles can still make fights at this level, which makes the different frontcourts all that much more interesting this season.

So let’s take a look at them.

Here are the best sets of bigs in college basketball.


Chet White | UK Athletics

1. KENTUCKY

Players: Reid Travis, P.J. Washington, Nick Richard, E.J. Montgomery

The Wildcats may not match the numbers that some of the other teams on this list have from a depth standpoint, but they certainly hold their own from a talent standpoint. P.J. Washington and Nick Richards are the lone returnees in this quartet, with the former coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. The transition to college basketball was a bit more difficult for Richards, who despite starting all 37 games struggled some from a consistency standpoint and averaged 5.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.

That season of experience should serve both Washington and Richards well, and they’ve got two very talented newcomers to work with in Reid Travis and E.J. Montgomery. Travis is the best grad transfer in college basketball this season, as he’s coming off of a 2017-18 season at Stanford in which he averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5 percent shooting. Had Travis, who withdrew his name from the NBA draft in the spring, returned to Stanford he very well could have been the preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 five-star recruit earned McDonald’s All-America honors and was Florida’s Player of the Year after averaging 25.6 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a high school senior.

2. GONZAGA

Players: Jeremy Jones, Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev

The front court at Mark Few’s disposal this season is a big reason why Gonzaga has the appearance of a national title contender. In junior Rui Hachimura the Bulldogs have an All-America candidate who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, shooting 56.8 percent from the field. He isn’t the only returnee in the Gonzaga front court either, as second team All-WCC big man Killian Tillie returns after averaging 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. This duo will lead the way in a rotation that will have to account for the departure of leading scorer and rebounder Johnathan Williams, and they’re joined by two talented newcomers in Brandon Clarke and Filip Petrusev.

Clarke, who sat out last season after transferring from San Jose State, averaged 17.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in 2016-17. At Gonzaga the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior may not score as much due to the talent he’s playing with, but he’ll certainly be an impact addition. As for Petrusev, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Serbia finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida and was a key contributor on teams that won gold at both the 2017 and 2018 FIBA Europe Under-18 Championships. Sophomore Corey Kispert made seven starts last season, averaging 6.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in just over 19 minutes per game, and former walk-on Jeremy Jones will round out this talented rotation.

3. KANSAS

Players: Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, Silvio De Sousa*, David McCormack

While Kansas does have some uncertainty to work through at present time due to the status of sophomore power forward Silvo De Sousa, this is still one of college basketball’s most talented front court rotations. A big reason for that is the addition of Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, a 6-foot-8 forward who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore in 2016-17. Also making the move from Memphis was Dedric’s brother K.J., who averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game during that same season. The third newcomer is 6-foot-10 forward David McCormack, who earned McDonald’s All-America honors and helped lead Oak Hill Academy to a 30-4 record as a senior.

That trio joins three returnees led by junior center Udoka Azubuike, who in 2017-18 averaged 13.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 23.6 minutes per game. Azubuike led the country in field goal percentage, making 77.0 percent of his attempts, and when he gets the ball with two feet in the paint he’s incredibly difficult to stop. Mitch Lightfoot gives Kansas additional depth inside, but the question mark for the Jayhawks is De Sousa.

Joining the program in December, De Sousa averaged 4.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in 20 appearances as a freshman. He’s in line to take a significant step forward as a sophomore, provided he be cleared to play as the school is currently looking into his eligibility status in the aftermath of the first round of trials in the FBI’s investigation into bribes paid to influence recruits. The Kansas front court will be good regardless of that outcome, but there’s no denying that De Sousa’s presence would only make this group better.

Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

4. NORTH CAROLINA

Players: Luke Maye, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley, Nassir Little

The Tar Heel front court is led by a player in Maye who ranks among the nation’s best. The 6-foot-8 senior is coming off of a season in which he averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, earning first team All-ACC honors and the conference’s Most Improved Player award. In addition to the conference honors, Maye was also named a third-team All-American by multiple outlets at season’s end. At minimum he can be a first-team All-American this season, if not a major factor in the national Player of the Year race.

Another reason why the front court is considered to rate among the nation’s best is the arrival of Nassir Little, a 6-foot-6 McDonald’s All-American who can be used at either the three or the four. Given North Carolina’s numbers on the wings, it’s likely that the talented freshman will see more time at the latter spot. And given his athleticism, look for Little to be one of college basketball’s best freshmen. Sophomores Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman and Sterling Manley will all factor into Roy Williams’ plans as well, with Brooks (4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) having made 16 starts as a freshman and Manley averaging 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds per game off the bench.

5. WEST VIRGINIA

Players: Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad, Andrew Gordon, Lamont West, Wesley Harris, Logan Routt, Derek Culver

While “Press Virginia” will have a different look this season due to the departures of guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., Bob Huggins has a front court that lacks neither depth nor experience. West Virginia’s top three returning scorers are all front court players, led by the nation’s best rim protector in 6-foot-8 junior Sagaba Konate. Last season Konate, who entered the NBA draft before deciding to withdraw his name, averaged 10.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game, ranking second in the country in block percentage (15.6; Texas’ Mo Bamba led in that category). Also back from last year’s Sweet 16 team are senior Esa Ahmad, and juniors Wesley Harris and Lamont West.

Ahmad, who missed West Virginia’s first 16 games of the season, made 16 starts and averaged 10.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a junior. West, who Ahmad eventually replaced in the starting lineup, made 20 starts and averaged 9.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Harris was one of two Mountaineers, Carter being the other, to start all 37 games in 2017-18 and he chipped in with 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game. 6-foot-9 sophomore Andrew Gordon, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and 6-foot-11 junior Logan Routt give West Virginia additional size inside, and the same can be said of talented 6-foot-10 freshman Derek Culver. Culver was a standout at Brewster Academy last season, earning first team All-NEPSAC Class AAA honors.

6. TENNESSEE

Players: Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, Yves Pons, Derrick Walker Jr., John Fulkerson, D.J. Burns, Zach Kent, Brock Jancek

The Tennessee front court, a big reason why the Volunteers managed to earn a share of the SEC regular season title, is anchored by reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. As a sophomore Williams averaged 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Also in the rotation is senior Admiral Schofield, who after entering his name into the NBA draft pool decided to return to Knoxville for one last run. The 6-foot-6 Schofield led Tennessee with an average of 6.4 rebounds per game last season while also scoring 13.9 points per game (he shot 39.5 percent from three on 4.6 attempts per game).

Adding depth and experience inside are senior Kyle Alexander and sophomores Yves Pons, John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker Jr., with Alexander (34 starts) having averaged 5.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshmen D.J. Burns, Brock Jancek and Zach Kent, who played in Tennessee’s first two games before being redshirted last season, will look to crack this experienced rotation. That will be difficult to do, but at the very least competing with the likes of Williams and Schofield should help those three freshmen down the line.

7. DUKE

Players: Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden, Jack White, Justin Robinson, Antonio Vrankovic

Williamson, one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2018 class, is the headliner for this group. The freshman has a combination of athleticism, raw power and size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) that has not been seen at this level. Given Williamson’s ability to impact a game, he’s going to be an incredibly difficult matchup for opponents to account for. The remainder of the front court rotation will be asked to provide depth, defense and rebounding in a lineup that projects to be led by four freshmen (Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish on the perimeter with Williamson at the four).

Javin DeLaurier, who averaged 3.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in 12.6 minutes per game as a sophomore, appears to be first in line for that fifth spot in the starting lineup with fellow junior Marques Bolden competing for that designation as well. Junior Jack White appeared in 28 games (5.6 mpg) last season, and Justin Robinson and Antonio Vrankovic will also look to earn increases in playing time in 2018-19.

8. VIRGINIA

Players: Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite, De’Andre Hunter, Jay Huff, Francisco Caffaro

Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter is healthy after his first season on the court came to a premature end due to a thumb injury, and he’s considered by many to be Virginia’s best NBA prospect heading into the 2018-19 campaign. As a redshirt freshman the 6-foot-7 Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Senior Jack Salt started all 34 games for the Cavaliers, averaging 3.4 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, and Mamadi Diakite was a valuable reserve with averages of 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds per contest.

Redshirt sophomore Jay Huff and freshman Francisco Caffaro, a 7-footer who helped lead Argentina to a bronze medal in this summer’s FIBA U18 Americas Championship, will also compete for playing time. Note: We’ve grouped Braxton Key with Virginia’s perimeter players, but he could certainly factor into Tony Bennett’s plans in the front court as well given his size (6-foot-8, 225).

De’Andre Hunter (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

9. KANSAS STATE

Players: Dean Wade, Makol Mawien, Austin Trice, James Love III, Levi Stockard III, Nigel Shadd, Patrick Muldoon

Kansas State managed to reach the Elite Eight last season without Dean Wade, and with the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year healthy the feeling it that the Wildcats can do even more in 2018-19. As a junior Wade led the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding with averages of 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while also dishing out 2.7 assists per contest. He’s joined in Kansas State’s interior rotation by fellow senior Makol Mawien, who started all 37 games last season and averaged 6.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per night. If Mawien were to become more consistent in his production, Kansas State could really take off.

Levi Stockard and James Love III will both look to earn increased minutes after being on the periphery of the Kansas State rotation last season, and the same goes for redshirt freshman Nigel Shadd who played in just eight games due to a knee injury. Kansas State has added two transfers to the mix, with junior Austin Trice being a third team NJCAA All-American and Wabash Valley CC last season and Patrick Muldoon walking onto the team after averaging 5.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Eastern Illinois in 2016-17.

10. AUBURN

Players: Horace Spencer, Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy, Chuma Okeke, Myles Parker

While Auburn’s numbers in the front court will be down a bit to start the season as Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy serve the remainder of their NCAA suspensions, the fact that both returned after being sidelined for all of last season is very good news for Bruce Pearl. As a freshman, the 6-foot-11 Wiley averaged 8.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18 minutes per game. As for Purifoy, he made 25 starts in 2016-17 and accounted for 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per contest. Once those two, who will miss Auburn’s first nine games, are back in the fold Auburn will have a deep rotation that won’t lack for talent.

Returnees Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore and Chuma Okeke will also be factors in 2018-19. Okeke was Auburn’s most productive front court reserve, as he averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 21.6 minutes per game. Spencer accounted for 4.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game as a key reserve, moving into the starting lineup when Anfernee McLemore went down with a broken leg. McLemore (7.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.7 bpg) was one of the nation’s best shot blockers before the injury, which he suffered in a loss at South Carolina. Getting the 6-foot-7 junior back gives Auburn the rim protector it lacked during last season’s stretch run. Prior to last season Auburn had gone 15 years without an NCAA tournament appearance. This front court is a key reason why the Tigers don’t have to worry about starting a new tournament drought in 2019.

Honorable Mention: Arizona State, Florida State, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon, Providence, Texas, UCLA, Villanova, Wisconsin

West Virginia lands five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe

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West Virginia pulled in a major commitment on Saturday as five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe pledged to the Mountaineers.

A late-developing, high-motor big man who ascended into a national recruit this summer, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Tshiebwe represents an important grab for West Virginia. Tshiebwe represents a potential replacement for Sagaba Konate in the middle as the Mountaineers beat some pretty impressive programs to land him. That includes Baylor and Kentucky.

Tshiebwe is quick off the floor and a good athlete, as he could be a very dangerous player in Bob Huggins’ system because of his brand of basketball. Regarded as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Rivals Class of 2019 national rankings, Tshiebwe also took official visits to Baylor, Illinois and Kentucky during the recruiting process.

Tshiebwe joins three-star guard Miles McBride in West Virginia’s 2019 recruiting haul.

Watch list for Malone award released

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It’s watchlist season, y’all.

The latest preseason inventory comes from the Malone Award, given to the country’s top power forward, which features 20 names.

Kentucky has a pair of players with P.J. Washington and Stanford transfer Reid Travis while the mid-major ranks are represented by South Dakota State’s Mike Daum, Northern Kentucky’s Drew McDonald and UNCW’s Devontae Cacok.

Duke freshman sensation Zion Williamson is also on the list as is senior All-American candidates Dean Wade of Kansas State and Luke Maye of North Carolina. SEC player of the year Grant Williams also makes the cut.

“We are privileged to annually present an award bearing the name of Karl Malone, a truly gifted player and an exemplary teammate,” John L. Doleva, President and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “The young men on the watch list for this, and other awards in the Naismith Starting 5, should be extremely proud, and we look forward to watching them compete throughout the upcoming season.”

The list will be cut to 10 in February, then to five and finally awarded to the honoree in April. Players not named in the initial 20 can also work their way into consideration.

Arizona’s Deandre Ayton won last year, Johnathan Motley of Baylor in 2017 and Georges Niang of Iowa State in 2016.

2019 Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award Candidates
Yoeli Childs, BYU
Zion Williamson, Duke
Juwan Morgan, Indiana
Dedric Lawson, Kansas
Dean Wade, Kansas St
Reid Travis, Kentucky
P.J. Washington, Kentucky
Jordan Murphy, Minnesota
Jordan Brown, Nevada
Luke Maye, North Carolina
Drew McDonald, Northern Kentucky
Chris Silva, South Carolina
Mike Daum, South Dakota State
Grant Williams, Tennessee
Devontae Cacok, UNCW
Bennie Boatwright, USC
Simisola Shittu, Vanderbilt
Eric Paschall, Villanova
Noah Dickerson, Washington
Sagaba Konate, West Virginia

2018-19 Big 12 Preview: Kansas and everybody else, once again

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.


Ah, the Big 12. It’s the league that has spent the last five years as the top-rated conference by KenPom, and usually by a wide margin. Seventy percent of its membership made the NCAA tournament last season, with a total of 90 percent playing in the postseason. Its teams won 60 percent of its games against other power conferences. Six players were selected in the NBA draft for the third consecutive year. The league is a running, dribbling, dunking, winning monster.

It also has been singularly, completely and, I’d argue, embarrassingly dominated by a single team for 14 consecutive years.

It’s not Kansas and the Little Nine, but to say the Jayhawks aren’t in a class of their own is sort of like arguing the sun is just another piece of our solar system.

The separation this looks to be significant enough that the annual head-meet-wall exercise of “Who will dethrone Kansas?” seems to be more of a futile exercise than typical.

Kansas is going to win the conference. It’ll be the 15th-consecutive time. They’re going to better than the numerous storied, proud and accomplished programs in the league.

Again.

We’re not far off from an enrolling a freshman class literally not knowing a world without the Jayhawks winning the Big 12. No matter how good the rest of the nine teams in the conference all may be any year, that’s a tough reality to swallow every single year.

Udoka Azubuike (John Weast/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kansas reaches a singularity

The last half-decade or so of college basketball has produced essentially three paths to competing at the highest levels of the sport. You can accumulate five-star, one-and-done freshmen. Another way is to round up high-level transfers. Then there’s this other way of having players contribute and play for, and hear me out on this, multiple years on the same team and stepping into bigger and bigger roles.

Kansas just said eff it and did all three.

The Jayhawks have a top-five recruiting class featuring five-stars Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson while putting together maybe one of the more fearsome transfer groups ever with Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. Then there’s Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, both Final Four starters, plus Mitch Lightfoot, back for more. The Jayhawks may not be Duke, they may not be Nevada and they may not be Villanova, but they basically are a mashup of all the best talent-acquisition and roster-building strategies.

It’s easy to see why the rest of the league ends up on its back seeing stars while the Jayhawks pull away the Big 12 trophy every season. Kansas just does it better.

2. Kansas State runs it back

It took something like 500 words to get here, but I’m actually going to discuss – actually even just name – a Big 12 team other than Kansas now.

Let’s head west to Manhattan, where Bruce Weber has his entire team back after a surprise Elite Eight run. It’s a rather astounding turnaround for a coaching tenure that looked cooked in February 2017 when Kansas State had lost eight of 10, looked primed to miss the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year and Weber was under intense pressure.

Dean Wade is a legitimate All-American candidate, Barry Brown isn’t far behind and Xavier Sneed, Carter Diarra and Kamau Stokes are all proven Big 12 difference-makers. The Wildcats are going to have a level of continuity that is exceedingly – maybe entirely – rare in college hoops today. If that stability can keep them strong defensively – they make opponents grind out possessions when they’re not turning them over – and make strides offensively – they ranked outside the top-100 in eFG% last year – then Weber and the Wildcats might have a busy March once again.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

3. Is the honeymoon over in Austin?

It took four seasons after an earth-shaking Final Four appearance for a school to pull Shaka Smart away from VCU. Texas fans have to be hoping that’s exactly how long it takes for him to live up to expectations in Austin.

Smart has gotten the Longhorns to two NCAA tournaments in three years, but both resulted in first-round exits. In between those Big Dances in 2016 and 2018, Texas finished dead-last in the Big 12. It’s basically undeniable that Smart’s best season with Texas was on the strength of a roster compiled by a guy run out of town for not winning enough (that guy won an SEC title last year, by the way).

It’s probably not wholly accurate to say Smart is on the hot seat – most Texas fans probably won’t remember they have a basketball team until Tom Herman’s squad stops playing – but given his contract and Texas’ resources, it’s more than fair to expect something better than what he’s delivered in three years. The Longhorns have talent this season despite losing Mo Bamba with Jericho Sims, Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski all back while Andrew Jones continues his valiant battle with leukemia and holds out hope to be back on the floor. There’s also a top-10 recruiting class and Mount. St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long. That’s probably not a roster that’ll wreak havoc on the Big 12, but it should be good enough to keep fans from fixating on spring football in February.

4. Mountaineer Machine

After two lackluster years to start its Big 12 tenure, West Virginia morphed into Press Virginia and Bob Huggins’ team hasn’t looked back. There have been standout players like Juwan Staten, Jaysean Paige, and Jevon Carter, but the strength has been the system for the Mountaineers. That’ll be put to the test this year again with the loss of Carter, a national defensive player of the year and All-American, but Huggins should once again have the bodies to throw weight around the Big 12.

Sagaba Konate may be the most entertaining defensive player in the whole country. The 6-foot-8 forward has wingspan and vert for days, plus a panache for the dramatic. The guy just seems to love blocking dunks and snatching shots out of mid-air. Esa Ahmad had a breakout sophomore campaign before academic issues upended his season last year, but a return to form is in order and would be a huge boon for the Mountaineers on both ends of the floor. Those are the headliners, but Huggs will again be able to roll out waves of talented and tough dudes that’ll be a menace in the Big 12.

5. Will there be any federal fallout?

Three Big 12 programs have become embroiled to varying degrees in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball that rocked the sport more than a year ago, reverberated throughout last season and continues to send aftershocks with testimony ongoing in the Southern District of New York.

Brian Bowen Sr. alleged under oath that agent/runner Christian Dawkins told him Texas was willing to “help” with housing if his son, top-30 recruit Brian Jr., joined the Longhorns while Oklahoma State was offering $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and more to buy a house. Cowboys associate head coach Lamont Evans was one of 10 arrested last fall, and was fired by the school.

The potential involvement and rule-breaking by Texas and Oklahoma State is certainly noteworthy and interesting, but the question that hangs over the conference is just how exposed Kansas may be. The Jayhawks are one of adidas’ flagship programs, and the three-stripes are knee-deep in federal investigators. There’s already been testimony that former Jayhawk Billy Preston got money, and there’s also under-oath statements saying that not only did current KU sophomore Silvio De Sousa as well, but that the Angola native previously had signed a pro deal with a Spanish club as well. De Sousa played in the Final Four last season, which would seem to imperil that banner at Allen Fieldhouse, at minimum.

So far, there have been no bombshells of alleged wrongdoing by coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks – especially when judged against a backdrop of fans increasingly caring less about players getting paid – but that possibility seems to be the biggest what-if still out there in a federal case that we’ve learned has spanned more than three years now.

Dedric Lawson (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

There are two fan bases that are indebted to the Lawson family. Really, the entire season of 2018-19 owes them thanks. If it wasn’t for Keelon Lawson getting demoted from assistant by Tubby Smith, Memphis might not have its electrifying alum, Penny Hardaway, at the helm of the program and Kansas might not be a popular preseason No. 1 pick. Those are two of the most interesting storylines this season and a testament to how good Dedric Lawson is.

The 6-foot-9 transfer averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore for the Tigers, but left his hometown for Lawrence, along with his talented brother K.J., after Smith dumped their dad before getting dumped by Memphis. He now gives Bill Self one of the most productive and versatile players in the country to headline one of the most talented rosters in the country. Must be nice.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The rare player who is it is actually exciting to watch play defense, Konate changes games with his work at the rim.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: The 6-foot-10 senior is effective inside and out, which helps keep the Wildcats’ offense from bogging down.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas: This is a bet Kansas leans on the Team USA’s MVP at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship at guard.
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season and will be critical in the Wildcats’ quest to backup last year’s Elite Eight season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • JAYLEN FISHER, TCU
  • MAKAI MASON, Baylor
  • KERWIN ROACH, Texas
Jarrett Culver (Elsa/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith stole the show for Texas Tech’s resurgent season and Elite Eight showing under Chris Beard, but Jarrett Culver was no slouch and figures to step into the void created by those two stars’ departures. He averaged 11.2 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range. With a bigger role, he could put up major numbers in Lubbock.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Aside from Smart for the aforementioned reasons, the Big 12 doesn’t have any coach who is explicitly feeling the heat. So if we dig below the surface (and, yes, stretch some), there are a few things to talk about.

It’s probably worth watching to see what happens with Kansas and the government’s corruption case, but the list of more bulletproof coaches than Bill Self probably isn’t longer than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Mike Boynton was on staff when Oklahoma State was allegedly offering the Bowen family money, and his contract (and short, if surprisingly strong, track record) would make him easily expendable if the Cowboys had to. Steve Prohm went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, won a Big 12 tournament and got to the Sweet 16 in his first two years with Iowa State but that was exclusively with players Fred Hoiberg brought to Ames, and when the roster turned over last year, the Cyclones sunk to last place. Prohm’s talent pool is much improved and he’s got plenty of goodwill with administration, but if the Cyclones aren’t back to relevance after missing the tournament for the first time since 2011, some impatience could bubble up.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Kansas is once again the Big 12’s best – and maybe only – hope for winning its first national title since 2008, but the league’s depth is once again one of – and maybe the – best in the country.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The inevitable collision between the Super Slam Swatter Sagaba Konate and Soul-Snatching Slammer Lindell Wigginton.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Kansas vs. Villanova
  • Jan. 26, Kansas vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 9, West Virginia vs. Buffalo
  • Nov. 22, Texas vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 20, Texas Tech vs. Duke
Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Because there simply has been enough written about the Jayhawks in this space, here’s some more to consider about Kansas’ streak.

The last time the Jayhawks shared the Big 12 title: It was 2013, with Kansas State in Bruce Weber’s first season leading the Wildcats and playing the Jayhawks to a draw. Back then, Perry Ellis was a freshman, twerking was a thing people talked about a lot, Ben McLemore looked like a future NBA star, the power went out at the Super Bowl and Jeff Withey shot 100 percent (1-1) from 3-point range.

The last time there was a non-Kansas outright Big 12 winner: It was 2004. Eddie Sutton led Oklahoma State to a a 14-2 mark in the Big 12 and the Final Four. Those were the days when Kansas rolled with a Wayne Simien and Keith Langford 1-2 punch, everyone was quoting ‘Anchorman,’ Jameer Nelson was the national player of the year and MySpace and Facebook began their battle for friends. Which reminds me that ‘Friends’ was still on TV then, too.

2. KANSAS STATE: So I think Kansas State is going to be quite good. I think it’s clear going into the season that they have to be slotted as the second-best team in the Big 12. They’ve got continuity and talent. Stability and skill. Let’s indulge, for a moment, though, that maybe we’ve got them overrated some.

Would everyone be so high on the Wildcats if UMBC accomplish the 16-1 miracle and they instead had to face No. 1 overall seed Virginia? What if Arizona had actually played up to its talent level and gotten by Buffalo and Kentucky, to face Kansas State instead of a good-but-not-great John Calipari team? Kansas State, after all, was ultimately beat by a team that had losses to Milwaukee and Indiana State, although admittedly it was a team was from Chicago that had the backing of a nun, so Loyola could have been on a mission from God.

I dunno. Something to think about.

3. WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers’ offense was actually ranked higher than its defense last season on KenPom for the first time of the Press Virginia era. West Virginia really didn’t make a ton of shots but they took care of the ball and hit the offensive glass. Losing Jevon Carter is a blow, no doubt, but the Mountaineers should be able to recreate that success on offense without him. It’s also probably a safe assumption that Bob Huggins won’t let the defense fall off a cliff.

Jaylen Fisher (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

4. TCU: It was pretty obvious in 2016 that the Horned Frogs had pulled off quite the coup when it took Jamie Dixon off Pitt’s hands, but the 1987 TCU graduate has outperformed expectations in a hurry. The Horned Frogs made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years last year, and look to have staying power under Dixon.

Vlad Brodziansky made a lot of what TCU did work with his presence in the middle and his loss, along with Kenrich Williams’, will be felt, but Dixon has plenty to work with. Point guard Jaylen Fisher is back after being sidelined with a knee injury to team with Alex Robinson in the backcourt while sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi return to give the Horned Frogs deadly shooters on the outside. The frontcourt could be a question, but TCU is a Big 12 contender.

5. TEXAS: Texas may not have a Jarrett Allen- or Mo Bamba-caliber NBA prospect on its roster this season, but the Longhorns are plenty talented. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see any of Matt Coleman, Dylan Osetkowski, Kerwin Roach and Jericho Sims on all-conference teams come season’s end while Texas also welcomes a top-10 recruiting class and Elijah Mitrou-Long, a Mount St. Mary’s transfer who averaged 15 points per game as a sophomore. Andrew Jones’ long-term health is obviously the chief concern, but if he is able to play, that gives Shaka Smart another highly talented player to deploy.

Smart has gotten Texas to play defense in his three years in Austin, but they’ll need to make strides on the offensive end to finally start competing at the upper echelon of the Big 12, much less the country, which was the expectation when the Longhorns became the team to finally pull Smart from VCU after a long list of schools failed to.

6. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are going to be much more talented this season as they come off a 13-18 campaign that saw them finish four games behind ninth-place Oklahoma State in the standings, but getting all the pieces to fit could be the trick for coach Steve Prohm.

Lindell Wigginton is a proven scorer and his return after an NBA flirtation was paramount for the Cyclones, but if he wants to play point guard, his likely pro position, what’s that mean for Nick Weiler-Babb, who became a nightly triple-double threat at PG before injuries ended his season? Cameron Lard is a hugely talented big man, but found himself in trouble off the court and spent the summer off-campus at a wellness center. Iowa State will also have to figure out how to integrate transfers Marial Shayok (Virginia) and Michael Jacobson (Nebraska) along with one of the program’s best recruiting classes, headlined by top-50 recruit Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Cyclones think could be a star. There’s also the matter of Iowa State having no proven shooters outside of Wigginton.

If Iowa State can make it all fit together, they could be this year’s rags to riches story, but if things go wobbly, is there enough leadership to keep things steady?

Lindell Wigginton (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

7. TEXAS TECH: It’s going to be difficult for Chris Beard to replace Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith, but if he’s able to do it, it’ll probably be on the strength of graduate transfers. The Red Raiders welcome South Dakota’s Matt Mooney, who averaged 18 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the Coyotes, and St. John’s Tariq Owens, who averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Red Storm.

Beard isn’t without returners to lean on, however, with Jarrett Culver expected to take a major role and Norense Odiase back after starting 29 games. An Elite Eight repeat is probably a tall task, but Beard seems to have a formula figured out to keep things rolling in Lubbock.

8. BAYLOR: It’s going to be a rebuilding season in Waco for coach Scott Drew, who narrowly missed guiding the Bears to their fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance last year with a 19-15 overall record and 8-10 Big 12 mark. Drew is experiencing heavy losses from that team, namely Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil and T.J. Maston.

There will still be experience at Drew’s disposal, though, with Jake Lindsey, Tristan Clark, King McClure and Mark Vital all back after starting at least 14 games each, though none were huge contributors. The most fascinating pieces for Drew are transfers Mario Kegler (Mississippi State) and Makai Mason (Yale), who hasn’t played in essentially two years due to injury.

9. OKLAHOMA: Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches to do it, but he could be in for a long season with the Trae Young Show moving on after one year. Sure, it turned out to be a bumpy ride with Young, a lottery pick to Atlanta, last season, but you could never count the Sooners out with him on the floor.

It’s not going to be as difficult to bet against the Sooners this year as they return the bulk of the supporting cast from last year that seemed incapable of supporting Young. Maybe that singular style of play was just too hard to adapt to, but it’s difficult to see how Oklahoma is better this season than last.

10. OKLAHOMA STATE: Mike Boynton’s team was the surprise of the Big 12 last year as they won 21 games with a roster few in the Big 12 would have envied. That roster, though, lost basically all its best pieces and there aren’t much in the way of immediate reinforcements on their way. The Cowboys will try to hang their hats on defense, and if they’re able to parlay that into a season similar to last, it’ll be perhaps as big a surprise as their two wins against Kansas last year.

Penn State, West Virginia set up hurricane relief exhibition

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Tuesday afternoon it was announced by Penn State and West Virginia that the two programs will meet in an exhibition that will benefit Hurricane Florence relief efforts. The exhibition will be played November 3 in Morgantown, with all proceeds being donated to the American Red Cross.

While the game won’t impact either team’s record, it is the first meeting between the Nittany Lions and Mountaineers since January 1991. At the time both schools were members of the Atlantic 10, with Penn State leaving to join the Big Ten that summer.

Ahead of the 2017-18 season there were numerous exhibitions matching Division I teams, a move that requires NCAA approval, in the name of charity. That’s certainly the most important aspect of these exhibitions, but it also gives coaches the chance to evaluate their players against similar competition as opposed to the standard preseason game against a Division II, III or NAIA opponent.

Teams also have the option of setting up scrimmages before the season begins, and those affairs cannot be viewed by the general public.