Big 12 Key Questions: Will Kansas Return to the Top?

Posted by Brian Goodman on November 4th, 2019

You didn’t have to look at the standings last season to know that the Jayhawks weren’t their usual selves. You could throw a dart and hit a valid reason for Kansas missing out on a Big 12 15-peat: A disappointing backcourt outside of Devon Dotson; Udoka Azubuike missing 75 percent of the team’s games with a hand injury, and the frontcourt rotation behind him being terribly ill-equipped to pick up the slack; or the fact that eventual conference champion Texas Tech was flat-out better and Kansas State far more cohesive. With the page turning to 2019-20, though, the Jayhawks will look to avenge last season with a cast of bona fide challengers waiting for the league’s flagship program to stumble.

Bill Self No Longer Has the Pressure of The Streak to Worry About (USA Today Images)

Bill Self‘s team will be much deeper this season. Dedric Lawson is gone, but the Jayhawks return nearly everyone else of consequence. Though the head coach may not say so publicly, it’s tough to ignore the feeling that he isn’t all that heartbroken over losing Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson, even if Quentin Grimes left Lawrence with a substantial amount of potential that Kelvin Sampson may tap at Houston. In their place, Isaiah Moss and Jalen Wilson should bring the scoring punch Kansas needs to put together the kinds of runs they struggled to assemble a season ago. Defensively, the Jayhawks will be deep and versatile up front. Self could surround Azubuike with another defense-first big like David McCormack or Silvio De Sousa, but with the way basketball has trended over the last few years, a small-ball option emerging among Marcus Garrett or Ochai Agbaji could be what tips the scales, provided of course that Self can keep the noise surrounding the program’s current entanglement with the NCAA from becoming a mitigating factor.

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Introducing the RTC Preseason All-America Teams

Posted by Walker Carey on November 1st, 2019

With the season tipping off next Tuesday, there’s no better time to roll out our 2019-20 RTC Preseason All-America Teams. More than anything, these three groups of outstanding players are here to foster and encourage discussion over the next four months. Our crack panel of 10 RTC writers provided their ballots over the last week and this is where we ended up.

First Team All-Americans

  • Cassius Winston, Michigan State (unanimous) – The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year raised some eyebrows when he bypassed early entry into the 2019 NBA Draft to return to East Lansing for his senior season, but the NBA’s loss is Michigan State’s gain. Winston’s return gives a loaded Spartans roster a proven floor general as it tries to repeat as Big Ten champions and return to the Final Four. While Winston’s greatest strengths are probably his leadership and basketball IQ, he also possesses a knack for being an elite playmaker in huge moments. This was never more evident than in both of Michigan State’s regular season victories over intrastate rival Michigan last year. Winston averaged 25 points per game in those wins and got the best of Michigan point guard Zavier Simpson, who has a well-earned reputation as one of the county’s best defenders. The Spartans have sky high expectations this season, but with Winston back to lead the squad, it would not be surprising to see Michigan State once again be among the nation’s top teams. Factoid: Michigan State defeating Division III Albion by 35 in its exhibition opener will be a footnote in its 2019-20 season, but it will certainly be much more memorable for Winston, as his younger brothers Khy and Zach suit up for Albion. When Spartans’ head coach Tom Izzo heard about the possibility of setting up the game with Albion, he jumped at the chance, knowing it would give the Winston family a memory that will last a lifetime.
  • Myles Powell, Seton Hall – Seton Hall begins this season with as much hype surrounding the program as it has in decades. The biggest reason for all the hoopla is Powell returning to the Pirates for his final go-around. The senior guard is an elite scorer — 23.1 points per game as a junior — who has a great ability to punish opponents from both the perimeter and by taking the ball to the basket. Powell’s best performance as a junior came in a March home win over Marquette — on a night when Seton Hall needed a marquee win to confirm its status as a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. The playmaking guard finished the victory with 34 points and contributed 10 of those to the 18-0 run the Pirates used to overpower the Golden Eagles and leave the game with the important result. Factoid: At Big East Media Day, Powell was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year — becoming the first Seton Hall player to earn that honor since Terry Dehere prior to the 1992-93 season.
  • Markus Howard, Marquette – Marquette was dealt a blow early in the offseason when forwards Sam and Joey Hauser decided to leave the team. Losing two key contributors would be debilitating for most programs, but most programs do not return a player like Markus Howard. Howard returns to the Golden Eagles for his senior season after completing a junior campaign that saw him average 25 points per game and tally 40+ points in a game three separate times, highlighted by a 53-point performance in a January win at Creighton. If Marquette is to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2020, it will need Howard to once again shoulder the scoring load. Judging on past experience, he seems more than capable. Factoid: It was a mild surprise when Powell was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year over Howard, but the senior took it in stride, stating, “I think it is definitely unique to have a conference with two of the really prolific players in the country. For us to be in the same conference and able to compete two or three times every year is something unique to have as competitors.”
  • Jordan Nwora, Louisville – It is possible that no player in the country elevated his play as much last season as Nwora did for the Cardinals. The standout forward went from averaging just 5.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in only 12 minutes per game to putting up 17 points and 7.6 rebounds in 31.9 minutes per game. For the time being, it appears the tumultuous times at Louisville have come to an end and the Cardinals look primed to have a big season. Chris Mack has brought steadiness to the sideline and players like Nwora stayed committed to the program when it would have been understandable to seek greener pastures. Factoid: Nwora spent his summer playing for Nigeria in the FIBA World Cup. His father, Alex, serves as the team’s coach. This made history, as they were the first father-son player-coach to represent Nigeria at such a high level in any sport.
  • James Wiseman, Memphis – There may not be a more intriguing team in the country this season than Memphis. Penny Hardaway begins his second season at his alma mater with the number one recruiting class in the country enrolled. The crown jewel of that group is Wiseman. The Memphis native enters the Tigers program, fresh off a senior season at Memphis East High School that saw him average 25.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game en route to being named the 2018-19 Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year. Memphis is projected to earn its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2014 and if it is able to make good on that projection, it will likely be due to the star power provided by Wiseman and the rest of the much ballyhooed freshman class. Factoid: Wiseman has yet to take the floor for Memphis. He was sidelined for both exhibition games with a right ankle injury. Hardaway hopes his star freshman will be able to play when the Tigers open their regular season on November 5 against South Carolina State.

Second Team All-Americans

  • Devon Dotson, Kansas – Last season marked the first season since 2004 where a team other than Kansas won the Big 12 regular season title, as the Jayhawks were plagued by injuries, inexperience and inconsistent play. Despite the disappointing season, Kansas discovered Dotson has the tools to be potentially become the next great Jayhawks point guard. That was never more evident than when Dotson tallied 25 points to go with 10 rebounds and five assists as Kansas overcame a blown second half lead to notch a road win over TCU. Bill Self’s group projects to get back to the top of the Big 12 this season and having who figures to be the best point guard in the league should greatly assist in making that a reality. Factoid: The sophomore point guard gave Kansas fans a bit of a scare in the preseason when he showed up at Big 12 Media Day in a walking boot and missed the first exhibition game nursing an ankle injury. Self put that all to rest though when responding, “He’s fine. He’ll be ready to go,” after being asked about Dotson’s status.
  • Cole Anthony, North Carolina – Anthony arrives at North Carolina following a decorated prep career that saw him average a triple double as a senior at Oak Hill Academy and be named the MVP of the 2019 McDonald’s All-American Game. The super athletic point guard who can drive, pass, shoot, dunk and defend will use what will likely be his only season in Chapel Hill to try to go down as a legendary Tar Heels’ point guard. The freshman got off to a solid start in North Carolina’s annual “secret scrimmage” where he poured in 28 points as the Tar Heels split four separate periods of play against Villanova. Factoid: The hype surrounding Anthony appears to be warranted, as North Carolina guard Garrison Brooks noted at the team’s media day, “He [Anthony] is already one of the best players in the country and he hasn’t played a game. I think that’s a lot to say.”
  • Tre Jones, Duke – Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish all left Duke for the NBA after a freshman season that culminated in an Elite Eight appearance. After much consideration, Jones decided not to join that group and returned to Durham for a second tour as point guard of the Blue Devils. Known as a defensive stalwart — with an ACC All-Defensive honor already in hand — Jones has also shown capable as an offensive weapon, most notably by tallying a career-high 22 points in Duke’s win over Virginia Tech in the Sweet Sixteen. Factoid: Jones’ introduction at Duke’s Midnight Madness last month took on a special meaning when he brought his mother Debbie Jones onto the court with him to honor her fight to ultimately becoming cancer-free earlier in October.
  • Kerry Blackshear Jr., Florida – The most sought-after graduate transfer of this offseason will begin his lone season at Florida after a very successful run at Virginia Tech. The skilled big man did a little bit of everything for the Hokies. He is a load in the paint; he can step out and hit a jump shot; and he has enough of a handle to effectively drive to the basket. The Gators figure to be strong on the perimeter with sophomore Andrew Nembhard being joined by star recruits Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, but Blackshear will give Mike White’s squad a legitimate post presence who will provide the physicality necessary for SEC play. Factoid: White’s recruiting strategy when convincing Blackshear Jr. to go to Gainesville revolved around how the forward would instantly become a key leader for the Gators. This resonated with Blackshear, as he noted, “Just understanding I had a big role was really fun for me. It made me understand I had to be one of the leaders this year.”
  • Udoka Azubuike, Kansas – The Kansas big man returns to Lawrence for a senior season where he will look to avoid the injury bug that has plagued much of his collegiate career. Azubuike was limited to just 11 games as a freshman in the 2016-17 season and only nine games as a junior last season. When healthy, Azubuike has been a load in the paint for opponents and he has showcased an elite ability to finish around the rim. In the 2017-18 season – Azubuike’s only healthy season – the big man led the county with a 77 percent field goal percentage. Factoid: Even with all the time Azubuike has missed, the Big 12 coaches still tabbed the big man as the league’s preseason player of the year. If that holds and Azubuike puts up the numbers to earn the postseason player of the year honor, he will be the first Kansas big man to win the award since Thomas Robinson took it home following the 2011-12 season.

Third Team All-Americans

  • Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State – Haliburton did not light the world on fire during his freshman season in Ames — he only averaged 6.8 points, 3.6 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game — but with Talen Horton-Tucker and Mariel Shayok now departed, the sophomore guard will likely expand his production and play a bigger role for the Cyclones. Even in his limited role last season, Haliburton showcased a two-way ability that made him a player to watch for NBA scouts. Factoid: Haliburton saw his stock rise this summer when competing for the United States. In victories over New Zealand and Lithuania, the guard averaged 14.5 points, eight assists, and three steals.
  • Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati – It is a new era of Bearcats basketball with Mick Cronin departed for UCLA and John Brannen coming up from Northern Kentucky to take over the Cincinnati program. Amid all the chaos that can come with a coaching change, though, is Cumberland returning to the fold following a junior season where he was named AAC Player of the Year. The honor was greatly deserved as Cumberland averaged 18.8 points per game and was a big part of the Bearcats earning a ninth straight NCAA Tournament bid. Factoid: Memphis has been the most talked about AAC team of the preseason, but Tigers coach Penny Hardaway maintains Cincinnati is still the team to beat in the conference with his reasoning being, “It doesn’t hurt to have Jarron Cumberland. When does he graduate anyway?”
  • Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – Entering last season, it seemed like it was Tillie’s turn to become the next great Gonzaga big man. He averaged 12.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore and shot a very strong 47.9 percent from the perimeter. Unfortunately for Gonzaga and Tillie, he was limited to just 15 games during his junior campaign with a stress fracture and a tear in his ankle. Mark Few has built a spectacular program in Spokane, so the Bulldogs were able to overcome Tillie’s shaky health, but if Tillie is able to be fully healthy this season, Gonzaga’s ceiling will be even higher. Factoid: The start of Tillie’s senior season might be delayed, as he underwent a minor knee procedure in early October and is currently listed as questionable for the season opener.
  • Jalen Smith, Maryland – The Terrapins received good news early in the offseason when Smith decided to bypass the NBA Draft and return to College Park for his sophomore season. The decision to go back to school came as a bit of a surprise, as Smith was very good in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds in the Terrapins’ two games. Expectations are high for Maryland this season and if Smith can replicate what he did last March, the Terrapins could very well challenge Michigan State in the Big Ten race. Factoid: Smith goes by the nickname “Stix,” which is a reference to his slim 6’10”, 225 pound figure.
  • Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State – The Buckeyes lost their final three games of the 2018-19 regular season. That was notable because those defeats were suffered without Wesson, who was serving a brief suspension for violation of an athletic department policy. Those three defeats resulted in Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament seed taking a hit. Luckily for Chris Holtmann’s team though, Wesson was back for the NCAA Tournament, and riding his 21 points and 12 rebounds, the 11th-seeded Buckeyes were able to knock off sixth-seeded Iowa State in the first round. Factoid: Wesson approached this offseason with a much more serious approach and that resulted in the junior big man dropping 34 pounds in an effort to increase his athleticism and endurance.

Honorable Mentions: Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois), Anthony Edwards (Georgia), Anthony Cowan (Maryland), Andrew Nembhard (Florida), Tyrese Maxey (Kentucky), Ashton Hagans (Kentucky), Xavier Tillman (Michigan State), Lamar Stevens (Penn State), Isaiah Stewart (Washington), Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky), Anthony Lamb (Vermont), Reggie Perry (Mississippi State), Yoeli Childs (BYU), Kellan Grady (Davidson).

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