Conference Report Card: Big 12Posted by Brian Goodman on April 25th, 2011
Brian Goodman is an RTC editor and contributor.
Year In Review
Before the start of the season, pollsters bought into Kansas State as the sexy pick to take the Big 12 in 2011 on the heels of an Elite Eight appearance in 2010. The Big 12 was not overly impressive in non-conference play, as the Wildcats fell hard to Duke in a de facto home game in Kansas City, and Missouri did the same against Georgetown in one of the more thrilling matchups of the early season.
As league play began, the preseason #3 Wildcats disappointed, starting 2-5, and the usual stalwarts of the Big 12, Kansas and Texas, rose to the top. After topping the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse in January, the Longhorns looked to be in the driver’s seat, especially after Kansas was blindsided at Bramlage Coliseum to give Texas a two-game lead. However, Rick Barnes‘ team suffered another late-season collapse, going 2-3 to finish the regular season while the Jayhawks dusted off the competition to pull ahead to take their seventh straight conference crown.
Elsewhere in the conference, the Wildcats bounced back to end the season in third place. The middle of the conference wasn’t settled until the latter stages of the season with Missouri falling lat and Texas A&M, Colorado and Nebraska treading water. Baylor underachieved, given the talented personnel in Waco, and Oklahoma State never really looked in sync. Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Iowa State all had awful seasons to finish at the bottom of the standings.
In the conference tournament final, Kansas played its best basketball of the season, topping Texas to gain some revenge entering the Big Dance. Colorado was snubbed on Selection Sunday despite beating Kansas State three times, but the Big 12 still managed to get five teams into the NCAA Tournament. However, only the Jayhawks made it out of opening weekend alive, and they fell short of expectations as they lost to Shaka Smart and the Rams’ reign of BCS destruction.
- Kansas (35-3, 14-2) - Losing players like Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins, and Xavier Henry to the NBA Draft would set most programs back to the proverbial rebuilding mode, but not KU, where the talent keeps coming. Despite losing those top-shelf players, the Jayhawks were still tabbed to finish second in the conference. Early on, they took care of business in non-conference play while top prospect Josh Selby sat out the first nine games of the season due to NCAA sanctions. As anticipated, Marcus Morris led the team with inside dominance on his way to Conference POY honors and he and his brother were the vocal leaders of the squad. After an eye-popping debut, Selby struggled to gain a foothold in the rotation due to a foot injury and the steady contributions of Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed. The Jayhawks’ mettle was tested in late January, when Thomas Robinson‘s mother passed away, leaving him to care for his younger sister. The team was emotionally spent the next day during their game against Texas after spending the prior night consoling the sophomore. The effects of the grieving wouldn’t last long, however. Rallying behind Robinson, the team’s chemistry and confidence soared, and KU spent most of the season in the Top 5 thanks to a high-efficiency offense and potent defense. Kansas encountered a number of hurdles between the death of Lisa Robinson, Selby’s NCAA concerns, and Tyshawn Taylor‘s late-season suspension, but the team looked to be at its peak when it mattered most. Kansas gained a measure of revenge by rolling Texas in the Big 12 Tournament final and entered the Big Dance as a one-seed. After the Southwest bracket parted for them, though, the Jayhawks were stunned by VCU, and the swagger, trash talk, and breaking up of huddles that characterized the last half of the season only increased the impact of the Jayhawks’ fall. As was the case last season, Bill Self was left answering questions about losing to yet another mid-major in the Tournament. All-in-all, the Jayhawks won the Big 12 outright along with the conference tournament and clinched a one-seed in the Big Dance. While some may feel such marks are old hat for KU, it doesn’t make them any less remarkable. The following grade may be weighted towards the final result, but Robinson’s development and Tyshawn Taylor’s strong play at the end of the season are positives to which Jayhawk fans can look forward. Jeff Withey, who could inherit a decent chunk of post minutes after averaging just 6.2 minutes per game as a sophomore, must improve dramatically to keep opposing big men honest. As the Morii and Selby jump to the pros and Morningstar, Reed, and Mario Little exhaust their eligibility, Self will have to string together some spring signing period magic to keep KU at the top of the conference. Since the end of the season, he’s already nabbed Ben McLemore and Canadian import Braeden Anderson to go with Naadir Tharpe. The Jayhawks are currently hot on the trail of guard Trevor Lacey and are competing with Duke for the services of forward DeAndre Daniels. Conference championships come by the barrel in Lawrence, but there is no denying that the Jayhawks disappointed in failing to cut down the nets in Houston (or San Antonio, for that matter). While the departures sting, Kansas should still be able to contend for next season’s Big 12 crown. GRADE: B+
- Texas A&M (24-9, 10-6) - The Aggies were not predicted to make much noise when the season started as they began the season outside of the polls. The departures of Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan were expected to leave gaping holes in Mark Turgeon’s roster, but the Aggies pieced things together with streaky shooting from Khris Middleton while Nathan Walkup, David Loubeauand Kourtney Roberson led the Aggies to the nation’s 12th-best offensive rebounding rate. The Aggies’ season was highlighted by wins over Washington and Temple in non-conference play, and a pair of victories over Missouri in league action. A 16-1 start guided them to the Top 10, but a midseason swoon followed in which Texas A&M lost four of five. They recovered to finish on a 6-2 stretch and made the NCAA Tournament, but were bounced in a defensive battle with Florida State. As he is prone to do, Turgeon really overachieved with this squad. The Aggies should continue to trend upward in College Station next season especially in the backcourt. While BJ Holmes graduates, freshman Jamal Branch will come into the fold, and Washington transfer Elston Turner will be eligible to play next season. All of Texas A&M’s big men will return (and 6’8″ redshirt freshman Daniel Alexander will be in the mix as well), though all will be counted on to improve. Expect to see a more athletic Aggie team next season, and one that should contend for the league crown. GRADE: B
- Colorado (24-14, 8-8) - The Buffaloes’ final season as Big 12 members was nothing if not interesting. Tad Boyle had taken the reins in April, and fortunately for him, former head coach Jeff Bzdelik left behind a plentiful cupboard. The Buffs had one of the most underrated pro prospects from a BCS conference in sophomore Alec Burks and a great sidekick in senior Cory Higgins. The recipe for Boyle was to rely on Burks and Higgins to produce consistently high numbers and hope for enough contributions from the likes of complementary players such as Levi Knutson and Marcus Relphorde to win games. Victories over Colorado State and Indiana inspired early confidence. However, the Buffs went on to lose eight conference games, though four of them were decided by five points or fewer. Colorado flirted with the bubble for the last six weeks of the season, beating Texas, Kansas State, and Nebraska, but a loss to Iowa State was a major setback. CU arrived in Kansas City hoping to right the ship, and a win over Iowa State and the team’s third victory of the season against Kansas State appeared to have done the trick. Alec Burks averaged over 25 points in three games at the Sprint Center and this writer came away as many did, convinced that Colorado had done enough to warrant an NCAA Tournament invite. The selection committee felt differently, however, and the Buffs were relegated to the NIT. Making the best of it, Colorado went on to make a run all the way to Madison Square Garden, where it lost to Alabama by one in the semifinal. Many fans hoped that Boyle might reap the benefits of an uncertain NBA environment and retain Alec Burks, in which case Colorado can be a competitive Pac-10 squad despite losing Higgins, Relphorde and Knutson to graduation. Unfortunately for the Boyle and the Colorado faithful that was not the case and they will face a very rocky transition year, with Damiene Cain and Askia Booker expected to cut their teeth on the bench as freshmen. As a first-year coach, Tad Boyle led the Buffaloes to their first winning record since 2005-06, but as the roster slowly turns over to his own footprint, the onus is on him to continue to produce. GRADE: B
- Kansas State (23-11, 10-6) - The Wildcats came in with unprecedented expectations as the Big 12 favorite and the #3 team in all the land due to Jacob Pullen‘s scoring ability and a core of big bodies in Curtis Kelly and Wally Judge. The season started in choppy fashion, with Frank Martin‘s team squeaking out games it should have handled with more ease, and KSU was outplayed in every facet imaginable in a late November test with then #1 Duke in Kansas City. Wins over Virginia Tech and Gonzaga were early feathers in the cap, but the early returns, by and large, were not what the team expected. Things worsened as Pullen and Kelly were briefly suspended the following month, and Asprilla and Judge left the program in January. Martin was left shuffling the deck, rebuilding his team in-season, and the Wildcats sat at 2-5 in Big 12 play at the end of January. When Feburary started, though, things started clicking – Pullen increased his accuracy, Rodney McGruder turned into a reliable scorer, and in the nick of time, Kelly started realizing his potential as a post threat. Kansas State’s turnaround, during which it went 8-1 in its last nine Big 12 games, was highlighted by an 84-68 blowout over Kansas, who had moved into the #1 spot in the national rankings just hours before. The Wildcats would bow out to Colorado in the conference tournament and to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament to end their season, though in the round of 32, Pullen set the school’s career scoring mark, cementing his legacy as one of the Big 12′s all-time greats. Pullen and Kelly are gone now and next season will depend on the development of Will Spradling, McGruder, and Jamar Samuels. Martin reached into his Miami pipeline to snag center Adrian Diaz and guard Angel Rodriguez along with 6’7″ forward Thomas Gipson, but the Wildcats figure to take a step back next season with many role players being counted on to grow into bigger responsibilities. KSU also will have to compensate for a dearth of experienced post talent. The biggest off-season development of all for the Wildcats may have been Miami opting not to interview Martin for its coaching vacancy ensuring that he will remain in Manhattan for the foreseeable future. While many were hoping at the start of the season for Kansas State to come closer to last season’s outcome of an Elite Eight appearance, expectations are fluid. The Wildcats did an admirable job bouncing back, considering the obstacles of the season, and while Wisconsin is a tough out, it was not unreasonable to expect a deeper run from this crew. GRADE: B-
- Texas (28-8, 13-3) - Rick Barnes had a high-quality stable of talent yet again, welcoming Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph to join Jordan Hamilton as the core of the Longhorns. Losing to USC in LA was certainly a blemish in non-league play, but there was no shame in losing to Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. Texas went on to drop an overtime heartbreaker to eventual national champion UConn at home, but otherwise handled non-conference play well. Behind the strength of dynamic defense (UT had three of the Big 12′s top 11 rebounders, and Thompson in particular was a shot-altering fiend), the ‘Horns started to peak in the early portion of the league schedule. After pulling the rare feat of beating the Jayhawks at their place, it seemed as though Texas had a firm grip on the conference, but a loss to Nebraska and a shellacking at Colorado reopened the window for Kansas, and the Jayhawks pulled ahead. In the postseason, Texas fell to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament final, but earned a four-seed, a sign that the selection committee places a heavy amount of stock in recent play. The Longhorns had no problem disposing of an intriguing Oakland squad in the “second round,” but their next game was a different story. The final sequence against Arizona that led to an early exit was a zany series which included a questionable five-second call and late-game possession mismanagement. As it turned out, losing to the Wildcats was nothing to hang their heads over. Defensive aficionados Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay wave goodbye after four solid years from each, and Hamilton, Joseph, and Thompson have announced their intentions to head to the NBA. While four starters exit, the Longhorns look well-equipped to recover from such an exodus with J’Covan Brown sticking around and an incoming class that includes McDonald’s All-American point guard Myck Kabongo, who leads a stout group of young guards, and the Texas backcourt will be exciting to watch next season. Incoming freshmen forwards Kevin Thomas and Jonathan Holmes will have to learn the ins and outs of the frontcourt quickly, though. UT enjoyed a fine season, but the final result left more to be desired. GRADE: B-
- Oklahoma State (20-14, 6-10) – The Cowboys’ season in Travis Ford’s third go-round was filled with inconsistency and struggles. OSU lacked a go-to scorer and was forced to play at a slow pace in order to mask its weaknesses on offense. Off-court issues such as rape charges against Darrell Williams, style clashes with Ray Penn, and the loss of point guard Fred Gulley to begin the season created chemistry issues on the court. The remaining players were out of sync all season, and the Cowboys failed to get any momentum rolling during league play, though Marshall Moses took a big step forward in his senior season. The team fought hard, taking Kansas to the final possession in the Big 12 Tournament, but ultimately, OSU missed the Big Dance for the first time in three years, settling for an NIT bid. Cowboys fans should be excited for the arrival of five-star forward and McDonald’s All-American LeBryan Nash, one of the most explosive and athletic players in the 2011 class. He should slide in immediately and be an impact player from the first jump ball of the season. Keiton Page and JP Olukemi return as more experienced players, though like Kansas State, the Cowboys will be thin up front. Last season was a rough ride, but expect the Cowboys to return to NCAA Tournament contention in 2012. GRADE: C
- Nebraska (19-13, 7-9) - Eight non-conference wins over teams ranked 250th or lower in KenPom’s rankings set an early tone of confidence for Doc Sadler‘s squad, which had low expectations to begin the season. In a slowdown system, Lance Jeter (11.7 PPG and 4.5 APG) was the team’s best player, though the Huskers had plenty of big bodies in their final season as Big 12 members. 6’11″ Jorge Brian Diaz and 300-pounder Andre Alameida all averaged at least 14.9 minutes per game. The team was hit early by the departure of Christian Standhardinger and had to trudge on without its German import. A double-digit lead over Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse (which was blown) and a late-season win over Texas showed signs of life, but stumbling to losses in five of their last six games removed any realistic tournament aspirations, lowlighted by a disastrous final possession with a chance to beat Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament. Sadler’s team exited Big 12 membership with a whimper, losing by 27 to eventual NIT champion Wichita State. Jeter graduates, but Sadler will welcome three new recruits: small forward David Rivers, Josiah Moore, a former high school teammate of Connecticut standout Jeremy Lamb, and Kansas City native Corey Hilliard. The Cornhuskers figure to toil in the lower half of the Big Ten next season on the heels of another mediocre campaign in Lincoln, though apparently, it was good enough to earn Sadler a nice extension. GRADE: C
- Iowa State (3-13, 16-16) - The Cyclones raced out to a 13-2 start in native son Fred Hoiberg‘s first season as head coach. Wins over Creighton, Iowa, and Virginia indicated that ISU could make a run at the top half of the conference, but there just wasn’t enough firepower behind standout guard Diante Garrett (17.6 PPG). Throughout the season, Iowa State let leads slip away and the losses piled up from there – 13 in conference play, good for a last-place finish. Hoiberg gets somewhat of a pass as a first-year head coach working with Greg McDermott’s holdovers, but there were several occasions where his team had the game in hand but couldn’t finish the job. Still, there is a lot of reason for optimism heading into 2012. Next season will bring many fresh faces, though some may be familiar to Big Ten followers. Chris Allen from Michigan State, Chris Babb from Penn State, and Royce White, formerly of Minnesota, will all be on board next season, as will Saluki transfer Anthony Booker. Adding to the newcomers are three freshman, including point guard Tavon Sledge, who used to play with Tobias Harris in Long Island. The program loses Jamie Vanderbeken and Garrett, but there are enough pieces remaining, along with all those transfers becoming eligible, that ISU should be expected to make big strides next season. Sure, the easy statement is that things can only get better from here, but if the new faces mesh with the old ones, it’s not difficult to imagine a winning season and one of the bigger single-season turnarounds of 2012. Adding to the bright future was April’s news that Will Clyburn will be heading to Ames from Utah, though he will have to sit out next season. GRADE: C-
- Missouri (23-11, 8-8) - It’s not often that a 23-win season can be interpreted as a disappointment, but this is one such case. The Tigers breezed through non-conference play at 14-1 with their only loss being an overtime thriller against Georgetown, and it looked as though the ineligibility of hyped freshman Tony Mitchell would be rendered moot. Once league play hit, however, the Tigers’ “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball” pressure defense could not stop anyone, and the result was a team that racked up more fouls per game than all but two teams in the conference and many frazzled defensive possessions. The bottom fell out in an 86-71 loss to Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament, after which Kim English said the team quit, and an opening-round NCAA Tournament loss to Cincinnati followed. A state of disconnect was prevalent throughout the season, as Mike Anderson often used the crutch that his team was young, even though his team featured six juniors and seniors who averaged at least 17 minutes per game. Marcus Denmon, finally healthy for a full season, was the team’s best player, as the junior averaged 16.9 points per contest and was a deadeye perimeter shooter with a 44.8% mark from beyond the arc. At the end of the season, Anderson left for Arkansas, a move that surprised no one, and after a flirtation with Matt Painter, athletic director Mike Alden settled on Frank Haith, a move that surprised everyone. As with any high-profile program, coaching changes bring murky futures, and Missouri is no different. English and Laurence Bowers were reportedly considering testing the NBA Draft, and speculation abounds that Phil and Matt Pressey could follow Anderson to Fayetteville, as their father is close friends with Anderson. One thing to bear in mind is that the SEC doesn’t give scholarships to two-time transfers, and since Matt Pressey was a juco player before life at Mizzou, he would have to walk on at Arkansas. Haith’s first move was to scoop up recruiter extraordinaire Tim Fuller from Rick Pitino’s staff, which was a huge get, but keep an eye on how those who remain transition to Haith’s style. GRADE: D
- Baylor (18-13, 7-9) - While Ekpe Udoh and Tweety Carter jumped to the next level following their Elite Eight run in 2010, Baylor remained talented to start the season. LaceDarius Dunn and high-flyer Quincy Acy were still in-house, and J’Mison Morgan was finally eligible after sitting out his transfer year. In addition, Scott Drew had surefire lottery pick Perry Jones coming to town. Drew had the personnel to make another deep run, and Baylor was picked to finish fourth in the Big 12 at the start of the season. As the campaign wore on, however, it became clear that Drew was in a race against time to get a physically gifted group of guys to play cohesively before the bubble would burst. Baylor’s schedule was one that defied rational explanation. It featured three breaks of at least one week before conference play and a non-DI game in mid-February. The Bears scheduled three games against KenPom top 100 teams prior to league play and went 0-3 against that group. Big 12 play did not provide much relief, and aside from a season sweep over Texas A&M, high points were hard to come by. Jones was impressive, but rarely displayed the ability to take over games with his physical gifts, and Dunn turned into a low-efficiency volume shooter. Off-court issues marred the season as well. In November, Dunn faced a suspension stemming from a domestic violence charge. In March, Jones was suspended hours before the Big 12 Tournament opener for dastardly allowing his mother to accept cash loans from Jones’ high school coach two years ago (THE HORROR!). Without Jones, Baylor was rocked in what may have amounted to a play-in game in Kansas City, and didn’t participate in an invitational tournament. Earlier this month, Jones shocked the college basketball world by announcing that he will return for next season rather than entering a cloudy NBA situation as a possible top-five pick and despite the fact that he will be suspended for the first five games of next season. After becoming the Big 12′s all-time scoring leader with 2,285 points, Dunn graduates, though more elite players are coming to Waco. Burger Boys Deuce Bello and Quincy Miller will come aboard, but there remains a glaring weakness with AJ Walton at the point guard spot. In addition, the program has the attention of the NCAA for all the wrong reasons. If Baylor is to have success next season, Drew has to coach his roster up to its potential, get better defense out of his troops, assemble an adequate non-league schedule, and stay out of hot water. GRADE: D
- Oklahoma (14-18, 5-11) - As Jeff Capel struggled to fill the voids left by Blake Griffin, and Tiny Gallon, it was hard not to see a down year coming back in the fall, but losing to Chaminade in Maui certainly was not what anyone had in mind. After navigating through a tough stretch of non-conference games that included tilts against Arkansas, Arizona, Virginia, and Kentucky, the Sooners feasted on some cupcakes to get to 8-6 entering conference play. Senior Cade Davis breathed some life into the program and went out on a high note, averaging over 14 points per contest, and nearly 20 a game over the team’s last eight games. A four-game win streak in conference play was the high point for the Sooners, at which point it looked like Oklahoma might finish better than the experts originally predicted. However, OU went on to drop its next eight, and Capel was cut loose in favor of the well-traveled Lon Kruger. Kruger will bring a reputation of running solid if unspectacular programs, and Oklahoma’s administration also has to like his history of running clean programs, something that Kelvin Sampson as well as Capel failed to do in Norman. Without much time to hit the recruiting trail, Kruger turned to the juco ranks for his first OU commit, Sam Grooms of Chipola, Florida. Don’t expect immediate results from the Sooners next season, but fans should keep an eye on Oklahoma to make tournament pushes on an annual basis in 2013 and beyond. In 2010-11, Oklahoma had the least experienced team in the Big 12 last season, with three freshmen and sophomores averaging 30 minutes per game or more, and adding Kruger to the mix should lead to a gradual climb. GRADE: D-
- Texas Tech (13-19, 5-11) - The Red Raiders’ season began with Pat Knight‘s job in dire straits and ended with a new head coach. In Lubbock, expectations have never been lofty, especially since Bob Knight called it a career, but Pat Knight never finished better than 9th in the conference in three full seasons. Tech sported a little bit of shooting range from John Roberson, Brad Reese, and David Tairu, and while Mike Singletary provided athleticism, the team was completely bereft of any inside presence, and the fact that this was the most experienced team in the Big 12 (according to Ken Pomeroy) made this season a disaster. A nine-point win over Baylor in Waco was Tech’s highlight, and five conference wins was about as well as the team could have hoped for. Texas Tech’s administration promptly let Knight go at the end of the season, and brought in Billy Gillispie, who should know Texas well from his days as the coach of UTEP, and later, Texas A&M. Graduating four starters (and six seniors in all), Gillispie is already able to pitch an abundance of playing time to recruits. Jaron Nash and Kader Tapsoba are a pair of junior college transfers set to join a five-man recruiting class which, for now, is staying committed despite Knight’s departure to Lamar. Nash and Tapsoba both figure to add size to Tech’s undersized roster. However, the Red Raiders currently sit at one scholarship over the limit of 13, so expect to see movement at some point. The 2010-11 season was mostly a waste, but fans are eager to move on from the Knight era, and Gillispie should be motivated to return to success after some troubling personal issues. GRADE: F
- The Big 12 may take a step back in the national landscape due to a number of programs in coaching transitions and talent leaving, but that does not mean the conference will be short on storylines. With Colorado and Nebraska exiting, not only does the conference rid itself of some dead weight, but it also shifts from an unbalanced schedule to a more balanced and competitive one.
- Until now, the conference schedule consisted of in-season home-and-homes within the two divisions (The North, consisting of Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa State, and the South, consisting of the Texas and Oklahoma schools) and alternating locations for the single games outside the divisions. Beginning in 2011-2012, the conference schedule will extend from 16 to 18 games, and all ten teams will play each other twice. As a result, the conference champion is more likely to have three or four losses than one or two, and the Kansas-Texas matchups could escalate from simply a competitive series to a bona fide rivalry.
- The Jayhawks’ departures have led some to question their ability to take the Big 12 in 2012, but across the conference, there is no clear favorite at this early stage, as Texas and Texas A&M will also battle for the top spot. The biggest improvements should come from Iowa State and Oklahoma State as Fred Hoiberg’s transfer players become eligible and the Cowboys retain most of their roster and welcome LeBryan Nash. It wouldn’t surprise me if after a brief period in the spotlight, Kansas State returned to its former status as a team under the radar. Missouri remains a wildcard until Frank Haith’s roster is settled, though he should have enough talent to remain competitive in the top half.