Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Big 12:
1. Jacob Pullen's final challenge
Pullen and the team he leads won't have anyone to sneak up on this year. Everyone already fears the beard and, along with it, the Wildcats. But even as Kansas State adjusts to the unique pressures of being the favorite to win the conference -- and all the we're-gunning-for-you fun that entails every night -- Pullen will have an entirely different challenge on his hands.
With senior point guard Denis Clemente gone and no clear replacement waiting in the wings, Pullen might find himself performing a strange kind of double duty in the K-State backcourt this season. He might have to be both Jacob Pullen, the lightning-quick shooting guard adept at using off-ball screens and tight angles to get his looks, and Denis Clemente, the point guard determined to push the pace at all times. Is Pullen up to that challenge? Does he lose anything in the transfer? Can he do it all? And, if not, how do the Wildcats adjust?
2. Marcus Morris and the new-look Jayhawks
It's easy to forget just how deep Kansas was last season. Bill Self's team lost three of the best players in all of college basketball (Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry) this offseason, and many still argue that Kansas, not their in-state rivals, should be the Big 12 favorite. Whether those people are right will have a lot to do with whether forward Marcus Morris takes his game to the next level.
Of course, it will also have a lot to do with whether Josh Selby, the Jayhawks' uber-talented point guard recruit who is waiting for an eligibility decision from the NCAA, is allowed to play.
Regardless of that decision, Morris will be the key. (After all, the Jayhawks did retain Tyshawn Taylor, an awfully good guard in his own right.) Morris is a skilled big man with touch out to 15 feet, but this season he won't have the looming threat of Aldrich (and all the high-low action Self ran for his interior duo last season) to free him up. Instead, for the first time in his career, he'll be every team's main defensive focus. Does Morris have enough game to succeed anyway?
3. The fate of LaceDarius Dunn (and, by extension, Baylor)
Baylor almost made it through its first truly triumphant offseason since the Dave Bliss disaster seven years ago. Scott Drew's team finished in the Elite Eight, sent forward Ekpe Udoh to the NBA draft lottery, and welcomed the biggest recruit of Drew's career in NBA lottery lock Perry Jones. And then … poof.
Just like that, Baylor guard LaceDarius Dunn -- one of Pullen's few real competitors for Big 12 Player of the Year and the heart of any success Baylor would have in 2010-11 -- was charged with assault related to a domestic incident with his girlfriend and suspended indefinitely from the team.
The vagaries of Dunn's case remain strange and as yet unsettled (his girlfriend wants the charges dropped, the authorities disagree, and so on), but if things get worse, Drew could be forced to leave Dunn out of significant action in the 2010-11 season. At the very least, Dunn's mistake throws Baylor's season into question.
4. Another test for Rick Barnes
There are no doubts about Barnes's ability to build teams. The Texas coach has been one of the most prolific and impressive recruiters in his time at Texas, and thanks to the onrush of talent arriving in Austin each year, has managed to make a football school not only care about basketball but notice when it doesn't live up to expectations. Needless to say, that happened last season. After starting 17-0 and earning the No. 1 ranking, Texas slid all the way back to the middle of the Big 12 pack. The Longhorns fizzled out in the season's final months, ending with a loss in the first round of the NCAA tournament to a mediocre Wake Forest team.
The problem wasn't talent; it was chemistry, leadership and Barnes' inability to find some rotation that would maximize his players' diverse gifts. (Barnes didn't help his case when he told ESPN The Magazine that he was less concerned with winning the national title than getting his players to the NBA. That's kind of, you know, not the point.) Despite some veteran losses, the Horns are again supremely talented -- they have a top-notch batch of recruits joining last year's group -- and Barnes is again faced with the task of getting a young team, and a big group of guards, to be greater than the sum of their composite recruiting rankings.
5. Can the Tigers be ready in time?
When forward Tony Mitchell decided to take his talents to Columbia, Mo., coach Mike Anderson got the sort of recruit that ought to make most Big 12 coaches tremble. In four years at the school, Anderson has not been without talent, but his style -- the 40 Minutes of Hell hybrid he adopted from former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson -- has had more to do with Missouri's success (Anderson is 196-54 in his tenure) than any advantage in talent. Throw Mitchell, a hyper-athletic, top-15 forward, into Anderson's system, and the results could be rather frightening.
Those results, if they do happen, won't be happening this fall. Mitchell was deemed ineligible by the NCAA for the fall semester, and he's going to attempt to join the Tigers in the spring semester. That's a major blow, but if he can get ready in time, and can blend seamlessly into a young but promising Tigers team, Anderson will have one of his better teams ready to go by March. If not, the Tigers will still be good -- Mitchell's incoming classmates are likewise talented, and a returning core led by Kim English is nothing to sniff at -- but they'll have to wait on great.