It’s been an offseason of major changes in the Big 12, and not just because the conference has exchanged longtime members Missouri and Texas A&M for West Virginia and TCU.
The departure of most of the conference’s biggest stars—Thomas Robinson, Perry Jones, Royce White—creates lots of opportunities for new faces, and there’s talent in abundance ready to step into the spotlight.
One new arrival who should be a star from day one is Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart. The 6’4” shooting guard is a slasher whose ability to finish around the rim will rival even last year’s Stillwater freshman sensation, Le’Bryan Nash.
Herein, a closer look at Smart and the rest of the 10 best freshmen and transfers who are joining the Big 12 for next year.
Iowa State freshman Georges Niang faces the unenviable task of taking over for the irreplaceable Royce White in the Cyclones lineup.
Niang isn’t going to match White’s feat of leading the team in every major statistical category, but he’s a fine power forward in his own right.
Niang has an exceptional collection of post moves for a freshman, a skill that will make him a serious scoring threat even at 6’7”.
He’ll be especially dangerous paired with the less polished, but far more athletic Melvin Ejim in the ISU frontcourt.
For the second year in a row, Iowa State adds a talented guard who wore out his welcome with Tom Izzo at Michigan State.
Dismissed from the Spartans in the midst of his junior season, Korie Lucious had already established himself as a dangerous ball-handler and passer.
Lucious won’t get to play with fellow ex-Spartan Chris Allen (who graduated), but he’ll still have plenty of talented scorers to feed as a Cyclone.
As the No.1 option at point guard, he should have no trouble eclipsing his previous career high of 4.1 assists per game.
As the Mountaineers arrive in a conference loaded with point guards who can score—Myck Kabongo, Pierre Jackson, Elijah Johnson—they also add a new floor leader of their own, albeit in a very different mold.
Juwan Staten is an atrocious shooter (.388 from the floor, .154 from beyond the arc), but his abilities as a distributor make up for a multitude of problems elsewhere.
In his one season with Dayton before transferring to Morgantown, Staten dished out 5.4 assists per game as a freshman.
At 6’1”, 185 lbs, he’s also a good fit for the aggressive, physical defense coach Bob Huggins wants from his guards.
Jeff Withey will make Kansas’ interior defense one of the best in the country, but Withey’s offensive game isn’t enough to carry a team.
That’s where celebrated freshman Perry Ellis comes in.
The 6’8” Ellis, the leader of a recruiting class ranked as high as 10th in the nation by Rivals.com, is a tremendous athlete whose best asset is his scoring ability.
He’ll knock down jumpers if left open, but Ellis will do most of his damage near the rim, opening up opportunities for the Jayhawks’ perimeter shooters.
Big 12 opponents expecting West Virginia to be easy pickings with Kevin Jones gone will be sorely disappointed.
LaSalle transfer Aaric Murray may not put up quite the same stratospheric numbers that Jones did as a senior, but he’ll do quite enough to keep the Mountaineers competitive in their new league.
At 6’10”, 240 lbs, Murray is even bigger than Jones was, and he played like it against Atlantic 10 competition in his first two college seasons.
Even against the more imposing centers of the Big 12, he shouldn’t drop off too far from his sophomore-year averages of 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
He hasn’t even hit a college weight room yet, and Ricardo Gathers is already one of the strongest players in the Big 12.
The 6’7”, 240-lb freshman is built much like the graduated Quincy Acy, but with the explosive athleticism of Quincy Miller.
Gathers has a respectable jump shot to go with his raw power, though his tremendous finishing ability inside is going to account for most of his scoring.
He’s a willing defender, but his relative lack of length will be an issue against the Big 12’s tallest post players.
ESPNU ranks Marcus Smart as the best shooting guard in the 2012 freshman class, not to mention the 10th-best recruit of any kind.
The 6’4” Smart earns that distinction with his tremendous athleticism, attacking the basket and hitting the boards with equal abandon.
Smart is also a top-notch defender, which will be a welcome change for the Cowboys after Le’Bryan Nash’s iffy defensive showing as a freshman.
Look for Smart to pick up a lot of the scoring slack left by the graduated Keiton Page—and, if Nash isn’t at the top of his game, to take over as the leader of a program that’s been heading in the wrong direction since Eddie Sutton hung up his whistle.
Another transfer coup for coach Fred Hoiberg, 6’7” swingman Will Clyburn arrives in Ames after a sensational season at Utah in 2010-11.
The erstwhile JUCO star lit up the Pac-10 for 17.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game with the Utes.
Also a terrific three-point shooter (.403), Clyburn will fit right in alongside returnees Chris Babb and Tyrus McGee in Hoiberg’s trey-friendly offense.
Don’t be surprised if he leads the Cyclones back to the NCAA tournament even with Royce White gone to the NBA.
The Longhorns are bringing in three homegrown 6’10” freshmen, and Cameron Ridley is the best of that towering group.
ESPNU’s eighth-ranked recruit in the country is a physical rebounder and shot-blocker as well as a major factor on offense.
Ridley has a scorer’s mentality and impressive agility for a 6’10”, 230-lb center. He’s a high-motor guy who won’t be outworked, and as he refines his low-post game on offense, he’s going to be a devastating weapon on both ends of the floor.
After two often-disappointing seasons of Perry Jones, there’s a new big man in the spotlight in Waco.
Isaiah Austin is a consensus top-four recruit in the 2012 class, and the seven-foot center is set for a monster year in what’s sure to be his only season in a Bears uniform.
Austin is a lethal shot-blocker and a great rebounder—unsurprising for a true seven-footer—but it’s his offensive game that sets him apart.
He has the mobility and ball-handling skill of a small forward, plus a shooting touch that’s nearly as dangerous firing from the three-point line as it is finishing at the rim—and he'll be doing plenty of both with veteran Pierre Jackson to set him up.