Monday, April 11, 2011

2011-12 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

Yes, the Big 12 is going to have ten teams and the Big Ten is going to have 12. Nebraska and Colorado are gone from the Big 12. But that said, I don't think the Big 12 is done changing. With Texas now making so much more money than every other school in the conference, the competitive balance is messed up, and the uncertainty in the conference means that teams will jump if they get the right opportunity. Missouri basically begged the Big Ten to take them a year ago, and were only denied because the conference took Nebraska and didn't want to expand beyond a 12th team. So I would actually be surprised if the Big 12 doesn't either add or lose at least one team in the next five years.

On the court in the Big 12, the story this past season was Kansas, a team that might have been the most complete in the nation. All they really lacked, if anything, was an elite point guard (turnovers cost them in their loss to Kansas State and their Elite Eight loss to VCU - two of the three losses they suffered all season long). Mario Little, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed will graduate, and the Morris twins are both leaving early for the NBA Draft. I also think Josh Selby will eventually go pro as well, although he shouldn't - he was a little disappointing relative to hype in 2010-11 and could use a little seasoning. Thomas Robinson considered the NBA but said he'll be back, but he'll be the only big returning from their regular rotation. Jeff Withey, a 7-footer, could play a larger role next season. They also bring in Braden Anderson, a 6'8" recruit. The backcourt and wing positions are in much better shape with Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and Royce Woolridge back, and Ben McLemore (Scout: 10 SG, Rivals: 17) and Naadir Tharpe (Scout: 16 PG, Rivals: 91) joining as 2011 recruits. But front court depth is a real problem for next season.

Texas won at Kansas and was 11-0 in Big 12 play at one point, but they lost three of their final five regular season games and eventually went down in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament to Arizona. Dogus Balbay, Gary Johnson, Jai Lucas and Matt Hill all graduate. Jordan Hamilton is likely going pro, but I think Corey Joseph and Tristan Thompson will both be back. Hamilton was the team's top scorer and will be a tough loss, but Dogus Balbay is a player I have continually said was very underrated. Texas teams under Rick Barnes have had a tendency to play a lot of one-on-one basketball, but when Balbay was on the floor there would actually be a coherence and calm to their offense. As good as Corey Joseph and J'Covan Brown are, a one-on-one exhibition by them is not going to be good for future success, particularly with players like Tristan Thompson, Alexis Wangmene and Jonathan Holmes (Scout: 14 PF, Rivals: 83) in the paint. In the backcourt, Rick Barnes adds three more blue chippers: Myck Kabongo (Scout: 2 PG, Rivals: 24), Sheldon McClellan (Scout: 12 SG, Rivals: 52) and Julien Lewis (Scout: 22 SG, Rivals: 96). Kabongo is going to be the key to next year's team, because every scouting report says that he's a pure point guard that can lead this team like Dogus Balbay did, but with a much higher talent ceiling.

Kansas State was, according to Sagarin and Pomeroy, the third best team in the conference in 2010-11. They lose only two players to graduation, but those two players (Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly) were by far their two best players. Pullen single-handedly carried this team for much of the past two years, and Kelly was the best post player the team had. Key backcourt returners will be Will Spradling, Rodney Magruder and Martavious Irving. Of those three I like Magruder best, because he can be explosive offensively. Spradling is steady with the ball, which is always good to have, but he's tentative and will not create a lot of offense. Angel Rodriguez, a 2011 recruit, could earn a bunch of time at the point. Jamar Samuels will be the key frontcourt returner, along with 7-footer Jordan Henriquez-Roberts and Shane Southwell. Nino Williams is a wing player with potential who was redshirted in 2010-11. Frank Martin's top 2011 recruits are both bigs: Thomas Gipson (Rivals: 142) and Adrian Diaz (Scout: 14 C, Rivals: 145).

Missouri is a team in flux with the loss of Mike Anderson and the fact that they got played by Matt Painter, who used them to force Purdue to give him a raise (I can't fathom why anybody at Missouri took Painter seriously considering that Missouri is a step down from Purdue, and Purdue is Painter's alma mater). Instead, they ended with Frank Haith, the former Miami (Fl) coach - a very uninspired hiring. Only Justin Safford graduates from the core of the 2010-11 Missouri team, but will there be an exodus of talent? There certainly could be, particularly since the players came to Missouri to play a very specific style of basketball, which Frank Haith has never used. If Haith can hold onto this team he will have plenty of talent to work with, particularly in the backcourt where the team returns Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon, Phil Pressey and Matt Pressey. Wing returners would include Kim English and Laurence Bowers. Big returners would include Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore. Another returning big is Kadeem Green, a member of Mike Anderson's 2010 recruiting class who took a redshirt year. Only time will tell if Haith can keep his team in tact. Right now the most likely players to transfer are the Pressey brothers. Kim English and Laurence Bowers are both considering actually leaving for the NBA Draft, even though neither is likely to be a first round pick.

Texas A&M went 10-6 in the Big 12, but they were underwhelming, in my opinion, and went down quietly in their first NCAA Tournament game against Florida State. To graduation, they lose BJ Holmes and Nathan Walkup from their starting lineup, and Andrew Darko off their bench. A big concern is Khris Middleton, their top scorer, and whether he'll go into the NBA Draft. Right now I think he'll stay, but I wouldn't be shocked if he proves me wrong. If Middleton returns then he'll be part of a very good front line with David Loubeau, Naji Hibbert, Kourtney Roberson and Ray Turner. A good prospect is Daniel Alexander, who took a redshirt year and has four years of eligibility left. In the backcourt, Dash Harris is a capable point guard, but BJ Holmes will be very tough to replace. They do add Elston Turner, who scored 4.6 points per game and shot 37.5% behind the arc in 69 games at Washington. Mark Turgeon's 2011 recruiting class also focuses on the backcourt, with Jamal Branch (Scout: 9 PG, Rivals: 67) and Jordan Green (Rivals: 114).

Baylor was possibly the most disappointing team in the nation this past season. They oozed talent but were just dysfunctional, both on and off the court (Baylor is reportedly under NCAA investigation for several different possible violations). LaceDarius Dunn is the only graduation from the regular rotation, but I expect Perry Jones to go pro, and Quincy Acy might go as well. I do think Acy will stay for his final season, however. And Dunn was a wildly overrated player. It was painful watching him launch bad shot after bad shot, refusing to get the ball to Perry Jones, who is a better basketball player. The offense should be more balanced without Dunn. Even without Perry Jones the frontcourt will still be very long, athletic and talented. I believe Quincy Acy will be back, as will Anthony Jones and Fred Eillis. J'Mison Morgan, a transfer from UCLA, will play big minutes again, as will Corey Jefferson, who played in 2009-10 but redshirt 2010-11 because of how deep Baylor was at the 4 and 5 spots. They also add Quincy Miller (Scout: 2 PF, Rivals: 5). On the perimeter, AJ Walton is the returner from the starting lineup, while Stargell Love and Nolan Dennis are key bench returners. They also add Brady Heslip, a transfer from Boston College, and 2011 recruit Deuce Bello (Scout: 12 SF, Rivals: 43).

One last team to discuss briefly is Oklahoma, because I actually disagreed with the firing of Jeff Capel. His team was completely decimated by NBA defections and transfers, and he was working with absolutely zero talent in 2010-11. But he did a great job working with what he had and turned Oklahoma into a feisty team, particularly at home. Capel had put together good 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes, so there are some young players with talent. The team started three sophomores and a freshman, led by Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald. Cameron Clark was a very efficient freshman offensively. Calvin Newell and Tyler Neal are two other good prospects that were true freshmen in 2010-11, as is TJ Taylor, who redshirt the 2010-11 season and has four years of eligibility left. The first task for head coach Lon Kruger, who came over from UNLV, is to hold onto those young players. If he can keep the entire roster in tact they'll be a good team next year.

Here's how I see the Big 12 playing out:

1. Texas - Assuming Myck Kabongo is a more talented Dogus Balbay, and that Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph both come back, Texas will be a Final Four contender.
2. Kansas - They have major frontcourt depth problems, but their backcourt is going to be the best in the conference. I could see myself dropping Kansas to a 3, 4 or even 5 seed in the preseason BP68, but I'm still putting them second in the Big 12.
3. Texas A&M - If Khris Middleton comes back I could see them finishing as high as second in the conference. Figuring out another guard that can score efficiently to play alongside Dash Harris will be their biggest concern.
4. Baylor - I might regret putting them this high, but they have so much raw talent on the roster, and the LaceDarius Dunn graduation is almost addition by subtraction with the way he hogged the ball and didn't get anybody else involved. But if the off-the-court issues really explode during the offseason, I will have to drop them.
5. Oklahoma State - Marshall Moses, Matt Pilgrim and Nick Sidorakis graduate, but Keiton Page will be back (doesn't it feel like he's been around forever?) as will JP Olukemi, who's an explosive scorer. They return a slew of other key players, as well as Michael Cobbins, a 2010 recruit who redshirted. The 2011 recruiting class has a McDonald's All-American, LeBryan Nash (Scout: 2 SF, Rivals: 4).
6. Missouri - They're a hard team to project because if Frank Haith can keep the team in tact I can see them finishing as high as fourth place in the Big 12. But the team could potentially blow up completely until Haith can bring in players that fit his style.
7. Kansas State - I don't think Jacob Pullen will be a great NBA player because he doesn't have an NBA body, but he's one of the greatest college players of the past decade. Throw in the Curtis Kelly graduation and the fact that Frank Martin is being linked with the open Miami job and I don't see any way this team doesn't take a big step backward in 2011-12.
8. Oklahoma - The Sooners have some decent young talent and got a solid hire in Lon Kruger, but there's no way this team actually makes a run at an at-large bid until at least the 2012-13 season.
9. Iowa State - At the very least, Fred Hoiberg is bringing some talented players to Iowa State, including former Michigan State player Chris Allen, who will be eligible for the 2011-12 season. They're still a couple of years away from being really competitive, though.
10. Texas Tech - It made a lot of of sense to get rid of Pat Knight and to start over. Billy Gillispie is an upgrade. But he's working with absolutely nothing. He's going to need at least two recruiting classes to make this team competitive again.

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