Here are five things I can’t wait to see in the Big 12 this season:
1. Can Kansas do it again?: No team in recent memory has dominated its conference quite like Kansas. In 15 seasons of Big 12 play, the Jayhawks have either won or shared the league crown 11 times. And KU's seven consecutive championships are the most by a major conference team since John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins won 13 straight Pac-8 and Pac-10 titles from 1967-79.
The 2011-12 season, however, could be tough for Bill Self’s squad. Forward Thomas Robinson is an All-American candidate, and point guard Tyshawn Taylor is a fourth-year starter. But beyond that, the Hawks are lacking when it comes to experience and depth. Seldom-used reserves such as Travis Releford, Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson will be thrust into key roles. The other concern is the schedule, which includes nonconference games against Kentucky, Ohio State, USC, Georgetown and potentially UCLA. Will KU's confidence be shot by the time it enters Big 12 play?
Luckily, Kansas may have picked a good time for a rebuilding year, because schools such as Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are going through the same thing. What could be Self’s worst team may still be good enough to win this league.
2. Billy Gillispie: He orchestrated some of the greatest turnarounds in college basketball history at Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M. Now he’ll try to repeat the feat at Texas Tech, which lost virtually every key player from Pat Knight’s final team. The Red Raiders’ roster is loaded with freshmen and transfers who will no doubt learn to share the ball and defend under Gillispie, who is regarded as one of the top X’s and O’s coaches in the country.
It may not show up in the wins column, but don’t be surprised if Texas Tech is one of the Big 12’s most improved teams by the end of the season. Gillispie, by the way, is one of four new Big 12 coaches. The others: Frank Haith (Missouri), Billy Kennedy (Texas A&M) and Lon Kruger (Oklahoma).
3. Transfer U.: If Iowa State returns to prominence, it will be largely because of players who began their careers at other schools. As many as four transfers could play key roles for the Cyclones this season, but the two names that have ISU fans most excited are Chris Allen and Royce White.
A prolific 3-point shooter, Allen was a starter on Michigan State’s 2010 Final Four team and played a significant role the previous two seasons as well. White was regarded as one of the top 20 prospects in the country when he signed with Minnesota in 2009, but after a handful of off-court issues, the 6-foot-8, 270-pound forward left school in December without ever playing a game. Iowa State could finish in the top half of the Big 12 if Allen and White live up to expectations along with returnees such as Scott Christopherson and Melvin Ejim.
4. Baylor’s point guard: Forwards Perry Jones and Quincy Miller are projected to be NBA lottery picks. But the most important player for the Bears might be newcomer Pierre Jackson, a point guard who earned National Junior College Player of the Year honors last season at College of Southern Idaho. Baylor missed the NCAA tournament in 2011 because it lacked players who could handle the ball. That shouldn’t be a problem in 2011-12 with Jackson and Boston College transfer Brady Heslip, a combo guard who is also expected to start. Plus, Baylor will have A.J. Walton, a starter last season, coming off the bench along with freshman Deuce Bello and Cal transfer Gary Franklin. If those players can get the ball inside to Miller, Jones and Quincy Acy, the Bears could win their first conference title since 1950.
5. Freshmen phenoms: Three of the nation’s most highly touted newcomers are expected to play major roles for their respective teams. Point guard Myck Kabongo will be an upgrade from Cory Joseph at Texas. The Longhorns lost too many pieces to contend for the Big 12 title, but the backcourt of Kabongo and J'Covan Brown could be one of the Big 12’s best. At Baylor, the 6-foot-9 Miller could blossom into one of the most versatile big men in the country. He missed his senior season of high school because of an ACL injury, but his talent is undeniable. The player generating the most preseason hype, however, is Oklahoma State’s LeBryan Nash, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound scoring machine who can play multiple positions. Nash should keep the Cowboys relevant.