(Note: The following was written in June, 2009 for the NU basketball blog)
Think of the 2009-10 Big 12 men’s basketball race as a beauty contest. The winner, runner-up, etc. will be just a little prettier and more talented than those who don’t make the pageant finals. Although they don’t award a 12th place finish in the Miss America contest, I’m sure if they did, we would all agree she’s awfully attractive.
I thought it was hype, all this talk about the Big 12 being the best league in the country this coming winter. Smugly, I thought Yadda Yadda Yadda. This is just the conference trying to promote itself. Trying to secure more national media respect.
But after listening to the coaches summer teleconference, I’m all-over the proposition that the Big 12 will be the best if we’re talking about quality, top to bottom.
Most fans probably won’t buy it. At season’s end, teams in the lower third of the conference standings will have lost a good number of league games. Teams that win just a few can’t be any good, can they? You bet they can. The only thing that means is that the Big 12 will have cannibalized itself. This season, the teams that finish at the bottom won’t be as far behind the leaders as the final standings suggest. They’re all really good. Some just a little better than others. The problem is the company they keep.
Based on how they finished in the standings last year, let’s peek at the possibilities for each team this coming season. We’ll start with those most likely not to succeed, moving up from there. As you’ll note, I think eight teams will be as good as or better than last year.
Colorado won one league game last year. But the Buffs lost 11 conference games by an average of only 4.5 points per game. They took Texas into overtime. Jeff Bzdelik’s team will be better because it will be deeper and stronger inside. JC transfer Marcus Relphorde and incoming frosh Alec Burks (being compared to Richard Roby when he was a freshman) are two of five newcomers who will help. Colorado should be able to finish some games this year that it could not a year ago.
Prediction: Better but in bottom three.
Texas Tech won only three games in the conference last season. But late in the year, the Raiders showed signs of understanding what Pat Knight expects. They beat both A&M and Kansas and nearly won at both Texas and Iowa State. They have seven of their top eight scorers returning. Mike Singletary went off late last season and could be an all-conference type. John Roberson is a nice Big 12 guard. Knight says he’ll be stressing better man-to-man defense this year.
Prediction: Better but in bottom three.
Iowa State has four starters back, including Craig Brackins and Lucca Staiger. Add JC All-American Marquis Gilstrap (who has only one year of eligibility), some key returnees coming off the bench, and two players who sat out last year, and the Cyclones look like a team that could make a significant jump up the league ladder. The main thing for Greg McDermott is that his team will be much more athletic. They’ll also be significantly deeper. Like Colorado, this should allow Iowa State to finish some games that it could not last season.
Prediction: Much better. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth.
Baylor will regroup after losing seniors Henry Dugat, Curtis Jerrells, Kevin Rogers, and Mamadou Diene. The Bears will build around returnees Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn, and Quincy Acey. The big addition (literally) is Ekpe Udoh, the 6-10 transfer from Michigan who sat out last year. Scott Drew’s teleconference comments hinted that Udoh has some work to do offensively. Baylor’s top recruit is Nolan Dennis who originally signed with Memphis. Baylor is hard to figure for the season ahead. They won only five league games last year but rallied to get into the NIT championship game.
Prediction: Not quite as good. Bottom three finish but with a shot to do better than that.
Nebraska will be inexperienced but considerably bigger and deeper. And the talent appears to be better. While size, numbers, and talent are closer to what is needed, the hurdle will be youth. NU will have eight scholarship players who have never played a D-1 game. But Doc Sadler had bigger issues with his first three teams at NU. He manages to accomplish more with less. No reason to think his fourth team won’t come together as just as well as his other teams have. Under Sadler, it’s about playing harder and, often, smarter than your opponents. Adding more and better talent to that formula should result in improvement this coming season. Seniors Sek Henry and Ryan Anderson need to have their best seasons for NU to make a move up.
Prediction: Better. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth. Probably toward the middle of that group.
Oklahoma State has James Anderson returning. That does more to buoy the Cowboys hopes for 09-10 than anything. Anderson decided late in the summer to delay his NBA aspirations and return to Stillwater for his junior season. Byron Eaton and Terrel Harris are gone and that is hurtful. But Travis Ford pulled in seven highly ranked freshmen recruits, ranked as the 11th best class in the country by Rivals. Post players Teeng Akol and Torin Walker will give the Cowboys needed size. Obi Muonelo returning on the perimeter will be big. The primary question for OSU will be at point guard. Eaton was a huge reason they reached the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
Prediction: Not quite as good. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth.
Texas A&M will have three starters back. Bryan Davis, Donald Sloan, and Derrick Roland are an awfully nice group of players around which to build. Josh Carter and Chinemelu Elonu are gone. Elonu would have made the Aggies much stronger inside but decided to forgo his last year of college ball and try his luck in the NBA. As usual, A&M did well recruiting. Mark Turgeon picked up a Rivals Top 25 recruiting class, with Ray Turner, Kourtney Roberson, and Khris Middleton the mostly likely contributors as freshmen. A&M will miss Carter and Elonu and their combined 23.6 points per game. Several of the coaches seemed to like A&M a lot in the teleconference.
Prediction: As good. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth. Probably toward the top of that group.
Texas is a probable preseason top five team. If Rick Barnes gets his point guard issues resolved, the Longhorns should deliver on that lofty projection. Florida transfer Jai Lucas is the likely candidate at that spot. Lucas and fellow top 10 recruits Jordan Hamilton and Avery Bradley will give Texas more depth than it has had recently. Veterans back are Dexter Pittman, Damion James, Gary Johnson, Dogus Balbay, and Justin Mason. Besides point guard, the only question about the Longhorns is whether Barnes can play as fast as he wants to with Pittman on the floor. Other coaches in the league should have such problems! Asked about his concerns in the teleconference, Barnes couldn’t name one.
Prediction: Better. Should finish second.
Kansas State also scored a consensus Top 25 recruiting class to go with four returning starters from last season. Frank Martin calls it the best mix of experience and new players he’s had in Manhattan. The starters coming back are Denis Clemente, Luis Colon, Jacob Pullen, and Dominique Sutton. Jamar Samuels is a key bench contributor returning. The new guys include McDonald’s All-American Wally Judge, shooting guard Rodney McGruder, and point guard Nick Russell. Martin says Judge “has great hands and runs like the wind.” Connecticut transfer Curtis Kelly will also be eligible after sitting out last season. Unlike the Michael Beasley and Bill Walker days, Martin says the first year guys won’t feel the pressure to carry the team this season. In fact, they’ll all have significant competition for playing time.
Prediction: Better. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth. Probably toward the middle to top of that group.
Missouri will obviously miss the inside presence of Demarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Even more so if 6-10 forward recruit Keith DeWitt is definitively deemed ineligible by the NCAA, which was an earlier ruling and is the case as of this writing. Carroll, Lyons, and Matt Lawrence have used up their college eligibility and combined, scored more than 40 points per game. Ouch. J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor returning in the backcourt helps. Second year players Kim English, Marcus Denmon, Keith Ramsey, and Miguel Paul will need to step up. Missouri will be hard pressed to win 12 league games again this year.
Prediction: Not as good. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth. Probably toward middle or bottom of that group.
Oklahoma lost college basketball’s Player of the Year. Not to mention Taylor Griffin, and Austin Johnson. I appreciate the special talents of Willie Warren, Tony Crocker, Keith Gallon, and Tommy Mason-Griffin. But Blake Griffin is gone!
Prediction: Not as good. Could finish anywhere from third to ninth. Probably toward the middle of that group.
Kansas has everybody back but the end of the bench. They add three, five-star recruits. This one is easy!
Prediction: Better. Should win the league.
So there you have it. Bottom to top. Eight Big 12 teams will be as good as or better than last year when the league sent a record nine teams to postseason play. KU and Texas will finish at the top. Colorado, Tech, and Baylor at the bottom. Everybody else somewhere in between.
Just remember when it’s all over in March, some beauty contests are better than others. This one - the Big 12 Conference - will be the best in the nation.