For now the Big 12 remains intact. Next season, it loses two teams (Nebraska and Colorado) which will actually make the conference stronger, top to bottom.
Two of the perennial top teams in the league suffered major disappointment at the end of last season. Overall No. 1 seed Kansas lost in the second round. Texas lost in the first round after stumbling into the tournament.
Three others continue to build on more recent successes. Kansas State and Baylor both made their way to the Elite Eight, having the distinction of being eliminated by finalists Butler and Duke respectively. Missouri lost a second round game to a tough, Final Four-bound West Virginia team.
Overall, seven teams headed to March Madness. And while the top of the conference is once again strong, it seems likely that five or six teams will make the trip this year.
Kansas State (Prediction - First)
This will certainly rankle Jayhawks fans, I’m sure. Despite the loss of sharpshooter Denis Clemente and forward Dominique Sutton (transfer), the Wildcats will be in the hunt for the league title.
To say that coach Frank Martin is intense would be like saying the Pope dabbles in religion. Yes, most college coaches are passionate and demonstrative, but Martin? Wow. That sums it up for me.
His demeanour rubs off on his team, too. Jamar Samuels, Curtis Kelly, and Wally Judge return to anchor what could be the deepest front court in the conference. Add seven footer Jordan Henriquez and transfer Freddy Asprilla (6'10", 280 lbs.) into the mix and K-State isn’t going to shy away from the physical, aggressive style they used successfully for the past two seasons. This is a tough team that loves to rebound and bang the boards.
Martavious Irving and Rodney McGruder return at guard, but the shining light is Jacob Pullen, who is their leader, their best offensive player, and probably their best defensive player. Irving and McGruder should be improved players this season, particularly after the experience of playing deep into the NCAA tournament.
But Pullen will drive the bus here. Wildcat fans are just hoping the ride lasts a little longer this year.
Kansas (Prediction - Second)
This is predicated on Josh Selby being cleared to play. Royce Woolridge is a good prospect too, but he’s no Selby.
The Jayhawks do have enough talent to survive without him, just not at the top of the league. Marcus and Markieff Morris will need some help from Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, or both, up front in what could be an area of concern for Kansas. Mario Little returns (again) with the hope that he can play a full year injury free.
The back court situation appears to be more solid. Tyshawn Taylor could be ready for a breakout year if he stays consistent. Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed provide some depth, but it is Elijah Johnson who needs to step up at the point should Selby be unavailable. Johnson was almost invisible by midseason last year and averaged about seven minutes per game overall.
Any team that adds a top prospect to their lineup gets better. The Jayhawks, with or without Selby, still have some questions about depth up front.
Baylor (Prediction - Third)
After a great run last year, the Bears are primed for another strong season led by all-conference star LaceDarius Dunn.
Baylor lost Ekpe Udoh to the NBA, but appear to have a more than capable replacement up front in potential one-and-done recruit Perry Jones. He will be joined by last season’s super-sub Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones, who started all 36 games up front for the Bears.
Losing Udoh might hurt but the void left by the graduated Tweety Carter will be the most difficult to fill. Both A.J. Walton and freshman Stargell Love need to show that they can run the team. Neither needs to score a ton, but they have to create and take care of the ball. This will be the big challenge for the Bears in the upcoming season.
Any consistent play at the point could lead to another deep run in March.
Texas (Prediction - Fourth)
Like many other top programs, Texas is relying heavily on incoming freshman to right the ship.
Last season’s collapse, which saw the Longhorns go 7-10 in their final 17 games, was hard to predict or understand based on the type of team Texas could put on the floor. But too often it looked like they needed more than one ball and lacked the cohesion necessary to beat top-notch teams.
Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph have arrived to bolster a talented group that includes Jordan Hamilton, J’Covan Brown, and Gary Johnson. The losses of Damion James and Dexter Pittman up front are big and other than Thompson the Longhorns are undersized up front.
Finding enough minutes for the guards could be an issue. With Brown, Joseph, Dogus Balbay, and Jai Lucas all listed as point guards, something has to give. My guess is that Joseph will be the guy, with Brown sliding over to the two as he did much of last year.
Maybe last year’s experience will be a benefit to the returning players. Rick Barnes is a very good coach who can’t be happy with the way things ended. My guess is they will be much more consistent this season.
Missouri (Prediction - Fifth)
If Mike Anderson is to be underestimated anymore, it won’t be by me. Although putting them in this spot might be doing just that.
The Tigers return four of their top five scorers from a season ago and add freshman point guard Phil Pressey to their up-tempo, high-pressure attack. English, Denmon, Bowers, and Safford have been consistent contributors for the past two seasons. Mike Dixon will be asked for more minutes and he showed he was ready by scoring 15 points against a tough West Virginia defense in the Tigers’ second round loss last season.
However, the prize recruit of the class is Tony Mitchell. But—and it seems to be an epidemic in the Big 12—his eligibility is in question. With him the Tigers get deeper and even more talented.
Without him the Tigers are still very solid and very experienced (Elite Eight, second round in consecutive seasons). What they will miss is the leadership of J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor. Neither was a spectacular talent, but they led by example and were usually the hardest working players on the floor. That is a difficult thing to replace.
Texas A@M (Prediction - Sixth)
Another guy you can never count out is Aggies head coach Mark Turgeon.
Despite the loss of Bryan Davis, the Aggies are solid up front with David Loubeau and sophomore Khris Middleton, plus recruits Kourtney Roberson and Daniel Alexander.
More pressing though, is the need for B.J. Holmes and Dash Harris to compensate for the losses of leaders Donald Sloan, who graduated, and Derrick Roland, whose career ended with a horrific leg injury.
Always solid on the defensive end, the Aggies will need to be able to shoot threes with some consistency to open up the offensive end. Recruit Naji Hibbert may be able to contribute in that area, but the onus will be on Holmes and Harris to control the tempo and run crisp sets.
This team could surprise some folks.
Texas Tech (Prediction - Seventh)
Okay, this “lofty” position for Tech is incumbent on the idea that they will in fact defend better than canned turnips this season. Scoring wasn’t really the issue as the Raiders averaged around 76 points per game. Limiting the other team was.
Coach Pat Knight returns the core of his team, most of whom are now seniors. John Roberson and Mike Singletary are solid and D’walyn Roberts is a capable scorer and rebounder.
Joining Tech this year are redshirt freshman Jaye Crockett, point guard recruit Javarez Willis and JUCO transfer Paul Cooper, who at least gives them some size up front.
Defense will be the issue again this season. The Raiders are undersized and need to play in their own end with tenacity and resolve. If they do, they can move up in the standings. If they don’t...
Colorado (Prediction - Eighth)
This season will be better than next for new coach Tad Boyle.
Alec Burks and Cory Higgins return to form one of the better back court duos in the Big 12. In fact, almost all of the significant contributors from last season return to a team that went 6-10 in conference play.
The Buffaloes need more of an inside presence to climb higher in the standings. Austin Dufault and Shane Harris-Tunks played some minutes last season but will be asked for much more this year. Marcus Relphorde has some size but is more suited to the small forward position.
A .500 record is a possibility for this team, especially since there are some that are going to struggle (see below).
Oklahoma State (Ninth)
Without James Anderson and Obi Muenelo, and no established options to take their spots, the Cowboys will have a tough time.
Michael Cobbins is a solid recruit up front but Travis Ford needs to find someone to replace the backcourt scoring that was lost.
I really like Jeff Capel but after last season’s debacle, he doesn’t have much to look forward to this year. The best he can do is try and stop the bleeding.
An undersized, under-skilled team that plays in a tough conference is no recipe for success. Doc Sadler may be a great coach, but damn it Jim, he’s a doctor not a magician.
Iowa State (12th)
Fred Hoiberg, please see above. He is, and will be very active in trying to attract players to the Cyclones program and has already accumulated an interesting list of transfers (Royce White, Anthony Booker, Chris Allen to name a few). Next year should be better.