November 6, 2008

Rivals.com Big 12 Conference preview

Big 12 picks
2. Texas *
3. Kansas *
4. Baylor *
* - projected NCAA tournament team
# - projected NIT team
Not even the Big 12 basketball coaches could come to a consensus on a league favorite.

Four teams received multiple first-place votes from the coaches in the league's preseason poll. Texas led the way with four, Oklahoma and Kansas received three and Baylor had two.

Those same four teams were also separated by a mere six points. Oklahoma was made the official favorite with 109 points, Texas had 107, and Baylor and Kansas were tied at 103. No other team reached 80.

It's easy to see why there is so much confusion among the quartet. Each has something to legitimately question.

Oklahoma isn't used to dealing with expectations this lofty. The Sooners have never been picked to finish first in the league, which begins its 13th year of play.

Texas returns four starters from a team that went to the Elite Eight but is missing the most important one. Point guard D.J. Augustin, a consensus first-team All-American, entered the NBA draft early.

Baylor isn't missing any key players. The Bears return their top five scorers, but history is working against them. The Bears are used to hanging around the bottom of the league standings, having finished in next-to-last or last place six times.

Kansas is in an entirely opposite position after winning the national title last season. All five starters are gone. But history is squarely on its side and is likely what kept many coaches from discounting the Jayhawks. They have won or shared eight Big 12 regular-season titles, more than twice as much as anyone else (Texas is second with three).

History provides yet another reason to expect a heated race in the Big 12. In the last four years, the league's regular-season crown has been shared by two teams. Even in 2006-07 when Kansas won it outright, Texas A&M finished only one game behind the Jayhawks.

Team on the rise
Baylor. The Bears' first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years wasn't a fluke. In fact, if the Bears don't make back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history this season they will be considered a disappointment. All five scorers are back from a team that earned an at-large bid, including four guards who will make up one the nation's elite backcourts. The quartet of Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn, Henry Dugat and preseason All-Big 12 pick Curtis Jerrells combined for 228 3-pointers last season, which was more than the total of eight other Big 12 teams. The Bears also have added a pair of four-star prospects who bring some much-needed size, forwards Quincy Acy (6-7) and Anthony Jones (6-9).

Rivals.com Preseason All-Big 12
Blake Griffin is our preseason Big 12 player of the year.

First Team
G A.J. Abrams, Texas, Sr., 5-11, 160
G Curtis Jerrells, Baylor, Sr., 6-1, 205
G Sherron Collins, Kansas, Jr., 5-11, 200
F Damion James, Texas, Jr., 6-7, 220
F Blake Griffin, Oklahoma, So., 6-10, 250
Second Team
G LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor, So., 6-4, 195
G James Anderson, Oklahoma State, So., 6-6, 205
G Josh Carter, Texas A&M, Sr., 6-7, 200
F Leo Lyons, Missouri, Sr., 6-9, 245
C Connor Atchley, Texas, Sr., 6-10, 230
All-Freshman Team
G Willie Warren, Oklahoma, 6-4, 205
G Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas, 6-3, 180
G Travis Releford, Kansas, 6-5, 200
F Anthony Jones, Baylor, 6-10, 185
F Markieff Morris, Kansas, 6-9, 230
Team on the decline
Kansas State. Remember how Texas got better after losing freshman phenom Kevin Durant? That's not going to happen with Kansas State in the post-Michael Beasley era. The Wildcats not only lost Beasley, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, but also Bill Walker, the No. 47 pick. Those two combined for 54 percent of K-State's scoring and 45 percent of its rebounding while carrying the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996. Following that with a trip to the NIT should be considered a success. The Wildcats return just one starter and have only one senior on the roster. This season will also be a big test for second-year coach Frank Martin, who lacks the kind of résumé that warrants a high-major job.

Coach on the rise
Baylor's Scott Drew. Drew's remarkable success on the recruiting trail made Baylor's breakthrough campaign last season possible and has the Bears positioned to become a steady Big 12 power year in and year out. Since Drew took the Baylor job in 2003 the Bears have signed eight four-star prospects. They already have another four-star prospect (power forward Cory Jefferson) committed from the 2009 class and also have a commitment from a five-star prospect (power forward Perry Jones) from the 2010 class. Putting together that kind of collection of talent will undoubtedly draw the interest of future athletic directors looking for new coaches next offseason.

Coach on the hot seat
Missouri's Mike Anderson . No head coach in the Big 12 is in serious jeopardy of losing his job anytime soon, but this is a critical year for Anderson. The Tigers didn't get as much as an NIT bid in his first two years in Columbia, and his tenure has been marked by off-the-court incidents – leading scorer Stefhon Hannah was kicked off the team in the middle of last season after getting his jaw broken in a fight at a night club. The Tigers need to show improvement and stay out of trouble. Otherwise, Anderson will be facing the hot seat in 2009-10 without his two top players, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Both big men are seniors.

Best offensive player
Oklahoma's Blake Griffin. Without Beasley there isn't a more physically gifted big man in college basketball. Griffin has a muscular 6-10 frame, great hands and a big dose of athleticism – a package that makes him the early favorite for the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA draft. Despite battling through multiple injuries last season, he led the Sooners with 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. If he stays healthy, expect those numbers to go up significantly.

Best 3-point shooter
Texas' A.J. Abrams. Barring some kind of injury, Abrams will become the Big 12's all-time leader in 3-pointers made this season. Abrams needs 55 3-pointers to pass Kansas' Jeff Boschee at 338. Abrams has hit more than 100 3-pointers in each of the last two seasons and is shooting 39.9 percent (284-of-711) from beyond the arc for his career.

Best defensive player
Missouri's Zaire Taylor. This 6-4 guard who transferred from Delaware will cause plenty of problems for opponents trying to beat Missouri's full-court pressure. Blessed with a long wingspan and quick hands, he also has a passion for playing defense. As a freshman he led the Colonial Athletic Association in steals with 2.3 a game.

Best player you don't know yet
Texas A&M's Bryan Davis. There were stretches last season where the 6-9, 245-pound Davis looked like the Aggies' best big man. Without four-year starter Joseph Jones and 7-footer DeAndre Jordan (who mistakenly turned pro early and slipped into the second round), Davis could emerge as one of the best big men in the league. He'll play around 30 minutes a game and has the potential to average a double-double.

Deepest bench
Texas. The Longhorns have enough big men for three teams. Seven players who are 6-6 or taller could be part of a rotation that goes 12 deep. Four of those players stand 6-10, including starter Connor Atchley and reserves Clint Chapman, Matt Hill and Dexter Pittman.

Impact newcomer
Oklahoma's Willie Warren. The addition of this explosive 6-4 guard has turned the Sooners into what many believe is a Final Four contender. Extremely dangerous off the dribble, Warren has the ability to add the perimeter weapon the Sooners have lacked in recent years. He's not only the favorite for Big 12 Freshman of the Year but also could be in the mix for national freshman of the year honors.

Freshman sleeper
Missouri's Marcus Denmon. Denmon, a three-star prospect, not only looked like the best freshman at Missouri's annual Gold-and-Black scrimmage last week, but he also looked like the best player overall. The 6-3 guard couldn't miss, going 14-for-17 (82.3 percent) from the field and a sizzling 6-for-7 (85.7 percent) from 3-point range as he finished with 36 points. He also had five assists and three steals.

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.



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