By Kevin Sweeney
Last season, the Big 12 once again asserted itself as the strongest top-to-bottom conference in college basketball. It ranked highest in conference RPI and Strength of Schedule for the third consecutive season (per realtimeRPI.com), sending an astounding 7 out of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament. And while many teams in the league face lots of roster turnover from a season ago, I fully anticipate the Big 12 to once again be the toughest league in college basketball.
- Iowa State
- West Virginia
- Texas Tech
- Kansas State
- Oklahoma State
Champions: Kansas- The Jayhawks have won 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles, and that incredible streak looks like it should continue for another year. Kansas looks to have the special balance between outstanding young talent and veteran leadership, as Bill Self brings in another outstanding freshman class to pair with much of last season’s core. They do lose Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden, but bring back guard duo Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham, as well as valuable glue guy Landen Lucas. However, they will be able to soften the blow of losing Ellis and Selden with superstar freshmen Udoka Azubuike, a center, and small forward Josh Jackson, the number 2 recruit in the country. They will also look to sophomores LaGerald Vick and Carlton Bragg to make big strides. The Jayhawks will certainly be battle-tested come March, with tilts against Indiana, Duke, and Kentucky scheduled in addition to the usual rigors of the Big 12 conference slate.
Dark Horse: Texas Tech- Texas Tech was the hardest team for me to place in my conference picks because the of great number of new faces on this season’s team. After the Red Raiders suprised many last season by making the NCAA Tournament, head coach Tubby Smith left Lubbock to take the Memphis job. To replace him, TTU hired Chris Beard from UNLV, where he was named head coach just weeks before following a 30 win season with Little Rock. This season’s team will rely heavily on a quartet of transfers to compliment a returning core of 5 players who each averaged 8.5 or more points per game. The transfers, a pair of JUCO All-Americans in Shadell Millinghaus and Niem Stevenson, as well as graduate transfers Gio McLean (Quinnipiac) and Anthony Livingston (Arksansas State). If the bevy of pieces fit together, the Red Raiders could surprise a lot of people in the Big 12 and earn their 2nd consecutive NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2004-2005.
Preseason First Team:
- F: Jonathan Motley-Baylor
- F: Josh Jackson- Kansas
- G: Monte Morris- Iowa State
- G: Jordan Woodard- Oklahoma
- G: Jawun Evans- Oklahoma State
Player of the Year: Monte Morris- Perhaps no team in college basketball will rely as heavily on one player as Iowa State will. After spending 2 seasons as the Robin to Georges Niang’s Batman, the spotlight, and the Cyclones’s hopes rest rest solely on Morris’s shoulders. While Iowa State certainly has talent outside of Morris, they will only go as far as the 6-3 dynamic point guard takes them. Morris provides so much more than just talent to this Iowa State squad, he is a calming force in dire situations who can take over games with his offense or his tenacious defense. Morris will continue to be an excellent distributor, but will also be looked to to provide the primary scoring punch for the Cyclones. The big question for Morris is whether or not his body will physically hold up. He played 40 minutes or more in 12 games last season, a number that will likely go up this season. Such a strenuous workload can lead to injuries, something which would be a disaster for both the Cyclones and fans of college basketball as a whole.
Newcomer of the Year: Josh Jackson- Josh Jackson is a STUD! A mixtape-maker’s dream player, Jackson uses his elite athleticism to put on a show every time he steps on the floor, with highlight-reel dunks a regularity. Already a consensus top 5 pick in upcoming 2017 NBA Draft, Jackson will spend this season hoping to lead the Jayhawks to the a national championship. Head Coach Bill Self certainly has experience coaching players like Jackson, as he coached Andrew Wiggins in his one season with the Jayhawks before being the top selection in the 2014 NBA Draft. This season’s Kansas roster fits Jackson’s strength’s perfectly, with the aforementioned backcourt duo of Mason and Graham, as well as Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, stretching the floor with 3-point shooting, which should leave plenty of lanes for Jackson to attack the rim. Expect a huge year from Jackson in what will most likely be his only season with the Jayhawks.