Sunday, April 08, 2012

2012-13 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

The Big 12 membership continues to change each year, and continues to be unstable. For now, they're still at ten teams. Missouri and Texas A&M are out, while West Virginia and TCU are in. On the court, Kansas won at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title for the eighth consecutive season, which is a tremendous record of dominance in the modern era. We're not in the 1950s anymore - it's a lot harder to be dominant every single year. That said, I do wonder just how good the Big 12 was this past season. Throughout the regular season the Big 12 looked like the clear second best conference in the nation, behind only the Big Ten. But other than Kansas and Baylor, the Big 12 really underwhelmed in the NCAA Tournament, to the point that the Big East caught up in the computer polls. It's a mistake to overreact to a limited sample size like the NCAA Tournament, but in a 30 game season you're working with a limited sample size by definition. I'll admit uncertainty - I just don't know how good this conference was.

Kansas loses Tyshawn Taylor and Connor Teahan to graduation. Thomas Robinson hasn't yet officially announced that he's going pro, but it's almost a certainty that he will. Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey are two players that could go pro, but both are saying for now that they'll be back. With Robinson gone, Withey is going to be very important next season. For some reason, the media doesn't want to recognize how good Withey is defensively. It was Withey, not Anthony Davis, who led the nation in block percentage, and Withey completely shut down Anthony Davis in the National Title game. Withey's offense can use some major work, but he will probably be the premier interior defensive player in the nation next season. With Tyshawn Taylor leaving, a big question is who will handle the point next season. Elijah Johnson might be the team's primary playmaker, but he's better as a scorer than as a creator. Naadir Thorpe, a 2011 recruit, could take over the point. Travis Releford is another perimeter scorer, and they will add Ben McLemore, a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt, and 2012 recruit Anrio Adams. In the front court alongside Withey, Kevin Young and Justin Wesley are the only two returners. Jamari Traylor was a 2011 recruit who took a redshirt, while Bill Self has a deep set of 2012 recruits: Perry Ellis (Scout: 6 PF, Rivals: 24), Andrew White (Scout: 9 SF, Rivals: 56) and Zach Peters (Scout: 26 PF, Rivals: 144). Obviously Thomas Robinson is a huge loss, but Tyshawn Taylor was sometimes more trouble than he was worth. With so much new talent coming in, and with Bill Self's history at Kansas, it seems a near certainty that Kansas will contend for another Big 12 title.

With Missouri gone, the next team to talk about is a Baylor squad that made it all the way to the Elite 8 - the only other Big 12 team to be satisfied with their NCAA Tournament performance. Baylor loses Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones to graduation, but the real question is the NBA Draft. I expect Perry Jones III to go pro, but Quincy Miller is a really tough call, and I'll have to do this preview not knowing. If they both go pro then Baylor will return almost no front court experience. Anthony Jones and Corey Jefferson are both very good prospects, though not very tested. There will be a lot of pressure put on the shoulders of 2012 recruits Isaiah Austin (Scout: 2 C, Rivals: 5), Ricardo Gathers (Scout: 10 PF, Rivals: 37) and Chad Rykhoek (Rivals: 135). Regardless of what happens, Baylor will have a really good backcourt. Pierre Jackson is an explosive offensive creator, and the whole nation saw how Brady Heslip could shoot in the NCAA Tournament. AJ Walton can handle the point when Jackson is on the bench, and Deuce Bello is a solid prospect for the future. Baylor also adds LJ Rose (Scout: 10 PG, Rivals: 95).

The breakout team in the Big 12 was Iowa State. There's no question that it was a remarkable job by Fred Hoiberg, who only increased the size of his legend in Ames. The question I've had all season long, however, has been the sustainability of their success because of the dependence on transfers. The flow of transfers hasn't stopped yet, though. Korie Lucious comes in from Michigan State (he's a really good offensive creator, though inconsistent) and Will Clyburn (a good interior scorer) comes in from Utah. Both players will be immediately important. Iowa State lacked a real point guard last season, so I'd expect Lucious to take over that role. Clyburn will help replace star Royce White, who is going pro. Percy Gibson and Anthony Booker will help replace White's production as well. Iowa State's graduations are Chris Allen and Scott Christopherson. Both were quality perimeter players, but Hoiberg has plenty of options to replace them. Their top recruits are Georges Niang (Scout: 20 PF, Rivals: 98) and Sherron Dorsey-Walker (Rivals: 122). Honestly, with this level of depth, my only real concern is if Iowa State has the front of the line talent to go toe-to-toe with the starers on Kansas, Baylor and Texas. Royce White was so dominant last season.

Texas was one of the most disappointing teams in the nation this past season. With the talent to win the Big 12 they ended up spending most of the season around 25-30th in the computers. Normally a team that young will improve throughout the season, but Texas did not. Throw in some brutal luck (2-7 in games decided by five points or less or in overtime) and you have a team that almost missed the NCAA Tournament altogether. Clint Chapman and Alex Wangmene graduate, while J'Covan Brown is going pro. Myck Kabongo will handle the point again, and he'll have Sheldon McClellan alongside. Julien Lewis started 25 games last season, though he struggled at times and could lose his spot Sterling Gibbs or Javan Felix (Scout: 13 PG, Rivals: 92). Clint Chapman's post defense will be difficult to replace, though Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond played well in short minutes. Rick Barnes stocked his 2012 recruiting class with size: Cameron Ridley (Scout: 5 C, Rivals: 21), Prince Ibeh (Scout: 16 C, Rivals: 54) and 6'10" Connor Lammert. I think Texas will have more NBA talent on next year's team, but I worry about the loss of Chapman and Brown's experience. In big games this past season those were the two that made almost every big play.

Kansas State is an intriguing team. I know that most Kansas State fans are upset about losing Frank Martin, and obviously he's had tremendous success and is a tremendous recruiter, but (as I've said many times) Kansas State always looks poorly coached. They are sloppy and lack at fundamentals. Bruce Weber is not a Hall of Fame coach, but he did a good job in an overrated situation at Illinois. Illinois is not Indiana or Duke, despite what the media thinks. Bill Self had a lot of success, but he took over an Illinois program that had made four Sweet Sixteens since the early 1960s. People who think Illinois is such a premier job generally do not understand that the school is no closer to Chicago than Notre Dame, Purdue or Wisconsin, and that the Chicago AAU scene is so complicated that nobody is even going to dominate recruiting there. And I really like the hiring of Chris Lowery as an assistant. Lowery was an assistant under Weber at Southern Illinois and then had a lot of success as a head coach there (three NCAA Tournaments, including a Sweet 16), and who is known for his defensive coaching. As for the team itself, everybody is back other than Jamar Samuels, Rodney McGruder is becoming one of the best players in the Big 12, and a deep 2011 recruiting class could become much more involved after a year of seasoning under the new coaching staff. They allowed only 0.95 PPP in conference play last season (2nd best in the Big 12), and should be even better next season. Kansas State fans are very concerned, but I don't see any reason to expect a big drop-off.

West Virginia, heading into their first Big 12 season, is experiencing a lot of turnover. Superstar Kevin Jones (who would have earned my vote for Big East Player of the Year last season) is gone, as is point guard Truck Bryant. Gary Browne will likely take over the point - he was inconsistent as a freshman, but that could change with experience. Jabarie Hinds is another key returner. A huge addition is Juwan Staten, who was a very highly touted Penn State recruit who left that program without playing a game because of the coaching change there. In the front court, Deniz Kilicli is the only real proven returner, but they have another huge transfer in 6'10" Aaric Murray, who averaged 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in two seasons at La Salle. 6'10" Kevin Noreen played well as a freshman and could be a big contributor next season. Elijah Macon (Scout: 12 PF, Rivals: 57) is a good prospect as well.

A dark horse team has to be Oklahoma because they return all five starters, four of whom will be seniors next season. Steven Pledger is the star while Romero Osby is a solid interior player and Sam Grooms is a capable point guard. Their biggest problem last season was depth, and Lon Kruger has a deep recruiting class coming in, led by Jelon Hornbeak (Rivals: 89) and Buddy Hield (Rivals: 94).

1. Kansas - I might just stop picking against Kansas to win the Big 12 until after they actually fail to win a share of the title. Assuming Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson stick to their word and come back they will be awfully deep and talented, and one of the best teams in the nation.
2. Baylor - After Kansas, the Big 12 is wide open. And if Quincy Miller goes pro then I might drop Baylor a spot or two, but their backcourt should be even better than it was this past season, and Scott Drew has a new crop of long, athletic bigs ready to go.
3. Iowa State - I don't know if Fred Hoiberg can continue to win by depending on multiple quality transfers each season - it's kind of the bizarro-Calipari system - but Iowa State should be deeper than last season and better at every spot other than center, where Royce White was tremendous.
4. Texas - Myck Kabongo could be the best point guard in the Big 12 next season, and Texas will have more depth and NBA talent than this past season. Replacing J'Covan Brown's scoring and Clint Chapman's interior defense is going to be very difficult, though. If all of their recruits pan out then the Longhorns could challenge for the Big 12 title. If they don't? Texas could miss the NCAA Tournament altogether. They're a difficult team to project.
5. West Virginia - Kevin Jones is irreplaceable, but I really like the additions of Juwan Staten and Aaric Murray. You could plug those two in as Big 12 starters right away. Front court depth and the development of Gary Browne will probably be the keys to next season's success.
6. Oklahoma - The talent level at Oklahoma needs to be drastically improved. There are no real blue chippers in Lon Kruger's 2012 recruiting class, but scouting is an inexact science. With a recruiting class that large, it's not unreasonable to think they could get a hit or two. And a team that returns all five starters and then that will likely start four seniors next season? They should be improved, at least.
7. Kansas State - The program is in an uncertain place in the short term because you never know how a team will react to a totally different type of head coach. In the long term I expect Bruce Weber and Chris Lowery to have this program in the NCAA Tournament most seasons, but they have to hang onto all of their returning players and recruits to have a good shot next season.
8. Oklahoma State - The seat is starting to get warm under Travis Ford, and the team loses Keiton Page, who I believe was a 12th year senior (maybe it just seemed that way). They did get a ton of production from a very good 2011 recruiting class, but the star of that class (Le'Bryan Nash) could decide to go pro. In my opinion, Nash should stick around for another season. He has tremendous talent, but it's still really raw. He's the type of player who will likely go in the First Round and then will get buried in the D-League or as a team's 12th man for the next three seasons. If he does come back then OSU should be improved next season, but probably not enough to get back to the NCAA Tournament.
9. Texas Tech - Billy Gillispie will have Texas Tech better in year two than they were in year one, but the cupboard was totally bare when he took over. His 2011 recruiting class was deep, as is his 2012 class, but he doesn't have the type of blue chip superstars who will immediately vault Texas Tech up the standings. It's going to take a few years.
10. TCU - Being in the Big 12 can only help with recruiting, and new head coach Trent Johnson has had success rebuilding both Nevada and Stanford. He struggled at LSU, but he deserves a fair chance at TCU. He's going to have to completely rebuild their roster to fill it with Big 12 quality talent, though. They're going to really struggle in year one.

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