Big 12 Conference
I've got to start the discussion of the Big 12 with Kansas, a team that was supposed to be rebuilding this season after the National Title in 2008. Despite being so young they captured the Big 12 regular season title, earned a 3 seed in the Tournament, and gave Michigan State the toughest fight they received until the National Title game. And what really has Kansas fans excited is the fact that they might have the entire team back. Nobody from the regular rotation was a Senior, and the only question is whether Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins are coming back. Expect Collins to come back because he really doesn't seem like a pro prospect due to the fact that he's just too small. Aldrich is an interesting case in that he'd probably be a first round draft pick, but his family seems to really want to be sure that he doesn't enter the draft too early to blow his chances of future success. The reports are that they're not listening to outside sources, and they're only taking their own advice, which means that Aldrich is probably returning as well. They'd be the Big 12 favorites even if Aldrich leaves, but with him they are definitely a legitimate National Title contender for 2010. They even have the perfect recruiting class for a team like this, which is two blue chip kids and nothing else. Bill Self doesn't waste scholarships on mediocre players.
Oklahoma was actually a lot more than just the Blake Griffin show this past year. Willie Warren looked really good in Griffin's absence, and unfortunately seemed to play too passive when Griffin was on the court. Despite the fact that he'd be almost a definite first round draft pick, Warren is saying that he'd like to stay for one more year for that very reason: he wants to show people that he can lead this team. Still, Griffin will go to the NBA, and all in all three of Oklahoma's starters will be gone even if Warren stays. They also lose one of their key bench players. With a Top Ten recruiting class coming in, though, don't expect Oklahoma to fall too far.
I considered Mike Anderson a great up-and-coming coach even before Missouri hired him, and considered him a great pick up. And they are certainly very happy to have him sticking around after being tempted by other offers this off season. He does lose three starters from this year's team, but his squad was very deep and interchangeable. They went 11 players deep, and will still be a very deep team next season. I wouldn't expect them to be quite as good next season, but they should still be a Tournament team. Another team that loses quite a bit but should still be good is Texas, which loses A.J. Abrams and Connor Atchley to graduation. Damion James might go pro, although at this point I think it's more likely that he stays. They'll also still have Justin Mason, Dogus Balbay, Gary Johnson and Justin Pittman. And they have a recruiting class rated 3rd by Rivals.com and 2nd by Scout.com. Texas isn't going anywhere.
Oklahoma State loses two starters and a rotation player to graduation, including star Byron Eaton. James Anderson might go pro, but the indications now seem to be that he is going to stick around until he'll be a lottery pick. But even with the losses, Travis Ford's first full recruiting class is a stellar one: rated 13th overall by Rivals.com. Assuming Anderson comes back, Oklahoma State should be right back in the Tournament again next season. Another team that should be back in the Tournament is Texas A&M, which loses leading scorer Josh Carter (13.8 per game) but nothing else. They've got a nice base of Freshmen and Sophomores to build off of, with another nice recruiting class coming in next season. They seem to be moving on just fine without Billy Gillispie.
Two other teams to talk about are Kansas State and Baylor. Kansas State loses only one starter and seems to be moving in the right direction as a program. They don't have the superstars that Kansas and Texas get, but they've got a lot of depth and they'll have a lot of experience. Another team is Baylor, which underperformed this past regular season, as they proved during their nice runs in the Big 12 tournament and the NIT. Curtis Jerrells will be impossible to replace, and Henry Dugat and Kevin Rogers will be tough losses as well, but there's no question that the Baylor program is moving in the right direction under Scott Drew. Their recruiting class isn't Top 25, but it's got some good players. They might not make the Tournament in 2009-10, but they'll be at least a Bubble team.
Overall, here's how I see the conference playing out:
1. Kansas - This should be unanimous. They might be the preseason #1 team in the nation.
2. Texas - They do lose two very important players, but they've got a ton of talent coming in. They're going to lack experience, but they might have the most pure talent in the entire conference.
3. Texas A&M - Who would have thought that Texas A&M was going to get the best out of the Billy Gillispie divorce?
4. Oklahoma - Willie Warren was overshadowed by Blake Griffin this past season, but he'll be an All-American quality player next season.
5. Missouri - I can't drop this team too far even with the losses to graduation. This team succeeded because of the system more than the players, and the system will be back.
6. Oklahoma State - Possibly a little bit of a rebuilding year, but with so much talent it's hard to see this team not getting back to the Tournament.
7. Kansas State - Should be better than last season.
8. Baylor - Could potentially make a Tournament run if they can find somebody who is half of the ball handler and creator that Curtis Jerrells was.
9. Nebraska - Slowly improving under Doc Sadler. Could 2010 be their first Tournament appearance since 1998? It's unlikely, but possible.
10. Colorado - A young team that is starting to show some promise. They won't be a Tournament contender in 2010, but they're moving in the right direction.
11. Texas Tech - The Red Raiders really need to start focusing on recruiting. They just cannot compete in the Big 12 without quality players, and they don't seem to even have any in the pipeline at all. The heat will start to turn up on Pat Knight if he doesn't turn this situation around soon.
12. Iowa State - Last season got off to a bad start when Wesley Johnson transferred out to Syracuse, and I just don't see any bright spots for this team right now. There is going to be a huge gap between the top and bottom of the Big 12 next season, so while Iowa State could potentially finish 11th or 10th, they're not even in the same league as the teams at the top of the conference, or even in the middle.