Predicting the 2015-16 Big 12 College Basketball Standings
Sooner or later, Kansas' streak of consecutive Big 12 regular-season men's basketball championships—11 and counting—will come to an end.
It won't be this season, though.
The top six teams in the Big 12 might be collectively more talented than ever before, but everyone is still fruitlessly chasing the Jayhawks for conference supremacy.
In an effort to project how they'll rank behind Bill Self's squad, we scoured the rosters and offseason "transactions" to make an educated guess at each team's primary eight-man rotation and where it will stack up against every other team in the Big 12.
This conference should send as many as seven teams to the 2016 NCAA tournament. Read on to find out which ones (intentionally plural) are fighting for a No. 1 seed and which ones might be jostling for position on the bubble.
10. Kansas State Wildcats
2014-15 Season: 15-17 overall, 8-10 in Big 12 (tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Marcus Foster (12.5 PPG; transferred), Thomas Gipson (11.3 PPG; graduated), Nino Williams (11.4 PPG; graduated), Nigel Johnson (5.2 PPG; transferred), Jevon Thomas (4.5 PPG; transferred), Tre Harris (3.8 PPG; transferred), Malek Harris (2.1 PPG; transferred)
Key Players Added: Corlbe Ervin (JUCO transfer)
Projected Starters: Ervin, Justin Edwards, Wesley Iwundu, Stephen Hurt, Brandon Bolden
Top Three Reserves: Brian Rohleder, Kamau Stokes, Ron Freeman
For a team that already lost more than half of its games this past season, Kansas State has an extraordinarily and terrifyingly long list of players who departed this summer.
There's nothing Bruce Weber could have done about the pair of seniors who ranked second and third on the roster in scoring last season, but losing numbers one, six, seven, nine and 10 in scoring average to the transfer market is a pretty tough pill to swallow.
As a result, Justin Edwards, Wesley Iwundu and Stephen Hurt are the only returning players who scored more than 15 total points last season, and let's just say those three names didn't appear on any All-Big 12 ballots at the end of the year.
This is a major rebuilding situation without much in the way of building blocks. Not only did the Wildcats lose a ton from last season, but 247Sports rates their 2015 recruiting class as the worst in the Big 12 conference.
In order to finish anywhere other than dead last in the Big 12, they'll need significant improvement out of their returning players and they'll need to find Marcus Foster 2.0 in this year's class.
Foster was a 3-star recruit in 2013 before nearly messing around and challenging Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid for Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Unless they can get that type of production out of 3-star frosh Kamau Stokes or JUCO transfer Corlbe Ervin, it could be a long, long year in Manhattan.
9. TCU Horned Frogs
2014-15 Season: 18-15 overall, 4-14 in Big 12 (Ninth place)
Key Players Lost: Kyan Anderson (13.4 PPG; graduated), Trey Zeigler (10.1 PPG; graduated), Amric Fields (7.5 PPG; graduated)
Key Players Added: Malique Trent (JUCO transfer), Vladimir Brodziansky (JUCO transfer)
Projected Starters: Trent, Brandon Parrish, Kenrich Williams, Chris Washburn, Karviar Shepherd
Top Three Reserves: Chauncey Collins, Devonta Abron, Brodziansky
The strength of schedule was all sorts of laughable, but TCU was one of the nation's biggest (positive) surprises in the first half of last season, entering Big 12 play with a 13-0 record.
It didn't take long for the Horned Frogs to rack up conference losses, but their ugly/physical style of play kept them in much better shape than the previous two years. After going 2-36 against Big 12 opponents with only three of those losses decided by fewer than eight points, a 5-15 record with six losses decided by fewer than eight points must have felt like a major breakthrough.
Unfortunately, the top two-thirds of this conference is still extremely strong, and Trent Johnson lost three of his top four scorers from last season.
The Horned Frogs still have a darn fine frontcourt made up of the junior trio of Kenrich Williams, Chris Washburn and Karviar Shepherd. They were one of the better offensive rebounding and shot-blocking teams in the country last year, and they get all of the primary contributors in those categories back for another year. That should be enough to finish ahead of Kansas State in the battle for the Big 12 basement.
Trying to win games without Kyan Anderson and Trey Zeigler, however, could prove problematic. This team pretty much lived at the free-throw line last season, and those two guards got there more often than anyone else in the process of leading the team in scoring.
That makes Malique Trent an indispensable addition.
He averaged 16.0 points per game and was a 38.3 percent three-point shooter last season for New Mexico Junior College. If he can bring that type of production to the D-I level, TCU just might be able to surprise a lot of people for a second straight year.
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders
2014-15 Season: 13-19 overall, 3-15 in Big 12 (10th place)
Key Players Lost: Robert Turner (8.3 PPG; graduated), Randy Onwuasor (4.2 PPG; transferred), Justin Jamison (2.7 PPG; transferred)
Key Players Added: Devon Thomas (JUCO transfer)
Projected Starters: Thomas, Devaugntah Williams, Toddrick Gotcher, Zach Smith, Norense Odiase
Top Three Reserves: Justin Gray, Keenan Evans, Isaiah Manderson
We're not really expecting them to flirt with a tournament bid, but the Red Raiders have to start turning things around eventually, right?
Forget .500, Texas Tech hasn't finished above .333 in conference play since the 2007-08 season. But for the first time in a good while, there will actually be some cohesion in Lubbock from one season to the next.
Instead of another coaching change or roster upheaval, the Red Raiders are entering into their third season of the Tubby Smith regime and return all but one of their top eight scorers from last season—five of which were freshmen.
It's that type of youthful familiarity that has many (us included) heralding Vanderbilt as a team that could do some serious damage this season, and it should be enough to propel Texas Tech ahead of Kansas State and TCU in this year's Big 12 race.
As far as the individual pieces are concerned, it's a pair of one-time JUCO guards who will be expected to steer the ship.
Devaugntah Williams led the team in scoring last season after two successful years at Missouri State-West Plains. Devon Thomas may well be this year's top dog for the Red Raiders after putting up 16.9 points and 6.3 assists per game with Cloud County in 2014-15.
Zach Smith and Norense Odiase performed admirably last season as first-year big men. If they can put up even better numbers as sophomores, the guard play of Williams and Thomas could get the Red Raiders to seven conference wins for the first time since Bob Knight retired.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys
2014-15 Season: 18-14 overall, 8-10 in Big 12 (Tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Le'Bryan Nash (17.2 PPG; graduated), Anthony Hickey (9.8 PPG; graduated), Michael Cobbins (6.8 PPG, graduated)
Key Players Added: Jawun Evans (4-star freshman), Igor Ibaka (JUCO transfer), Chris Olivier (Eastern Illinois transfer)
Projected Starters: Jeff Newberry, Phil Forte, Joe Burton, Olivier, Ibaka
Top Three Reserves: Evans, Tavarius Shine, Mitchell Solomon
Because of the pieces that they both lost and gained, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys will be everyone's Big 12 sleeper this year. No one outside of Stillwater will project them to finish top five in the conference, but everyone will say they might do that well. Just watch.
Oklahoma State is the only Big 12 team adding both a D-I transfer and a JUCO transfer this offseason, and both should make immediate impacts in the frontcourt.
The JUCO transfer is Igor Ibaka—the younger brother of Oklahoma City Thunder block machine, Serge. Literally a man among boys, Ibaka wasn't even eligible to play JUCO ball this past season because he was already 22 years old. In 2013-14, though, he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Eastern Illinois transfer Chris Olivier is probably the even better addition, having averaged 22.1 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per 40 minutes last season.
Throw in Jawun Evans as a 4-star frosh who missed out on a 5-star ranking by a slim margin, and Oklahoma State arguably has the second-best haul of incoming players.
However, the Cowboys desperately needed those reinforcements after losing Le'Bryan Nash, Anthony Hickey and Michael Cobbins. If they're lucky, the three incoming players will perfectly replace those three outgoing players, keeping the team in good position to battle for a .500 conference record once again.
The real X-factor that could push Oklahoma State over the top, though, is Joe Burton.
The highest-rated freshman in Oklahoma State's 2014 recruiting class, Burton barely even touched the court last season. He logged a grand total of 32 minutes after academic issues kept him from becoming eligible to join the team until late August.
If he's now ready to make the type of impact that he was supposed to make last year, that's a gigantic boost for Travis Ford and company. Burton put up 22.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in his senior year of high school and would fill what was a gaping hole at small forward for the Pokes last season.
If, however, Burton becomes just the latest name on a long list of players who battled eligibility concerns only to never remotely meet expectations, the Cowboys may have some difficulty getting back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight year.
6. Texas Longhorns
2014-15 Season: 20-14 overall, 8-10 in Big 12 (Tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Myles Turner (10.1 PPG; went pro), Jonathan Holmes (10.3 PPG; graduated)
Projected Starters: Isaiah Taylor, Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley
Top Three Reserves: Jordan Barnett, Cleare, Kendal Yancy
What to make of Texas under head coach Shaka Smart?
One thing that's impossible not to notice is how much depth the Longhorns will have.
In addition to their starting five and top three reserves, they also have Prince Ibeh and a trio of 4-star freshmen. This should be good news for Smart, who has been no stranger to deep rotations. Nine players averaged at least 10 minutes per game on his 2011 Final Four team. Last year's Rams had 10 players who averaged double-digit minutes.
How much talent is in that depth, though?
Isaiah Taylor should be on the All-Big 12 first team, but with Myles Turner and Jonathan Holmes out of the picture, there might not be another Texas player in the running for any of the all-conference superlatives. Cameron Ridley is probably the next-best candidate, and he took a pretty big step backward in his junior season.
But the lack of clear-cut roles and stars might also play right into Smart's hands. One extremely talented guard and a bevy of capable-but-not-particularly-assertive role players is about all one can ask for as a new, defensive-minded coach hoping to completely alter a team's playing style.
Pressure defense was clearly the biggest thing lacking from last year's Longhorns. They ranked fifth-to-last in the nation in steal percentage in 2014-15—a category in which VCU has ranked in the top three for four consecutive seasons.
Maybe don't expect Texas to immediately become a defensive juggernaut, but definitely don't expect to see this team at the bottom of the turnover percentage heap, either. They may not be allowed to call it "Havoc," but the Longhorns will play with the type of defensive intensity that allowed Smart to win at least 26 games in six consecutive seasons.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers
2014-15 Season: 25-10 overall, 11-7 in Big 12 (Tied for fourth place)
Key Players Lost: Juwan Staten (14.2 PPG; graduated), Gary Browne (7.0 PPG; graduated)
Key Players Added: Esa Ahmad (4-star freshman), Teyvon Myers (JUCO transfer), TyQuane Goard (Marshall transfer)
Projected Starters: Jevon Carter, Daxter Miles, Myers, Jonathan Holton, Devin Williams
Top Three Reserves: Jaysean Paige, Nathan Adrian, Elijah Macon
In each conference thus far in this series, there has been one team for which the more I look, the more I like. In the Big Ten, it was Purdue. Oregon and South Carolina were those teams in the Pac-12 and SEC, respectively. And the Big 12 team that just keeps growing on me is West Virginia.
In the case of the Mountaineers, there might not be a team in the country more prepared for the new rule changes being implemented this season.
Shorter shot clock and a total of 10 seconds to cross midcourt? Yes, please. With their constant full-court pressure, they already had the shortest average possession length on defense last season, and they certainly aren't afraid to push the pace on offense, either.
Emphasis on hand checking and freedom of movement? Bring it on. West Virginia already attempted 24.7 free throws per game and allowed 25.8 on average last year. With its deep rotation—in addition to the eight players listed above, look for Tarik Phillip, TyQuane Goard and Brandon Watkins to log a significant number of minutes—this is not a roster bothered by whistles.
But the real reason I'm buying stock in the Mountaineers is the addition of Teyvon Myers.
Actually putting the ball in the hoop was undeniably West Virginia's biggest problem last season. This team shot 31.6 percent from the three-point arc, 45.5 percent inside it and 66.2 percent from the free-throw line. In each of those categories, West Virginia ranked in the bottom 25 percent nationally—and losing Juwan Staten and Gary Browne to graduation was only going to exasperate the problem.
Meanwhile, Myers was leading all JUCO players in scoring at 25.0 points per game with Williston State. He shot 36.7 percent from downtown and converted on 85.2 percent of his 7.6 free-throw attempts per game.
The Mountaineers needed a scorer, and they certainly appear to have gotten one. If they can bring the same defensive intensity this season while improving some of those shooting percentages, they should have minimal difficulty returning to a second consecutive Sweet 16.
4. Baylor Bears
2014-15 Season: 24-10 overall, 11-7 in Big 12 (Tied for fourth place)
Key Players Lost: Kenny Chery (11.3 PPG; graduated), Royce O'Neale (10.1 PPG; graduated)
Key Players Added: King McClure (4-star freshman), Joseph Acuil (JUCO transfer)
Projected Starters: Lester Medford, Al Freeman, Taurean Prince, Johnathan Motley, Rico Gathers
Top Three Reserves: Acuil, McClure, Deng Deng
Many have expressed concerns about Baylor moving on without starting point guard Kenny Chery, but Royce O'Neale was actually the most valuable player on last year's roster. He led the Bears in minutes, O-rating and three-point percentage while ranking second in both rebounds and assists per game.
Losing both of those critical players in one offseason could be a major problem, but it could also open the door for Lester Medford to shine as a primary ball-handler while Taurean Prince finally gets some respect as one of the most well-rounded players in the country.
How's this for an exclusive club? In 2014-15, there were two players in the entire country who tallied 450 points, 175 rebounds, 40 assists, 40 steals and 25 blocks while attempting at least 20 three-pointers and converting on at least 37 percent of them: Prince and Duke's Justise Winslow. Arbitrary thresholds in those categories, but a real testament to how far under the radar Prince spent the entire season.
Rico Gathers, on the other hand, was very much above the radar in averaging 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. The man was an absolute animal and will make up one half of possibly the best one-two punch this conference has to offer.
One potential X-Factor for Baylor is the amount of success Scott Drew has had with JUCO transfers. Deng Deng surprisingly didn't amount to much last season, but Chery and Pierre Jackson both gave Baylor two excellent seasons and Lester Medford was a very strong add-on last season.
Will that luck continue with 7-footer Joseph Acuil? He averaged an absurd 20.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game last season with Neosho County. If he can bring some of that big-man dominance to the D-I level while continuing to develop his three-point range, it gives the Bears all sorts of roster flexibility.
They don't have a ton of depth, but if Acuil can become a lite version of Isaiah Austin, the Bears will easily finish in the top half of the Big 12 standings.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
2014-15 Season: 24-11 overall, 12-6 in Big 12 (Tied for second place)
Key Players Lost: TaShawn Thomas (11.6 PPG; graduated), Frank Booker (5.0 PPG; transferred)
Key Players Added: Akolda Manyang (JUCO transfer), Dante Buford (redshirt freshman)
Projected Starters: Jordan Woodard, Isaiah Cousins, Buddy Hield, Khadeem Lattin, Ryan Spangler
Top Three Reserves: Manyang, Buford, Rashard Odomes
As was the story for the entire 2014 offseason, the Sooners could be extremely good if they get their power forward situation figured out.
Last year, that fate was in the hands of the NCAA's transfer brain trust, as six months went by until TaShawn Thomas was finally ruled eligible to play just hours before the season began. But Thomas only had one year of eligibility remaining, so Oklahoma is right back where it was last summer.
Four of the five starting jobs are set in cement. Buddy Hield (32.4), Jordan Woodard (31.9), Ryan Spangler (31.1) and Isaiah Cousins (30.8) each played more than 30 minutes per game last season and will continue to get as much playing time as they can handle.
The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, everyone knows that Hield is a stone-cold stud. His three running mates aren't too shabby, either. Cousins shot 45.0 percent from three-point range last season. Spangler is an excellent rebounder, efficient scorer and capable shot-blocker. Woodard isn't much of a scorer, but he's a solid ball-handler who led the team in assists and steals while shooting 83.8 percent from the free-throw line.
While we can't say with certainty who the fifth starter will be, Oklahoma definitely has options.
Khadeem Lattin and D.J. Bennett were the primary frontcourt reserves last season. Neither had great per-game numbers, but Lattin led the team in rebounding percentage. They ranked first and second in block percentage. They wouldn't quite replace Thomas' scoring ability, but they could be better than him at pretty much everything else.
Then there's Dante Buford. The freshman was expected to be a significant contributor last year before academic issues caused him to take a redshirt season. As seems to be the case with 110 percent of redshirt freshmen, expectations are that the year spent in the gym and practicing against the starters will have Buford even more prepared to make a big impact this season.
Oklahoma also has 7'0" JUCO transfer Akolda Manyang as a potential starting center who could slide Spangler over to power forward. He didn't have a great sophomore year at Indian Hills, but he's still regarded as the third-best JUCO transfer by 247Sports.
The Sooners merely need another serviceable big man to be one of the 15 best teams in the country. If one of those four options ends up being somewhat of a stud, though, you're looking at a very strong Final Four candidate.
2. Iowa State Cyclones
2014-15 Season: 25-9 overall, 12-6 in Big 12 (Tied for second place)
Key Players Lost: Bryce Dejean-Jones (10.5 PPG; graduated), Dustin Hogue (9.3 PPG; graduated), Daniel Edozie (3.2 PPG; graduated)
Key Players Added: Hallice Cooke (Oregon State transfer), Deonte Burton (Marquette transfer, eligible second semester)
Projected Starters: Monte Morris, Naz Long, Abdel Nader, Georges Niang, Jameel McKay
Top Three Reserves: Cooke, Burton, Georgios Tsalmpouris
Even without Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State appears to be the best candidate to temporarily put an end to Kansas' streak of Big 12 titles.
Whether the Cyclones can pull it off will depend on Abdel Nader.
Monte Morris might be the best point guard in the country. Not only has he led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio in consecutive seasons, but he is just one of three returning players who recorded at least 100 assists and 60 steals while shooting better than 38 percent from three-point range. (The other two are North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Northwestern State's Jalan West.)
Georges Niang is one of the best forwards in the country and a virtual lock to be named a consensus preseason All-American. Jameel McKay was named the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year, despite not becoming eligible to play until mid-December. And whether it's Naz Long or Hallice Cooke serving as the primary shooting guard, the Cyclones will have a guy who can make it rain.
That leaves small forward as the only position on the court where Iowa State might not be better than the majority of teams that it plays.
What if Nader makes "the leap," though?
He showed flashes of breakout potential, putting up 13 points against Kansas in the Big 12 title game and scoring 35 between the two games against West Virginia, but stringing together consecutive above-average performances was too much to ask from a guy who shot 40.6 percent from the field.
As is the case with whoever becomes Oklahoma's primary power forward, we're not asking Nader to be a star. The Cyclones could be one of the five best teams in the country if he can simply give them 25-30 minutes per game without being detrimental to their cause.
1. Kansas Jayhawks
2014-15 Season: 27-9 overall, 13-5 in Big 12 (First place)
Key Players Lost: Kelly Oubre (9.3 PPG; went pro), Cliff Alexander (7.1 PPG; went pro)
Projected Starters: Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Diallo, Perry Ellis
Top Three Reserves: Bragg, Brannen Greene, Devonte' Graham
What's crazy about Kansas extending its streak to 11 consecutive Big 12 titles this past season is that most of the roster drastically underperformed.
Frank Mason was really the only guy who exceeded expectations. Wayne Selden was good, but not nearly as good as has been expected of him. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk struggled early and barely touched the court by season's end. Kelly Oubre eventually came around after opening the season in Bill Self's doghouse, but Cliff Alexander never even remotely tapped into his full potential. Even Perry Ellis was noticeably less efficient than he had been in the two previous seasons.
Didn't matter. The Jayhawks hung an 11th straight Big 12 banner and their 20th in the past 25 seasons.
So, no, we're not too concerned about the report from Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star that Cheick Diallo has yet to be cleared to play this season.
For starters, Bill Self is still the head coach and is arguably the best one under the age of 55 in the country. People put too much stock in the ability of a great coach to flawlessly steer the ship through a metric ton of roster turnover—see: Billy Donovan, 2014; Jim Boeheim, 2014; John Beilein, 2014; Bo Ryan, 2015—but let's go ahead and put some faith in Self's ability to potentially navigate the loss of one player who had yet to appear in a game.
It's especially easy to have that kind of faith when he already has a pretty incredible backup plan. Diallo is supposed to be one of the best freshmen in the country, but Carlton Bragg is no slouch as the sixth-best power forward in this year's class. And let's not forget that the Jayhawks still have upperclassmen Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Hunter Mickelson as capable reserves in the frontcourt.
Not everyone is quite so optimistic about the backup plan. In the aftermath of Dodd's report, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports wrote, "If the Jayhawks have Diallo, they're as good as anybody playing. If they don't, they drop down the line -- immediately."
That's a palpable prediction, but it seems to overlook everything working in Kansas' favor.
Mason was a star last season, and though Ellis wasn't as good as he was in his sophomore year, he's still probably going to be a preseason All-Big 12 first team player. Selden and Mykhailiuk are both destined for successful careers in the NBA and could both be substantially better than last year. Devonte' Graham might be the best backup point guard in the country, and Brannen Greene is certainly in the shooting guard version of that conversation.
Diallo or not, Kansas remains the team to beat. His eligibility probably just determines whether the Jayhawks are battling for a No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament or the No. 1 overall seed.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.