Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
OUTLOOK: The Big 12 Conference has undergone a bit of a makeover since last
season. Missouri and Texas A&M defected to the SEC, and in their place step
West Virginia and TCU. While the new squads figure to take some time adapting
to life in the Big 12, the top of the conference should look familiar. Kansas
and Baylor both finished in the top-10 last season, and both are primed for
more success in 2012-13. Of course, the conference loses a bit of luster with
Missouri's departure, as the Tigers were one of three 30-win teams in the Big
12, the only conference to accomplish that feat last season.
Still, Kansas takes aim at an unprecedented ninth straight Big 12 title under
Bill Self after finishing as the national runner-up. Baylor may have something
to say about that with its locked and loaded backcourt. Texas is coming off a
20-win campaign, but went just 1-9 against ranked opponents.
Elsewhere, Frank Martin and his Death Stare are out at Kansas State, where
former Illinois coach Bruce Weber takes over. Weber inherits a talented team,
and one that has gone to the NCAA Tournament four times in the last five
years. Oklahoma State is another squad with promise, but the team will rely on
quite a few underclassmen.
Oklahoma has talent returning, while Iowa State has had quite a bit of
turnover from last year's 23-win squad. TCU, West Virginia and Texas Tech all
welcome lots of new faces and figure to go through some growing pains.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kansas
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kansas, 2. Baylor, 3. Texas, 4. Kansas State, 5.
Oklahoma State, 6. Iowa State, 7. Oklahoma, 8. TCU, 9. West Virginia, 10.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KANSAS: Back from last season's Final Four squad are starters Elijah Johnson,
Travis Releford and Jeff Withey. Johnson is the leading returning scorer after
averaging 10.2 ppg, while Withey came up big in conference play, tallying 10.3
points and 6.6 rebounds per tilt and shooting 53.8 percent from the floor.
Releford (8.5 ppg), a 6-6 senior swingman, has a chance to be more involved at
the offensive end. The Jayhawks were among the top defensive squads in the
nation last year, and that end of the court remains a strength. Ultimately,
the key to another Big 12 crown for the Jayhawks is how quickly the newcomers
get up to speed. Self has eight freshmen on the roster, and he is counting on
contributions from several of those new faces. Perry Ellis, who stands at 6-8,
was a top-25 recruit, while redshirts Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor have had
some time to integrate and will log some minutes on the wing. Self has raved
about McLemore's talent, while Ellis, a local product, has solid shooting and
ball handling skills to complement his size.
BAYLOR: Despite losing three players to the NBA, Baylor will start the season
ranked No. 18 and could move up if the guard play is as advertised. Senior
point guard Pierre Jackson is among the best players in the nation at his
position, and he returns after leading the Bears with 13.8 points and 5.9
assists per game. He'll team with sharpshooter Brady Heslip (10.2 ppg), who
shot 46 percent from beyond the arc and 92 percent from the free-throw line a
year ago. Cal transfer Gary Franklin, sophomore Deuce Bello, and freshman L.J.
Rose round out the guard rotation. Down low, 7-1 top-rated freshman Isaiah
Austin already has the attention of every NBA scout, while 6-9 junior Cory
Jefferson is ready to step into a bigger role. Another freshman, Ricardo
Gathers (6-7, 240), has the body type to bang around in the paint and the
touch to hit the mid-range jumper. If the young forwards can adapt to the
college game smoothly, the Bears are as dangerous a team as any in the
conference, and perhaps the nation.
TEXAS: The Longhorns are eyeing up a 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament
appearance, but the road got a bit tougher when leading scorer J'Covan Brown
(20.1 ppg) decided to bolt for the NBA following his junior season. Still,
there is plenty of talent in Austin. Starting point guard Myck Kabongo and
wing Sheldon McClellan will be asked to pick up some of the scoring slack from
Brown's departure. Kabongo (9.6 ppg, 5.2 apg) is a solid floor general, but he
shot just 39 percent from the field and 68 percent from the free-throw line
last year as a freshman. He also must improve upon his three turnovers per
game. McClellan is the top returning scorer after averaging 11.3 ppg. Julien
Lewis (7.8 ppg) is also poised to take a step forward in his sophomore season.
But the player who has coach Rick Barnes most excited is 6-10 freshman center
Cameron Ridley, who was one of the highest-rated players in the 2012
recruiting class. Ridley will be counted on to make an immediate impact and
provide the low-post presence the Longhorns have been missing since LaMarcus
Aldridge. If he can handle that type of pressure, UT is in good shape. Fellow
highly-rated freshmen Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert will also lend a hand in
KANSAS STATE: Bruce Weber is walking into a pretty favorable situation at
Kansas State. The former Illinois coach, who was hired in March to replace
Frank Martin, returns just about everyone from last season's 22-win team.
What's more, Weber's in-your-face, man-to-man defense should translate well to
an already tough defensive squad. But for the Wildcats to improve upon last
year's win total, they'll need to step things up at the offensive end and
limit turnovers. That starts with senior guard/forward Rodney McGruder, one of
the premier players in the Big 12. McGruder averaged 15.8 ppg last season and
he certainly has the ability to increase that number. Center Jordan Henriquez
(7.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg) came on strong at the end of last season and will give the
Wildcats a legitimate inside presence if he can pick up where he left off.
Also back in the fold are guards Will Spradling (9.3 ppg) and Angel Rodriguez
(8.3 ppg), as K-State returns four starters and 12 lettermen in all.
OKLAHOMA STATE: The Cowboys may have notched only 15 wins last season, but
they were victorious in the recruiting ranks for a second straight year, and
that young talent will eventually start paying dividends. Last year it was
McDonald's All-American Le'Bryan Nash who came on board, and after a rocky
start he finished second on the team in scoring with 13.3 ppg to go along with
5.0 rpg. This year, coach Travis Ford will turn to another McDonald's All-
American in Marcus Smart, who was tabbed as the preseason Big 12 Freshman of
the Year. Smart is a versatile backcourt player who excels at creating shots
for himself. Also new to the fold is freshman guard Phil Forte, who played on
the same 5-A Texas state championship team as Smart and was named MVP of the
state tourney. Forte is known as a strong outside shooter, and his presence
could certainly help a team that shot just 33 percent from the perimeter last
season. For now, he may have to bide his time behind fellow guards Markel
Brown (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) and Brian Williams (9.6 ppg), both of whom played
well in their first extensive action a year ago.
IOWA STATE: The Cyclones won 23 games last season and went 12-6 in the
conference, mostly on the backs of transfers. They also ended a seven-year
NCAA Tournament drought. One of those transfers, Royce White, went in the
first round of the NBA draft this spring, while two others are no longer
around. Fortunately for coach Fred Hoiberg, he can turn to another transfer in
dynamic point guard Korie Lucious (Michigan State), who immediately takes the
reins of the offense. Hoiberg has also brought in swingman Will Clyburn from
Utah. Perhaps the biggest question facing the Cyclones has to do with their
size down low, or lack thereof. Melvin Ejim stands at 6-6 and will take on
much of the grunt work in the paint. He averaged 10.9 points and 7.1 rebounds
in conference play last season. Iowa State also welcomes prized freshman
recruit Georges Niang, a 6-7 forward who will be thrust into action right
away. Key returnees from last year's squad include Chris Babb (7.8 ppg, 4.1
rpg) and Tyrus McGee (7.7 ppg, .394 3-pointers).
OKLAHOMA: Replacing ousted coach Jeff Capel amidst an NCAA investigation, Lon
Kruger guided the Sooners to a 15-16 record in his debut season. With all five
starters and most of the key members from that squad back for the 2012-13
campaign, OU is now looking to get over that .500 hump, and perhaps more.
After all, Kruger has taken four different schools to the NCAA Tournament
multiple times. He'll once again lean on sharpshooter Steven Pledger, who
started 30 games a year ago and led the team with 16.2 ppg and 72 3-pointers
(.416). Down low, Romero Osby (12.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Andrew Fitzgerald (12.1
ppg, 5.0 rpg) also return after starting all 31 games. A couple of newcomers
also figure into the mix. Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye will be a welcome
addition to the front line. Two years ago as a sophomore in the Mountain West,
he started all 31 games and averaged 12.0 points and a team-high 5.7 rebounds.
Freshman shooting guard Buddy Hield will also see the floor. Kruger is maybe a
year or two away from really putting his stamp on the program with time to
recruit, but OU certainly appears headed in the right direction and is capable
of contending this season.
TCU: Coming off an 18-15 season, the Horned Frogs aren't ready to contend for
a title in their new conference just yet, but they are building toward that
goal. Trent Johnson, who takes over for Jim Christian as head coach, is the
right man for the job. Johnson had success in previous stops at LSU (2008-12),
Stanford (2004-08) and Nevada (1999-2004). However, the roster he inherits at
TCU isn't exactly Tournament ready. Kyan Anderson averaged 8.3 ppg last year
as a freshman on the strength of 36 percent shooting from beyond the arc,
although he shot just 41 percent from the field. The Horned Frogs will need
more from Anderson in his sophomore campaign. Senior Garlon Green, a 6-7
forward, is the top returning scorer (9.9 ppg) but has not proven capable of
shouldering the offensive load. Amric Fields (9.6 ppg) earned MWC Sixth Man of
the Year honors last year as a sophomore and will step into a more prominent
role. Still, replacing top players J.R. Cadot and Hank Thorns will be a
difficult task in the much tougher Big 12.
WEST VIRGINIA: Bob Huggins is back in the Big 12, albeit with one of the
youngest teams in the nation. On the surface, the Mountaineers figure to
struggle to replace All-Big East power forward Kevin Jones and second-leading
scorer Truck Bryant. However, the arrival of La Salle transfer Aaric Murray
should soften the blow. Murray, a talented 6-10 center, averaged 15.2 points,
7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks for the Explorers in 2010-11. Joining him down low
is 6-11 senior Deniz Kilicli, the team's top returning scorer (10.7 ppg) and
rebounder (5.3 rpg). Kilicli started 32 games last season and shot 50.4
percent from the floor. Sophomore point guard Jabarie Hinds (7.4 ppg) heads up
the backcourt replacing Bryant, while Dayton transfer Juwan Staten adds some
depth at guard. Gary Browne (6.5 ppg) also earned some valuable starting
experience last season. Ultimately, the Mountaineers are feeling out not just
a new conference, but also a new identity with the offense no longer filtering
through Jones in the paint. A finish in the .500 neighborhood sounds like a
reasonable expectation after last year's squad went 19-14.
TEXAS TECH: Citing health concerns, Billy Gillispie resigned as head coach in
September, although there were also allegations of player mistreatment. Chris
Walker, who served as associate head coach last season, takes over for
Gillispie. However, turning around an 8-23 team on the fly is certainly no
easy task, particularly when a half-dozen players have since left the program.
In their place, the Red Raiders have a slew of new faces, including four
junior college transfers. Sophomore forward Jordan Tolbert is something of an
elder statesman after leading the team in scoring (11.5 ppg) and rebounding
(5.7 rpg) as a freshman. True freshman Josh Gray likely steps into a starting
role at point guard. Fellow freshman Wannah Bail, Gillispie's prized recruit,
left campus after one semester. Simply stated, the Red Raiders, who won just
one conference game a year ago, will need a lot to break their way in order to
stay out of the Big 12 cellar.
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