By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE BIG 12
1. CAN KANSAS DO IT AGAIN?
At this point, would we expect anything less than another conference title in Lawrence? The Jayhawks didn’t look like a team at the beginning of last season that had the requisites to advance to the National Championship game, but Bill Self did a masterful job at putting his players in the right spots on the floor to be successful — and we expect more of the same this year. Gone are veterans Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson but Kansas returns three solid pieces in Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford, and Jeff Withey while also adding sharpshooter Ben McLemore, who many believe will be this team’s best player. The Jayhawks staff is also very high on freshman power forward Perry Ellis, who could very well start next to Withey inside. Throw in veteran forward Kevin Young, a key reserve from last year’s team and two capable first year players Andrew White and Jamari Traylor, and Kansas should be right in the mix to win yet another Big 12 title.
2. WILL IOWA STATE SUSTAIN SUCCESS?
It all depends on how they rebound the basketball. Out of all the things that the Cyclones’ will miss from Royce White’s departure, his impact on the boards might be the element that is hardest to replace. White grabbed over nine rebounds per contest last season and it’s yet to be determined who fills that void. Fred Hoiberg has assembled a talented and more conventional team than a year ago but it’s going to take some time to sort out on the front court. Iowa State’s perimeter should be terrific with Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious at point guard along with Chris Babb, Tyrus McGee, and Utah transfer Will Clyburn. The baseline should feature grizzled veteran Melvin Ejim with either freshman Georges Niang and either Anthony Booker or Percy Gibson. Hoiberg will need a breakout season from either Booker or Gibson in order for Iowa State to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in as many seasons.
3. HOW WILL OKLAHOMA STATE MESH?
That’s the million dollar question. There’s no questioning that the Cowboys likely have more talent than anyone else in the Big 12 but it will be up to Travis Ford to determine the best way to use it. Ford said over the summer that he’s toying with the idea of putting five skilled perimeter oriented players on the floor together with savvy freshman Marcus Smart leading the way next to Markel Brown, LeBryan Nash, J.P. Olukemi, and Michael Cobbins. That lineup will be high on speed and skill but low on girth and rebounding. The key to being able to use that formula may be Cobbins. Despite his slender build, the 6-8 forward averaged just over seven rebounds a game in Big 12 play last year as a freshman. With some added mass, Cobbins could become a big time intangible piece for the Cowboys, something they desperately need with so many talented scorers.
4. WHAT WILL WEST VIRGINIA BRING IN ITS FIRST BIG 12 SEASON?
The same things that all of Bob Huggins’ teams always bring to the table — tough defense, relentless offensive rebounding, and unbelievable desire to compete. The Mountaineers lost power forward Kevin Jones, who did virtually everything a year ago but replace him with La Salle transfer Aaric Murray, a talented big man who is more than capable of being one of the better post players in the league. West Virginia also returns two sophomore guards that should be better after logging major minutes as freshmen in Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne and also add Dayton transfer Juwan Staten, a jet quick guard who led the Atlantic 10 in assists as a freshman. Look for Huggins to regularly use Staten and Hinds together to augment this teams dribble drive ability and open up opportunities for Matt Humphrey, a 6-5 transfer from Boston College who’s eligible to play immediately. If Humphrey can make open shots at small forward and the combination of Deniz Kilicli and Dominique Rutledge can control the boards, Huggins should once again have his team in the field of 68.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Oklahoma. Lon Kruger has a legitimate chance to have the Sooners in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid in just his second year on the job. Oklahoma returns key pieces from last year’s team in leading scorer Steven Pledger and bouncy forward Romero Osby while adding a high level transfer in former Wyoming star Amath M’Baye. Kruger also added two under the radar freshmen in Isaiah Cousins and Buddy Hield, a 6-3 combo guard that should really add some pop offensively. No one expected the rebuilding process in Norman to happen quickly but this team has a chance. Kruger has assembled a good blend of experience and youth and if M’Baye can emerge as a legitimate go to option next to Pledger, Oklahoma basketball may be back much earlier than most people expected.
BIG 12 PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: We learned after last season that it’s beyond foolish to pick against Bill Self.
THE SKINNY: The Longhorns sophomore class is beyond special.
THE SKINNY: Scott Drew has one of the better perimeters in all of college basketball.
4. OKLAHOMA STATE
THE SKINNY: A fertile base of talent has been accumulated in Stillwater — now can it mesh?
5. WEST VIRGINIA
THE SKINNY: Bob Huggins should begin the Mountaineers’ Big 12 tenure with his annual tradition — a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
THE SKINNY: Lon Kruger has the Sooners way ahead of schedule in year two.
7. KANSAS STATE
THE SKINNY: Bruce Weber inherits a talented team from Frank Martin, but who plays power forward?
8. IOWA STATE
THE SKINNY: The Cyclones don’t have another Royce White but they’re talented enough to compete for another NCAA bid.
9. TEXAS TECH
THE SKINNY: A massive roster turnover should make the Red Raiders much more competitive.
THE SKINNY: There’s a long road ahead of Trent Johnson.
BIG 12 PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Myck Kabongo, Texas
Rodney McGruder, Kansas State
LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State
Aaric Murray, West Virginia
Jeff Withey, Kansas
BIG 12 PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Pierre Jackson, Baylor
TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE AN INSTANT IMPACT
1. Juwan Staten, West Virginia (transfer)
2. Aaric Murray, West Virginia (transfer)
3. Korie Lucious, Iowa State (transfer)
4. Will Clyburn, Iowa State (transfer)
5. Dejan Kravic, Texas Tech (transfer)
6. Trency Jackson, Texas Tech (JUCO)
7. Amath M’Baye, Oklahoma (transfer)
8. Ben McLemore, Kansas (red shirt)
9. Jamari Traylor, Kansas (red shirt)
10. J’Mison Morgan, Baylor (red shirt)
TEN BREAKOUT PLAYERS
1. Jabarie Hinds, West Virginia
2. Jordan Henriquez, Kansas State
3. Shane Southwell, Kansas State
4. Michael Cobbins, Oklahoma State
5. Deuce Bello, Baylor
6. Cory Jefferson, Baylor
7. Anthony Booker, Iowa State
8. Chris Babb, Iowa State
9. Jordan Tolbert, Texas Tech
10. Jonathan Holmes, Texas
TEN FRESHMEN TO WATCH
1. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
2. Ben McLemore, Kansas
3. Perry Ellis, Kansas
4. Isaiah Austin, Baylor
5. Ricardo Gathers, Baylor
6. Cameron Ridley, Texas
7. Javan Felix, Texas
8. Prince Ibeh, Texas
9. Josh Gray, Texas Tech
10. Georges Niang, Iowa State
FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
2. Isaiah Cousins, Oklahoma
3. Taurean Waller-Prince, Baylor
4. Wanaah Bail, Texas Tech
5. Andrew White, Kansas
Who’s your pick to take the Big 12? Make your prediction in the comments below!