College basketball is barely underway and today we project the top half of the Big 12 conference, ranking teams 1-5. Part one ran last week if you missed it and is available as a link in the story:
1. Oklahoma State
4. Iowa State
5. Kansas State
7. West Virginia
9. Texas Tech
1. Oklahoma State (24-9, 13-5 Big 12, Lost to Oregon 68-55 in Round of 64)
Top Returners: G Marcus Smart, G Markel Brown, F Le'Bryan Nash, F Michael Cobbins
Key Newcomers: G Stevie Clark, F Leyton Hammonds, C Gary Gaskins
Key Losses: C Philip Jurick
The good news for the Cowboys is… well, just about everything outside of Kansas' elite incoming class. The Pokes went from fringe-Top 25 team to preseason Big 12 favorites and a legit threat to make a Final Four run when Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash all chose to pass on the NBA Draft to return to Stillwater for another go.
Smart is what makes this team tick, and the reigning Big 12 player of the year was projected to go as high as No. 2 overall in last year's draft. He does a little bit of everything and gained a lot of valuable experience this summer competing with NBA players as a member of Team USA.
But Smart isn't the only thing OSU has going for it. Michael Cobbins is one of the league's premier interior defenders, Brian Williams is finally at 100 percent and figures to be a lock-down perimeter guy, Phil Forte and incoming freshman Stevie Clark are gunners from the outside, and Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash are future NBA players in their own right who now have a combined five years of college hoops between them entering the season.
If KU's nine-year reign atop the conference is to end, it will be OSU who does it. Which would be fitting, seeing as how the Cowboys were also the last team to win an outright league title back in 2004.
The Pokes have an edge in experience and guard play on the Jayhawks, not to mention the rest of the league. A big factor on whether or not OSU can win the league will fall on, well, the bigs. OSU will need a huge season from the undersized Cobbins, development from sophomore Kamari Murphy, more assertive work on the glass from Nash and for JUCO transfer Gary Gaskins (6'10, 210) to factor into the rotation as a replacement for Philip Jurick.
2. Kansas (31-6, 14-4 Big 12, Lost to Michigan in Sweet 16 87-85 in overtime)
Top Returners: F Perry Ellis, G Naadir Tharpe
Key Newcomers: F Andrew Wiggins, G Wayne Selden, C Joel Embiid, Tarik Black
Key Losses: G Ben McLemore, G Travis Releford, C Jeff Withey, G Elijah Johnson
Bill Self doesn't rebuild, he only reloads. Even with the loss of their entire starting five, Kansas will be right back in the mix in 2013. Believe it or not, they might be better.
Perry Ellis showed potential last season to emerge as an elite post player, displaying a good array of moves and solid hands. Tharpe, along with newcomer Selden and of course the phenom Wiggins, will keep Kansas competitive all season.
If there's a potential issue for the Jayhawks, it's veteran leadership. Memphis transfer Tarik Black will be the senior member of this unit, but he isn't familiar with the program and that might hinder leadership ability.
They have five or six NBA prospects, there's no question Kansas is talented. Whether they can finish ahead of Oklahoma State will depend on how fast that young talent gels together. IF it happens fast, expect another Big 12 title for the Jayhawks. If not, OSU could win it by multiple games.
3. Baylor (23-14, 9-9 Big 12, Won the NIT Championship 74-54 against Iowa)
Top Returners: C Isaiah Austin, F Cory Jefferson, F Rico Gathers, G Brady Heslip
Key Newcomers: G Kenny Chery, G/F Ishmael Wainright, F Royce O'Neale, G Allerik Freeman
Key Losses: G Pierre Jackson, G A.J. Walton, G L.J. Rose
The Bears were a bit of a head scratcher last season, as they tend to be under coach Scott Drew, but things ended strong as BU went on a dominating postseason run through the NIT for the title.
Baylor suffers a massive loss in Pierre Jackson, who led the Big 12 in scoring (19.8) and assists (7.1), but the coaching staff is excited about his replacement Kenny Chery. Chery averaged 16.4 points and connected on 45 percent from 3-point range in junior college last season.
But the main reason for optimism is the frontcourt. Center Isaiah Austin had an up-and-down freshman campaign with 13 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, but the skinny 7-foot-1 big man is a serious talent who would have gone in the first round of the draft had he declared.
If Austin improves, this could potentially be the league's best front court with All-Big 12 forward Cory Jefferson (6'9, 220) and rebounding-machine/part-time tank Rico Gathers (6'8, 270) joining him on the blocks.
The Bears also have inarguably the conference's best shooter in senior Brady Heslip, who is lethal from 3-point range when he's on. He averaged nearly 40 percent from downtown a season ago. Senior guard Gary Franklin also had a big offseason and could challenge for a starting spot over Heslip, which would present BU with a dead-eye shooter coming off the pine.
Baylor doesn't quite stack up with OSU and KU at the top, but it should return to the NCAA Tournament and has a chance to be the best offense in the conference.
4. Iowa State (Last season: 23-12, 11-7 Big 12, Lost to Ohio St. 78-75 in Round of 32)
Top Returners: Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang
Key Newcomers: G DeAndre Kane, G Matt Thomas
Key Losses: G Will Clyburn, G Tyrus McGee, G Korie Lucious
When taking a broad look at the Big 12, the overwhelming feeling is that two teams stand alone: Oklahoma State and Kansas. But if you look a little deeper at which squads might disrupt that perceived forgone conclusion, Iowa State is first in line.
Coach Fred Hoiberg is as smart as they come, and could find a way to field a competitive team even with a roster full of bums. Give Hoiberg talent, and as he demonstrated last season, the possibilities are endless.
ISU lost four of its top six scorers from last season, but does return an 11-point, nine-board guy in Melvin Ejim, along with budding star Georges Niang. During his freshman season, Niang was a little up and down, but proved he could play with the big boys when the opportunities presented themselves. The 6-foot-7 forward averaged 15.5 points in three meetings with Kansas and 17 points in two bouts against OSU. Expect big things from both of these guys this season.
Iowa State was fourth in the nation last season in points per game (79.6) and led the Big 12 in points per possession (1.12). Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane could help the Cyclones maintain that level of scoring proficiency. Kane is a combo guard whom many scouts believe could lead Iowa State (and maybe the Big 12) in scoring.
Bottom line with Iowa State: as long as Hoiberg is in charge, they'll be fine. ISU has a solid talent level and a fantastic home-court-advantage, two invaluable advantages in any sport. Expect the Cyclones to compete with Baylor for the third-best record in the Big 12 and to make another trip to the Big Dance.
5. Kansas State (Last season: 27-8, 14-4 Big 12, Lost to La Salle 63-61 in Round of 64.)
Top Returners: G Will Spradling, G Shane Southwell, C Thomas Gipson
Key Newcomers: G Marcus Foster, G Jevon Thomas
Key Losses: G Rodney McGruder, G Angel Rodriguez, C Jordan Henriquez
Kansas State had a solid 2012-13 campaign, but a shocking first-round exit (I'm still calling it the first round) to La Salle left a nasty taste in Wildcats' fans mouths. That came on the heels of the football team's 35-17 loss to Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl. So overall, 2012-13 ended with great regular seasons and postseason flops for KSU's flagship programs.
Also like the football team, the window is likely closed for repeat success. The ‘Cats starting backcourt was one of the best in America last season, and now both must be replaced. McGruder departed for the NBA while Rodriguez transferred to Miami. In addition, center Jordan Henriquez is gone, along with backups Adrian Diaz Michael Orris.
In fact, if not for the Big 12 projecting to be as shallow a conference as there is in the country, no way would K-State come in at No. 5. If the Wildcats want to make a run to the NCAA Tourney, it'll be up to Thomas Gipson to anchor the paint. Gipson is a huge, physical force and with Henriquez gone, he takes over as KSU's post threat. If the Wildcats can use his presence to space the floor for shooters like Southwell and Spradling, they might be in business. But a lack of playmakers may be this team's undoing.
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