October 31, 2010

League preview: Big 12

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

2. BIG 12

By Jason King, Yahoo! Sports

One of the more remarkable streaks in college sports belongs to a school from the Big 12, and it involves something that seems to have been devalued a bit in today's basketball landscape.

League titles.

With all the talk about Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours, bubble teams and the last-four-in/the last-four-out of the NCAA tournament, the accomplishment of winning a conference championship often gets overshadowed during the madness of March.

That's a shame for a school such as Kansas, which is eyeing its seventh consecutive Big 12 title this season.

"Not enough people talk about it," junior F Marcus Morris said, "but it's something we're proud of."

The Jayhawks should be. They may not ever match Gonzaga, which has won 10 consecutive West Coast Conference titles. Still, to capture six titles in a row in a Big Six conference may be an even more impressive feat.

As tough as the road has already been, winning championship No. 7 may be the most difficult task of all.

The uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of freshman G Josh Selby caused voters to pick Kansas State ahead of Kansas in The Associated Press preseason top 25. The Wildcats are ranked No. 3, while the Jayhawks are seventh.

But if Selby plays - and coach Bill Self believes he will - it's hard to pick against the Jayhawks, who defeated their in-state rival three times last season.

Yes, Kansas lost three of its top players to the NBA. But even without Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry, the Jayhawks still rank atop the Big 12 in talent, experience and depth, thanks to the return of players such as Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Tyshawn Taylor, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed.

As good as Kansas should be, Kansas State is riding high on momentum following last season's Elite Eight appearance. The Wildcats are the top threat to end the Jayhawks' reign atop the Big 12. K-State boasts one of the nation's top frontcourts with Curtis Kelly, Wally Judge, Jamar Samuels and Freddy Asprilla. The key will be finding a mate on the perimeter for Big 12 Player of the Year candidate Jacob Pullen, who no longer has the luxury of playing with Denis Clemente.

The other school that appears capable of making a title run is Baylor. LaceDarius Dunn is the Big 12's leading returning scorer and is on pace to set the Big 12 career record in that category. The Bears also return starting F Anthony Jones and standout sixth man Quincy Acy, a future pro who should move into the starting lineup. The biggest difference for Baylor will be the addition of freshman F Perry Jones, who already is projected to go as high as No. 2 in next summer's NBA draft.

Missouri and Texas may not be title contenders, but both teams are talented enough to compete with any team in the league. In Austin, freshmen Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson will try to help the Longhorns bounce back from a disappointing season. The return of standouts such as Kim English, Michael Dixon and Justin Safford have Missouri fans convinced that this could be Mike Anderson's best team yet.

While Texas A&M and Oklahoma State appear to be in rebuilding mode, Colorado and Texas Tech could have breakthrough seasons. The Buffaloes, who are in their first year under new coach Tad Boyle, tout two of the Big 12's best players in Gs Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. In Lubbock, Pat Knight is hoping the tandem of John Roberson and Mike Singletary can get the Red Raiders back into the NCAA tournament.

Oklahoma, Iowa State and Nebraska appear to be locks to finish 10th, 11th and 12th in the standings, although not necessarily in that order.

F Perry Jones, Baylor (6-10/220, Fr.)
F Marcus Morris, Kansas (6-8/225, Jr.)
G Josh Selby, Kansas (6-2/183, Fr.)
G LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor (6-4/205, Sr.)
G Jacob Pullen, Kansas State (6-0/200, Sr.)
F Curtis Kelly, Kansas State (6-8/239, Sr.)
F Mike Singletary, Texas Tech (6-6/235, Sr.)
G Alec Burks, Colorado (6-6/185, Soph.)
G Cory Higgins, Colorado (6-5/190, Sr.)
G Cory Joseph, Texas (6-3/180, Fr.)

PLAYER OF YEAR: Baylor G LaceDarius Dunn
NEWCOMER OF YEAR: Kansas G Josh Selby

1. Kansas
2. Kansas State
3. Baylor
4. Missouri
5. Texas
6. Colorado
7. Oklahoma State
8. Texas A&M
9. Texas Tech
10. Nebraska
11. Oklahoma
12. Iowa State

New coaches: Tad Boyle at Colorado (had been at coach at Northern Colorado), Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State (had been vice president of basketball operations for the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves)
Regular-season winner last season: Kansas
Tourney winner last season: Kansas
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 1st in 2009-10, 3rd in 2008-09, 3rd in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 9-12 in Kansas City, Mo.

Best frontcourt: Kansas State. The Wildcats' post players will have to step up in a big way to make up for the loss of high-scoring G Denis Clemente. That shouldn't be a problem. Curtis Kelly averaged 11.5 points and 6.2 boards as a junior and got better as the season progressed. Jamar Samuels chipped in with 11.0 points per game en route to earning league Sixth Man of the Year honors. The biggest difference-makers, though, could be Wally Judge and Freddy Asprilla. Judge, a former McDonald's All-American, made huge strides during the offseason after battling through inconsistent periods as a freshman. Asprilla is a transfer from Florida International who earned Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors two seasons ago.
Best backcourt: Kansas. This will change if freshman Josh Selby is ineligible. But for now, we'll assume the top-ranked freshman in the Class of 2010 is going to play. Selby will be a major upgrade from Sherron Collins in terms of talent and athleticism. The question is whether he can match his leadership. Some NBA scouts and analysts have labeled Tyshawn Taylor as a future pro, although his sophomore season left a bit to be desired. Still, you can't undervalue a third-year starter at one of the nation's top programs. Two of the biggest components of KU's backcourt rotation don't get nearly enough attention. Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed are battle-tested seniors who give the Jayhawks a level of depth that would cause most coaches to drool. Morningstar is one of the Big 12's top defenders. Reed is an excellent long-range shooter with underrated athleticism.
Program on the rise: Colorado. Don't be surprised if long-suffering Colorado sneaks into the NCAA tournament. The Buffaloes return all five starters and tout two future pros (Cory Higgins and Alec Burks) in the backcourt. Colorado went 15-16 last season and lost seven games by six or fewer points. If new coach Tad Boyle can lead the Buffaloes to a winning record in the Big 12 - they went 6-10 a year ago - a postseason berth won't be out of the question.
Program on the decline: Oklahoma. Less than two years removed from an appearance in the Elite Eight, just four scholarship players return from a squad that finished 13-18 overall last season and 4-12 in conference play. That should spell doom in a conference as tough as the Big 12, where the Sooners will struggle to stay out of the cellar. As frustrating as things are in Norman, coach Jeff Capel said he's approaching the 2010-11 season with "excitement" thanks to the arrival of nine newcomers.
Coach on the rise: Baylor's Scott Drew. The Bears enter the 2010-11 campaign with loads of momentum following last season's march to the Elite Eight. Much of the credit goes to Drew, who has transformed the former Big 12 doormat into a program that can compete on a national level. And not just on the court. Spearheaded by Drew, Baylor's success on the recruiting trail suggests the Bears will be a major factor in the Big 12 for years to come.
Coach on the hot seat: Nebraska's Doc Sadler. Every season the story is the same with the well-liked Sadler: The guy can coach, but can he recruit? Apparently not - or at least not on a Big 12 level. The Huskers haven't had a winning league record in Sadler's four seasons in Lincoln. Last season, they went 2-14 and finished last. Nebraska will be better this season, but maybe not enough to save Sadler's job.
Most underrated player: Texas Tech G John Roberson (5-11/170, Sr.). Red Raiders coach Pat Knight said Roberson is one of the top 10 point guards in the nation, and he may not be far off. Roberson already owns the school's career assists record (503) and is on pace to finish third on the Big 12's career list. Roberson also averaged a team-high 14.9 points in conference play last season.

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