Starting this week I will begin turning my attention to possibly my favorite sport of them all, the excitement that is college basketball. I will be going through each of the major conferences and giving my analysis and predictions on each.
First, I will be spotlighting the Big 12, a conference that I have enjoyed watching for the past few years. So much talent has come through this conference over the years, including Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Michael Beasley, Xavier Henry and more, but the conference has only one championship this decade. Despite the lack of a dominant team like Kansas was last year, there are a few contenders that could make a deep run in March representing the Big 12 this year.
No. 1 Baylor Bears
Key Returners: Sr. G LaceDarius Dunn, Jr. F Anthony Jones, Jr. F Quincy Acy, Soph. G A.J. Walton
Key Losses: G Tweety Carter, F Ekpe Udoh, C Josh Lomers
Notable Additions: Fr. F Perry Jones, Fr. G Stargell Love, Jr. C J'Mison Morgan (transfer-UCLA)
Preview: The Bears surprised a lot of people last year by becoming a true contender in the Big 12, and making a strong Elite Eight run as the No. 3 team in the NCAA tournament. The incredible athleticism and excitement of this sleeper team made them a fun one to watch in March last year.
The Bears will have to recover from the loss of freak athlete and shot-blocker Ekpe Udoh to the NBA Draft, as well as leaders in PG Tweety Carter and big-man Josh Lomers. I believe they have enough firepower to make up for these big losses. LaceDarius Dunn will be a candidate for the Wooden Award come the end of the season, and Anthony Jones and Quincy Acy's incredible athleticism will be channeled into more offense.
The keys for Baylor will be how well sophomore PG A.J. Walton steps into the big shoes of Carter, and if Perry Jones (the projected No. 2 overall draft pick in the 2011 NBA Draft) can make as big as an impact as some say. If Perry Jones and Walton contribute up to their potential, the Bears will be a true title contender in 2011.
No. 2 Kansas State Wildcats
Key Returners: Sr. G Jacob Pullen, Soph F Wally Judge, Sr. F Curtis Kelly, Jr. F Jamar Samuels
Key Losses: G Denis Clemente, C Luis Colon, F Dominique Sutton
Notable Additions: Jr. Freddy Asprilla (Transfer-Florida Int'l), Fr. Shane Southwell
Preview: Frank Martin emerged as one of the most well known and respected coaches in the college game after a terrific 2010 season that landed the Wildcats a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Martin's incredibly tough and animated coaching style was a throwback to Bob Knight and others, and worked wonders on a talented Kansas State team.
Speedy point guard Denis Clemente, the team's second leading scorer last year is gone, and so is role-player Dominique Sutton, but that's about it. The biggest returnee for the Wildcats is big-time scoring combo-guard Jacob Pullen, perhaps best known for his awesome beard, who should be among the Big 12's best players this year. The team also returns athletes in the post, as former UConn great Curtis Kelly and super sophomore Wally Judge are ready to improve on their solid first seasons as Wildcats.
There aren't as many question marks to this team as there are with Baylor, but the overall talent and athleticism might not be there. That being said, this Wildcat team is about as good as you can get for a team whose best player is a 6'0" shooting guard.
No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks
Key Returners: Jr. F Marcus Morris, Jr. C Markieff Morris, Jr. G Tyshawn Taylor, Sr. G Brady Morningstar
Key Losses: F Cole Aldrich, G Sherron Collins, G Xavier Henry
Notable Additions: Fr. G Josh Selby, Fr. G Royce Woolridge
Preview: Kansas loses three NBA quality players in Aldrich (Thunder), Collins (Bobcats), and Henry (Grizzlies), after being arguably the country's most talented team last year.
That being said, there is enough talent for this team to crack the Top 25 again this year. The Morris twins will control the frontcourt, while third-year starter Tyshawn Taylor is a solid option at point guard.
The biggest question for this Jayhawks team will be the eligibility of super freshman Josh Selby, who was ranked in the top five in most of the recruiting lists. He has not yet been cleared to practice though he is planning to play and listed on the roster. Senior forward Mario Little will return after redshirting last year, and could provide a spark off the bench for Kansas.
No. 4 Missouri Tigers
Key Returners: Sr. F Kim English, Jr. G Marcus Denmon, Jr. F Laurence Bowers, Sr. F Justin Safford
Key Losses: G Zaire Taylor, F Keith Ramsey, G. J.T. Tiller
Notable Additions: Fr. G Phil Pressey, Jr. F Ricardo Ratliffe (JUCO), Jr. G Matt Pressey (JUCO)
Preview: Missouri refused to go away last year after their breakout '08-'09 season, and might actually gain more than they lose this year.
Starting with who they return, the Tigers will have their top two leading scorers from last year coming back. Kim English will be among the Big 12's best all-around players, while Marcus Denmon is a solid option in the backcourt. Laurence Bowers and Justin Saffold give the team experience in the frontcourt.
The Tigers have some incredible talent coming into Columbia this year. Phil Pressey and his older brother Matt, a JUCO transfer, could both give the Tigers an immediate boost at point guard and one of them will replace J.T. Tiller as the starter at that position. Ricardo Ratliffe is one of the top JUCO transfers in the country and will provide an immediate impact in the frontcourt.
No. 5 Texas Longhorns
Key Returners: Soph. F Jordan Hamilton, Soph G. J'Covan Brown, Sr. G Dogus Balbay, Sr. F Gary Johnson
Key Losses: G Avery Bradley, F Damion James, G Justin Mason, C Dexter Pittman
Notable Additions: Fr. F Tristan Thompson, Fr. G Cory Joseph
Preview: Arguably the biggest disappointment in the 2009-10 season, the Longhorns may not have the NBA talent they put on the floor last year, but should still match, if not out-do, the success of last year's team.
There was almost too much talent on the Longhorns last year, as they struggled with identity issues all year. With the loss of Bradley, James and Pittman to the NBA, the talent is less spread out and will make it easier on Rick Barnes to get everyone their minutes and touches. Jordan Hamilton, for example, is a dynamic talent who will be able to shine this year with the loss of the big guys.
Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph are one of the most dynamic freshmen duos in the country this year and will both make an immediate impact. The Longhorns could surprise people not expecting much after last year's disaster.
No. 6 Colorado Buffaloes
Key Returners: Sr. G Cory Higgins, Soph. G Alec Burks, Sr. F Marcus Relphorde, Jr. F Austin Dufault
Key Losses: G Dwight Thorne, F Casey Crawford
Notable Additions: Fr. C Ben Mills
Preview: Between the two teams playing in their final season in the Big 12, the Buffaloes have the better chance of making a good last impression.
Colorado returns most of their team that went 6-10 in Big 12 play last year. Alec Burks may be the best player in the country you haven't heard of, and may be a lottery pick in next year's draft, while Higgins is one of the best scorers in Colorado history. Marcus Relphorde, a talented senior power forward, will boost the team while playing for the same team two years in a row for the first time since high school.
Obviously the big question mark about the Buffaloes is their lack of size in the frontcourt to counter the conference's best like Thompson, Kelly and the Morris brothers. Because of this, the Buffaloes will be most likely no more than a bubble team for the tournament, but their dynamic backcourt will win them some games.
No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies
Key Returners: Sr. G B.J. Holmes, Jr. G Dash Harris, Soph. F Khris Middleton, Jr. F David Loubeau
Key Losses: G Derrick Roland, G Donald Sloan, F Bryan Davis
Notable Additions: Fr. F Daniel Alexander, Fr. F Kourtney Roberson, Fr. C Keith Davis
Preview: The Aggies surprised some people by picking up a No. 5-seed in the NCAA tournament last year, but lose two key players from that team this season. Donald Sloan was recently released from the Sacramento Kings, and remains one of the best players in Aggies history, while Bryan Davis was one of the team's most consistent frontcourt players.
The Aggies have a chance to return to the Big Dance because of their talented and experienced backcourt of B.J. Holmes and Dash Harris. Khris Middleton and David Loubeau will anchor a solid, but unremarkable frontcourt.
Texas A&M had a very talented recruiting class coming in, but tragically lost their top recruit, Toby Ayedeji, in a car accident on prom night. They will still see an immediate contribution from Daniel Alexander, Kourtney Roberson, and Keith Davis down low.
No. 8 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Key Returners: Jr. G Keiton Page, Soph. G Ray Penn, Sr. C Marshall Moses, Sr. F Matt Pilgrim
Key Losses: G James Anderson, G Obi Muonuelo
Notable Additions: Soph. G/F J.P. Olukemi (JUCO), Fr. Markel Brown, Jr. F Darrell Williams (JUCO)
Preview: The Cowboys lost a heartbreaking first-round game to Georgia Tech last year, and after losing two of the best players in the history of the program, may have to rebuild.
James Anderson was one of the best scorers in the conference last year, and will suit up for the San Antonio Spurs this year, while Obi Muonuelo was a senior leader who had played significantly since his freshman year. Even with these two superstars, the Cowboys couldn't manage to get over that hump into the next level.
There is some promise in Stillwater, though, as a very good recruiting class led by JUCO slasher J.P. Olukemi comes in this year. Keiton Page is a proven outside shooter and competitor, albeit looking like a 12-year-old, while Ray Penn did a solid job as a freshman point guard a season ago. An NIT birth is a very good possibility for the cowboys this year.
No. 9 Texas Tech Red Raiders
Key Returners: Sr. F Mike Singletary, Sr. G John Roberson, Sr. F D'Walyn Roberts, Sr. G David Tairu
Key Losses: G Nick Okorie, F Darko Coharetivc
Notable Additions: Fr. G Jamal Outler, Fr. F Jaye Crockett (RS)
Preview: It's very true that the Red Raiders are very experienced, but I just don't believe the talent is there for this team to compete with the big boys in the conference.
The Red Raiders will give significant playing time to seven seniors this year, which is very discouraging especially considering they have a pretty weak recruiting class coming in. Singletary and Roberson are fine players, but nothing that's going to send me jumping out of my chair, and the rest of the team is pretty mediocre.
Some preseason rankings may have Pat Knight's team ranked higher, but I see another 4-12 conference record in store for the boys from Lubbock.
No. 10 Iowa State Cyclones
Key Returners: Sr. G/F Diante Garrett, Sr. C Jamie Vanderbeken, Jr. G Scott Christopherson
Key Losses: F Craig Brackins, F Marquis Gilstrap, F LaRon Dendy, G Lucca Staiger, G Chris Colvin
Notable Additions: Fr. F Royce White (T-Minnesota), Sr. G Jake Anderson (T-N.Illinois), Jr. G DeMarcus Phillis (JUCO), Fr. F Melvin Ejim.
Preview: How can a team who won just four games in conference last year, and then lost just about all the talent they had for this season possibly not be last in the conference?
First of all, the Cyclones return senior leaders in Diante Garrett and Jamie Vanderbeken, who both played quality minutes for the team last year. Scott Christopher is a proven shooter who will be asked to contribute more this year.
The Cyclones also did a great job in the offseason bringing in some temporary, already-proven talent to help stay out of the cellar. Jake Anderson was the starting PG at Northern Illinois in the MAC, and will play for Iowa State while taking classes for a graduate degree. Also, DeMarcus Phillips is a very talented JUCO transfer who will contribute right away.
The key player for the Cyclones this year, though, will be Minnesota reject Royce White. White was an elite recruit going in to play for the Gophers last year before being suspended for a shoplifting incident. While Gopher fans might deny it, White is a premium talent who will make an immediate impact in the Big 12 if he stays out of trouble. Because of this addition, the Cyclones may surprise people this year.
No. 11 Oklahoma Sooners
Key Returners: Soph. F Andrew Fitzgerald, Sr. G Cade Davis, Soph. G Steven Pledger
Key Losses: G Willie Warren, G Tommy Mason-Griffin, F Tony Crocker, C Tiny Gallon
Notable Additions: Soph. G Carl Blair Jr. (T-New Orleans), Jr. F Nick Thompson (JUCO), JR. F C.J Washington (JUCO), Fr. G Calvin Newell
Preview: Boy, oh boy, I don't think there's been a team that's fallen as quickly as the Sooners in a two-year span in a long time.
Two years ago they were on top of the world, with the most talented player in the country, Blake Griffin, a potential future lottery pick at shooting guard in Willie Warren, and multiple quality role players. This made the Sooners into a No. 2-seed and a serious national title contender.
Let's just say Warren wasn't anywhere near as good as people thought he was, and their seemingly good freshmen class last year was no more than two low-character bums who quit to go to the NBA after one year. I probably had a better chance of getting drafted than Tommy Mason-Griffin, and I can just about guarantee Gallon never sets foot on an NBA floor.
A disastrous '09-'10 season, followed by the loss of just about everyone who mattered, and a mediocre recruiting class will make the Sooners one of the worst teams in any of the big conferences. Who would have ever thought that Oklahoma would be relying on a sophomore transfer from New Orleans, to lead the team?
No. 12 Nebraska Cornhuskers
Key Returners: Jr. G Brandon Richardson, Soph. C Jorge Brian Diaz, Sr. G Lance Jeteri
Key Losses: F Ryan Anderson, G Sek Henry
Notable Additions: Soph G Kamyron Brown (T-Oregon), Jr. G Caleb Walker (JUCO), Soph F/C Christopher Niemann, Jr. C Andre Almeida (JUCO)
Preview: The Cornhuskers were one of the worst teams in all of the big conferences last year, and should not improve much this year.
They will add some quality players, including former Oregon contributor Kamryron Brown and JUCO prospects Caleb Walker, but they also lose two of their best players from a year ago in Ryan Anderson and Sek Henry. One of the most interesting players to watch will be heralded German big man Christopher Niemann who will finally be cleared to play after three years of injury and eligibility issues. Brian Diaz is a quality big man who set a Nebraska record for blocked shots by a freshman last year.
All Conference Teams
Tristan Thompson, Texas
Marcus Morris, Kansas
Kim English, Missouri
Jacob Pullen, Kansas State
LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor
Perry Jones III, Baylor
Curtis Kelly, Kansas State
Cory Higgins, Colorado
Alec Burks, Colorado
Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas
Perry Jones III, Baylor
Royce White, Iowa State
Tristan Thompson, Texas
Josh Selby, Kansas
Phil Pressey, Missouri
Anthony Jones, Baylor
Who is the best returning player in the Big 12?
Ricardo Ratliffe, Missouri
A.J. Walton, Baylor
Wally Judge, Kansas State
J.P. Olukemi, Oklahoma State
Conference Player of the Year: LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor
Conference Newcomer of the Year: Tristan Thompson, Texas
Wesley Johnson Award (Breakthrough Candidate): Anthony Jones, Baylor
Coach of the Year: Scott Drew, Baylor