By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE BIG 12
1. SHOULD KANSAS BE RANKED FIRST IN THE BIG 12 PRESEASON POLL?
Yes, because their coach is Bill Self and their top freshman Andrew Wiggins is a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. The Jayhawks have won the last nine Big 12 regular-season titles and they’re bringing in the best recruiting class they’ve had in years — but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily have the best team in the Big 12 next season. Oklahoma State returns arguably college basketball’s best backcourt in Marcus Smart and Markel Brown along with a likely first-round pick in versatile forward LeBryan Nash. Smart would have been a top-three pick if he opted to put his name in the draft last year and his overall maturity, instincts and toughness are enough to make Travis Ford’s unit a squad more than capable of winning this conference. I’ll be honest. I made a mistake a few years ago and I picked against Self in the preseason. I won’t do it again, but it’s important to point out that even though Kansas is incredibly talented, their talent isn’t proven. The Jayhawks will have five new starters and it’s going to take some time for this group to mesh. If they don’t, Oklahoma State could very well wind up being at the top of the league standings in March.
2. HOW MANY LOSSES WILL KANSAS HAVE WHEN BIG 12 PLAY BEGINS?
It’s a legitimate question considering this may very well be the most difficult non-conference schedule the Jayhawks have had since Self has been coach. Before Kansas plays a game in the Big 12, they’ll have neutral-site tilts against Duke and New Mexico, travel to Colorado and Florida, play in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas and host Georgetown, San Diego State, Iona and Towson. That’s 11 games against teams with the potential to have RPI’s ranked in the top 100. The Jayhawks will be beyond tested before league play begins in January.
3. WHO IS THE MOST UNDERRATED FRESHMAN IN THE BIG 12?
Baylor’s Ishmail Wainwright. Yes he was ranked in the Top 100 coming out of high school, but the 6-foot-6 small forward deserves more attention considering his overall skill set. Wainwright’s versatility makes him an instant starter for Scott Drew’s team, and he’ll also likely play some point guard when starting floor general Kenny Chery isn’t on the court. A terrific passer with great vision, Wainwright is the type of player that automatically makes his teammates better as soon as he steps on the floor. This is a strong addition to Baylor’s core of Brady Heslip, Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin and Rico Gathers.
4. CAN IOWA STATE REACH THE NCAA TOURNAMENT FOR THE THIRD CONSECUTIVE YEAR?
If DeAndre Kane plays like an All-Big 12 type player, absolutely. The mercurial combo guard graduated from Marshall and transferred to Ames with the intention of being the Cyclones’ starting floor general. Kane put up big numbers throughout his career at Marshall — 15.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 7.0 APG last season — but he’s yet to lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. Iowa State was destined for a rebuilding year before Kane’s arrival, and now Fred Hoiberg’s team has a legitimate chance to compete for an NCAA bid once again. With Kane, skilled big man Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim, the Cyclones have three all-conference type players who should be able to carry them against most opponents. The biggest key for this team will be the supporting cast, and their ability to consistently make open shots. Keep an eye on freshman Matt Thomas, a Top 100 recruit who’s likely to start at shooting guard.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Oklahoma. Why the Sooners? Lon Kruger. The man has won everywhere he’s been and returns several key perimeter pieces from last year’s team that reached the NCAA Tournament. Buddy Hield (7.8 PPG in ’12-13) possesses great size for a guard at 6-foot-4 and will likely become one of the best scorers in the Big 12 as a sophomore. Oklahoma also adds an impact guy in freshman point guard Jordan Woodard, who should compete for time with veterans Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins. The big question for the Sooners is their frontcourt. Don’t be shocked if Kruger opts to play small and use 6-foot-6 senior Cameron Clark at power forward due to his versatility. Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler, who got rave reviews last season as a redshirt, is this team’s other likely frontcourt starter.
BIG 12 PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: The Jayhawks are aiming for their 10th straight Big 12 title under Bill Self.
2. OKLAHOMA STATE
THE SKINNY: Marcus Smart and Markel Brown may very well be the nation’s best backcourt.
THE SKINNY: How many teams would like to have Rico Gathers as their third big man?
4. IOWA STATE
THE SKINNY: Melvin Ejim may be the least appreciated player in college basketball.
THE SKINNY: Buddy Hield will become one of the Big 12’s best players.
6. KANSAS STATE
THE SKINNY: Freshman point guard Jevon Thomas should be an immediate starter.
THE SKINNY: The Longhorns will have to do more with less.
8. WEST VIRGINIA
THE SKINNY: Freshman big man Devin Williams will play a huge role.
THE SKINNY: Trent Johnson quietly put together a very good recruiting class.
10. TEXAS TECH
THE SKINNY: There is no quick fix for Tubby Smith in Lubbock.
BIG 12 PRESASON FIRST TEAM
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Cory Jefferson, Baylor
Isaiah Austin, Baylor
BIG 12 PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
10 WHO HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
Frank Mason, Kansas (post-grad)
Landen Lucas, Kansas (redshirt)
Ryan Spangler, Oklahoma (redshirt)
K.J. Bluford, Iowa State (JUCO)
D.J. Bennett, Oklahoma (redshirt)
Kenny Chery, Baylor (JUCO)
Dustin Hogue, Iowa State (JUCO)
Amric Fields, TCU (redshirt)
Robert Turner, Texas Tech (JUCO)
Remi Dibo, West Virginia (JUCO)
10 IMPACT FRESHMEN
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Joel Embiid, Kansas
Wayne Selden, Kansas
Connor Frankamp, Kansas
Brannen Greene, Kansas
Devin Williams, West Virginia
Ishmail Wainwright, Baylor
Allerik Freeman, Baylor
Karviar Shepherd, TCU
Jevon Thomas, Kansas State
FIVE UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
Jordan Woodard, Oklahoma
Marcus Foster, Kansas State
Kendal Yancy-Harris, Texas
Matt Thomas, Iowa State
Stevie Clark, Oklahoma State
FIVE BREAKOUT PLAYERS
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Perry Ellis, Kansas
Terry Henderson, West Virginia
Kamari Murphy, Oklahoma State
Shane Southwell, Kansas State
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