Get to the Point: Big 12 EditionPosted by Brian Otskey on June 16th, 2011
Throughout the summer RTC contributors Zach Hayes and Brian Otskey will discuss the hot topics — or whatever comes to mind — around each major conference in college basketball. Our second edition features the Big 12, a conference still fairly strong at the top but undergoing some major changes elsewhere. For the entire summer series focusing on each of the six power conferences, click here.
Brian: About this time last summer, the Big 12 appeared to be on the precipice of extinction. Colorado had accepted an invitation to join the Pac 10 (now Pac 12) and Nebraska departed immediately thereafter to join the Big Ten. With Texas strongly leaning towards jumping ship for the Pac 10, long time Big 12 basketball goliath Kansas, along with four other member schools, was going to be left out in the cold by the machine that is big time college football. Thanks to a last-ditch effort by conference commissioner Dan Beebe, the Big 12 was saved and will continue on with 10 members. While football drives the bus in collegiate athletics, Beebe enhanced Big 12 basketball by cutting some dead weight and keeping Texas in the fold. By dangling the carrot of a Longhorn television network in front of the Texas brass, the Big 12 as we know it was saved for the foreseeable future. This coming season marks the beginning of a new era in Big 12 basketball history. Gone are Colorado and Nebraska, the 16-game unbalanced schedule, a multitude of players from top teams and four coaches who have moved on, some for better and some for worse. In 2011-12, the Big 12 conference welcomes four new head coaches, each inheriting a unique situation and an 18-game round-robin schedule where all 10 league teams will play each other twice both at home and on the road. Frank Haith and Billy Kennedy will take over for Mike Anderson and Mark Turgeon at Missouri and Texas A&M respectively, inheriting rosters built for immediate success, while Lon Kruger and Billy Gillispie have major rebuilding jobs ahead of themselves at Oklahoma and Texas Tech after their predecessors were forced out.
For the last seven seasons, the path to the conference title has gone through Lawrence, Kansas. The Jayhawks should be the favorites until proven otherwise but there is a strong case to be made for a different team to capture the Big 12 crown for the first time since 2004. Who that team could be, however, is up in the air. Texas seemed to be the one at first but the NBA draft and graduation have severely hurt the Longhorns. Rick Barnes welcomes stud recruit Myck Kabongo and five other newcomers but I’m not sure that will be enough to vault Texas to the top of the league standings. Baylor may be the most talented team in this league after Perry Jones’ surprising decision to return to school but persistent questions at the point guard position and off-court distractions for Jones could prevent the Bears from reaching new heights. Missouri returns a loaded roster but Frank Haith was not the most inspiring hire after Mike Anderson left for his dream job at Arkansas. The Tigers have tons of talent and one of the best home court edges in the country but a dismal end to last season coupled with the difficult adjustment from Anderson’s “40 minutes of hell” to Haith’s more disciplined system give me doubts about this team’s ability to win a conference title. Texas A&M returns budding star Khris Middleton along with David Loubeau but I’m not sure that’s enough to win a regular season championship. Jamal Branch will be a terrific addition but the Aggies aren’t deep enough in my estimation.
In short, this is a conference going through a major transition period. It will still be very good but I wouldn’t expect an elite Big 12 like we’ve seen in some years past. The race for the conference title will be fascinating with many teams in the mix but I’d still favor Kansas despite major personnel losses in Lawrence. Do you see any of these teams finally jumping the Jayhawks? Can someone from the bottom half of the league (maybe Oklahoma State) take advantage of the uncertainty and make a significant leap into the top half?
Zach: We really are entering a new era in the Big 12. There’s a different coach pacing the sidelines in Columbia, College Station, Lubbock and Norman. There’s a shiny new round-robin schedule that provides the fairest way to determine a league champion. Perennial bottom-feeders Nebraska and Colorado have moved on, rendering this league even more difficult to navigate top to bottom. Players that lined all-league teams from a season ago — Tristan Thompson, Marcus Morris, Jacob Pullen, Jordan Hamilton, Alec Burks, Lace Dunn — are long gone. Kansas and their seven consecutive Big 12 titles appear more vulnerable in 2011-12 than any other year during that commendable stretch. There are more questions than answers when you survey the conference landscape creating intriguing possibilities.
Kansas may have suffered significant personnel losses and failed to reload with a typical Self recruiting class loaded with heralded prospects, but they should still be considered the preseason favorite until another program knocks them off the pedestal. If there’s one thing we can be confident in regarding the Big 12, it’s that Kansas will find a way to reload and receive unexpected contributions from role players of the previous season. Thomas Robinson is the leading candidate, a bruising forward with a great rebounding sense and NBA-ready body that just needs to refine his offensive repertoire. Tyshawn Taylor is brimming with talent. If he can develop better point guard skills and keep his head on straight, there’s another potential breakout candidate. I’d throw his backcourt sidekick Elijah Johnson in the mix along with swingman Travis Releford. Both Ben McLemore and Naadir Tharpe could be instant contributors. The point is: it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who will burst into star status just yet, but we can be fairly confident someone will. It’s the Kansas way.
On returning talent alone, Missouri SHOULD win this conference. Marcus Denmon is an all-league performer and Phil Pressey is a jet. Michael Dixon is an ideal third guard that really gets after it defensively, while Laurence Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe constitute a nice 1-2 punch down low. That’s a really solid roster. The problem is threefold: 1) Frank Haith never won in conference play at Miami, so the jury’s out on if he’s really up to the task at Missouri, 2) the fact Haith’s teams never defended at Miami and last year’s Tigers ranked seventh in the Big 12 in defensive efficiency is a concerning combination and 3) this team has absolutely no clue how to win on the road. Whether it’s their inability to impose their breakneck pace, unfamiliarity with shooting backgrounds, a fear of hotels or something in between, Missouri finished 1-7 away from Columbia in conference play. Their one win? 3-13 Iowa State. By 6.
In summation, I’d love to pick Missouri. I really would. Their starting 5 will be as formidable and talented as anyone in this league. But until a school not located in Lawrence steals the Jayhawks crown, I can’t go in any other direction. I’ve been burned a couple times in the past doing just that.
Brian: I can’t argue with anything you just stated. Missouri definitely has the talent but there are a multitude of important questions yet to be answered regarding the Tigers. I love what their back court brings to the table in addition to Ratliffe up front, but I’d be somewhat surprised if they do win the Big 12 next year. They have a major adjustment ahead of them and must learn how to win on the road at the same time. That is too much to overcome in my opinion.
I love Thomas Robinson and have no doubt he’ll be an all-Big 12 performer, not to mention how easy it is to root for him given what he’s been through. How about Jeff Withey as a breakout candidate? The seven footer just returned from a successful trip to Europe and could really explode under Coach Self’s tutelage. I don’t see Withey becoming the next Cole Aldrich or Nick Collison but he may surprise a lot of folks in 2011-12. Like you said, this is the Kansas way. Until proven otherwise, they are the team to beat regardless of who is no longer on the roster.
One team we haven’t even mentioned yet is Kansas State. It looks to be somewhat of a rebuilding year in the Little Apple but just about everyone who caused a distraction or two last season has moved on. Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly graduated while Wally Judge transferred to Rutgers. If Frank Martin can get his kids to buy what he’s selling, the Wildcats could surprise. Rodney McGruder could emerge as a star in the next few years plus Jamar Samuels is still around. K-State has a tremendous home court advantage and trips to the Octagon of Doom certainly won’t be easy for opponents, even without Pullen in the building.
We’ve gone over some of the top teams in this league. How do you see the middle and bottom half shaking out? Maybe Oklahoma State or the Cyclones of Iowa State and their talented but volatile mix of transfers can make a move up the conference ladder.
Zach: I’m still on board with Kansas State as an NCAA Tournament team, probably one that lingers around the bubble. After the first tier — Kansas, Missouri, Baylor and Texas A&M — they’re the safest and most sensible to me as that fifth team. Their home court advantage, strong team defense under Frank Martin and disposing of three headaches are all valid reasons. If we’re searching for breakout candidates in the conference alongside Robinson and Loubeau, McGruder is as good a choice as anyone. He was actually the most efficient shooter on the team last season in effective FG and true shooting percentages. Jamar Samuels actually took a major step back last season and really faded at the end of the year, but if he comes back with a renewed confidence, he’s a potential solid #2 option. Will Spradling takes over as a heady floor leader and Frank Martin has used his Florida roots to nab a couple talented freshmen from the Sunshine State to join talented JC players from Kansas. K-State will take their lumps early trying to assemble sans Pullen, a player who had such a dramatic impact on the program for four years, but by February and March Martin will have the ship righted.
Oklahoma State is the alternative/riskier option to peg as that fifth team. I just wish they could upgrade at the 1. Keiton Page is plucky and heroic and all, but under 2 APG in 34 minutes and puke-inducing shooting percentages from a 5’9 point guard is simply unacceptable for a team with any type of considerable expectations. Page played slightly better his first two years in Stillwater, so there’s some semblance of hope. Travis Ford also has the single most talented incoming freshman in the entire conference and that includes Myck Kabongo, Jamal Branch and Quincy Miller. LeBryan Nash is built like a brick wall and has the athleticism and leaping ability to match. As long as he matures, Nash has one-and-done type skill. J.P. Olukemi is another intriguing piece because he’d play so well at certain points, especially at home, but completely disappear during stretches on the road. The Cowboys have too many question marks for me to be totally comfortable, but they could break up the party near the top of the Big 12 if everything comes together for Ford.
Funny thing is that OSU isn’t even the team with the most question marks in the Big 12. That honor, in a rout, goes to Iowa State and their assembly line of eligible transfers: Chris Allen from Michigan State, Chris Babb from Penn State, Anthony Booker from Southern Illinois and Royce White from Minnesota. How inexperienced headman Fred Hoiberg gets them all to mesh on the floor will be a daunting task. There’s a reason Hoiberg took a flier on these individuals despite rocky stays at previous locales: there’s workable talent in abundance. If he can turn the Cyclones from Big 12 laughing stock to NCAA contender in two years on the back of these transfers, his re-election for mayor of Ames will be a cakewalk.
Brian: I’m looking for more consistency from Olukemi as well but I’ll give him a pass for disappearing in certain games last season. It was his first year playing D1 basketball after transferring from junior college and he was counted on to do more for a mediocre team than he should have been expected to. He showed a lot of promise against some pretty good competition (including 17 points at Allen Fieldhouse) and I see him getting cleaner looks at the basket with Nash coming on the scene. Nash will be the number one target for opposing defenses and that should result in better looks for Olukemi, similar to a solid baseball player seeing better pitches to hit batting one spot ahead of a superstar. As for Nash, he’ll most definitely make an impact next season, that much is certain. I don’t see him on the level of a Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley but he will post eye-popping numbers on more than a few occasions.
Iowa State may very well be the most interesting story in college basketball as we head into the new season. If Fred Hoiberg can keep these guys in line on the court and out of trouble off it, the Cyclones could be looking at a huge turnaround in only one year’s time. Things seemed to be going well in the non-conference portion of last season’s schedule but ISU’s lack of talent and over-reliance on Diante Garrett took its toll en route to a 3-13 conference record. Marquette transfer Scott Christopherson and former Michigan State Spartan Chris Allen give this club some pop from the three point arc while Minnesota transfer Royce White adds athleticism inside. Gambles with transfers as checkered as these players happen to be usually fail but this is worth the risk. Iowa State has to do so something in order to get out of the basement and, while this could easily blow up in their face, Hoiberg has taken the shortest path towards that goal with the best chance for immediate dividends. This program essentially has nothing to lose and everything to gain. I remember the days when Hilton Coliseum was one of the toughest places to play in America back when Larry Eustachy roamed the sidelines and the tandem of future pros Marcus Fizer owning the paint and Jamaal Tinsley dropping dimes left and right dominated the conference. It would be nice to see the Cyclones get back in the Big 12 mix but Hoiberg has a ton of work ahead of him in order to make that happen.
What else grabs your attention in this conference? Lon Kruger and Billy Gillispie appear to be solid hires for their respective programs but it could take a really long time before Oklahoma and Texas Tech are contenders again in the Big 12. Kruger is more likely to achieve success quicker but I actually think Gillispie, with his strong Texas roots, can build a better program over the long haul when compared to the well-travelled Kruger. Texas Tech is absolutely decimated right now but Gillispie got the job done at UTEP and Texas A&M. There is no reason in my mind to believe he won’t do the same in Lubbock. When Gillispie was hired at Kentucky, I was convinced he would fail. After thinking about his latest gig and given what he has done in the state of Texas over the years, I’m just as convinced he will do very well with the Red Raiders.
Zach: I’m in the Kruger camp. That may have been the sneaky great hire of the off-season. Kruger has undoubtedly racked up the frequent flier miles, but he’s also won at all four spots. At Kansas State he had the Wildcats in the Elite 8 by his second year. He remade a struggling Florida program that eventually reached a Final Four. Illinois won the Big 10 in his second season and at UNLV he re-kindled a lot of the passion that dissipated when Tarkanian got the boot. Pundits loved to say that Tennessee did the best they possibly could by hiring Cuonzo Martin given the state of their program. People forget Oklahoma is looking at possible NCAA sanctions due to the Tiny Gallon mess, as well, and they inked a coach that has won 479 games in his career. Oklahoma’s roster is barren and their fan support is embarrassing, but, judging by track record, there’s no reason to believe Kruger won’t have the Sooners turned around in 2-3 years.
Gillispie was likely the best Texas Tech could have done in their coaching hunt. As you mentioned, he won in-state at UTEP and Texas A&M and obviously had enough coaching acumen to land one of the premier jobs in college basketball. The spotlight and intense scrutiny that came with the Kentucky job was too much for him to handle, though, and I anticipate he’ll feel much more comfortable in Lubbock. I’d like to see him stay out of trouble off the floor for a longer period of time before I’m hitching my wagon to Billy Gillispie, though. The wounds are still there from the way he embarrassed himself in Lexington.
One team we haven’t discussed in-depth thus far is Baylor. The flaws are painfully obvious to even the most casual viewer — spotty guard play, turnovers and lack of defensive identity. The players never co-existed to the point where the sum of the parts was equal to the individual talents. Baylor was one of those “airport” teams last season. Walking through the airport, they have the look of an NBA squad. Put them on the floor together and it’s a total mess. Baylor needs three things to come to fruition to return to the Elite 8: 1) Pierre Jackson, a talented JC transfer, needs to provide stability at the point or A.J. Walton has to improve significantly, 2) Perry Jones has to maintain an aggressive mentality (there’s no reason he shouldn’t average 19/10) and 3) Their 2-3/1-1-3 zone needs to have a Syracuse-type impact because they have the length. I mentioned before Missouri has the most talent in this conference. Let me amend that to put Baylor up top.
Brian: I’ve read some good things about Pierre Jackson and wouldn’t be surprised if he pushes Walton for the starting spot. A.J. Walton can be a really good player and an offseason of ball handling work, along with more playing experience and tutelage from the coaching staff to improve his decision making could really turn him around. Baylor is very close to being a top team but you’re right about the chemistry. It was painfully obvious last year, never more so than on the defensive side of the ball. I remember watching that game in Waco where the Morris twins and Kansas just shredded Baylor’s zone. Granted the Bears won’t be facing players of that caliber all the time but they have to tighten the screws on defense, especially if they want to advance in the postseason. Scott Drew’s team can only get so far on talent alone and the keys to success next year will be defense and chemistry. Here’s an interesting theory: I think their chemistry may improve with the departure of LaceDarius Dunn. While the team counted on him alone to get them back in games, Dunn took so many shots it could easily have disrupted any kind of offensive flow they may have tried to get going. We’ll have to see how it all plays out but I think this is something to keep an eye on.
Think about it. We said all of this without really considering Quincy Miller. Baylor absolutely has the talent to win the league but, as we said, other factors are in play that may prevent it from happening. I’m still going with Kansas for now.