Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the Big 12 this season.
What I can’t wait to see:
How will Kansas replace Thomas Robinson?
I know the Jayhawks have the goods to make a run at their ninth consecutive Big 12 title. Jeff Withey proved his worth in last season’s run to the Final Four. He’s one of the top interior defenders in America. And he has spent a lot of time working on his mid-range game. He should be a different player this season.
Highly touted recruit Perry Ellis joins the fold. I think Elijah Johnson can carry the program. And Ben McLemore is a projected lottery pick on some boards. Losing Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will hurt, but it’s not as though Bill Self hasn’t replaced top-notch talent in the past.
Robinson, however, was an emotional leader for the team as much as he was its top player a season ago. There were moments in which the Jayhawks appeared to be on the brink of collapse and he simply willed them to a victory. I think that’s the one question facing this team. Who’s that guy right now? Perhaps it’s Withey or Johnson. But someone clearly has to assume that role early, especially with so many young players in the mix. A failure to identify a player in that vital position could prove detrimental in Big 12 play.
What is Oklahoma State’s ceiling?
Oklahoma State should challenge Kansas and Baylor for the Big 12 title. “Should” is the key word. But the Cowboys will fulfill their potential only if they find a way to play disciplined basketball, a challenge for the program last season.
It just didn’t make sense for a program with this talent (Le'Bryan Nash, Markel Brown) to struggle the way it did last season (15-18, 7-11 Big 12). Freshman Marcus Smart has been listed as one of the top young point guards in America. If he can bring Oklahoma State’s talented contributors together and teach them to man up on defense, Travis Ford could have a special year with this program. That, however, is the biggest "if" in the Big 12.
How will Bruce Weber and Bob Huggins fare in the Big 12?
The league welcomes Kansas State’s Bruce Weber and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins to the mix this season. Both coaches found success in their former leagues (Big Ten and Big East, respectively). And I think they have the talent to make a great first impression (though Huggins coached at Kansas State, so he has been in the Big 12 before) in 2012-13.
Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez give Weber the building blocks for a successful debut. Weber scored solid recruits at Illinois, but he couldn’t meet expectations after the program’s Final Four run. The expectations at Kansas State should be more modest, which should allow Weber to coach comfortably and challenge for a spot in the top tier of the league.
Huggins might have a sleeper in West Virginia. The Mountaineers are all over the board on preseason projections. But Deniz Kilicli and a heap of impact transfers (Juwan Staten, Aaric Murray and Matt Humphrey) form a nucleus that could surprise the conference in 2012-13.
Last place goes to TCU or Texas Tech?
Both teams are hurting. Texas Tech lost Billy Gillispie during a highly publicized offseason mess. And according to players, that’s what they wanted. But even with him, Texas Tech’s chances of escaping the bottom of the league were slim with only six scholarship players returning from last season’s 8-23 squad. Trent Johnson introduces TCU to the league in what could be a very humbling debut. Johnson just doesn’t have a lot of talent on the roster. He’ll certainly take his lumps early. He already has added some pieces that will be available for the future. But for both TCU and Texas Tech, 2012-13 will be a tough season.
Can Baylor put it all together and upset Kansas?
Baylor is America’s “on paper” team. On paper, last season, the Bears looked like national championship contenders with Quincy Miller, Perry Jones and Quincy Acy. They were good. But various challenges throughout the season brought criticism to Waco. Even though they reached the Elite Eight, the Bears didn’t seem to come together until March. In 2012-13, Scott Drew has a roster that can challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title. He has one of the best backcourts in America (Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, Deuce Bello, Gary Franklin and A.J. Walton) and he’s bringing in one of the top freshmen in the country in Isaiah Austin. If he can get this group to play to its strengths, Baylor will be the Jayhawks’ toughest challenger for the Big 12 crown. The potential, once again, is very high. But seeing is believing with the Bears.