By Kevin Sweeney
We return to the high-major level today with the Big 12, which was one of the most difficult leagues to project for me. Kansas, which has won the league’s regular season an incredible 13 times in a row, comes in as the clear favorite to claim the crown once again. After that, however, I find myself debating strongly about virtually every spot. One thing is clear though: the Big 12 is strong once again.
- Kansas- At this point, it seems silly to bet against Bill Self. While the Jayhawks aren’t an exceedingly deep club, they have an absolutely loaded backcourt featuring senior star Devonte’ Graham as well as 5-star Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman. A definite Final Four candidate.
- West Virginia- “Press Virginia” will once again bother opponents with their high-intensity defense anchored by Jevon Carter. I have concerns up front, especially with Esa Ahmad suspended for the first half of the season. Bob Huggins always seems to find a way though.
- TCU- The fact that Jamie Dixon has this team as a potential top 3 team in the Big 12 this season speaks volumes to what he has done there in a short time. The Horned Frogs should return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
- Oklahoma- I’m a bit higher on the Sooners than most given they are coming off an 11-campaign, but Lon Kruger’s club has one of the brightest young cores in the country. They also add one of the elite guards in the 2017 recruiting class in Trae Young, whose highlights invoke the image of a young Steph Curry.
- Baylor- Honestly, I’m not in love with this Baylor roster. However, the Bears do have an excellent lead guard in Manu Lecomte, a rim-protecting big in Jo-Lual Acuil, and a coach in Scott Drew who always seems to get the job done.
- Texas- Shaka Smart has assembled an extremely athletic squad, but I’m not sure how well the pieces fit together. Freshmen Matt Coleman (PG) and #3 overall recruit Mo Bamba (C) will play huge roles, but the Longhorns will need to hit some outside shots this season to be an NCAA Tournament team.
- Texas Tech- Probably the team I had the toughest time placing. The Red Raiders have one of the better duos in the country in Keenan Evans and Zach Smith, but they lost a ton of close games a season ago. Transfers Brandone Francis and Tommy Hamilton should help with depth, but will TTU close games?
- Kansas State- The Wildcats have a really solid core in Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Dean Wade, and Xavier Sneed. Beyond that group is where major questions lie. The frontcourt has almost no returning production other than Wade, who does his best work away from the basket. Mount St. Mary’s grad transfer Mawdo Sallah will have to play solid minutes.
- Iowa State- With the graduations of Monte Morris, Naz Long, Deonte Burton, and Matt Thomas, the Cyclones are in for a rebuilding season. However, they do bring in a McDonald’s All-American in PG Lindell Wigginton and a few other solid recruits. Returnees Donovan Jackson and Solomon Young will have to make big strides as well.
- Oklahoma State- Losing head coach Brad Underwood was crushing for the Cowboys. Jeffrey Carroll is one of the top players in the conference, but I have a lot of questions about the rest of the roster. New head coach Mike Boynton may have his hands full.
The streak continues to year 14, and shows no signs of letting up. While the Jayhawks graduate Frank Mason and Landen Lucas while also losing Josh Jackson to the NBA, Bill Self’s squad is loaded again. Mason’s partner-in-crime Devonte’ Graham will take over point guard duties for his senior campaign, while Malik Newman will be an explosive weapon offensively playing on the wing after sitting out last season. Frontcourt depth is a big concern, as the Jayhawks are thin behind sophomore Udoka Azubuike, but look for Self to deploy a lot of 4-guard lineups with either Svi Mykhailiuk or LaGerald Vick playing the 4 at times. I have Kansas as a preseason top 5 team in college basketball.
Dark Horse: TCU
While I typically wouldn’t choose a dark horse who I have picked 3rd in the conference, the term feels appropriate about the Horned Frogs since I’m not sure the average fan realizes how good this team could be. Big man Vladimir Brodziansky is incredibly skilled for his 6-10 frame and is one of the most efficient players in the country. Kenrich Williams is one of the most versatile players in the league, a 6-7 forward who is a force on the glass and can defend multiple positions. Turnovers were a bit of problem for the Horned Frogs a season ago, but those should improve with backcourt mates Jaylen Fisher and Alex Robinson entering their second year in the system. Don’t sleep on Jamie Dixon’s team this season.
All-Conference First Team:
- G: Devonte’ Graham (Kansas)
- G: Malik Newman (Kansas)
- G: Jevon Carter (West Virginia)
- G: Jeffrey Carroll (Oklahoma State)
- F: Vladimir Brodziansky (TCU)
Player of the Year: Jevon Carter- No one embodies Bob Huggins’ West Virginia teams quite like Carter, the feisty defender who has vastly improved as an elite offensive weapon as well during his time in Morgantown. Others may post gaudier numbers than Carter, but you can’t coach his knack for making big plays on both ends of the court when it matters most. Simply put, he’s the type of player that every coach in the country wishes he had.
Breakout Player of the Year: Udoka Azubuike (Kansas)- The hype surrounding Azubuike from the Jayhawk faithful is definitely apparent. The big man definitely showed flashes in his 11 games last season before suffering a season-ending wrist injury. The 7-footer is a load in the post, excellent on the glass, and blocked a ton of shots (more than 5 per 40 minutes) as a freshman. With an expanded role this season, look for Azubuike to be a double-double machine for the Jayhawks.
Newcomer of the Year: Malik Newman (Kansas)- Newman originally chose to stay in his home state of Mississippi, where he began his career in Starkville with Mississippi State under Ben Howland. Once seen as a one-and-done-type prospect, Newman didn’t have the best freshman campaign, shooting just 39.1% from the field. However, a year working on his game with Bill Self’s staff and learning from veterans like Mason and Graham definitely should help him reach his full potential in year 1 with the Jayhawks. I’m expecting a huge season from the dynamic guard.