The RTC Interview Series: Big 12 Preview with Fran Fraschilla and Jason King, Part IIPosted by Walker Carey on October 23rd, 2013
Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the offseason. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the college basketball season nearly upon us, we thought it would be a good idea to gather some expert opinions on the nation’s major college basketball conferences. As part of our national preview of the Big 12, RTC Correspondent Walker Carey recently had the pleasure of speaking to two Big 12 experts in ESPN Big 12 analyst, Fran Fraschilla, and ESPN.com college basketball writer, Jason King. (Ed. note – we spoke to each individual separately, but for the sake of expediency, combining their answers into a round table format made the most sense.)
*Make sure to start with Part I of the Big 12 Preview, published on Tuesday.
RTC: Oklahoma lost its three leading scorers from last season’s NCAA Tournament team. Where will the Sooners go to for their scoring in Lon Kruger’s third season in Norman?
Fraschilla: Oklahoma is one of the youngest teams in the conference. It is likely to start a freshman and three sophomores. I think if there is one guy who will be able to pick up the scoring slack, it is going to be sophomore Buddy Hield. He showed flashes of brilliance last year. He has a scorer’s mentality and can be very versatile. People are forgetting that Ryan Spangler, a transfer from Gonzaga, is now eligible and the last time he was on the court he produced a very solid performance in Gonzaga’s 2012 NCAA Tournament win over West Virginia. He will be underrated for about a third of the season before people realize he will be one of the best big men in the Big 12. This is a young Sooner team that still might be a year away, but I still expect it to compete for a spot in the postseason.
King: I think it is going to be a transition year for Oklahoma. I do not think people appreciated just how good players like Romero Osby, Steven Pledger, and Andrew Fitzgerald were for this team. Those were really good players – especially Osby — and I was glad to see that he got drafted because he was one of the best players in the league. The problem Oklahoma is facing now is that they are not bringing in guys who can replace those departures right off the bat. There are some young guys, but that production just will not be the same. A lot of pressure is going to be placed on the backcourt of Buddy Hield and Je’lon Hornbeak to produce. I do not know if Oklahoma is going to have enough to return to the NCAA Tournament. It might be one of those seasons where you go through some bumps and get guys some experience, so the program will be back where you want it to be next season. The one thing Oklahoma definitely has going for it is that is as well-coached as anyone in the league. Lon Kruger has proven time and time again that he can get it done as well as any coach in this league. Due to that, you can expect Oklahoma to win some games that they are not expected to win this season. I just do not expect the Sooners to win those game consistently enough. This could be a tough season in Norman.
RTC: West Virginia had a nightmare debut season in the league. The Mountaineers experienced a bit of a roster overhaul in the offseason, as Deniz Kilicli exhausted his eligibility and Jabarie Hinds and Aaric Murray transferred. Do you believe some of those losses are addition by subtraction and what are reasonable expectations for Bob Huggins’ team in its second year in the league?
Fraschilla: I do not think it was an addition by subtraction situation for West Virginia because those guys still played major roles for the team at certain times. I believe there is a solid nucleus there that can definitely play better than it did last year. Sophomores Terry Henderson and Eron Harris are guys who showed at certain points last year that they can put the ball in the basket. The key for the team this season is going to be Juwan Staten, the junior transfer from Dayton. Staten did not hit a three last season in his first season on the floor for the Mountaineers. If Henderson, Harris, and Staten can improve their play, I think West Virginia can compete for a postseason berth. I do expect the team chemistry to be much better this year and guys to be more in tune with what Bob Huggins wants.
King: You have to be a certain kind of player to play for Bob Huggins. You have to be tough and willing to deal with criticism. I never thought I would see Bob Huggins have a season like he did last season – especially because I thought there were some nice players on that team. I think we saw with West Virginia last season that sometimes because a player is talented that does not mean that he is the best fit for your team or for your system. Maybe the chemistry will be a little bit better with the different group. I think talent-wise the team is going to struggle. Huggins was able to bring in one of the more hyped recruiting classes in the league, though. I do not see West Virginia being a factor in the league. It probably will not compete for an NCAA Tournament berth, but if it can shoot for an NIT berth, that will probably help get the program back on solid footing and get the program headed back in the right direction. Bob Huggins is just too good of a coach to let his team be in the cellar of the league for an extended amount of time.
RTC: Hot seat talk in the Big 12 almost exclusively centers on Texas coach Rick Barnes. With a new athletic director coming in and a depleted roster, do you think there is any scenario where Barnes keeps his job past this season?
Fraschilla: Yes, absolutely. It is amazing how people have a short memory. Few programs in the country have been able to put their team in the NCAA Tournament as much as Texas has been able to over Rick Barnes’ tenure. Texas has had a run of bad luck with injuries and transfers. While this is certainly a rebuilding year for Texas, I think it is going to have a core of good young players that will allow it to compete with the middle of the conference. Like Oklahoma, I believe Texas is a year away from reaching its full potential. Recruiting is certainly going to play a part in how successful Rick Barnes can be going forward. Even with the loss of Ioannis Papapetrou, who signed a professional contract in Greece, I still think this Texas squad is going to be competitive and the Erwin Center in Austin is still going to be a tough place for opposing teams to play in.
King: I think it is going to be very difficult, personally. As much as Texas struggled last season, I do not think it is going to be any better this season. I actually believe it is going to be worse. Rick Barnes lost a lot of guys from last season with Myck Kabongo declaring for the NBA, Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis transferring, and Ioannis Papapetrou signing with a professional team in Greece. Papapetrou was going to be the best returning player and he is just gone now. I just do not see it going well for Rick Barnes, to be frank. They have a pretty tough non-conference schedule and just do not have a lot on that team. It is a shame that has come to this for Barnes because he went to 14 straight NCAA Tournaments – and that is something that people usually just do not do. I think sometimes change is good and it might be time for Texas to go in a different direction. It does not mean that Rick Barnes is a poor coach because he is not. The team this year just does not have enough talent to compete for an NCAA Tournament berth. I actually think it might not have enough talent to have a winning record, and if that happens for the second straight year, I think it is going to be very tough for Barnes to keep his job. There are just too many good prospects in Texas and way too many resources in Austin for that program to be in that kind of condition.
RTC: New Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith has had a lot of success in his coaching career, but it would be accurate to say he has a lot of work cut out for him in his new position. Do you envision Smith experiencing any kind of success in Lubbock?
Fraschilla: Texas Tech is a very underrated team this year. People tend to forget that Texas Tech returns essentially four starters – led by junior big man Jordan Tolbert. I would expect the Red Raiders to be a year better than they were last year. They certainly played hard, but there were a number of nights where they came up short due to the youth and inexperience. Tubby Smith will instill a defensive-minded attitude and a toughness that will work well this season and carry on in Lubbock for future seasons.
King: I do not think Texas Tech could have done any better than it did by hiring Tubby Smith. This was not a situation where Texas Tech could have taken a chance on someone like an unproven assistant. The program down there is in such disarray that it needed someone down there to clean the thing up. I do not know if Tubby Smith will ever have Texas Tech in the top three of the league, but I could see him having it up there in the top six and on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament every now and then. They have won at Texas Tech before. James Dickey went 30-2 there in 1995-96. Bob Knight had Texas Tech in the Sweet Sixteen in 2005. There are a ton of good prospects in Texas and I expect Tubby Smith to get a share of them. The Big 12 is a league this year where a lot of teams lost a lot of guys. I talked about Iowa State, Kansas State, and Oklahoma losing key guys. On the other hand, Texas Tech returns four starters who were playing their best basketball at the end of last season. The team does not have a proven point guard, but there are some nice pieces there. If Tubby Smith can get them to play hard and buy into what he is preaching, I could see Texas Tech possibly being an NIT team this season. It is definitely going to be able to win some games in the league due to it being weak this season.
RTC: Most of the talk about the league revolves around Kansas and Oklahoma State, but if you had to name one sleeper team within the league, who would that team be?
Fraschilla: I think it would be Iowa State for the simple reason that Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang are two of the more underrated players in the country. Both have gotten off to great starts in their careers. Melvin Ejim has not only played well for Iowa State over the course of his career, he also had a great summer playing for the Canadian national team as he had led it in scoring and rebounding at the World University Games. Georges Niang had a very impressive freshman season – not only for the Big 12, but also on a national scale.
King: I would say Iowa State just because no one is talking about the Cyclones. There have also been several times over the last few years where I thought it would take a step back and it ended up in the NCAA Tournament. I thought it was going to take a step back last year and obviously that was not the case. After underestimating Iowa State in the past, I have learned not to underestimate it anymore. It seems like there is just a really good thing going on there. I think home court advantages are so big in the Big 12 and Iowa State has one of the best ones. Fred Hoiberg is a very good coach and he will have his team ready to play every night. Iowa State is also a team that is capable of shooting the three and that is an important skill to have in this league.
RTC: The Big 12 has many high quality players and coaches. Who do you predict will take home conference player of the year and conference coach of the year when all is said and done in March?
Fraschilla: I think when all is said and done, I am still going to put my money on Marcus Smart repeating as player of the year. The Big 12 has not had a player repeat in winning the award since the late 1990s when Raef LaFrentz did that for Kansas. As far as coach of the year goes, this is a league that has had a number of coaches – Bill Self, Bob Huggins, Rick Barnes, Tubby Smith, and Lon Kruger – lead teams to the Final Four. I think that it is not fair to pick a preseason favorite for coach of the year because there are so many outstanding coaches in this conference.
King: I think player of the year is going to be Andrew Wiggins or Marcus Smart. Andrew Wiggins could be player of the year without even leading Kansas in scoring. I think Wiggins will be the best player in the league. I could see Marcus Smart winning the award just because he brings so much to a team that does not show up in the statistics. He just changed the whole vibe about the Oklahoma State program. He is such a leader and bring such a presence with such energy that he is infectious to his teammates. Bill Self will deserve coach of the year if he can win a league title with six of his top eight players being freshman. I think Kansas will win the conference title, so my pick is going to be Bill Self.