Men's Basketball

12 Big things about Big 12 basketball: The conference is going to be good again

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Posted May 31st, 2018

Here are 12 big happenings in the world of Big 12 basketball.

Happy returns

12. Texas

The Longhorns had a great spring.

Not only did Texas add a talented point guard that could both sub in for and play alongside Matt Coleman with in-coming freshman Courtney Ramey, but they also got Kerwin Roach back.

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Now, it was widely expected that Roach was returning to Texas, but getting the NBA test can often lead to players staying in the draft — especially juniors who have already been through three college seasons. Roach returned and his importance to next year’s team can’t be understated.

No matter what Longhorn fans may think of the streaky player who can take an ill-advised 3-pointer way too often, Roach is, and has been, one of the Longhorns’ best defenders since coming to Austin and he is by far the team’s most athletic player. Expect him to be on a lot of preseason watch list, possibly the preseason All-Big 12 team and be an even more prominent figure on the program’s upcoming marketing campaign.

The pairing of Roach and fellow senior-to-be Dylan Osetkowski gives Texas a duo of experienced seniors in the starting lineup that coach Shaka Smart hasn’t had since his first season.

Roach’s return means Texas will be loaded in 2018-2019. While some Texas fans tend to be “half-glass empty” folks when it came to the Longhorns last season — a lot of preseason hype and sloppy basketball will do that — the Longhorns improved from 11 wins to 19 and made the tournament. That type of progress, and the expected emergence of forward Jericho Sims to pair with deep front and back courts should excite most fans.

It’ll be interesting to see the lineups Smart chooses to play. Without Mo Bamba, the Longhorns bring back four starters. They could play Sims at center with Osetkowski at power forward and have a three-guard lineup with Roach, Coleman and Jase Febres — essentially the lineup Texas favored when Bamba and Eric Davis were inactive late last season.

When Bamba was healthy, Smart started him with Osetkowski and Sims, a line-up that featured a 7-footer and two 6-foot-9-inch forwards. There were positives with the lineup — the size — but it had its flaws (Osetkowski isn’t a small forward, and playing him there took away the appeal of him being a “stretch-4” and made him more of a slower wing player). If Smart wants another massive lineup, in-coming freshman Kamaka Hepa could fill Sims’ role as Sims plays the five. If Texas wants to play fast, perhaps the lineup is having the burlier Osetkowski play center, with Sims at forward and Texas starting two ball-handling guards (Ramey and Coleman) with Roach.

The bottom line is Roach’s returning gives Texas options and an undeniable leader on the court — he’s one of the leading scorers from last season — and off it — no one will want to lead Texas on deep tournament run more than this guy.

11. Iowa State

Simply: Lindell Wigginton could be the favorite to be preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, if coaches decide to pick him over Kansas’s Udoka Azubuike, KU’s transfer Dedric Lawson and West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate. Wigginton was one of the best freshman in the country who everyone outside the Big 12 forgot about. He averaged 16.7 points and 3.7 rebounds. Those numbers are even better when you look at just the Big 12 season, where he averaged 17.7 point and shot 38.5 percent from 3-point range.

10. West Virginia

Simply: Konate is the likely Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year, the preseason national defensive player of the year and is the best player on the West Virginia roster. With the loss of Jevon Carter, the Mountaineers need Konate and Esa Ahmad to become the leaders and play at an All-American level to maintain their level of success over the last two seasons. Expect West Virginia to be in the AP Top 25 and the third-highest ranked team in the conference come October’s preseason polls.

9. Kansas State

There’s a case to be made that Barry Brown’s return to Kansas State is the most important decision any program in the league got this offseason.

How important?

The same day he announced he was coming back, coach Bruce Weber received a contract extension. I’m sure those aren’t connected, but it’s certainly something to note. Weber will have his best team ever at Kansas State next year and, frankly, Manhattan hasn’t had a team like this since the 2009-2010 Wildcat squad that went 29-8, ranked No. 7 in the AP poll and featured Rodney McGruder, Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente.

While people can say Kansas State’s tournament run was made possible by the biggest upset in the history of college basketball, the No. 1 overall seed losing to a No. 16 seed, Kansas State advanced to the Sweet 16 without its best player (Dean Wade) and beat a loaded Kentucky team in Atlanta to reach the Elite Eight. Wade, Brown and Xavier Sneed, along with Kamau Stokes, Cartier Diarra and Makol Mawien make this squad, possibly, the team with the best chance to end The Streak since Iowa State had Monte Morris and Georges Niang.

The big thing Kansas State needs to prove — and frankly this could be said about every team they’ve had ever — is if they can be consistent throughout the season. Can they avoid major let downs and upsets? Also, if Bruce Weber can’t win in Allen Fieldhouse with this bunch, he may never win there.

8. Kansas

Oh, no. He came back.

Udoka Azubuike led the nation in field goal shooting last year at 77 percent, and proved time and time again that when he was engaged he was impossible to stop. And when he was just simply going through the motions, he was extremely difficult to stop.

The scariest thing about the 7-foot, 280 pound powerhouse returning to Kansas is that he’ll get to play next to another high-level post player in Dedric Lawson, who was a first team All-American Athletic Conference player at Memphis who averaged more than 19 points per game for in the 2016-2017 season for the Tigers. Last year Azubuike was often hesitant because Kansas was so thin in the post. He was, in some games, simply scared to be aggressive as he feared fouling out knowing that without him, his team was prone to losing. This was spelled out in his plus-minus numbers that showed Kansas was +10.3 points when he was on the court (against Seton Hall in the second round of the tournament, Azubuike was +21).

That hesitation impacted his incredibly unproductive rebounding numbers last season,  where he had some games where he was the largest person in the stadium but grabbed less than five rebounds. To be fair, he was playing with four guards who weren’t keen on rebounding, thus teams could focus on blocking out just one Jayhawk.

With Kansas expected to play a more traditional lineup, and its greatest strength last season (3-point shooting) possibly becoming a weakness, Azubuike could get even more field goal attempts and should become a more aggressive rebounder.

If there’s a player on Kansas that will get preseason Big 12 Player of the Year nods, and we’re assuming Lawson won’t get much love, Azubuike is the guy. He’ll be on every awards watchlist he’s eligible for to start the season.

We wrote earlier this spring that Azubuike’s decision wasn’t as important as others in the league because Kansas was going to be the overwhelming favorite to win the league with or without him, but his return makes Kansas one of the handful of teams who enter the year with legit national championship expectations — and if we’re being honest, the only team in the Big 12 that fits that category (Kansas State) has had consistency issues.

What about the FBI?

7. What about it?

So far the NCAA hasn’t made a peep about FBI indictments in April, and the dust-up involving Kansas hasn’t produced anyone being ruled ineligible. Will Silvio De Souza play for Kansas next season? No one knows. Expect nothing to be resolved before the start of next season and possibly much longer after that.

The Streak

Outside of Kansas State and West Virginia, here is the third team that should push Kansas for the conference title.

6. TCU

TCU guard Jaylen Fisher (0) loses control of the ball as Texas guard Eric Davis Jr. (10) applies pressure during a NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Horned Frogs took a major step last season and only Kansas State has more key players back. The Horned Frogs may have lost Kenrich Williams and Vladimir Brodziansky, but they return of Desmond Bane, Alex Robinson, Kouat Noi and JD Miller and pair them with a trio of players who had to sit out last season, Kevin Samuel, RJ Nembhard and Lay Mayen.

All that without a mention of the team’s most talented player, Jaylen Fisher, who suffered a torn meniscus and missed the second half of last season. He should return to full strength this fall.

TCU finds itself in many preseason rankings, such as CBS’ way-too-early top 25 and 1, and after making the NCAA Tournament in 2018 the program has a lot of momentum. Last year TCU’s non-conference schedule left a lot to be desired. The Horned Frogs hardly left Fort Worth and Nevada, a Sweet 16 team, was the best squad they played in non-conference. This year the schedule includes Florida in the SEC/ Big 12 Challenge (more on that), and USC in Los Angeles at the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic and a trip to Hawaii to play three games at the Diamond Head Classic — a tournament they should be the overwhelming favorite to win.

The Horned Frogs have given Kansas fits over the last two seasons under Jamie Dixon, and with the experience and deep roster, they should be as capable to win the league as any.

Check in on the others

5. Texas Tech

Texas forward Jericho Sims (20) fights for position with Texas Tech center Norense Odiase (32) and guard Niem Stevenson (10) during a NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (Nick Wagner/ American-Statesman)

No team loses more than the Red Raiders, who will rely an awful lot on sophomore Jarrett Culver next season.

Gone is Keenan Evans. Gone is Zach Smith. Goodbye Tommy Hamilton, Niem Stevenson and Zhaire Smith.

That was the killer. Zhaire Smith probably wasn’t going to the NBA before doing what he did in the Big 12 on a national stage in the NCAA Tournament. A former 3-star recruit, Smith’s decision to enter the draft prevented him from being next season’ Big 12 preseason player of the year.

Besides Culver, who else is there for Texas Tech? Brandone Francis ought to be a favorite to land a starting spot after coming off the bench last season. He’ll be a senior. There’s also Davide Moretti and a pair of returning big men in Norense Odiase and Malik Ondigo. Obviously the question mark will be at point guard, where Evans was a superstar.

Transferring in are Matt Mooney from South Dakota, C.J. Roberts from Missouri and Tariq Owens from St. John’s. Mooney will be eligible right away and started 68 games the last two seasons. Also eligible right away is Owens, who at 6-foot-11 was looking for a bigger role next season than the one he was going to have at St. John’s. Roberts, a point guard and Texas product from North Richland Hills, transferred mid-season in 2017 and should be eligible in January.

What next year will tell us is where Texas Tech is as a program. Many of the Tubby Smith era players have moved on and there will be an adjustment. Coach Chris Beard can prove that he can build a program, which because he jumped to so many different programs over the last decade, we’ve seen him reach success, but we have yet to see if he can sustain it. The fact he recruited Zhaire Smith and Culver is a big sign he can do it.

The team should be deep, but a lot will be riding on Culver becoming a star to help this team reach the tournament.

4. Baylor

Head coach Scott Drew of the Baylor Bears talks to his players at a time out during the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on December 29, 2017 at United Supermarket Arena in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech defeated Baylor 77-53. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)

Unlike last season where the year entered with only one coach on a “hot seat” this year has some who could be in curious situations. If Texas struggles with consistency and volleys from mediocre to decent — but rarely great (I just described a 19-15 team), then Shaka Smart will feel a lot of heat. But Smart has a lot of talent back and may have his most ideal roster since he got to Texas.

There’s Oklahoma too. The Sooners won 11 games two years ago then suffered a massive, mind-boggling collapse last season that ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Lon Kruger is young enough at 65 that he can laugh off “is he too old” criticism. But he’s also old enough where retiring isn’t crazy.  Unlike Smart, Kruger doesn’t have a loaded roster flushed with 4-star recruits coming in.

Then there’s Baylor and coach Scott Drew.

Baylor did not make the NCAA Tournament last season. While the Bears won some massive games, they went 19-15 and 8-10 in Big 12 play. And now the three best players on last year’s team are gone in Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil and Nuni Omot. Not even Terry Maston is back, probably the fourth best player.

Next season’s team will hinge on Mark Vital, Jake Lindsey and King McClure going from role players to key players.

There are a lot of new guys arriving. Makai Mason is a graduate transfer from Yale. Two other transfers, Davion Mitchell from Auburn and MaCio Teague of UNC Asheville will have to sit out next season. Junior college transfer guard Devonte Bandoo will be able to chip in right away.  Then there are high school prep players Matthew Mayer of Westlake and center Flo Thamba from Virginia joining the squad.

What’s surprising is how much Baylor is relying on transfers and junior college players these days. About 10 years ago, Drew and the Bears were neck-and-neck with Texas other Big 12 schools for elite prep recruits, but now Baylor will have seven transfers on the rosters, two able to play next season.

For all the criticism Drew gets, he is a talented coach who has been able to get max effort from teams with little momentum entering the season. Maybe having transfers and junior college players will give the team the right edge to grind through a season and get back to the tournament. But if they don’t, does Drew sniff at other jobs before entering a make-or-break 2019-2020 season? Does Baylor move on after almost two decades of stability from the best coach in program history?

To be clear, I don’t think Drew is on the hot seat entering this season.

But I look at the recruiting and the quick fix approach of bringing in so many transfers and I wonder if another NIT season will further unsettled things in Waco to the point where a fresh start is needed.

3. The state of Oklahoma

Oklahoma Head Coach Lon Kruger during the second half of an NCAA men’s college basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Tex., Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Oklahoma could be the worst team in the Big 12 next season and that should never be the case.

Outside of forward Jamuni McNeace, OU is relying on Kristian Doolittle, Rashard Odomes and Brady Manek. Cameron McGusty and Jordan Shepherd transferred and Trae Young went to the NBA, so the starting point guard could be Maine graduate transfer Aaron Calixite or Pacific grad transfer Mile Reynolds.

True, OU returns four of the team’s top six scorers. Also true is Young averaged 27.4 of OU’s 84.9 points per game and the two leading returning scorers averaged 11.9 and 10.2 points. There’s no 5-star recruits coming to fortify OU. It won’t be surprising if the Sooners come out of nowhere and be great, like Texas Tech a year ago, because they do have a lot of juniors and seniors. But the Sooners have a lot to prove.

Oklahoma State whiffed on some big recruits, including Courtney Ramey, and were the biggest losers in the NBA decision, period. If Yankuba Sima and Tavarius Shine — two players unlikely to be drafted in June — had decided to return to school, Oklahoma State would no doubt be a team expected to make the NCAA Tournament and perhaps seriously contend with Kansas and the rest of the Big 12 for the title.

Instead Oklahoma State is relying on Lindy Waters and Cameron McGriff to be the best players on a team trying to return to the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma State had bleak expectations last season yet behind a terrific job from first-year head coach Mike Boynton, Oklahoma State became a bubble team. But they did miss the tournament.

Now the four best players on that team are gone and the Cowboys are hoping that the 52nd-ranked recruiting class and pair of transfers can help them be even better next season.

Good luck.

The State of Oklahoma’s two biggest basketball programs could be in for a rough year.

A look at next season

Head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks walks off the court after his team defeated the Duke Blue Devils in the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at CenturyLink Center on March 25, 2018 in Omaha, Nebraska. The Kansas Jayhawks defeated the Duke Blue Devils 85-81. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

2. The preseason No. 1 will be in the Big 12

Kansas seems to be the consensus preseason No .1 favorite. Sure there could be some 2019 recruit who reclassify and join Duke or Kentucky or some other big program, so that may not last, but for now, it appears Kansas has the eye of the national basketball writers.

Kansas is one of only a handful of programs who seem to be able to lose All-American talent and NBA quality players every year and yet always find themselves in the top five of the preseason rankings. But the preseason poll’s top spot has eluded them over the last few years.

This year’s Kansas team is at the top spot because of arrival of Dedric Lawson and the No. 5 recruiting class. Obviously the return of Udoka Azubuike really helps their No.1 case.

Kansas has had three years of tremendous 3-point shooting and guard play. Next year will be the first time since Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid were in Lawrence that Kansas doesn’t have a returning starting guard in the lineup. Having Frank Mason and Devonte Graham the last five years has helped Kansas to two Elite Eights and a Final Four. And the biggest flaw on all three of those teams was a lack of post players.

The Jayhawks will have tons of guards next season, including a McDonald’s All-American point guard in Devon Dotson and one of the best incoming eligible transfers in the country in point guard Charlie Moore. Quentin Grimes is the most likely one-and-done player in Kansas’ recruiting class and certainly the star freshman on the team. The wings will also include Marcus Garrett, Sam Cunliffe and Ochai Agbaji.

The strength of this team will be the post, which is completely different from the last three seasons and something the league hasn’t really seen since 2011, when Kansas had Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey. Dedric and brother K.J. Lawson pair with Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, McDonald’s All-American David McCormick and we think Silvio DeSouza.

Kansas won games the last few years by playing 2018 NBA style basketball — space and pace. In 2018-2019, Kansas will try to win games playing 1995 NBA style basketball — bully ball and hi-lo sets. Either two things will happen: Kansas won’t be able to keep pace, or teams won’t be able to handle the muscle.

Another thing to point out: Kansas hasn’t been as elite on defense as they were in the first decade of Bill Self’s tenure the last few years. Next year that could change with Azubuike expected to be more of a rim protector, athletic wings and tremendous depth.

1. The SEC/ Big 12 Challenge likes and don’t likes

Here are matchups for the January 2019 games: 

Texas at Georgia

Alabama at Baylor

Iowa State at Ole Miss

Kansas at Kentucky

Kansas State at Texas A&M

Vanderbilt at Oklahoma

South Carolina at Oklahoma State

Florida at TCU

Arkansas at Texas Tech

West Virginia at Tennessee

The problem with the SEC/ Big 12 Challenge is that the only game people nationally really want to see is Kentucky-Kansas, but at the same time, it means none of the other teams from both conferences get opportunities to play either Kentucky or Kansas.

For instance, Tennessee is expected to have its best basketball team ever next season. Some are projecting the Vols to be ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation. They will play West Virginia in the challenge, a team that should be a Top 25 squad and is certainly good, but a game against Kansas is a bit more meaningful on every level for Tennessee.

On the other side, how great would a Kansas State-Kentucky, Sweet 16 rematch be next season? Instead Kansas State travels to what should be a major rebuilding team in Texas A&M.

That said, Kansas and Kentucky should play every year, and the conferences know, and ESPN knows, that a UK-KU game is the biggest TV draw of the challenge and the two most reliable programs to be ranked in the AP top 10 come January.

Second-best matchup: West Virginia at Tennessee: This should be a fun game between two teams in the AP top 25. Tennessee will be the popular pick to win the SEC this year and West Virginia returns Sagaba Konate and Esa Ahmad. Tennessee has SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams along with the five other top six scorers from a year ago.

Like: Giving TCU a marquee opponent in this matchup like Florida instead of one of the handful of SEC basketball also-runs is another step in the right direction. Florida may not be expected to be as good as they have been in recent years, but they are still pound-for-pound the second-best basketball program in the SEC.

Don’t like: How in the heck is Auburn, defending SEC co-champ, not in the challenge, again, this season? Couldn’t the conferences have pitted Georgia and Ole Miss — two schools with new coaches — against each other and let Auburn be a legit showcase team in the challenge and let Ben Howland, who should have his best team yet at Mississippi State, play some big non-conference games? Auburn, who some have predicted to start the season in the top 10 of the AP poll, playing Texas would be one of the best games in the challenge. Mississippi State, another projected top 25 team, facing Kansas State would be better game for fans than A&M-K-State.

At first glance predictions? This looks like another split, and that’s assuming Kansas can win at Rupp Arena. Texas, Kansas, Iowa State, TCU and Kansas State win for the Big 12.

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