Monday, September 30, 2013

32 In 32: Big 12

Already hailed as best prospect since LeBron James, Andrew Wiggins hopes to win national championship at Kansas before moving on to NBA. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

After spending the bulk of September chronicling the 26 mid-major conferences in Division I college basketball, we close out the ninth month of the year with the first BCS league to receive the "32 In 32" treatment, the ten-team Big 12 Conference.

Despite its smaller size, the Big 12 remains a league in which as many as six teams will be in consideration for NCAA Tournament berths this season, and will also be home to the likely top pick in next June's NBA Draft in Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins, considered to be the best high school prospect since LeBron James went from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron to the Cleveland Cavaliers before taking his talents to South Beach and winning back-to-back championships with the Miami Heat. Will Wiggins add a conference championship to the list of accolades he is certain to rack up during his brief stay in Lawrence? Our predictions are as follows:

1) Kansas - Friend of the site and college basketball insider Jon Rothstein says it best when discussing the Jayhawks year in and year out:

With nine consecutive Big 12 championships to go with Kansas' 2008 national title, Self is one of the closer bets you can make to a sure thing in college hoops, and he reloads following the loss of all five starters with a recruiting class that was considered among the best in the nation even before the arrival of Andrew Wiggins. After averaging over three assists per game off the bench behind Elijah Johnson, Naadir Tharpe finally has the starting point guard position to himself as he enters his junior year, and will have the services of McDonald's All-American Wayne Selden as a backcourt running mate as the freshman replaces seventh overall NBA Draft pick Ben McLemore. Wiggins is already firmly entrenched at the small forward position, and will have veteran big man Tarik Black ready to chip in from the power forward spot as a graduate transfer from Memphis, with freshman Brannen Greene getting solid minutes as well behind sophomore Perry Ellis, who will have a breakout second season. The center spot will most likely go to seven-foot freshman Joel Embiid, but expect 6-10 redshirt freshman Landen Lucas to see considerable playing time up front, along with sophomore Jamari Traylor. Freshman guards Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp will add significant depth to the Kansas backcourt if they do not redshirt.

2) Oklahoma State - Travis Ford was the recipient of a major break when point guard Marcus Smart announced his intention to return to Stillwater for his sophomore season rather than enter the NBA Draft, where he would have been a lottery pick this past June. Senior shooting guard Markel Brown returns to be Smart's sidekick in the Cowboy backcourt this season, with burgeoning big man LeBryan Nash poised to have a junior season to remember. Michael Cobbins and Brooklyn product Kamari Murphy are a pair of 6-8 forwards that will give Oklahoma State one of the best frontcourts in the nation, while Smart's high school teammate Phil Forte gives the Cowboys a marksman who is a game-changing X-factor whenever he is on the floor. For those looking for an underrated complete team from top to bottom, Oklahoma State is your answer.

3) Baylor - The reigning NIT champions return three starters as they seek a return appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and 7-1 sophomore center Isaiah Austin should be ready to go for the Bears following offseason shoulder surgery. Lost in the shuffle for Scott Drew is the underrated productivity of senior power forward Cory Jefferson, who was one of the key pieces of the Bears' NIT championship run, and who should also average a double-double as he enters his senior season. With both Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton having graduated, highly touted freshmen Allerik Freeman and Ish Wainright will need to be integral parts of a backcourt anchored by Canadian sharpshooter Brady Heslip and Kenny Chery, a junior college transfer that will replace Jackson at point guard. Guard Gary Franklin and muscular big man Rico Gathers would be starters on any other team in the Big 12, but will instead provide mounds of depth to a bona fide contender in Waco.

4) Iowa State - For all the constant success that Bill Self has enjoyed during his decade in Kansas, Fred Hoiberg is silently carving out his own legacy in Ames, and "The Mayor" has once again positioned the Cyclones to be among the nation's elite. Not often does a program get a better player to replace Michigan State castoff Korie Lucious at point guard, but Hoiberg struck gold by landing DeAndre Kane as a graduate transfer following his junior season at Marshall. Kane's arrival should instantly enhance the stat lines of walking double-double Melvin Ejim, perhaps the most underrated big man in the nation after averaging over eleven points and nine rebounds per game and getting little attention for it, as well as burgeoning sophomore forward Georges Niang, who will have a breakout second season. Outside shooting will be a concern for the Cyclones, however, as they lack a marksman the caliber of Tyrus "The Virus" McGee, but their bench remains solid with the return of junior big man Percy Gibson.

5) Kansas State - Bruce Weber enjoyed a 27-win season in his first year at the helm of the Wildcats, but must now replace two members of his starting backcourt after Rodney McGruder graduated and Angel Rodriguez transferred to Miami. Incoming freshman Jevon Thomas will see instant minutes at the point guard position, which will allow Will Spradling to continue making his much bigger impact off the ball, where he connected from three-point range at a 36 percent rate. Swingman Shane Southwell should have another stat-filling season as he enters his senior year, and could be a candidate for all-Big 12 defensive team honors. Junior forward Thomas Gipson will have a breakout campaign up front, potentially averaging a double-double, with fellow junior Nino Williams also poised to increase his numbers.

6) Oklahoma - All three of the Sooners' leading scorers need to be replaced, but Lon Kruger has a weapon waiting to be unleashed in sophomore guard Buddy Hield, who averaged nearly eight points per game in his rookie season without breaking a sweat on most occasions. Freshman point guard Jordan Woodard is an upgrade over Sam Grooms, and will learn from junior Je'lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins, a sophomore who came to Norman from Bob Cimmino's prestigious Mount Vernon High School program. Oklahoma is somewhat undersized, but Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler will help overcome that in the first of his three remaining years of eligibility, with senior swingman Cameron Clark also chipping in up front.

7) Texas - The season has yet to tip off, and the rumors surrounding the job security of Rick Barnes are already swirling, both in and out of Austin. Before the Longhorns even contemplate a coaching change, however, Barnes will achieve significant progress in his rebuilding of the Longhorn roster, starting with sophomore point guard Javan Felix. Now the replacement for Myck Kabongo, sophomore Demarcus Holland will need to grow up quickly, as he and Felix will mentor a quartet of freshmen in the backcourt headlined by Martez Walker, who arrives from Pershing High School in Detroit. San Antonians Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert are an underrated pair of power forwards, and their rebounding prowess will make it easier for 6-9 sophomore Cameron Ridley to be a bruising interior presence.

8) West Virginia - In a 13-19 season that he would like to forget, Bob Huggins did not have a single double-figure scorer at his alma mater last year. After averaging 9.8 points per game to lead the team, sophomore guard Eron Harris will have increased responsibility in the backcourt now that Jabarie Hinds has transferred to UMass, and point guard Juwan Staten will be expected to be a greater producer as well in his second season in Morgantown. Terry Henderson and Gary Browne add to the guard depth for the Mountaineers, whose frontcourt will need to see results from 6-10 junior Kevin Noreen as he attempts to replace Deniz Kilicli. Remember this name, however: Jonathan Holton. Once a promising forward at Rhode Island, Holton was a walking double-double for Jim Baron before an off-court incident derailed his bright future temporarily. Now back from junior college, Holton should have an impact for Huggins similar to that of Devin Ebanks, who was an integral part of West Virginia's Final Four run in 2010.

9) Texas Tech - The Billy Gillispie era is officially over in Lubbock after interim coach Chris Walker was not retained, instead replaced by Tubby Smith after he was surprisingly fired at Minnesota. Smith retains forwards Jaye Crockett and Jordan Tolbert as he prepares to take the reins of the Red Raiders, but it gets harder for the former national championship-winning head man once you go further down his roster. Guards Dusty Hannahs and Jamal Williams will need to become reliable scoring options for Texas Tech, while 6-11 Canadian Dejan Kravic is a bright spot as one of the more efficient big men in the Big 12.

10) TCU - Junior guard Kyan Anderson will be one of the more surprising players in the Big 12 this season, as he should approach numbers that hardly anyone would expect him to reach given what the Horned Frogs have around him on paper. However, Trent Johnson has managed to put together a solid young core for a supporting cast, including guards Charles Hill and Jarvis Ray, who will mentor newcomer Michael Williams. TCU's strength lies within its interior, though, as 6-10 freshman center Karviar Shepherd should make an immediate impact alongside former Marquette commit and fellow 6-10 freshman Aaron Durley. Burgeoning big man Devonta Abron could be an X-factor for TCU, while junior forward Amric Fields returns off a medical redshirt following a knee injury that limited him to three games a year ago.

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