Texas guard Matt Coleman (2) shoots the ball over TCU forward Vladimir Brodziansky (10) during a NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Men's Basketball

12 big things about Big 12 basketball: A few preseason things to know

Posted October 17th, 2018

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The college basketball season starts in a few weeks as teams will play their first games on Tuesday, Nov. 6. Are you excited? You should be.

With that said, here are 12 big things about Big 12 basketball you need to know this preseason:

12. The best pro prospect is?

According to NBA Draft net, the best pro prospect is West Virginia’s Lamont West, followed by Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, WVU’s Sagaba Konate, Kansas’ Quentin Grimes and Iowa State’s Lindell Wigginton. That’s five projected first-round picks in the Big 12 according to that site. The 2018 NBA Draft featured three first-round picks from the conference.

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Now that’s just one site’s opinion. Bleacher Report has three players in the first round, right now, in Grimes (7th), Culver (23rd) and Wigginton (26th).

Grimes seems to be the most consistent high-draft pick. That makes sense because he’s the highest-rated freshman entering the league this season. West is only popping on Draft Net in terms of the first round, but at 6-foot-8-inches tall and expected to play a larger role in every way for the Mountaineers, there’s nothing to suggest West couldn’t become a highly-sought after prospect.

Player to watch? It’s surprising Kansas transfer Dedric Lawson isn’t being talked about as a first round pick, considering his numbers at Memphis and the success Kansas coach Bill Self has had in getting power forwards drafted. Lawson is being talked about as a “point-forward” in Kansas’ offense this year, and it seems as though if Lawson were to produce similar numbers at Kansas that he did in Memphis, while also showing ball-handling skills, he could be one of the hottest NBA prospects in the league.

11. The best freshman

Grimes is the highest-rated freshman in the conference but he’s also on what should be the most balanced and talented team in the conference, so he may not have as many stat-filled games and he may not even be a top-three scorer at Kansas.

But the McDonald’s All-American is clearly the freshman with the most hype and potential, but so was Mo Bamba a year ago and yet Trae Young overshadowed him all season, so which freshman could do that to Grimes?

I’m very bullish on many of Texas’ freshmen. Three of them could be the talk of the conference at some point. Courtney Ramey could always pair with sophomore guard Matt Coleman to form a two-guard lineup and Kamaka Hepa could push for playing time. I also continue to stress that Gerald Liddell — a player coach Shaka Smart has never really had (a 6-foot-8-inch, 4-star recruit, wing) — could have an impact.

TCU’s group of redshirt freshmen of Lat Mayen, RJ Nembhard, Angus McWilliam and Kevin Samuel, along with true freshman Kaden Archie could all emerge as star freshmen.

But the truth is that while in past years the Big 12 had lots of freshmen who played lead roles entering the season, this year there doesn’t appear to have a Trae Young, Jarrett Allen, Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson type of player who will enter the season as the team’s alpha dog. Instead, the best incoming players could be the eligible transfers, like the ones at Kansas, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.

10. Best defensive player

Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, he of 116 blocks last season (second in the nation) enters the year as the favorite to win national defensive player of the year honors. He is 21 blocks away from breaking the all-time West Virginia record. He’s only a junior.

9. Best bench

What’s going to make this Big 12 conference so good is how deep all the teams could be.

Obviously there’s no way we can project an accurate starting lineup by the time January comes, but looking at rosters, it’s obvious that Kansas, Kansas State, TCU, Texas and Iowa State could roll very deep, in KU, K-State and TCU’s cases, having a 10-man rotation doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. Most teams prefer to limit their rotation to eight players because the deeper the season goes, you want your five best players on the court at all times.

For a lot of teams in the Big 12, it’s going to be hard to figure out the eight best players because of the all the talent.

For instance, Texas has four starters back from last year’s team and return all the starters they played with when Mo Bamba and Eric Davis were out. Sure Hepa is great, but it’s not a given he’ll beat out sophomore Royce Hamm out for playing time. At the same time, it’s not a given that projected UT star, sophomore Jericho Sims, will beat out Hepa. Heck, 6-foot-11-inch Cincinnati product freshman Jaxson Hayes, shouldn’t be discounted as a rotation player either. There’s so much talent on the Longhorns front line that it wouldn’t even be surprising if senior Dylan Osetkowski is the sixth man come January.  Unlikely, but not surprising.

And that’s just the front court. There are three point guard options, a four-year starter, a sophomore guard who started down the stretch last season and a 4-star recruit on the wing.

But the best bench?

There’s a reason Kansas is projected to be one of the top-two teams in the nation when the preseason polls come out. And that’s because of the 12 scholarship guys on Kansas’ roster, 11 could make the case for a spot in the starting five. When a two-year starting senior in LaGerald Vick — a guy who started in the Final Four last year — isn’t even a lock to start, that’s called being loaded.

Kansas’ Day 1 starting lineup is probably Charlie Moore and Grimes in the backcourt, Vick at a forward spot, Lawson at power forward and the center will be Udoka Azubuike, who led the nation in field goal shooting a year ago.

But that’s just a guess because freshman point guard Devon Dotson is a McDonald’s All-American, K.J. Lawson, once the American Conference Freshman of the Year, is a more natural small forward (with better size) than Vick and Marcus Garrett is probably a better defender than anyone on the team. I didn’t even mention McDonald’s All-American freshman center David McCormick and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot.

Oh, and then there’s Silvio De Sousa, the 6-9 sophomore who was sensational in the Jayhawks’ Final Four run last year. De Sousa was named in the FBI recruiting investigation and recent trial, so even if he’s eligible to play, who knows if Kansas will even need to play him this season?

8. Best duo

Kansas State’s Dean Wade and Barry Brown are the reason Wildcat fans can honestly think about winning a national championship.  Wade and Brown are the leaders on a team that could have the best starting five in the conference based on what happened in March last season.

Wade was a first team All-Big 12 player, but Brown was the best player on the team at the end of the season. The seniors averaged a combined 32.1 points per game. With the help of a third senior, Kamau Stokes, 2018 postseason breakout juniors Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien, K-State has the best duo but they are more than just Wade and Brown. The starting five in Manhattan could be turn out to be the best in the nation.

7. Hot seats

I don’t think any coach is on a true hot seat.

Smart is an average season away from being there, but a decent season this year extinguishes it. Something would have to go seriously wrong for Smart to lose his job, or Smart to leave his job, after this season.

I’d be stunned if Baylor ever moved on from the program’s best coach, Scott Drew. It’s far more likely that Drew decides to leave first. This year could be difficult for Baylor, but it won’t be enough for him to lose his job. The man has earned the right for a down year. That said, every time we think Baylor under Drew is going to be down they usually have a good team, so what do we know?

The interesting coaches are the ones who are expected to have great teams or expected to have bounce back seasons. If Kansas State is more like the Kansas State team we saw from November to early March last year, and barely making the tournament, Bruce Weber is right back to where he’s been for most of his K-State career, on the edge.

On the other side is Steve Prohm at Iowa State. After missing the dance last season, the Cyclones should expect to return to the NCAA Tournament this year. If that doesn’t happen, it could get dicey for the fourth-year coach.

But I don’t think anyone loses their job after this season… unless the FBI plays a role.

6. Possible breakout star?

James Bolden at West Virginia has been Jevon Carter’s understudy for two years. He is already the program’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting percentage at 41.9 percent. The fact is he won’t replace what Carter did defensively, but he very well could be a better offensive player and, if he continues to shoot like that, West Virginia will be tough to beat.

5. The best overall defense will be?

Texas has depth and experience and Smart knows how to coach defense. We’ll knock West Virginia a little even though history suggests they’ll be OK, but losing Carter is tough. Texas played good defense last year even when Bamba was hurt, and the even more athletic roster and the return of a hound like Roach should have Texas back in the top 10 of KenPom’s defensive rankings.

4. Best offense

While Iowa State should have the best volume scorer (Wigginton) and Kansas State has scoring options at every position, Kansas’ offense should be the most dynamic and hardest to stop. They can play small and fast. They can play half court and bully ball. They won’t have as many shooters as they did last season, but Vick’s return gives them  a 37.8 percent 3-point shooter and both Lawson brothers have touch for their size. Kansas’ big weakness last season was rebounding, but that could be its biggest strength this year.

Also it helps when the center shoots nearly 80 percent from the paint. No one in the league has someone like that.

If every team in the Big 12 isn’t practicing how to defend the Hi-Lo offense in preparation to beat Kansas, they’re probably making a mistake.

3. How many tournament teams are in the Big 12?

My prediction is nine teams will make a postseason tournament out of the Big 12, but seven teams: Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, Texas, TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma will be tournament teams, with the Sooners being the “oh, wow, they’re better than I thought” team this year.

2.  The surprise prospect will be

Last year no one thought Zhaire Smith was going to be a one-and-done, lottery pick. If you did, you’re a member of his family.

I don’t know if there’s a player who will come out of nowhere quite like Smith did, but I do think there are two players who can play their way into the lottery this season that no one is looking at.

There’s Sims at Texas.

And there’s Kouat Noi at TCU.

Sims is a 6-foot-9-inch forward who can jump out of the gym. He was so good last year that a lineup Smart probably wasn’t planning on using a lot wound up being the one he started almost every game. My guess is Sims would have to show NBA scouts that he can stretch a defense and shoot to emerge as a first round pick. At the same time, if Sims can become a defensive dynamo and show the same explosiveness and become an elite rebounder, he has what all NBA teams are looking for in this era of basketball.

Noi is in a similar boat as he’s someone who has shooting range and averaged 10.2 points as a redshirt freshman. The Australian product tied with Desmond Bane with the most 3-pointers made. Because of his 6-foot-7-inch size Noi seems like the type of player NBA teams want: Wings that can play multiple positions and can shoot.

1. The team with the best chance at knocking off Kansas

Speaking of Noi and TCU, it’s the Horned Frogs that will emerge as the popular pick to end Kansas’ streak.

TCU should have the league’s best backcourt with Jaylen Fisher and Alex Robinson. Bane and Noi give them shooters. The large influx of both true and redshirt freshmen give TCU a strong mix of players and a deep bench. TCU will be able to match Kansas’ multiple lineup looks. Even the coaching staff improved this year when UT-Arlington shocked everyone who had followed that program and fired heads coach Scott Cross and TCU scooped him up and added him to the staff.

You also have to factor in the head coach: Jamie Dixon. Outside of a trip to Lawrence in his first year, Dixon’s teams have played Kansas extremely tough even though the Horned Frogs are 1-4 against Kansas since Dixon arrived. The win came at the Big 12 Tournament in 2017, a year in which Kansas reached the Elite Eight and was a No.1 seed in the tournament.

Simply put, Dixon is the best coach to arrive in this conference since Bob Huggins was moved into the league. That includes Chris Beard at Texas Tech and even Shaka Smart at Texas. Sure he doesn’t have a Final Four appearance on the resume, but he’s won 373 games in 15 seasons in three conferences that were all considered the best or second best conferences in the sport when he was in them.

Dixon has never had the roster he needed to make a true run at ending Kansas’ streak. He does this year.

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