Sunday, April 13, 2008

2008-09 Preview: Big 12

Big 12 Conference

Any discussion of the Big 12 clearly has to begin with the national champions: Kansas. It looks like Bill Self turned down the big money and will stay at Kansas (not that he won't parlay OSU's interest into a big pay raise in Lawrence). To be sure, next year's Kansas team will be immensely different from this year's squad. Darnell Jackson, Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun and Rodrick Stewart all graduate. Meanwhile, Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur are all expected to go pro early. Is anybody left? The only regular rotation player to return will be Sherron Collins (actually, there is some probability that he will go pro as well, but I'm going to guess that he won't). Still, it's not like the guys deep on the Kansas bench were total slouches - they were simply stuck behind a ridiculously good starting lineup (see: Florida, 2005-07). The Jayhawks bring in a couple of Juco transfers, as well as a few really nice high schoolers. The top recruits are Marcus Morris (Rivals: 37) and Travis Releford (Scout: 7 SG). There's no chance that Kansas will be a serious contender to be a repeat national champion, but I don't think they'll fall as far off the planet as Florida and Ohio State did this past season. They should be good enough to make it back to the Tournament.

The past few Big 12 seasons have been all about the duels between Kansas and Texas, but Texas could have a serious upper hand next season. The Longhorns don't graduate a single player that got more than five minutes per game last season. They have a bunch of players looking at potentially going into the lottery, but I'm going to guess that only D.J. Augustin will not be back next season. Throw in recruit J'Covan Brown (Rivals: 42, Scout: 9 SG) and Texas is likely to have Top Ten talent again next season. If Texas is going to make a serious run at being a national title contender, the key piece might be Connor Atchley. The Longhorns are going to have a lot of production out of their guards, but Damion James was their only elite inside presence last season. Texas needs Atchley to be a dependable double-double guy if they're going to take the next step.

One team that will almost certainly be improved is Baylor. The Bears return five players that averaged over 20 minutes per game, and lose only Aaron Bruce and Mark Shepherd from their regular rotation. I don't think anybody will be going pro, which means that the core of this team will be all back. They also bring in a potential NBA swing man in Anthony Jones (Rivals: 46, Scout: 14 SF). The team should be at least as talented as it was last season, and more experienced as well. Not only should Baylor make the Tournament again, but they should spend plenty of time in the Top 25 as well. Another team that should be at least as good as it was last season is Oklahoma. The Sooners lose two starters to graduation, but are expected to have Blake Griffin back. Griffin was probably the most underrated freshman in the country last season, and should be the most dominant big man in the Big 12 next season. My guess is that Oklahoma will only have one more year with him before he goes to the NBA, so they'll have to make the best of it.

Two teams that will take steps back are Texas A&M and Kansas State. K-State is obvious. Michael Beasley is expected to turn pro, and there's a good chance that Bill Walker will go as well. That's not to mention two other starters that will graduate. The Wildcats have a very deep recruiting class coming in, but no real blue chippers. Frank Martin is doing a good job of maintaining and building the Kansas State program, but his team will almost definitely miss the Tournament next season. As for Texas A&M, their offense is really going to struggle without Dominique Kirk and Joseph Jones. Not only that but DeAndre Jordan is most likely going pro as well. Jordan was one of the most highly touted recruits out of the state of Texas in a while, and despite not playing much as a freshman was expected to be a big part of A&M's team next year. The Aggies aren't going to fall all the way into the conference basement or anything, but they won't be as good as they were in 2007-08.

I like what Mike Anderson has been doing at Missouri, weeding the bad seeds out and cleaning up that program. They return almost everyone (other than Stefhon Hannah, of course) from last year's team. And they bring in an outstanding recruiting class to play with the likes of DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. I don't want to underestimate the loss of glue guy Darryl Butterfield, but Missouri should be improved next season. I also think that we'll see more out of Oklahoma State if T. Boone Pickens can attract a decent coach to pull the team together. They have a lot of nice young talent that can become the base of a pretty good team in the next year or two.

Here's how I see the rest of the conference playing out:

1. Texas - Just way more talent than anybody else.
2. Baylor - It's possible that the Bears will suffer something of a "sophomore slump," after their stellar year in 2007-08. But if they don't, they could have a really good team next year.
3. Kansas - I can't drop them too far. The Jayhawks will be extraordinarily young and inexperienced, and they're probably due for one or two embarrassing losses next year, but their overwhelming talent should keep them near the top of the conference.
4. Oklahoma - Blake Griffin can carry this team far.
5. Missouri - Anderson should take his boys to the Tournament for the first time in 2009.
6. Oklahoma State - This position could change a lot after they announce their new coach.
7. Texas A&M - Mark Turgeon has done a good job at keeping this team together after the loss of Billy Gillispie.
8. Texas Tech - Let's see how well Pat Knight recruits without the name power of his father. He did a good job of coaching in the short time he was in control of this team, but he won't have that good of a team to work with in 2008-09.
9. Nebraska - Doc Sadler has put together a pesky team that should improve again next season.
10. Kansas State - Beasley is a goner, but the Wildcats will move up a few spots in the standings if Bill Walker decides to stick around for another season.
11. Iowa State - A bunch of their young guys have potential. It remains to be seen if they'll fufill it.
12. Colorado - A very nice recruiting class coming in, but there isn't a whole lot that they're coming into. I think Jeff Bzdelik will be able to turn this program into a Tournament team in the near future, but it's not going to happen in 2009.

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