KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ The NBA draft hit the Big 12 hard.
Gone _ in the first 10 picks _ are Missouri's Keyon Dooling, Texas' Chris Mihm and Iowa State's Marcus Fizer, the most dominant big man in the nation a year ago.
Oklahoma State's Desmond Mason, along with almost everyone else wearing a Cowboys uniform, also exited stage left.
At Texas Tech, they'll sorely miss shooting guard Rayford Young. Colorado must go on without Jaquay Walls, who could light it up with the best of them.
Eduardo Najera's considerable skills and inspirational leadership are gone from Oklahoma.
It was quite a talent drain. No league could suffer such losses without taking a dip, maybe a big dip.
Or could it?
``I'm not sure the top half of the league is as good,'' said Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton.
``But that doesn't mean teams can't be just as good. There are so many quality players now in college basketball. You might not have a star, but you can still have an excellent team.''
Back in its old familiar role as conference favorite is Kansas, which returns five starters and a head coach who said no to North Carolina from last year's 24-10 team.
The Jayhawks were just about the only Big 12 school that did not lose a top player.
``There has been a good work ethic and good leadership,'' said coach Roy Williams, who agonized for a week last July before turning down the Tar Heels.
``The biggest question is are we going to take those things from practice to games? If we do, we've got a chance.''
The year's greatest rags-to-riches story could belong to the Big 12.
Last year in Melvin Watkins' second season as head coach, youthful, rebuilding Texas A&M was only 8-20. But they were better than the year before. And now they return nine lettermen, including Bernard King, the Big 12 freshman-of-the-year and top returning scorer at 16.9 points per game.
``If the moon and stars all line up in the proper alignment, who knows what might happen?'' said Watkins.
Texas is missing not only Mihm but also power forward Gabe Muoneke. But the presence of Maurice Evans, who sat out a year after transferring from Wichita State, should give the Longhorns plenty of firepower. Coach Rick Barnes is thinking about switching to a run-and-gun attack to take advantage of his outside shooters.
The league has two new coaches and one returning All-American.
Jim Wooldridge replaces the fired Tom Asbury at Kansas State, and Barry Collier was handed the Nebraska job when Danny Nee got the axe.
Iowa State welcomes back point guard Jamaal Tinsley, who transferred from junior college a year ago as a nearly complete unknown and exploded into stardom.
``Tinsley is the best player in the league,'' said Missouri coach Quin Snyder. ``To me, it's not even close.''
``He really struggled with conditioning and structure,'' Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy recalled.
``Now he laughs at the new guys going through the same thing. The progress he's made in a year is incredible. I'm really proud of him.''
According to the coaches' poll, the Sunflower State will produce both the best and the worst. While trying to dig out from Asbury's mess, Kansas State is projected to finish last a second straight year.
``We're going to be hard workers,'' said Wooldridge. ``We're going to try to outwork our opponents. If you want to outwork somebody, you can outwork them.''
Nee might still be at Nebraska if Cookie Belcher had not been out almost all last season with an injury. The 6-foot-4 senior, who holds the Big 12 career record of 271 steals, returns after sitting out all but four games with a wrist injury.
``I'm back and ready to go,'' Belcher said. ``It's been a long time. Coach Collier has brought a lot of discipline to the table. That's something we've been looking forward to.''
Don't be surprised if Colorado exceeds its projected seventh-place finish. Back are several key players in Ricardo Patton's fifth season as head coach, including senior forward Jamahl Mosley, their top scorer and rebounder.
``For the first time since I've been at Colorado, we've got a group of young men I think are all headed in the right direction,'' said Patton.
``We have a group of young men who are all willing to follow the leadership of Jamahl Mosley.''
With players like Mosley, Tinsley and Kansas' returning five, the Big 12 will not exactly be talent-challenged.
``I think our league will develop and have a chance to be really good in March,'' said Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson.
``We have a lot of really good players coming into our league. That may not translate immediately into a Marcus Fizer or a Keyon Dooling or a Chris Mihm or an Eduardo. But they're on their way.
``I wouldn't spell doom and gloom for our league.''