By Ralph Lauro, Associate College Basketball Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - OUTLOOK: The Big 12 Conference has arguably been the best over the last several years, although the league tends to get overlooked. Over the past seven seasons no conference has had a better winning percentage in NCAA competition than the Big 12, which has also sent more teams to the Final Four or Elite Eight in the last eight years.
With that said, the 2009-10 campaign could be the best for the Big 12, as several standout players are welcomed back. Kansas became the first team from the Big 12 to win the national title in 2008 and the Jayhawks are once again loaded with talent and are considered by many to be the team to beat this season. Texas is another program that has earned high praises and it wouldn't be a stretch by any imagination to see the Longhorns face Kansas in the national title game. Oklahoma lost Blake Griffin, the National Player of the Year, but the Sooners still have the firepower to avoid falling off. Texas A&M and Oklahoma State each lost some key players, although both programs have plenty of returning talent that should gain the Aggies and Cowboys some national recognition. Missouri had a nice run last season and the confidence gained should help the Tigers stay competitive despite some losses. Kansas State and Baylor will need some inexperienced plays to step up in order to reach the NCAA Tournament, while Iowa State will compete for a postseason berth thanks to the return of Craig Brackins. Nebraska, Colorado and Texas Tech fill out the rest of the Big 12 and will most likely struggle against the rest of this powerful conference.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kansas
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Kansas; 2. Texas; 3. Oklahoma; 4. Texas A&M; 5. Oklahoma State; 6. Kansas State; 7. Missouri; 8. Iowa State; 9. Baylor; 10. Texas Tech; 11. Nebraska; 12. Colorado
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KANSAS - The Jayhawks are the unanimous No. 1 team in the country in every preseason publication and for good reason. Kansas has an unmatched combination of experience and talent, to go with one of the top coaches around in Bill Self, who already led the program to one national title. The Jayhawks return all five starters from last year's club that won 27 games and reached the Sweet 16 and that includes Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, who were both All-Big 12 First-Team choices last season. Collins, a second-team All-American selection last season, led Kansas in scoring (18.9 ppg) and assists (5.0 apg) and the 5-11 senior also tallied 77 points in three NCAA Tournament games. Aldrich, a 6-11 center, was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Big 12 with 2.7 blocks per game, and he is also a good scorer and terrific rebounder, averaging 14.9 pg and 11.1 rpg. Collins and Aldrich were both selected as the Big 12 Preseason Co-Players of the Year and they are two of the premier players in the entire nation. The Jayhawks have plenty of other options to complement Collins and Aldrich and Tyshawn Taylor is one that could be in store for a big campaign. As a freshman last season, the 6-2 Taylor averaged 9.7 ppg and 3.0 apg, while shooting 50.6 percent from the field as a two-guard, a pretty amazing accomplishment. Taylor showed he could do a little of everything and still has a lot more potential, which is pretty scary. Brady Morningstar, a 6-3 guard that started 34 of 35 games last season, has big potential as well and the junior is dangerous from long range, hitting 42.0 percent of the time. He however, was suspended for the first semester by Self after being arrested for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Morningstar will hardly be missed, as Kansas has plenty of other options at the perimeter, including reserve Tyrel Reed (6.5 ppg) and highly touted recruit Xavier Henry. In the paint, 6-8 Marcus Morris is welcomed back after averaging 7.4 ppg and 4.7 rpg as a freshman starter last season. Twin brother Markieff Morris also returns after posting 4.6 ppg and 4.4 rpg, and the frontcourt should receive an additional boost from highly regarded freshman Thomas Robinson (6-9) and Arizona transfer Jeff Withey (6-10).
TEXAS - The Longhorns fell short of expectations, for their standards, last season, as they tied fourth in the Big 12 despite fielding a roster many thought could win the conference title. The program did extend its streak of 20-win campaigns to 10 straight, but made a quick exit from the NCAA Tournament. The valuable experience gained, plus a highly regarded incoming class, has Texas considered as a Top Five team heading into 2009-10. Head coach Rick Barnes, who is 270-105 in 11 years at Texas, has only one real problem heading into the season and that is finding a way to get playing time for all of his talented players. At the perimeter is where the Longhorns need some improvement after shooting just 32.9 percent from long range and handing out only 12.8 apg in 2008-09. Help is on the way though, as Florida transfer Jai Lucas will be eligible after the fall semester. A 5-10 junior, Lucas started 36 games for Florida as a sophomore and led the Gators in three-point percentage. He chipped in with 8.5 ppg as well and his arrival gives the 'Horns a true point guard and that is something they desperately needed. Dogus Balbay will likely start the season at the point, but he is a vastly different player than Lucas. The 6-0 Turkish import is a good distributor of the ball, averaging 3.1 apg, and an elite defender, but he isn't much of a scoring threat, posting only 3.3 ppg. Three-year starter Justin Mason is also back after posting 6.1 ppg and 4.0 apg, and the 6-2 guard can make things happen at both ends of the floor. However, Mason will surely lose some minutes despite his experience, as freshman Avery Bradley has the talent to make an immediate impact. Considered one of the elite prospects in all of the county, the 6-3 Bradley can do it all and will surely play a big role right away. Damion James is a player that can play in the backcourt as well, although he will be a forward for Texas this season. The 6-7 senior flirted with the NBA draft prior removing his name shortly before the deadline and that was huge for the 'Horns. James, a three-year starter, averaged 15.4 ppg and 9.2 rpg last season and barring an injury, he should be come the school's all-time leading rebounder. Joining James in the paint will be center Dexter Pittman, a center that stands at 6-10, 265 pounds. Pittman came through with 10.1 ppg and 5.5 rpg last season and he posted those numbers while averaging just 16.6 minutes per game. He is expected to be in even better shape, meaning more time and bigger numbers. Gary Johnson (10.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and another highly regarded freshman Jordan Hamilton (6-7) add depth to this already loaded squad.
OKLAHOMA - Jeff Capel's third year at Oklahoma was his best, as the 34-year- old head coach led the Sooners to one of their most successful campaigns. Oklahoma went 30-6 and benefited greatly from the play of Blake Griffin, the No.1 pick in the NBA draft. Griffin is now gone, as are two other starters, but the cupboard is by no means empty. With the 6-10, 250-pound Griffin out of the equation, the team's focus now falls in the backcourt, where Willie Warren is set to become the go-to-guy. The 6-4 Warren lived up to expectations in his rookie year, averaging 14.6 ppg and 3.1 apg in being a unanimous choice as the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Warren is a slasher with good passing and three- point shooting skills and has the potential to average 20-plus points per game. Tony Crocker is back to provide leadership at the perimeter, as the senior has started 95-of-102 games since arriving in Norman. The 6-6 guard is a streaky shooter that produced 9.6 ppg last season and he will be counted on for more production now that the focus is on the backcourt. The Sooners will also receive a boost from freshman Tommy Mason-Griffin, who is a true playmaker that is expected to start at the point. Another freshman that will likely crack the starting lineup is Keith "Tiny" Gallon. The 6-9, 300-pound center was one of the most sought after recruits thanks to his versatility and he will help overcome the loss of Griffin, although his style is vastly different. Oklahoma doesn't have any proven options in the frontcourt, so Gallon will have to live up to expectations if the Sooners are to repeat last year's success.
TEXAS A&M - The Aggies return three starters and seven of their top nine scorers from last season's 24-10 squad, so expect them to compete for a fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance in 2009-10. Third-year head coach Mark Turgeon has continued the program's success that was ignited by Billy Gillispie and his Aggies figure to be a darkhorse in the Big 12 title race. Two of Texas A&M's top returnees come in the backcourt in Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland. The 6-3 Sloan played hurt last year, but still found a way to produce, averaging 11.8 ppg and 3.2 apg. The 6-4 Roland is the team's top defender and he could see a jump in his 6.3 ppg scoring average with improvement on his shooting. B.J. Holmes (8.8 ppg) is a deadly three-point threat and the 6-0 junior adds depth to the backcourt, which will receive help from highly touted freshmen Naji Hibbert (6-6) and Khris Middleton (6-7). In the frontcourt, the Aggies will rely on Bryan Davis, a 6-9 senior that flirted with going professional. Davis is a hard worker that averaged 10.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg and he will be counted on to carry the load after 6-10 Chinemelu Elonu (9.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg) surprisingly left for the NBA. David Loubeau showed promise in limited minutes as a rookie last season and the 6-9 forward should build off his averages of 4.6 ppg and 3.2 rpg with more playing time. Nathan Walkup (3.5 ppg), a 6-7 forward, will also be asked to do more, while freshmen Ray Turner (6-8) and James Blasczyk (7-0) will push for playing time.
OKLAHOMA STATE - In his first year in Stillwater, head coach Travis Ford guided the Cowboys back to the NCAA Tournament, courtesy of a strong finish and noteworthy wins over Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. OSU won 23 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Ford's up-tempo style that had the team ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring at 80.9 ppg. The high octane attack was perfect for this team, as the Cowboys were short on big-men and loaded with talented athletes. This will once again be the case in 2009-10 and James Anderson highlights the three returning starters. The 6-6 Anderson can play a number of positions and he has the ability to score in a variety of ways, averaging 18.2 ppg last season. He also pulled in 5.7 rpg and figures to be among the top players in the conference once again. Keiton Page will like start at the point for the Cowboys, although he is a better shooter than passer. The 5-9 sophomore netted 8.6 ppg during his rookie campaign and he is a prolific three-point shooter, knocking down 39.9 percent of his attempts. Obi Muonelo, like Anderson, played several different positions last season, and the 6-5 senior is physical and plays with great passion. He posted 12.7 ppg and displayed terrific rebounding skills, grabbing 7.2 rpg. Highly touted freshmen Ray Penn, Fred Gulley and Reger Dowell will also be in the mix for playing time at the perimeter. Up front, Marshall Moses is the team's top returning player, but he lacks size at just 6-7. The junior is a physical forward that turned in 7.0 ppg and 6.1 rpg and got better once Big 12 play started. The frontcourt should also receive a boost from Matt Pilgrim, a 6-8 transfer that produced 7.7 ppg and 5.2 rpg at Hampton. He actually transferred from Hampton to Kentucky, but left the Wildcats after Billy Gillispie was fired. OSU will look to some other new faces to contribute immediately to the frontcourt.
KANSAS STATE - The Wildcats overcame the loss of stars Michael Beasley and Bill Walker last season, going 22-12 and finishing tied for fourth in the Big 12 at 9-7. It was a remarkable feat for head coach Frank Martin and company considering KSU was picked by just about everyone to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12. The Wildcats narrowly missed out on the Big Dance, but they did earn a spot in the NIT, marking their third straight postseason appearance. Anything short of an NCAA Tournament appearance this season, however, would be considered a disappointment, as KSU welcomes back four starters from a year ago. The return of Denis Clemente gives the Wildcats one of the top scorers around, averaging 15.0 ppg and 18.4 ppg in league play. The 6-1 Clemente, a transfer from Miami, showed his unselfishness by handing out 3.5 apg and he is the type of player that can take over a game and carry a club at any time. Helping form one of the best backcourt tandems in the Big 12 is Jacob Pullen, a 6-0 junior that produced 13.9 ppg and 3.2 apg last season. Pullen scored 20 or more points eight times last season and was also a top-tier defender, recording 54 steals. In the frontcourt, KSU also welcomes back two starters in Luis Colon and Dominique Sutton. The 6-10 Colon brings good size to the frontcourt, which is a big help, but he isn't going to produce big numbers, averaging just 4.4 ppg last season. Sutton, a 6-5 junior, lacks some size, although he did do a good job on the boards, grabbing 5.4 rpg, to go with 7.5 ppg. Jamar Samuels, a 6-7 sophomore, broke through with 8.3 ppg as reserve after redshirting in 2007-08, and he projects to be the fifth starter. Two newcomers that will push for playing time right away are Curtis Kelly and Wally Judge. The 6-8 Kelly is a transfer from UConn that is now eligible, while the 6-9 Judge is the highest-ranked player among the freshmen.
MISSOURI - The Tigers are coming off a magical 2008-09 campaign, as they won a school-record 31 games, claimed their first-ever Big 12 Tournament crown and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Following the remarkable campaign, head coach Mike Anderson was given a nice raise and contract extension to stay in Columbia and that was a smart move by Missouri considering his high pressure and chaotic style will help overcome the losses of the team's top three scorers. The Tigers' two returning starters come in the backcourt in J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor and they are among the top defenders in the Big 12, combining for 123 steals a season ago. As a matter of fact, the 6-3 Tiller was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12 and he developed offensively as the season wore on, finishing with 8.4 ppg and 3.6 apg. The 6-4 Taylor, in his first year with the Tigers after transferring from Delaware, also improved his scoring down the stretch, averaging 10.7 ppg over the final 10 contests. He is also a playmaker, dishing out 3.4 apg, and has a knack for coming up clutch in the big game, hitting game-winning shots against Texas and Kansas. Sophomores Kim English (6.5 ppg), a deadly three- point shooter, along with Marcus Denmon (6.0 ppg) and Miguel Paul add depth to the backcourt and each should be only better in their second year in Anderson's system. The perimeter game will have to be stout, as the Tigers lost all three of their starters in the frontcourt. Keith Ramsey (3.6 ppg), Justin Safford (3.4 ppg) and Laurence Bowers (3.2 ppg) all saw some decent playing time last season, but they will now be asked to take on a larger role and how they respond could determine the team's success.
IOWA STATE - Head coach Greg McDermott, in his fourth year at Iowa State, finally enters a season with some stability, as the Cyclones return nine players, including star Craig Brackins. The 6-10 Brackins was one of the lone bright spots from last year's 15-win club and he could have easily been a first round pick in the NBA draft. The junior center, though, decided to return to Iowa State and that certainly put a big smile on McDermott's face. Brackins was simply a force, averaging a healthy 20.2 ppg and 9.5 rpg, while racking up 15 double-doubles along the way. While he was sensational last season, Brackins still has some room for improvement on defense, but regardless, he should still compete for Big 12 Player of the Year honors in 2009-10. He isn't the only starter back in place either, as Iowa State welcomes back three regulars, including 6-11 Justin Hamilton. As a freshman last season, Hamilton notched 4.2 ppg and 2.9 rpg and he should see a hike in those numbers with more experience. Jamie Vanderbeken, a 6-11 senior, also returns after scoring 5.5 ppg and he is actually a terrific three-point shooter, knocking down 35-of-86 attempts. At the perimeter, the Cyclones bring back two starters in Diante Garrett and Lucca Staiger. The 6-4 Garrett ran the offense by dishing out 5.0 apg and he also chipped in with 9.8 ppg, while the 6-5 Staiger tallied 8.2 ppg and ranked sixth in the Big 12 in three- pointers per game. Chris Colvin, a 6-2 highly touted freshman, and 6-3 Marquette transfer Scott Christopherson add depth and excitement to the backcourt.
BAYLOR - The Bears failed to live up to expectations last season, but a late run salvaged what would have been deemed a complete failure. Baylor entered 2008-09 with intentions of competing for a Big 12 title and had even garnered national recognition prior to the campaign. Instead, Baylor dropped 10 of its last 12 conferences games to place ninth in the Big 12. Head coach Scott Drew, however, rallied his troops and the Bears made a run in the Big 12 Tournament, upsetting 11th-ranked Kansas before snapping a 24-game losing streak to Texas in the semifinals. Baylor ran out of steam with a loss to Missouri in the finals, but rebounded with a run to the NIT finals. When all was said and done, the Bears had notched their second straight 20-win campaign for the first time in school history, while wining their first postseason games since 1950, salvaging a campaign that began with such high expectations. Three starters and 50 percent of the team's scoring and rebounding are now gone, so the Bears may find it difficult to continue their run of postseason appearances in 2009-10. Baylor's backcourt however, should be strong with the return of LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter. The 6-4 Dunn set a school record by making 109 three-pointers last season and he showed he could be counted on to produce every game, averaging 15.7 ppg. As for Carter, he is another solid scorer that averaged 10.6 ppg last season and is also a good playmaker, dishing off 3.2 apg. Nolan Dennis, a 6-5 freshman, will be in the mix right away and he has good ball skills and is a solid scorer. He was originally committed to Memphis before John Calipari departed for Kentucky. The major issues for Baylor comes in the frontcourt, where the team has no real scoring threat. Josh Lomers (3.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg) is more of a defensive presence at 7-0, but he did show some signs of improvement down the stretch and should be a bigger factor this time around. Sophomore forwards Quincy Acy (5.4 ppg) and Anthony Jones (2.4 ppg) should have expanded roles and Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh will be counted on heavily for stability. The 6-10 Udoh averaged 6.0 ppg and 5.0 rpg for the Wolverines in 2007-08 and he is a big time defensive presence as well.
TEXAS TECH - The Red Raiders lost six games by six points or fewer last season, as they stumbled to a 14-19 finish under head coach Pat Knight. Four starters and seven of the club's top eight scorers are back in the fold, but the Red Raiders need a big turnaround on defense after allowing 79.0 ppg a season ago. John Roberson is the team's top returning player and the 5-11 guard put together a good sophomore campaign last season. He not only led the Raiders in scoring at 13.9 ppg, but he also paced the entire Big 12 in assists, dishing out 6.4 apg. Nick Okorie will accompany Roberson at the perimeter and he is a solid scorer, averaging 11.3 ppg, including 16.3 ppg over the final 10 games. David Tairu (6-3), a juco star, and highly touted freshman Mike Davis (6-2) could push for a starting role at the perimeter. In the frontcourt, the Raiders are excited about juco transfer Brad Reese (6-6), who is a big scorer and expected to contribute immediately. Mike Singletary though, is the go-to-guy in the front, as the 6-6 junior could be primed for a big campaign after averaging 12.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg last season. He showed a glimpse of his things to come by scoring 43 points, including 29 in a row, against Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament. Robert Lewandowski, a 6-10 center, should return to a starting role and sophomore could also be in store for a big campaign following a 6.6 ppg average as a rookie last season.
NEBRASKA - Despite fielding the shortest team in the nation last season, Nebraska still finished 18-13 en route to a NIT appearance. Doc Sadler's squad did it with hustle and determination and the Huskers will need more of that in 2009-10 after losing three starters and four of their top five scorers from a year ago. In the backcourt, Nebraska welcomes back one starter in Sek Henry, a 6-3 senior that scored 8.0 ppg and appeared in all 31 games. He will likely be joined by 6-4 Ryan Anderson, a fellow senior that produced 7.1 ppg and 3.8 rpg last season. Sophomore guards Toney McCray (5.7 ppg) and Brandon Richardson (4.1 ppg) could also crack the starting lineup following promising rookie campaigns. The backcourt should also receive a boost from the return of 6-4 Eshaunte Jones, who missed most of last season with a foot injury. Jones was a big time scorer in high school and Nebraska could certainly use help in that department after averaging just 64.5 ppg last season. In the frontcourt, the Huskers need to fill several voids, with Chris Balham being the lone returning starter. The 6-8 forward was the team's tallest player last season, but didn't produce much, netting only 2.0 ppg. Taking over the reigns as the team's tallest player is Brian Diaz, who stands at 6-11. The Puerto Rico native will surely log minutes simply because of size, but he is also a scoring threat and that certainly helps. Freshman Brandon Ubel, a 6-9, 220-pound forward, and 6-8, 240-pound juco transfer Quincy Hankins-Cole should help the frontcourt right away as well.
COLORADO - The Buffaloes took a step back in head coach Jeff Bzdelik's second- year at the helm, finishing just 9-22. Colorado also went a dreadful 1-15 in conference play, marking its worst league campaign since 1986. Four starters do return, but those players need to improve greatly if the Buffs are to move forward. Cory Higgins is the star of this team without question and he was about the only bright spot last season. The 6-5 junior emerged as a top-tier player, averaging 17.4 ppg and 5.4 rpg last season, and he has started every game in his career. Accompanying Higgins will be Dwight Thorne II, the only senior on the roster. The 6-3 Thorne averaged 12.0 ppg a season ago and he led the team with 45 three-pointers. Nate Tomlinson is also welcomed back to a starting role after the 6-3 guard averaged 7.4 ppg and 3.0 apg as a freshman last season. The fourth and final starter welcomed back is Austin Dufault, a 6-8 forwarded that overachieved as a freshman and scored 8.2 ppg. Casey Crawford (5.5 ppg), Trey Eckloff (2.2 ppg) and 6-11 Aussie freshman Shane Harris-Tunks will battle it out for the finals starting spot.