The preseason USA Today/ESPN Coaches’ poll released today slotted Kansas and Baylor at #7 and #18, respectively, unsurprising selections for the presumable top two contenders this season in the Big 12 Conference. We’ve got no argument there. The discussion begins with the final team in the Top 25: Texas. The Longhorns are the third and final Big 12 squad in the rankings, sneaking into the polls in a tie with Florida State’s 61 votes. For as much criticism as Rick Barnes takes for not elevating his program to another level — criticism we’ve actually worked hard to debunk at RTC’s Big 12 microsite time and time again — there’s no doubting his track record, and there’s no doubting an eligible Myck Kabongo could justify a spot in the Top 25. There’s a danger with ranking this Texas team, however. Kabongo’s a stud, sure, but this team is remaking itself after the loss of J’Covan Brown. It will rely almost exclusively on freshmen and sophomores, and it will bank on a big performance from freshman Cameron Ridely, the four-star center who will change the way the Longhorns play in the frontcourt. You’ve also got to remember that this was not a terrific Texas team a year ago, even though you need to credit Barnes for finding a way to qualify for the NCAA Tournament amidst a lot of youth and inconsistent play from Kabongo.
This is a good Texas squad. It defends, it has more size than a year ago and it has one of the nation’s fastest and most talented point guards in Kabongo. But we’d actually be more inclined to use that final top 25 spot on Kansas State, which received just 13 votes in today’s poll. That’s somewhat surprising, considering this team actually finished a game above Texas in 2011-12, advanced further in the NCAA Tournament and brings back its stud leading scorer in Rodney McGruder. Bruce Weber’s rocky finish at Illinois is cause for concern, but he’s a proven coach to an extent and seems like a solid replacement for Frank Martin in Manhattan. This team has a significant edge in experience over Texas and it is probably one of the league’s top defensive squads. There’s no Kabongo on this roster, but Will Spradling, Angel Rodriguez and a handful of other guards in this deep backcourt are more than capable. Plus, Jordan Henriquez might be the most underrated defensive center in the nation. “On paper” — and, remember, that term means essentially nothing in sports — Kansas State looks like a better bet in the top 25.
We’re arguing about polls here, though. They are meaningless — interesting, but meaningless. So while Kansas State may seem like a better choice right now, by the time December rolls around, that might not be the case. Another team could emerge, too: No other team besides Kansas, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State or Oklahoma State received votes in this poll. There’s no Iowa State or West Virginia, both of which qualified for the NCAAs a year ago, but that could easily change depending on what happens this winter. The rankings are fluid, and we’ll surely have another debate when the Associated Press releases its preseason poll in the next couple of weeks. Can’t wait!