Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Big 12: It's Always Tougher at the Bottom

Note: This article also appears at Big12-fans.com.

Does Missouri want to matter this season? How about Texas Tech? Or Nebraska?

Frankly, that question can be asked to any team in the Big Twelve outside of Kansas, Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma State, and Kansas State—the projected top five teams in the league. Other than those five teams, there is not one team in the conference that looks remotely ready to challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth. In other words, the bottom seven in the Big 12 is going to be the worst bottom half (plus one) of any major conference in the country.

There is a huge gap between the contenders and the pretenders in the conference. It is fairly clear-cut as to who are the haves and have-nots this season. If a team outside the top five ends up making noise, it is going to be considered a surprise and a minor upset.

The obvious top team in the conference is Kansas. They are absolutely loaded and are one of three legitimate national championship contenders. Brandon Rush and Julian Wright could become superstars in their sophomore years, while guards Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson, and Sherron Collins give the Jayhawks plenty of firepower in the backcourt. Up front, freshman Darrell Arthur joins Sasha Kaun and C.J. Giles to provide balance down low. If they don’t win the conference, I’d be shocked.

After them, the nearly unanimous #2 is Texas A&M. However, even though the Aggies have the best shot to give Kansas a run for their money, I don’t see them pushing the Jayhawks for the regular season title. That’s not a knock on A&M—Kansas is simply too good. Acie Law and Joseph Jones form one of the best inside-outside combos in the country, while Josh Carter and Dominique Kirk are two more solid options on the perimeter. Marlon Pompey and Antanas Kavalauskas give Jones help down low. If the Aggies find ways to score more consistently, they will be a threat to go deep in the Big Dance.

Texas looks to be the next in line after A&M. The Longhorns are similar to last year’s North Carolina team—they lost six of their top seven scorers, but bring in an outstanding recruiting class. Returnee A.J. Abrams will anchor the backcourt and could have a breakout season. McDonald’s All-American D.J. Augustin will likely start next to him at the other guard spot. My pick for National Freshman of the Year, Kevin Durant, is going to be an outstanding player on the wing. He is expected to be a star immediately. Damion James, another Top-20 recruit, will also be in the lineup come November. In addition, two Top-20 centers are going to be in the fold for Texas, not to mention returnee Connor Atchley. Don’t cry for Texas.

Oklahoma State and Kansas State round out the teams that can potentially make the NCAA Tournament come March. The Cowboys have great potential although they only went 6-10 in Big 12 play last season. JamesOn Curry is a very good scorer on the wing and will be joined by McDonald’s All-American Obi Muonelo. Marcus Dove is an excellent defender. Mario Boggan is an all-conference player on the inside, and David Monds is solid. The key will be point guard play. Jamaal Brown and Byron Eaton are not terrible, but they were extremely inconsistent last season. If they provide solid ball-handling and can distribute the ball well, watch out for Oklahoma State. Kansas State is the big story this offseason, mainly as a result of the hiring of new coach Bob Huggins. He is expected to instill toughness into the Wildcats immediately. Their season, however, may hinge on the eligibility of star Cartier Martin. He was suspended in the offseason, but should be able to play when the season starts. He might be the best player in the conference. Lance Harris and David Hoskins are two other very solid scorers on the wing that will take some of the pressure off of Martin. Newcomers Blake Young and Jason Bennett are expected to make immediate impacts. Young was one of the top Junior College guards last season, while the 7'3" Bennett was a top-ten center in high school. If the Wildcats get consistent inside play, they should be the fifth Big 12 team in the Big Dance.

After that, the competition for postseason play looks bleak. Oklahoma is falling rapidly with the loss of three freshmen and coach Kelvin Sampson; Baylor is still trying to get their program back to normalcy after a tumultuous couple of seasons; Iowa State and Colorado look downright pitiful; Missouri is entering a new era under coach Mike Anderson; Nebraska loses five of their top seven scorers and don’t bring in anyone of note; while Texas Tech might be the best chance the conference has for a lower-tier team to make a run.

The Red Raiders are ranked in the top 30 by Andy Katz in his latest rankings—I honestly have no idea what he was thinking when he made that decision. Yes, Martin Zeno and Jarrius Jackson form a fantastic backcourt, but that didn’t lead them to the postseason last season and I don’t see them making the Field of 65 this season unless Darryl Dora or someone else steps up in the frontcourt.

Baylor could be a potential sleeper, but they went 4-12 last season so I don’t trust them. However, a slew of guards return for the Bears, including Aaron Bruce and Curtis Jerrells, two very good all-around players. Henry Dugat is an excellent shooter. McDonald’s All-American Demon “Tweety” Carter will also help out right away on the perimter. Until they prove they can win ball games, though, I can’t see Baylor doing much.

Oklahoma has a decent returning cast, but their program seems like it is going to be sliding for a couple of years. Michael Neal is a very good shooter, while Nate Carter is a versatile forward. Austin Johnson and David Godbold also return on the perimeter. The Sooners lack a capable post player, though, which will end up being their Achilles’ heel all season long unless they find a go-to-guy down low.

The bottom four teams are going to be RPI killers for the top teams in the conference. Nebraska returns all-conference center Aleks Maric and a solid guard in Jamel White, but that’s it. Iowa State lost the star backcourt of Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock to the NBA Draft, and only return four players who averaged ten minutes or more per game. Rahshon Clark is a very good all-around player, while Jiri Hubalek is a decent center. JC transfer Corey McIntosh could be a surprise, though. Colorado has one of the better players in the country in Richard Roby, but the Buffaloes lost ten seniors, leaving the cupboard very bare. Missouri could steal a few games here and there because of new coach Mike Anderson, but as long as their go-to-guy is Marshall Brown, the Tigers aren’t going to be far from last place in the conference.

If you are optimistic about the Big 12’s chances for an overly successful season, you obviously did not read the above carefully. There is one national championship contender, a couple of Sweet Sixteen possibilities, and two more NCAA hopefuls. Then there are three teams that are hoping to make the NIT and four teams that are going to rotate out of the last-place spot throughout the season. The top half is not bad at all—it’s the bottom seven that is going to reflect poorly on the conference as a whole. As a result, it could end up costing the Big 12 an NCAA Tournament bid come March. Therefore, for the sake of everyone in the conference, teams 6-12 have to be somewhat competitive. And, frankly, I can’t see that happening. It could be a rough year in the Big 12—especially at the bottom.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the article, but I wanted to make you sure put in the "State" after Oklahoma in the first sentence or second sentence. :-) We can't be mistaking those two teams this season.

    Good preview other than that minor mistake.