Patrick Marshall of Bluejay Basketball is the RTC correspondent for the Missouri Valley and Big 12 Conferences.
Predicted Order of Finish:
- Texas (27-3, 14-2)
- Kansas (24-7, 14-2)
- Oklahoma (27-5, 13-3)
- Baylor (25-5, 12-4)
- Oklahoma St. (19-11, 8-8)
- Texas A&M (19-12, 7-9)
- Nebraska (18-11, 7-9)
- Missouri (18-13, 6-10)
- Kansas St. (18-13, 6-10)
- Iowa St. (16-16, 3-13)
- Texas Tech (15-16, 3-13)
- Colorado (14-16, 3-13)
What You Need to Know. Although Kansas won the National Championship last season in dramatic fashion, most of the team won’t be around to try to do the repeat shuffle like Florida did the previous two seasons. However, that doesn’t mean the Big 12 Conference won’t have an exciting season in the wings. The buzz around the Big 12 is that sophomore Blake Griffin from Oklahoma (who passed on the NBA, unlike is KU peers) decided to stay another year at Oklahoma to try to lead his team to a championship. Griffin has already been mentioned for several preseason All-American teams and awards. Texas returns a great nucleus of talent on a team that tied for the conference championship last year with Kansas. Baylor is the biggest surprise coming into the season. Head Coach Scott Drew has brought this disgraced program back from the ashes a few years ago when Patrick Dennehy was murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson and information was later covered up by then head coach Dave Bliss. Baylor made the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in twenty years. Iowa State and Texas A&M are led by former Missouri Valley Conference coaches, Greg McDermott and Mark Turgeon, respectively. Although Kansas State made a splash back into the national spotlight showcasing Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, they’ll now take a step back into the pack, but with the salaries of their coaches including their assistants, they should be held to high expectations. Nebraska will be playing small ball this year as they do not have a player over 6’8, but it isn’t like they haven’t tried. Missouri is still trying to find its identity and coach Mike Anderson hopes to finally play his type of up-tempo, high pressure defense. Although only in his third year at the helm, Anderson is on the hot seat. Colorado has a lot to build on with mostly freshman and sophomores. Texas Tech got a little head start when legendary coach Bobby Knight passed the keys to his son Pat Knight at the end of last season, while first year coach Travis Ford restarts the Oklahoma State program after the Sutton family was ousted.
Predicted Champion. Texas (NCAA #1). Although Texas hoped DJ Augustin wouldn’t leave Austin for the NBA, he did. The Horns return four of five starters, though, (AJ Abrams, Conner Atchley, Damion James and Justin Mason) and most of the team that made it last season to the Elite Eight. AJ Abrams can hit a shot quickly and from anywhere. He is the top returning scorer in the Big 12 (16.5 ppg). Without Augustin, Texas will be relying on Dogus Balbay to run the point. Unfortunately, Balbay is returning from an injury and played on a Turkish club team with players who received money. However, Abrams is also an option at point guard and feels confident that he can run the team. The frontcourt is solid with veterans James (12/10 last season) and Atchley. Height doesn’t always equal playing ability, but when you have four players on the roster that are over 6’10” (Atchley, Clint Chapman, Dexter Pittman and Matt Hill) they have the ability to be physical underneath. The thing that sets Texas apart from the other Big 12 teams is their NCAA Tournament and coaching experience compared to the other contenders. I expect Texas to take it a step further this year and make a Final Four appearance.
NCAA Tournament Teams.
Kansas (NCAA #4). Some might think that I am crazy for predicting Kansas to finish second in the Big 12 this season with only 2 players coming back with significant playing time (Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich). Kansas will have seven newcomers to the program and some will be expected to be big players right away including juco All-American Mario Little, freshman twins Markieff and Marcus Morris and freshman guard Tyshawn Taylor. Expect that there will be some growing pains. However, Kansas is a beneficiary in scheduling, not only during the non-conference season, but in the Big 12 schedule as well. The Jayhawks are participating in the CBE Classic that has them playing preliminary games at home and the semis/finals in Kansas City which is also basically at home. Then in Big 12 play, they play the North schedule which means that they’ll play at Baylor and at Oklahoma only once, play Texas in Lawrence, while those three South teams have to play each other twice. Playing at Allen Fieldhouse is not an easy task which makes their schedule amenable to success. The Jayhawks will lose some early non-conference games and probably games they should not, but will be solid come conference and post-season time. The main cogs of the team that won the National Championship last year played together as freshmen and struggled early, but turned out to be one of the big stories as the season went along. Similarly to that group, this season I see KU only getting past the first round of the NCAAs.
Oklahoma (NCAA #5). The media has picked Oklahoma to win the conference, Blake Griffin to be POY and Willie Warren to be the ROY. Warren was the leading scorer in the McDonalds All-American game and can seriously dunk. If you want to see some of the talent Warren has to offer, check out this dunk. Along with Griffin and talented freshman Warren, the rest of the team will be full of role players. With so much of the focus on Griffin and Warren, that means that several other players need to step up their play to give Oklahoma additional options along with those two gifted players. One of those players that might make an impact is 6’9” UCLA transfer Ryan Wright. Jeff Capel is a capable coach, but his 3rd year in the conference will keep them from winning the conference. However, expectations are high and I expect Oklahoma to reach the Sweet 16.
Baylor (NCAA #6). Baylor is a team that returns its top eight scorers from last season led by Curtis Jerrells (15.3 ppg). They were the Big 12’s highest scoring team and who could forget the epic non-televised 5 OT game with Texas A&M last season. Kevin Rogers, LaceDarius Dunn and Henry Dugat are scoring machines that provide a depth of experience. A senior-laden team, Scott Drew has built this team from scratch and is creating dividends by making he NCAA Tournament for the first time in two decades. But Baylor will not win the conference because their defense is suspect and their frontcourt will need to improve. However, they tasted the feeling of the NCAA Tournament and got knocked out right away, but it will be different this year and I expect that they will make the Tourney again and at least win one game.
Oklahoma St. (NCAA #7). The Cowboys still have enough in the cupboard to make it to the NCAA Tournament even though they will break in first-year coach Travis Ford. They are a little thin on the inside but return their leading scorer, James Anderson, and 80% of their scoring. Having an up-tempo style that Ford likes to run will help minimize the frontcourt deficiencies. They should do well enough to make it to the NCAAs, but will probably be bounced in the first round.
Texas A&M (NCAA #9). Mark Turgeon in his 2nd year will be able to make one more run with the players that Billy Gillispie left behind before heading to Kentucky. It remains to be seen if Turgeon will be able to recruit the right players to fit into playing in the Big 12. Coming from the Valley, it is a big transition to try recruiting the right players for the large conference schools (note: Bruce Weber (Illinois), Matt Painter (Purdue), Greg McDermott (Iowa St.)). Though I see A&M sneaking into the NCAAs, this team could very well find itself in the NIT next March.
Nebraska (NCAA #12). Nebraska will be playing small ball this year and more in the up-tempo style that Doc Sadler would like to play, but the lack of an inside presence and a weak non-conference schedule will put them squarely on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. This team could realistically have only one loss coming into conference play. It has everyone coming back except for Aleks Maric who was their productive center, but even the newcomers were around the team and know the system as four players redshirted last season. Having the confidence-building games will bring Nebraska into conference play on a high and they’ll benefit by playing in the North division, but they will struggle when they have a stretch of four games against South teams and Kansas. However, the Huskers will surprise some people this year, finish 7th in the conference and sneak into the NCAAs as one of the last at-large bids.
- Missouri (NIT). The pieces appear to be in place in Columbia for the Missouri Tigers to start making some strides to return to the spotlight again but the depth is not there to run a full court, high pressure defense for Mike Anderson’s system to be completely successful. They will have some success early in the season, but they will be tired by the time they get to conference play and will fall off from the picture. They will be the last team into the NIT.
- Kansas St. (NIT/CBI). Michael Beasley and Bill Walker are not there anymore so this team will have some significant challenges to replace those players. They have a somewhat soft non-conference schedule except for the Las Vegas Invitational which will build up their win total, but will fall short in the Big 12 race to be considered for the NCAAs. If they do not do well enough for the NIT, they will be in the CBI for the postseason.
- Iowa St. Greg McDermott is still getting his feet wet in his 3rd year as the roster has had a total turnover in the past two seasons (seven new players last year and another six this year). Like Turgeon, it is hard to tell if he’s getting the right recruits to compete in the Big 12.
- Texas Tech. Although Pat Knight received the keys to the team mid-season last year, this team will struggle as they try to find their identity and whether they decide to implement a whole new scheme or keep with what Bobby Knight established and the players that were recruited for his scheme.
- Colorado. Jeff Bzdelik is in year two of a total rebuild of this team, as eight players have left the team since Bzdelik arrived in Boulder in 2007. They will probably start several freshman who will be overwhelmed. Their offense is yet to be established as they try to run clock to keep the score in the 50s. There are too many things going against the Buffs from being a factor this year.
Important Games. The Big 12 has a great advantage in that they are key players in several major exempt tournaments this year that they can make a splash in:
- Texas—Maui Invitiational
- Oklahoma—Preseason NIT
- Baylor—Anaheim 76 Classic
- Kansas—CBE Classic
- Oklahoma St—Old Spice Classic
- Kansas St.—Las Vegas Invitational
- Colorado (Rainbow Classic)
- Missouri (Puerto Rico Tipoff)
- Texas Tech (Legends Classic)
- Texas A&M (South Padre)
Also some great non-conference matchups as a part of the PAC-10/Big 12 Challenge:
- Oklahoma vs. USC (12.04.08)
- Texas vs. UCLA (12.04.08)
- Kansas @ Arizona (12.23.08)
It is always a chore to get a large conference school to go on the road to play on a smaller team’s home court, but here are the road tests the Big 12 is taking on this year (not neutral site):
Nebraska @ TCU (11.19.08)
Kansas St. @ Cleveland St. (11.22.08)
Iowa St. @ Northern Iowa (12.03.08)
Texas Tech @ Lamar (12.13.08)
Oklahoma St. @ Texas A&M-CC (12.14.08)
Texas Tech @ UTEP (12.17.08)
Iowa St. @ Houston (12.18.08)
Oklahoma @ Rice (12.22.08)
Texas A&M @ Rice (12.31.08)
Colorado @ SMU (01.05.09)
Conference Key Games. These games will decide the conference champ:
- Texas @ Oklahoma (01.12.09)
- Baylor @ Oklahoma (01.24.09)
- Texas @ Baylor (01.27.09)
- Kansas @ Baylor (02.02.09)
- Oklahoma @ Baylor (02.11.09)
- Oklahoma @ Texas (02.21.09)
- Kansas @ Oklahoma (02.23.09)
- Baylor @ Texas (03.02.09)
- Texas @ Kansas (03.07.09)
- 4-The number of 20-win seasons in Baylor’s 102-year history.
- 5-Texas is one of just one of five schools to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in four of the last six years (Duke, UConn, Kansas, Pitt)
- 51-4—This is Kansas’ record in the last 55 games dating back to 2006-07 when Kansas lost to UCLA in the Elite Eight. Their only losses since then leading up to their NCAA Championship last year were to Texas, Kansas St. and Oklahoma St. last season.
65 Team Era. The teams in this conference are a combined 268-222 in the NCAA Tournament with 35 Final Four appearances and five National Championships. As the Big 12 conference, their first National Championship was with Kansas last season (the others were as the Big 8, which merged into the Big 12 in 1996-97). The conference’s record in this era is 161-112 (.590), which puts it roughly on par with the SEC as a major conference. Where the league has struggled (until last year, of course) was winning national titles. Only KU in 1998 and 2008 have won championships during this era.
Final Thoughts. The Big 12 will be a top heavy league this year and in some minds might be down compared to years past. It will have four strong teams that will easily make the NCAA tournament and then there is a log jam between 5-9 on who will step up to either make the NCAA or settle for the NIT for the post season. It will be interesting to see if Texas will finally outlive the hype that is given to them each year to make it to the Final Four and be in line to play for the National Championship. Oklahoma is poised to make a run, but if Griffin gets hurt, will they still be able to win games? It will be interesting to see how Kansas does after winning the championship the year before but losing so much to not be considered able to repeat. With 10 of the 12 teams in the conference participating in high profile early season tournaments, the Big 12’s season will be defined on how those teams do in those tournaments. If they are successful, then they will be the talk of this basketball season. If they fail miserably, expect them to get fewer teams into the Big Dance than they have the last few years.