Wednesday, April 09, 2014

2014-15 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference 

Kansas won the Big 12, which was the least stunning news in college basketball this past season. Bill Self always wins the Big 12. But in the end, despite the fact that some computer ratings had the Big 12 the best conference in the nation (the Big Ten and Big 12 were clearly the top two leagues, in some order), the league fell relatively flat in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas was stunned in the Round of 32 by Stanford. Oklahoma was stunned by North Dakota State in the Round of 64. Oklahoma State fell apart due to injuries and foul trouble and was playing walk-ons in crunch time in a Round of 64 loss to Gonzaga (cult hero Mason Cox played ten minutes). The only two Big 12 teams to make the Sweet 16 were Baylor and Iowa State, and both lost, with Baylor going down in an embarrassing rout (Iowa State, to be fair, was missing perhaps their second best player). But as I always say, you should never draw conclusions about players, coaches or conferences by the results of a single elimination tournament. The Big 12 was still unquestionably one of the two best leagues in the nation.

Let's start with that Kansas team. Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are off to the NBA, but everybody else from the regular rotation other than Tarik Black will be back. Expect Frank Mason to take over more of the ball handling from the talented but inconsistent Naadir Tharpe. Wayne Seldon will return on the wing, along with Perry Ellis, who looks like he's 40 years old but improved a whole lot between his freshman and sophomore seasons. Jamari Taylor is the other proven front court returner, and the team also adds 6'10" Hunter Mickelson, who averaged 5.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game over two seasons at Arkansas. Look for Conner Frankamp to see more of a regular role next season, along with 6'6" Brannen Greene. Bill Self's 2014 recruiting class had two more blue chippers in Cliff Alexander (Scout: 3 C, Rivals: 4) and Kelly Oubre (Scout: 1 SF, Rivals: 12). And Kansas is still in the mix for Myles Turner. In other words, don't expect them to give up that Big 12 title streak easily next season.

Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament title and had all sorts of hype before the NCAA Tournament before it got derailed by the Georges Niang injury. That said, it's worth noting that they were 6-1 in games decided by 6 points or less against Big 12 opponents, and that their efficiency margin in conference play (+0.01 PPP) was barely better than West Virginia (-0.00 PPP). They simply weren't as good as their resume. Melvin Ejim somehow won the Big 12 Player of the Year despite (in my opinion) being only the third best player on his own team, but the best player on his team (DeAndre Kane) also graduates. Niang should be back with Dustin Hogue, and starting point guard Monte Morris was only a true freshman. Matt Thomas and Naz Long are two wings who should be strong players next season. They don't have any highly touted 2014 recruits signed yet, but the question with Iowa State is always transfers. They add former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay, who is 6'9", along with 6'7" Abdel Nader, who averaged 13.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game for Northern Illinois in 2012-13. They're also in the mix for Bryce DeJean-Jones of UNLV, though that is still undecided.

Oklahoma State had a wildly frustrating season. They were super talented, and clearly a top ten team in the computers prior to losing Michael Cobbins to injury and Stevie Clark to team dismissal. Even with all the losses (Marcus Smart's three game suspension nearly cost the team an at-large bid) the team still finished third in the league in efficiency margin (+0.06 PPP), which was better than Iowa State. But by the end of the season the team was so beat up with bumps and bruises that Travis Ford either had to play limping players or walk-ons (hello, Mason Cox) late in competitive games. And so a season that had national title aspirations early on ended up in a Round of 64 loss. Marcus Smart is off to the NBA, while Le'Bryan Nash is supposedly 50/50 for the draft. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume Nash is gone as well. Markel Brown graduates, which would make Cobbins, Phil Forte, Kamari Murphy and Brian Williams the only returners from the regular rotation. There's still a small chance that Stevie Clark will return to the school next season, but if not then the most promising member of that 2013 recruiting class is 6'7" Leyton Hammonds, who showed some sparks late in the season when his playing time was increased due to the other absences. Ford does have a deep 2014 recruiting class lined up, headed by Jared Terrell (Scout: 16 SG, Rivals: 63), Mitch Solomon (Scout: 11 C, Rivals: 72) and Joe Burton (Scout: 18 SF, Rivals: 89).

Oklahoma was the quiet, solid team in the Big 12 all season long, working their to second place in the Big 12 and a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But North Dakota State was a tough draw and took them down in the Round of 64, dealing a sour end to the season. But they lose only Cameron Clark from their regular rotation. In fact, their other four starters were all freshmen and sophomores, led by leading-scorer Buddy Hield and big man Ryan Spangler. Wing players Je'lon Hornbeak and Frank Booker are two other young players who should be better in increased playing time next season. The biggest need for Oklahoma is a back-to-the-basket post scorer, and they will hope to have that in a 2014 recruiting class led by Khadeem Lattin (Scout: 16 C, Rivals: 124) and Dante Buford (Scout: 28 PF, Rivals: 128).

The biggest positive surprise in the Big 12 this past season was Texas, powered by a stud freshman (point guard Isaiah Taylor) and a vastly improved front court (led by Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert) that dominated the glass. 5'11" Javan Felix was also a freshman, and the team also had several key bench pieces who were freshmen and sophomores, including 6'10" Prince Ibeh and 6'3" Kendal Yancy. In fact, they didn't have a single senior on the roster. They've also signed Jordan Barnett (Scout: 28 SF, Rivals: 101), and are in the mix for another blue chip recruit or two. They'll enter next season as one of the top challengers to Kansas.

Baylor made at least the Sweet 16 in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Of course, they missed the NCAA Tournament altogether in 2009, 2011 and 2013. So if the pattern holds, next year it's back to the NIT. Will it hold? Well, a lot will depend on Isaiah Austin, who would likely be a first round pick if he decides to leave. Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin graduate as well. They will return point guard Kenny Cherry and explosive big men Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, but after that? 6'7" Taurean Prince is the only other returner from the regular rotation. Two 2013 recruits who you didn't see much of but could contribute a lot next season are 6'6" Ish Wainright and shooting guard Allerik Freeman. Scott Drew's 2014 recruiting class doesn't have any big names signed yet (6'5" Kobe Eubanks is the highest rated thus far), but he's in the mix for a couple of blue chippers. He'll need one, though, or else Baylor will take a significant step back.

The last NCAA Tournament team from the Big 12 was Kansas State, and at this point we know the Bruce Weber routine. He's great at building a smart, high-IQ basketball team that plays solid defense and minimizes mistakes, but he can't recruit. So give him Frank Martin's team and he'll win you a share of the Big 12 title. But the talent level declined significantly in year two, and it's likely going to decline even more in year three. Shane Southwell and Will Spradling graduate, as does Omari Lawrence off the bench. They do have the tremendously talented Marcus Foster, who might have been the most underrated freshman in the nation, along with Thomas Gipson on the inside, but not much else. 6'7" Wesley Iwundu and 6'5" Nino Williams are the next two top returners. There's not much of a 2014 recruiting class (6'11" Juco transfer Stephen Hurt seems the best), but Bruce Weber does add a pair of solid transfers in Justin Edwards (15.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game over two seasons at Maine) and 6'11" Brandon Bolden, who played sparingly as a freshman at Georgetown in 2012-13. Kansas State will remain a competitive team, but it's hard to see them not taking at least a small step back next season.

The one bubblish team in the Big 12 to miss the NCAA Tournament was West Virginia. They got great news with  Juwan Staten choosing to come back for his senior season. If Eron Harris wasn't leaving via transfer, the entire roster would be back. The loss of Harris means they might need another scoring guard to step up, but they should be really strong in the front court, led by Devin Williams and Nathan Adrian, who were both true freshmen this past season. They also have a slew of newcomers, led by power forwards Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton, both 2013 recruits who were declared academically ineligible and missed the season. They also add 5'11" James Long, who played sparingly at Wofford as a freshman, and a recruiting class led by point guard Daxter Miles. They'll definitely be improved.

In the end, here's how I see the Big 12 playing out.

1. Kansas - I mean, I kind of have to. Though they need one more blue chipper if they're going to get back to a 1 seed, I think.
2. Texas - To win a Big 12 title, Texas is going to have to be more than a dominant offensive rebounding team. They'll need to find a second scoring option beyond Isaiah Taylor.
3. Oklahoma - I'm not sure Oklahoma has the top end talent to challenge Kansas, but it's hard to see them not being a Top 25 next season.
4. West Virginia - Juwan Staten could be the Big 12 Player of the Year next season. The Mountaineers should get back to the NCAA Tournament.
5. Iowa State - I can't drop Iowa State further than this, but Fred Hoiberg is going to need another transfer or two over the summer to get back to the Top 25. Don't put it past him, though. Bryce DeJean-Jones has already come to campus for a visit.
6. Oklahoma State - I'm not sure Oklahoma State fans totally appreciated just how good Marcus Smart was this past season. He was significantly improved from his freshman season, despite media coverage to the contrary. That's a huge roster hole to fill.
7. Kansas State - Bruce Weber's teams will always be tough to beat, and they'll never be out of the bubble hunt, but I don't think they'll be quite as good next season as they were this past season.
8. Baylor - The Bears definitely have a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but only if Scott Drew can land at least one more quality recruit.
9. Texas Tech - If Coach of the Year awards made any sense, Tubby Smith would have won in the Big 12. The job he did with a roster completely bereft of talent was incredible this past season. The problem is, I don't see any reason they're going to be any more talented next season. Tubby needs a big recruit to change momentum.
10. TCU - The Horned Frogs should be a little bit better next season. Which is nice.


Anonymous said...

I do not know what anyone would say, but here is how my projection, as it is demonstrated below, plays out in the end.

1. Texas
2. Kansas
3. Oklahoma
4. Iowa State
5. West Virginia
6. Kansas State
7. Oklahoma State
8. Baylor
9. Texas Tech
10. TCU

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me. You seem to miss everything you should be seeing. Your right, Texas will not take the Big 12. They have individual talent but lack of team building skills by the coaching staff will cost them a top 2 finish in the Big 12. Kansas will take the Big 12 title and fall in the two season end tournies. Iowa State, a well rounded still very young team, will finish in 2nd for the conference and take the Big 12 tourney. They will also make it further than any other Big 12 team in the tourney. Your right, the transfers will be big for state this year.