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As always, Big 12 belongs to Kansas, Self

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 8, 2017 07:28 PM
Bill Self again coaches the Big 12 favorite, but Kansas will get a run for its money from West Virginia.
© USA Today Sports Images

Led by Kansas, as always, the Big 12 Conference was able to get six teams into the NCAA Tournament field in March.

But the Jayhawks again failed to make the Final Four after being the heavy favorites in their region. The conference did get four teams to the Sweet 16. Kansas has won 13 straight regular-season conference crowns, so it’s tough to pick against coach Bill Self.

The losses Self has to deal with — guards Josh Jackson and Frank Mason — are tough, but transfer Malik Newman and senior Devonte’ Graham should make a lethal duo.

Mason’s 3-point shooting is close to irreplaceable as he converted 47.1 percent of his 3s while posting averages of 20.9 points, 5.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals. With that said, Graham is no slouch as he shot 38.8 percent from distance and should have a big senior year at the point after going for 13.4 points, 4.1 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game as a junior.

Newman will be aiding him the backcourt after sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules. He was rated a top 10 prospect by ESPN in the class of 2015 and many thought he was destined to be a lottery pick prior to his freshman year at Mississippi State. But the team went below .500 as he played much of the year banged up with averages of 11.3 points and 2.8 rebounds.

Self also has the services of Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk for one more year as a versatile 6-foot-8 wing. He scored 9.8 points per game while shooting 39.8 percent from 3 and being a superb defender. Nobody will fill the shoes of Jackson, but getting Udoka Azubuike back from injury is a big help. The 7-foot center was lost for the season after 11 games due to injury. He was making an impact on the defensive end and had five points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in an average of 11.6 minutess per game.

ESPN-rated five-star prospect Billy Preston should start alongside him in the post. The 6-foot-10 freshman’s mid-range jumper is improving and he is a good rebounder with a strong set of post moves. He has been known to try to play too much hero ball and try to do too much by himself, but Self should be able to coach some of those tenancies out of him.

The team also has an ESPN-rated four-star prospect coming in to help the guards. Six-foot-5 Marcus Garrett can play positions one through three and is a guy who is intense when going for rebounds. He will not see loads of minutes at the beginning of the year, but if an Injury occurs, he will likely get an opportunity to showcase his versatility.

The last time Kansas did not win the Big 12 regular-season crown, YouTube was being invented and Lance Armstrong was revered as a national icon. Don’t get cute and think someone else is winning the conference.

The battle for second does not appear to be overly competitive, either, with West Virginia bringing back a talented core.

Bob Higgins has to replace Nathan Adrian, who was the team’s leading rebounder, but that task is made easier with him using a lineup that goes 10 players deep. He has a bunch of options like incoming ESPN-rated four-star freshman Derek Culver, who is 6-foot-8, 225 pounds and one of the better rebounders in the 2017 class. Returning forwards Elijah Macon and Sagaba Konate combined to play 27 minutes per game last year and could see an uptick in playing time. And 6-foot-8 Esa Ahmad is back in that loaded forward rotation after he had 11.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore and even converted 39.5 percent of his 3s.

While the big guys are nice, the team’s fearless leader is Jevon Carter, who is back for his senior year. He had 13.5 points, five rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.5 steals per game and also made 38.9 percent of his 3s.

Huggins also went the junior-college route to bring in stretch 6-foot-6 two-way player Wesley Harris, who had 18.2 points and 8.4 rebounds at the lower level last year. He also brings in 6-foot-8 JUCO transfer D’Angelo Hunter, who averaged 15.8 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Huggins should have the depth needed to run his full-court press defense. That press last year forced Western Carolina into 40 turnovers in a game, as the Mountaineers led college basketball with 20 forced turnovers per game, 10 of which were steals. They won the turnover battle against their opponents by 7.7 per game.

West Virginia has the ingredients to be a top 10 team, and it came dangerously close to ousting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 a year ago. This team is deep, loaded with experience, and has a go-to scorer in Carter. A trip to the Final Four is possible if the Mountaineers can avoid off shooting nights in the tournament.

Texas was a dumpster fire last year with an 11-22 record, finishing alone in last place in the conference. Coach Shaka Smart has brought in a good recruiting class as things should improve.

The team’s frontcourt will look very different as 6-foot-11 Jarrett Allen left the program to be a first-round NBA Draft pick. Six-foot-9 Dylan Osetkowski is eligible after sitting out the 2016-17 season after transferring from Tulane. He had 11.3 points and 8.3 rebounds as a sophomore in the 2015-16 season.

While that’s nice, his addition pales in comparison to that of ESPN-rated five-star prospect Mohamed Bamba. The 7-foot center has a 7-9 wingspan and is the best rim protector in the 2017 class. His post moves need work, but his rebounding and shot blocking will make up for that deficiency and then some.

The team's top scorer through 15 games last year was Tevin Mack, who made a team-best 39.1 percent of his 3s to go with 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He was dismissed from the team midway though the year as the team went 5-13 without him. Texas had zero 3-point shooting without Mack — 29.9 percent was the team's 3-point shooting percentage, which was 345th out of 351 D-I teams.

Guards Andrew Jones and Kerwin Roach Jr. combined for 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.2 assists per game last year. Both are good passers and capable drivers, but Jones shot just 32.8 percent from distance and Roach 28.4 percent.

Awful outside shooting means 6-foot-8 freshmen Jericho Sims and Royce Hamm will have to give the team as many second and third chances as possible. Both were rated by ESPN as top 100 recruits and are adept at cleaning up the glass.

The Longhorns boast  tremendous group of big guys and guards who can get them the ball, but they will be hampered by outside shooting. Texas will be better this year, but how much better?

Baylor started 15-0 start, getting to No. 1 in the polls in January. The Bears cooled off a bit in Big 12 play but still went 27-8 and made the Sweet 16.

Scott Drew coached one of the best forward combinations in America with Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. Motley is gone after putting up 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.1 blocks per game, leaving it up to his backcourt mate to man the paint this year. Lual-Acuil Jr. had 9.1 points, 2.5 blocks and 6.7 rebounds per game and even began developing a 3-point shot.

Drew will be looking to his incoming big guys for minutes. Seven-foot JUCO transfer Leonard Allen is 22 years old but just a sophomore. He sat out the 2106-17 season while taking classes at Austin Community College. Leonard Allen is the older brother of Jarrett Allen, who played at Texas last year and was selected in the first round of the draft.

The team will have 6-foot-5 wing Mark Vital available this year after he redshirted a year ago. He was rated by ESPN as one of the top 100 prospect in the 2016 class and has off-the-charts athleticism and hops. The Bears are looking at another Top 25 team that could finish in the top three in the Big 12.

Iowa State made a run to the Sweet 16 now has to retool its lineup with four of the top six scorers from a year ago out of eligibility.

All of the departures leave sixth man Donovan Jackson to lead the team. Jackson is the new anchor of a team that lost nearly 85 percent of its points and close to 82 percent of its assists. The 6-foot-2 senior had 6.4 points per game and shot 45.4 percent from downtown.

A team that has been based around playing small-ball and having guys who can play every position on the court is right now in transition. But coach Steve Prohm has two ESPN-rated top 100 recruits entering the program, and Lindell Wiggington and Terrence Lewis both will see immediate minutes.

Iowa State will be in rebuilding mode. With so much of last year’s production gone, and the style of the team needing to also change as a result, the Cyclones will spin toward the bottom of the conference.

Oklahoma had a season to forget with an 11-20 record after reaching the Final Four the year prior.

Jordan Woodard was the team’s senior leader last year, so coach Lon Kruger found one of the best prospects in the 2017 class to fill that void in Trae Young. ESPN rated the 6-foot-2 freshman as a five-star recruit and he might be the most well-rounded point guard in the 2017 class. He’s a good 3-point shooter, has wonderful ball-handling skills,and his driving gives teammates open looks.

The addition of Young should be welcomed by sophomore Kameron McGusty, who had 10.9 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from distance a year ago. The team was 309th in the country in 3s attempted, so McGusty shooting becomes quite paramount.

Another positive addition will be junior-college transfer Ty Lazenby, a 6-foot-5 guard who averaged 22.9 points and 4.7 rebounds with 35.9 percent 3-point shooting percentage.

Kristian Doolittle is the team's most efficient returning 3-point shooter, making 39.5 percent of his 3s. His low-post mate Khadeem Lattin is a different type of player but posts similar numbers.

Brady Manek, a 6-foot-9 ESPN-rated four-star recruit, might be the hardest guy for foes to match up with during the 2017-18 season given his size and ability to knock down outside shots. Also, 6-foot-11, 265-pound Hannes Polla is from Europe, but he’s anything but a stretch player. The ESPN-rated four-star recruit has good post moves and plays solid defense in the interior as he might be the strongest man on the roster.

Despite losing 20 games, Oklahoma was outscored by an average of just 1.2 points per game as it lost 12 of those games by 10 points or fewer. The Sooners should return to the NCAA Tournament this year if luck works in Kruger’s favor.

Texas Christian went through an up-and-down season as it got off to an 11-1 start, but lost its last seven regular-season conference games, which cost the Horned Frogs a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Frogs did get invited to the NIT, though, and won it to finish the year with a 24-15 record.

Jamie Dixon has the meat of his roster back and with more of his guys now in the program, the Horned Frogs have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.

Vladimir Brodziansky, 6-foot-10 senior, is back after averaging a team-high 14.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. And 6-foot-7 Kenrich Williams was a valuable all-around player last year, averaging a team-high 9.7 rebounds per game to go with 11.4 points, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals, all while converting 36.3 percent of his 3s.

Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson proved to be one of the best all-around guards in a state were there are plenty of good ones. He posted 11.2 points, 5.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. Sophomore guard Jaylen Fisher helped him be so smooth as he contributed 9.9 points and four assists per game while making a team-best 38 percent of his 3s.

TCU has enough depth to have a winning record in Big 12 play and get to the NCAA Tournament.

The Brad Underwood era in Stillwater was a short one as he went 20-13 in his one year at Oklahoma State, leading the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament. During the offseason he bolted for Illinois, which led to Mike Boynton being elevated from an assistant to head coach.

Boynton has his work cut out for him as star guard Jawun Evans is tough to replace. Evans did it will with a 37.9 3-point shooting percentage to go with 19.2 points, 6.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. The team made 40.2 percent of its 3s last year, which was 14th in the country. Phil Forte was a big part of that as the departed senior made 41.7 percent of the 6.2 outside shots per game he took and averaged 13.3 points.

These two losses put the pressure on 6-foot-6 Jeffrey Carroll to have a mammoth senior year after he logged 17.5 points and 6.6 rebounds while converting a team-best 44.4 percent of his 3s. This year's Cowboys team will be filled with several guards who have a similar frame and skill set as Carroll.

The Cowboys add Cal State Northridge graduate transfer Kendall Smith, who started his career at UNLV. Smith had 16.7 points, four rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.3 steals per contest as a do-it-all guy. He was also a 37.5 percent shooter from distance, giving this team an overabundance of options in the backcourt.

Oklahoma State must replace a lot of its production from a year ago, but this is a team that could surprise many and should not be taken lightly. The Cowboys could make a charge toward an NCAA bid.

Texas Tech went 18-14 last year in coach Chris Beard's first year. The team outscored foes by an average of 6.2 points per game and 10 of its 14 losses were by single digits.

The Red Raiders started 11-1, thanks in large part to the 338th-rated nonconference strength of schedule, and aside from games against Seton Hall and Nevada, face another cakewalk early this year.

The two JUCO transfers Beard is bringing in to sew up the backcourt, Hyron Edwards and Josh Webster, could make or break this team. Beard also brought in an ESPN-rated three-star prospect in 6-foot-5 Jarrett Culver to give the team another 3-point shooting option.

Beard seems to be getting the sort of roster that suits the tenacious defensive style he likes. This looks like an NIT team on paper, but Beard two years ago stunned many with Arkansas-Little Rock making the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament and this is a team that can overachieve.

Kansas State had its ups and downs last year, but coach Bruce Weber got the team into the NCAA Tournament and the Wildcats got a win against Wake Forest in the First Four before finishing 21-14.

It will be 5-foot-10 Kamau Stokes' team this year after he had 11.7 points and 4.1 assists as a sophomore. Fellow junior Barry Brown will join him in the starting lineup after the 6-foot-3 lockdown defender had 11.7 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.4 assist, and 2.3 steals per game.

Kansas State has what is rated across the board as the worst recruiting class in the conference. The Wildcats lack the firepower and depth to be a threat in the Big 12. Weber saved his job for the short term with a run to the NCAA Tournament, but might get fired if this season does not yield 20 wins, which looks unlikely.

The Big 12 could be the toughest conference in the nation top to bottom since there does not appear to be a single easy win on the conference slate. Texas and Oklahoma were in the cellar last year and both are much improved. This is still Kansas' league, but this conference could put seven teams into the NCAA Tournament if things break just right.

Greg Peterson’s Big 12 Conference forecast:

1. Kansas

2. West Virginia

3. Baylor

4. TCU

5. Oklahoma

6. Texas

7. Texas Tech

8. Oklahoma State

9. Kansas State

10. Iowa State

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