Monday, April 06, 2015

2015-16 Preview: Big 12

Big-12 Conference

The Big 12 had a disappointing NCAA Tournament but, as I preach every single season, it's stupid to judge conferences on NCAA Tournament performance. Iowa State and Baylor happened to suffer staggering Round of 64 upsets. This happens every year to some top teams - it's a fluke, but those things happen in single-elimination tournaments. Kansas was given the Path Of Death, and as the weakest 2 seed they were going to need to play out of their minds to even get to the Elite 8. That left West Virginia, who ran into Kentucky in the Sweet 16, and Oklahoma, who lost a tough Sweet 16 game to Michigan State.

The media always has a bias toward leagues that are larger and that are top heavy, since they produce more title contenders and Sweet 16 teams, so this inevitably led them to drive a pro-ACC narrative and an anti-Big East/Big 12 narrative. The fact is that nobody cared that a team went 4-14 in the Big 12 while being borderline Top 50 in the computers while the bottom of the ACC was a morass of teams like Boston College, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. But if you want to figure out which conference is best, you have to consider every team in that conference.

To break down the Big 12, we have to start with the team that has won at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title for an absurd 11 straight seasons: Kansas. The Jayhawks won the Big 12 without any senior on scholarship, though they're going to face NBA defections. Cliff Alexander was ineligible to play down the stretch, and it's believed he's very likely to go pro. Kelly Oubre will go to the NBA Draft as well, though I think Wayne Selden stays. They should return their best player, Perry Ellis, for one more season, along with front court mate Jamari Traylor. Landen Lucas is the only other returning big, but they have already added 6'9" Carlton Bragg (Scout: 3 PF, Rivals: 15) and are in the mix for a couple other blue chip big men. On the perimeter, point guard Frank Mason become a much steadier player as a sophomore, and the highly touted Devonte' Graham should player a larger role next season as a sophomore. 6'7" Brannen Greene is already a sharpshooter, while 6'8" Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk will hope to play a larger role next season as well. They could use more backcourt depth, but assuming that some players leave early then it will open more scholarships.

Iowa State was the Big 12 tournament champion, but their Round of 64 upset against UAB was the biggest upset of the NCAA Tournament. They lose two key players to graduation in Dustin Hogue and Bryce Dejean-Jones, but also gain a pair of key transfers in 6'3" Hallice Cooke (8.2 ppg and 2.5 apg as a freshman at Oregon State in 2013-14) and 6'4" Deonte Burton (6.8 ppg with a 44.4 3P% over 1.5 seasons at Marquette), though Burton won't be eligible until the end of the fall semester. A third addition is 6'7" Juco transfer Darien Williams. Monte Morris was one of the most efficient point guards in the nation, which means that he, with Naz Long, Matt Thomas, Hallice Cooke and Deonte Burton should provide the Cyclones with plenty of depth and athleticism in the backcourt. Abdel Nader returns on the wing, while Georges Niang and Jameel McKay will play with Darien Williams in the front court. That's already a deep team, and they still have three more scholarships left to give out, and we all know that Fred Hoiberg will be an aggressive shopper over the summer. Their biggest need, in my opinion, is a perimeter defender to help them improve the third least efficient defense in the Big 12.

Interestingly, both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated Oklahoma as the best team in the Big 12 on Selection Sunday (as well as at the end of the season, since they had the best postseason run). Kansas did narrowly lead the Big 12 in efficiency margin in conference play, though (+0.11 PPP vs +0.08 PPP for the Sooners). The Sooners lose just big man TaShawn Thomas to graduation, but all eyes are on the NBA Draft decision of Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield. He's considered a borderline first round pick at this point. For the sake of this preview, I'm going to assume he returns. And if he does, Oklahoma will have his scoring burst to go with what will again be an excellent defense. Their backcourt is deep, with Jordan Woodard at the point and Isaiah Cousins as a sharpshooting perimeter player (45.0 3P%). Frank Booker will again provide depth off the bench. In the front court, the defensive presence of TaShawn Thomas will be very difficult to replace. Ryan Spangler will be back, but Khadeem Lattin is the only other proven front court returner. If 7-footer Akolda Manyan, a Juco transfer, is able to play significant minutes, then he would provide that dominating defensive force inside. 6'7" Dante Buford, a highly touted 2014 recruit who had to miss the season over academic issues, should also return. Their top rated 2015 recruit is 6'4" Christian James (Rivals: 139).

The big surprise in the Big 12 this past season was Baylor. Many people (if not most) expected them to be an NIT team preseason, but they earned their way to a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Fans tend to judge seasons by the NCAA Tournament, and so the season ended in a disappointing way, but the full season of success was much more meaningful than a single 40 minute long upset. Baylor loses primary playmaker Kenny Cherry and sharpshooter Royce O'Neale, but they return leading scorer Taurean Prince and the incredibly physical big man Rico Gathers. 6'9" Johnathan Motley, who was effective in limited minutes off the bench, should play a bigger role next season. 6'8" Deng Deng is another bench player who could see more time next season. The backcourt loses its best player in Kenny Cherry, but Scott Drew has all sorts of reinforcements coming in to plug that gap. Lester Munford is a capable point guard, while both Allerik Freeman and Ish Wainwright played well off the bench. In addition, their top 2015 recruits are King McClure (Scout: 29 SG, Rivals: 77) and Jake Lindsay (Scout: 24 PG).

West Virginia did tremendously well this season considering how little elite Big 12 talent was on this roster. Even when Juwan Staten and Gary Browne missed time, the team really didn't miss a beat. They just crashed the glass and forced turnovers, and that was enough. Staten and Browne graduate now, but everybody else should be back. Their top returners are probably Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton, who led the offensive glass attack. They also got good play in the backcourt out of Daxter Miles and Jevon Carter, both of whom were true freshmen this past season. If they're going to challenge for a Big 12 title, though, they need to be significantly more efficient offensively. That means better ball handling and, in particular, better shooting. They were 282nd in the nation in 3P% and 292nd in the nation in eFG%. 5'11" 2015 recruit James Bolden is considered a pretty good shooter, though he's not West Virginia's top recruit. That would be Esa Ahmad (Scout: 9 PF, Rivals: 71).

Texas was one of the most under-performing teams we've ever seen in college basketball, though horrible luck in close games played a role in it. They were considered a national title contender preseason, but slipped to around the 20th best team in the nation according to Pomeroy and Sagarin, which combined with a 2-6 record in games decided by seven points or fewer against Big 12 opponents to set them up with a brutal 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament against Butler. It's easy to say that firing Rick Barnes will fix things, but the reality is that Barnes was never the terrible coach he was made out to be. It's easy to say "Just get all the best kids in Texas and you'll win", but no coach can ever do that. The fact is that Rick Barnes is the most successful head coach Texas has ever had. He took them to their only Final Four since 1947, as well as three of their four Elite 8 appearance since 1947. Texas finished the season in the Top 25 of either the AP or Coaches poll in 10 of the 17 seasons Barnes coached, something they had done in just 9 of the 50 seasons before Barnes was hired.

Of course, Shaka Smart is on the way, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts his style to the roster he's being handed. They lose just Jonathan Holmes to graduation, though Myles Turner will be going pro as well. Assuming he doesn't go pro and can stay healthy all season, Isaiah Taylor could potentially be the best point guard in the Big 12 next season. Javan Felix, Kendal Yancey and Demarcus Holland will be backcourt returners as well. The front court will lose two of its key players, but will still return Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert, with Prince Ibeh as a talented defensive backup. They also add 6'8" Shaq Cleare, who averaged 3.4 ppg and 2.6 rpg over two seasons at Maryland. 6'6" Jordan Barnett didn't do much as a true freshman, but is still a talented prospect for the future. Texas is also set to add Kerwin Roach (Scout: 28 SG, Rivals: 36) and Eric Davis (Scout: 12 SG, Rivals: 54). This roster, as it's constructed, simply can't play Smart's true #havoc style. Time will tell whether he changes his style or whether he makes quick moves to remake this roster.

Oklahoma State is hit hard by graduation, losing Le'Bryan Nash, Michael Cobbins and Anthony Hickey, and their only key addition is Jawun Evans (Scout: 3 PG, Rivals: 28), so it's hard to see how they don't take a step back next season. TCU also loses three key players in Kyan Anderson, Trey Zeigler and Amric Fields, but they return almost everybody from a surprisingly athletic front court, led by 6'8" Chris Washburn and 6'10" Karviar Shephard. Their top recruit is also a big - 6'8" Jalon Miller (Scout: 28 PF). The reality is that while TCU's Top 25 ranking early in the season was obviously fraudulent (their 13-0 non-conference record was run against the single softest non-conference SOS in the nation, with the only Pomeroy Top 150 opponent being Ole Miss), the fact is that TCU ended up being a much better team than most people realized. They were borderline Top 50 in both Sagarin and Pomeroy. That said, to take the next step they need better shooting (their 28.7 3P% in conference play was dead last in the Big 12), and they need a point guard to replace Kyan Anderson. Their best point guard option might be Chauncey Collins, a 2014 recruit who didn't play much as a true freshman. They don't have an obvious replacement among their recruits.

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

1. Kansas -You have to assume that Kansas is going to win the Big 12 until they don't. Next year's squad should be better than this year's anyway, particularly the squad as it was after Cliff Alexander was declared ineligible.
2. Oklahoma - I'm assuming Buddy Hield returns. If not, they'll drop. But if he does, this should be one of the ten best teams in the nation.
3. Iowa State - Iowa State has a good chance to be Top Ten in the national preseason polls, but I've still got them third if Buddy Hield returns. The top of the Big 12 will be stacked yet again.
4. Texas - Don't expect to see #HAVOC from this roster next season. But Shaka is a smart coach, and he knows he has one of the ten or twenty most talented rosters in the nation and could have a really good team immediately.
5. Baylor - Baylor has a lot of young talent, but they have to replace key players (most notably point guard Kenny Cherry) with unproven prospects, and that always creates question marks.
6. West Virginia - Don't be surprised if they're ranked in the Top 25 preseason, but I think this team wasn't quite as good as their resume (they were outscored by 0.03 PPP in Big 12 play) and they lose their only proven scorers. At some point you have to be able to generate offense to win a Big 12 title.
7. TCU - This is a sleeper team in the Big 12, but the question is whether they have the top end talent to go head-to-head with the NBA players on the top five teams in the conference.
8. Oklahoma State - The Cowboys are hit hard by graduations off a team that disappointed. Travis Ford is definitely feeling his seat start to get warm in Stillwater.
9. Kansas State - Bruce Weber is a much better coach than he's given credit for, but he's never been a good recruiter, and the talent continues to dry up in Manhattan. Between graduations, transfers and a dismissal, he's already losing four of his five starters.
10. Texas Tech - With four of five starters returning, Tubby Smith should have this team better next season, but they don't have a single player who could start on a team in the top half of the league. The talent level has to be upgraded.

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