College Hoops First Impressions: Big 12

The loss of Colorado and Nebraska left Big 12 fans and supporters largely unphased heading into the 2011-12 season.  Sure, those teams had some bright moments last season, and Colorado was arguably the biggest NCAA Tournament snub.  But the losses of two teams without a storied college hoops history in a league where pigskin reigns supreme isn’t enough to work anyone into a panic.

However, the conference lost its share of star power with five players entering the NBA draft along with high-scoring guards LaceDarius Dunn and Jacob Pullen (beard sold separately).  Iowa State’s Diante Garrett was another underrated player who has earned high praise from NBA scouts.

The departure of 10 of the league’s top 12 scorers (including the top six) and six of its top eight rebounders should lead to a wide open race for the conference championship with four squads holding a relatively equal shot at the crown.  And oh by the way, there are four new coaches in the mix as well.

All is not lost though.  Perry Jones stunned many experts by returning to Baylor, and a number of impact transfers (mostly at Iowa State) become eligible this year.  Throw in three Top 25 recruiting classes, including three of the Top 10 players by some rankings, and things should remain entertaining in the Big 12.

Worst case, you get to hear Bob Knight breaking down Big Monday matchups once a week.  Shot fake!

perry-jonesBaylor

I was shocked to see Perry Jones head back to Waco, but the prospect of watching him team up with highly touted recruits Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello has me salivating.

Jones posted nearly 14 points and seven boards as a true freshman and will likely be a top pick whenever he heads to the NBA.  Miller is a consensus 5-star recruit at forward and should start right away.  With reigning Big 12 Sixth Man Award winner Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones also back along the front line, no one in the conference can match the Bears’ depth and athleticism up front.

The question marks here are primarily in the backcourt after losing leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn.  Bello helps to ease some of that sting, and Boston College transfer Brady Heslip will also be in the mix.

At the point, A.J. Walton returns after dishing out 4.7 assists per game last season.  That looks great on the surface, but Walton also struggled with his shooting and posted more turnovers than you’d like to see from a lead guard.  Enter juco All-American point guard Pierre Jackson who will likely unseat Walton from his starting role.  Jackson dished out roughly the same number of assists at Southern Idaho while shooting 25 percent higher than Walton from the free throw line.  Cal transfer Gary Franklin will also add depth once he’s eligible in December.

Baylor has as much talent as anyone in the league, and they’re my early pick to win the league.

Iowa State

Coach Fred Hoiberg is quickly turning Ames into Transfer U, or at the very least some kind of halfway house for Big Ten castoffs.  The Cyclones lost three of their top four scorers, but transfers Chris Allen (Michigan State), Chris Babb (Penn State), Anthony Booker (Southern Illinois), and Royce White (Minnesota) gained valuable experience practicing with one another while sitting out last season.  That should help Hoiberg restock the cupboard when teamed with Scott Christopherson and Melvin Ejim.

Christopherson averaged 13.7 points last season, thanks in large part to knocking down better than 44 percent of his triples.  The 6-foot-6 Ejim was a monster on the offensive glass while also scoring in double figures as a freshman.  No other returning players scored over four points per game, so the glut of transfers will see major minutes.  Allen and Babb can both knock down the outside shot and were key members of the rotation for their former teams.  Booker should help down low, and the enigmatic White never even suited up for the Gophers due to some off-court transgressions.  For a time, he even threatened to give up the game entirely, but he was a highly sought after recruit when he came out in 2009.

The team also recently signed power forward Percy Gibson after he de-committed from Dayton in the wake of the Flyers’ coaching change.  Due to limited inside depth, Gibson should see playing time and can help out mostly on the glass.  With Diante Garrett lost due to graduation, point guard play will be critical.  Allen can play that role to a certain extent, but junior college transfer Tyrus McGee will also be in the mix.

Kansas

Bill Self was caught off guard by both Morris twins and Josh Selby staying in the NBA draft, and consequently, the Jayhawks still have three open scholarships remaining.  They are hoping one of those goes to DeAndre Daniels, who is working diligently to set the record for most rumored and/or postponed announcements on his intentions for next season.  In the meantime, Kansas is preparing for the season minus six of its top eight scorers (including the top three) and six of its top seven rebounders.

The loss of the Morrii dealt an obvious blow to the front court, but even though Kansas fans won’t soon forget the tournament shooting woes of Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed, the stability they brought to the backcourt was vastly underrated.  Tyshawn Taylor, who led the team in assists last season, will take on a larger role this year, as will Thomas Robinson, who battled through personal tragedies last season to be a tremendous asset off the bench.  Despite playing just 14.6 minutes per game, T-Rob scored 7.6 points and grabbed 6.4 boards and should excel in an expanded role.  Outside of that, Elijah Johnson will see more minutes in the backcourt, and Jeff Withey will have to produce down low.

While there are some nice recruits entering the fray, this doesn’t have the same fanfare as some of the recent KU classes.  Small forward Ben McLemore is the highest rated of the bunch, and by all accounts, he has the tools to be an explosive wing player as he adds a bit more weight to his frame.  Point guard Naadir Tharpe has a shot at earning a starting job as well, while Jamari Traylor and Braeden Anderson will see time up front out of necessity if nothing else.

Adding Daniels to the mix would bolster the team’s overall talent level, and despite the fact that many things appear stacked against them, I don’t think you can ever write off Kansas entirely.

Kansas State

Following the departures and transfers of six players, most notably Jacob Pullen, Curtis Kelly, and Wally Judge, Frank Martin will be breaking in (and maybe breaking down) plenty of new players, albeit with far lower expectations than a year ago.  The good news is that they return six players who played at least 12 minutes per game last year.

Foremost among those is Rodney McGruder who was second on the team in scoring and led them in rebounding despite being just 6-foot-5.  Forward Jamar Samuels saw his shooting and consequently his scoring fall after a strong sophomore campaign, so he’ll be looking to bounce back during his final season in Manhattan.  Seven-foot soph Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, who averaged 4.3 rebounds in fewer than 14 minutes, will join Samuels up front, and Will Spradling and Martavious Irving will see expanded minutes in the backcourt.  Martin also adds six new players to the roster.  Power forward Thomas Gipson is a “space-eater” inside and should post his share of double-doubles by the time is career is over.  Juco guard Jeremy Jones posted 18.1 points and 4.6 assists last season and has a shot to start at the point.  Fellow junior college product James Watson and former St. John’s guard Omari Lawrence seem to be the other new faces most likely to work their way into the rotation.

Regardless of their quality of play, Martin’s antics make the Wildcats intriguing, and if the players buy into his style of play, they have a shot to exceed expectations this year.

Missouri

I’m not sure if any new coach walked into a better situation than Frank Haith did this offseason.  The former Miami head man inherits a team that lost only Justin Safford and his 6.4 points per game while bringing back nine players who averaged at least 9.8 minutes and six who logged over 22 minutes per contest.

Among those are five double-digit scorers, led by guard Marcus Denmon who scored 16.9 points per game and made a ridiculous 44.8 percent from beyond the arc.  They also boast Big 12 All-Defensive First Teamer Laurence Bowers, reigning Newcomer of the Year Ricardo Ratliffe, and Kim English, who has a terrific Twitter feed for those of you interested in that sort of thing.  Throw in Michael Dixon and Flip and Matt Pressey and you have a great mix of experience and depth.  They have no incoming freshman, but redshirt forward Kadeem Green is recovered from an Achilles injury suffered his senior year in high school and should help with his defense and shot-blocking.

The main question mark here is Haith and the change from Mike Anderson’s trapping, uptempo style.  Haith compiled a 129-101 record in seven seasons with Miami, with the lone NCAA appearance coming in 2008.  In his defense, the program wasn’t in great shape when he took over, and his graduation rate was stellar.  However, he finished 26 games under .500 in the ACC despite a portion of his tenure coming during a “down” period for the league.  More than that, the Hurricane fan base isn’t basketball crazy by any means, and Haith appears to be a guy whose had mediocre success at best in a low pressure situation.  Mizzou fans, on the other hand, love their hoops, and with a team full of veterans, expectations are high for this season.  How Haith responds to that scenario remains to be seen, but I think anything outside of a top two finish in the league would be disappointing.

Oklahoma

Like Missouri, the Sooners welcome in a new coach, albeit a more well-known one in Lon Kruger, who already has earned the support of Toby Keith.  However, Oklahoma’s leading scorer and rebounder Cade Davis graduated, and the overall talent level isn’t what it needs to be following a couple subpar seasons.

Junior forward Andrew Fitzgerald posted 12.6 points and 5.0 rebounds as a sophomore but faded down the stretch.  Cameron Clark also returns up front and needs to be more consistent for the Sooners to be more competitive.  In the backcourt, Carl Blair dished out nearly five assists per game, but his shooting is a liability and allows defenses to sag off of him.  Shooting guard Steven Pledger has shown flashes (see: 38-point outburst against Iowa State last year), but he’s also been dramatically inconsistent (see: 0-point performance in 33 minutes versus Texas).  Barring additional signees, Kruger will add just a few new faces to the roster.  Juco center Casey Avent averaged a double-double last season, and point guard Sam Grooms doled out six assists for Chipola Junior College.  Mississippi State transfer Romero Osby also becomes eligible and adds depth inside, which is good news for a team with limited height.

Kruger has the Sooners in rebuilding mode, but they should certainly be improved from a year ago.

Oklahoma State

There’s a lot going on in Stillwater.  First, leading scorer and rebounder Marshall Moses graduated.  Ray Penn is transferring, and the well-traveled and oft-troubled Matt Pilgrim has exhausted his eligibility.  Darrell Williams’ status is still uncertain due to rape charges, but don’t count on him being back.  However,  despite that roster turnover, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

That begins with Top 10 recruit LeBryan Nash, who will be an impact player from day one.  At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, Nash’s body is ready for the college level, and his athleticism allows him to hurt opponents in a variety of ways.  Throw in the return of Keiton Page, who averaged better than 13 points last year, and junior J.P. Olukemi, who put up 11 points and four rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game, and you have a solid nucleus.  Guard Reger Dowell also came on strong late in the year, reaching double figures in six of the final nine games, and Markel Brown showed some potential at shooting guard, too.  A few other new faces should see playing time as well, particularly inside.  Center Philip Jurick averaged 10.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 9.5 blocks at Chattanooga State last season, and redshirt freshman Michael Cobbins was a highly rated recruit before suffering a knee injury in high school.

The Cowboys finished last season with more turnovers than assists last season (by a fairly wide margin), so point guard play will be key.  Page will likely start there, but speedy freshman Cezar Guerrero could run the show as well.  Oklahoma State has some nice pieces and could well be a wild card in the Big 12 race.

Texas

Few teams were hurt by NBA early entrants as much as the Longhorns with Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson, and Cory Joseph all staying in the draft.  Throw in the losses of Gary Johnson and backup Matt Hill up front and guards Dogus Balbay and Jai Lucas in the backcourt, and Texas lost six of its top seven scorers, its top six rebounders, and its top three assist men.

In fact, guard J’Covan Brown is the only returnee to average more than 2.3 points, but they do add a slew of talented recruits.  Point guard Myck Kabongo is Top 10 prospect who should be given the keys to the offense right away.  He boasts terrific athleticism and can get into the lane with ease as well as knock down open shots.  Texas also adds Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, and Sterling Gibbs to its stable of guards.  McClellan and Lewis are both known for attacking the rim, and Gibbs, the brother of Pitt guard Ashton, signed with the Longhorns after the coaching change at Maryland.  If you noticed I haven’t talked about many big guys yet, it’s because there aren’t many.  Six-foot-seven Alexis Wangmene is their top returning frontcourt player after averaging 2.3 points and 2.3 rebounds last year.  Texas has just three players taller than Wangmene though, two freshmen and a seldom-used senior.  One of those freshman, Jonathan Holmes, will likely start right away in the post, while the other, Kevin Thomas, should see plenty of minutes as well.  Rebounding was a huge strength a season ago, and it may well be the biggest question mark heading into 2011-12.

The freshman class is loaded with talent, and Rick Barnes will have no choice but to rely heavily on them.  Expectations are certainly lower than in years past, but Texas should still be in the mix for a tournament bid if the team can gel quickly.

Texas A&M

While the Aggies lost Nathan Walkup and B.J. Holmes to graduation, their biggest offseason departure came a few weeks ago when coach Mark Turgeon left for Maryland.  That isn’t to say that they didn’t do a nice job of filling that hole with former Murray State head man Billy Kennedy, but with a talented core of players back in College Station, a coaching change has a chance to upset the apple cart.

The Aggies will be anchored by the frontcourt duo of Khris Middleton and David Loubeau.  Both toyed with the idea of heading to the NBA before ultimately coming back to school.  Middleton, a 6-foot-7 swingman, notched double-digit points in 27 of 33 contests last season and is also the leading returning rebounder.  Loubeau has shown steady improvement in each of his three seasons and played his best basketball over the final two months of last season, averaging 14.0 points and 4.6 boards while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 79.2 percent from the line.  Sophomore Kourtney Roberson also returns after posting 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in just 12.7 minutes per game, and without Walkup, his minutes should increase.  In the backcourt, Dash Harris was second on the team with 3.1 assists last season but shot just 26.8 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from deep.  If that doesn’t change (and maybe even if it does), freshman Jamal Branch has a chance to assume the starting role.  Branch is a Top 50 recruit according to at least a couple scouting services and provides more offensive potential than Harris.  At shooting guard, Naji Hibbert returns, and they add freshman Jordan Green and Washington transfer Elston Turner.  Kennedy should be able to mix and match enough to get by with that trio.

With solid depth and a wealth of experience, Kennedy has walked into a terrific situation.  The Aggies should be a lock to finish in the top four of the conference with a legitimate shot to win it.

Texas Tech

Much to the chagrin of Kentucky fans, Billy Gillispie has found work again, this time in Lubbock.  However, Big Blue Nation can take solace in the fact that the Red Raiders are in full scale rebuilding mode after losing their top four scorers, top three assist men, and top two rebounders.

Gillispie returns just one player, forward Robert Lewandowski, who averaged better than five points a season ago.  He’s also the only guy to play more than 14 minutes per game.  One of the bright spots is that Utah transfer Marshall Henderson will be eligible this fall.  Henderson scored nearly 12 points per game as a freshman and should be the focal point of the Red Raider backcourt.  As you might expect, there are a slew of new players joining the squad.  Shooting guard Toddrick Gotcher was tabbed as the conference’s best incoming shooter by Rivals, while small forward Terran Petteway was cited for having the best motor.  Fellow freshman Kevin Wagner is undersized at 5-foot-8 but should compete for time at the point along with juco transfer Ty Nurse.  With limited depth inside, many of the newcomers could play immediately there as well.  Center Kader Tapsoba averaged 3.5 blocks at Tyler Junior College, although he wasn’t much of a scorer.  Jaron Nash, a teammate of Tapsoba last season, also joins the team but is described as more of a perimeter player despite his 6-foot-8 frame.  Freshman Jordan Tolbert is a bit undersized for a power forward but has a chance to help on the glass.

Gillispie has had success in the Big 12 before, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Red Raiders aren’t in the conference’s cellar.

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About Andy Bottoms

While Andy was born and raised in Indiana, he would like to point out that he grew up shooting hoops in his driveway and not against the side of a barn like you see in all the March Madness promos or in the middle of a field like Jimmy Chitwood. Andy ranks among the top bracketologists according to the Bracket Matrix and has provided his projections to Fox Sports for the past three seasons. When not compiling excuses for missing work during the NCAA Tournament, Andy enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters. He is a proud IU graduate and co-hosts The Assembly Call postgame show following every IU game. Twitter: @AndyBottoms

Comments

  1. Big12Fan says:

    I did not know the NCAA allowed playes to play 5 years. Dogus B albay has already played 4 years for Texas and IS NOT comming back.

    • Sorry about that. He didn't play in his freshman year due to injury/eligibility issues, so that threw me off. I'll get the post updated.

  2. Several holes in your analysis:

    1 – Scott Drew is easily the worst x’s and o’s coach in the conference. You can add 3-4 losses to their conference total on that alone.

    2 – Balbay and Lucas graduated

    3 – You pick Baylor to win the league. This isn’t women’s hoops.

    • Apologies on Balbay and Lucas. The site I used to validate some of my rosters has them both still listed as playing. Balbay's freshman season slipped past me since he didn't actually play, and Lucas' transfer threw me off there. I will get the post updated today.

      Baylor could certainly disappoint again for the reason you referenced, but I like their talent level and didn't want to pick one of the more traditional powers.

      • an Aggie enthusiast says:

        If you didn't want to pick a traditional power, you could have picked the Aggies and then be able to tell all…"I told you so."

        • I did say the Aggies have a legit shot to win it, and despite the coaching change, they will be right there at the top all season. Middleton and Loubeau are the real deal, and I think Roberson takes a nice step forward too. Backcourt is the question for me (along with bench depth up front), but it seems like they have enough pieces there to make it work with Harris, Branch, Elston Turner, and Hibbert. Definitely a Top 20 squad in my eyes.

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