A high standard
Paul Sakuma/AP PhotoBill Self's Kansas teams have thrived in the regular season but have been ousted twice in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
So this is what it has come to for one of college basketball's uber-elite programs and one of its most successful coaches?
Averaging over 26 wins a season isn't enough. At least a share of three straight regular-season Big 12 championships isn't enough. Two Elite Eight appearances aren't enough.
Nope. The only thing that really matters now is a national title, one that has eluded Kansas for 19 seasons since Danny Manning and the Miracles shocked Oklahoma in 1988. With the Jayhawks again poised to open the season as one of the nation's top three teams, coach Bill Self knows that everything his club accomplishes in the first four months of the season will be redefined by what happens in the last three weekends of the season.
After entering the 2005 Selection Sunday with a 23-6 record, the Jawhawks were shocked by Bucknell in the NCAA Tournament's first round. The next season, hot off a Big 12 tournament title and holding onto a 25-7 mark, Kansas was again ousted in the first round, this time by Bradley.
So despite all the wins throughout the rest of the season, the heat was on Self for two straight first-round defeats.
Is that fair?
"I think it probably is fair," Self said. "Although if you look at the years that we've had, we had the one bad postseason [in 2005]. We were still a real young team, and we played young against Bradley. And, you know, Bradley's pretty good. That was a killer, but that wasn't like the Bucknell deal."
So after two straight first-round NCAA Tournament losses, last season's run to the regional final provided some relative relief. But the fact that Kansas lost to UCLA -- which probably should have been a No. 1 seed itself -- doesn't help ease the sting of falling short again. Self understands the bottom line.
"Getting to the Elite Eight at Kansas, I don't think is good enough. I think we need to do better," he said.
Self certainly has the pieces in place to do better this season. The Jayhawks lose only one starter -- lottery pick Julian Wright. In fact, Wright is the only letterman not returning from last season's club that finished 33-5 and was No. 2 in both polls, and his exit clears the way for more minutes for burgeoning sophomore Darrell Arthur. The one big question is how do-it-all guard Brandon Rush (13.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg) will recover from a torn ACL suffered during his NBA draft exploration process last spring.
"Brandon's well-being is a huge key because he's the one guy who with his size [6-foot-6], he can guard the other team's best perimeter player," Self said of Rush, who is targeted to return around Dec. 1. "He's our best lock-down defender and, of course, he's our best perimeter shooter, so it's real important that he be healthy."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Big 12 rival who wouldn't trade places with Self, but that doesn't mean some of them don't have a touch of empathy for his current win-or-else mandate.
"Everyone says they're loaded, which they are, but line up and play against them," said new Kansas State coach Frank Martin, who spent last season as an assistant under Bob Huggins. "Watch them play on tape and see how hard and how together those guys play. That's a credit to that coaching staff and the job they do in recruiting and coaching those kids on the court."
Self admitted that one thing he and his staff have explored is finding a different approach for regional-final preparation. Counting his stints at Tulsa and Illinois, Self is now 0-4 in regional finals.
"We build our team for March, so I don't really know what we can do differently," he said. "I'm talking about a 48-hour period [between the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games]. How you can approach that differently? A lot depends on experience, depends on scouting reports, depends on a lot of different things. Most importantly, what it depends on is if you can get the ball in the hole."
-- Andy Glockner
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.
When you're a first-year head coach, the last thing you want to do is go into your maiden season relying heavily on freshmen, especially in a major conference.
There are two things going for Kansas State's Frank Martin, though. First, freshman forward Michael Beasley and guard Bill Walker, who arrived midseason last year but played in only seven games before tearing an ACL, are elite talents. The better news? He has recent proof that you can indeed win with freshmen in the Big 12.
Nobody's quite sure what a reasonable expectation for the freshman year is after Texas' Kevin Durant destroyed the nation to the tune of 26 points and 11 rebounds a game last season. What is certain, though, is that Beasley has a prep rep that makes his having a similar impact at least discussion-worthy.
"Everybody keeps asking me the question -- Mike Beasley/Kevin Durant -- and I've been pretty honest with my response," Martin said. "As high school seniors, I thought Mike Beasley was a better player than Kevin Durant."
As eye-opening as that statement may be, Martin understands that raw talent doesn't necessarily translate to the college level. He credits Texas coach Rick Barnes and his staff for getting the most out of Durant and the rest of a starting lineup that featured three freshmen and a sophomore last season.
At least Martin has a handful of experienced upperclassmen, including solid forward David Hoskins and guard Clent Stewart, to help guide the youngsters. Either way, he's definitely not making any excuses.
"It's not the perfect blueprint, but our incoming guys, they all want to win. They don't talk about, 'Well, I'm going to be a pro.' They talk about winning the Big 12," Martin said.
You can argue that Baylor coach Scott Drew also is a first-year coach, even though he's been in Waco for four seasons already.
Why? This is the first season that there are actual expectations on his program, one that is still recovering from the murder of former Bears forward Patrick Dennehy and violations committed during the Dave Bliss era. For Drew, just making it to this point is an achievement.
A couple of years ago, the Bears were preparing for a season in which they were banned from playing nonconference games. And that was after two seasons spent sorting through the rubble left by Bliss. Because of the timing of Drew's hire and the murder fallout, there was very little recruiting done in that time.
Luckily for Drew, the one recruit he did pull in was Australian guard Aaron Bruce, now a three-time all-Big 12 performer who is the team's only senior this season. Bruce is joined in the backcourt by juniors Curtis Jerrells, the team's leading scorer, and Henry Dugat to form an upperclass core that is a luxury Drew hasn't previously enjoyed.
"To win in the power conferences, you need to have experience, and that's one of the things we haven't had the last couple of seasons," he said.
The Bears still lack quality depth in the frontcourt, which is a problem in the Big 12. Reinforcements will arrive next season in the form of three signed bigs, but for now, Drew will have to ride solid junior Kevin Rogers and a deep perimeter corps.
Still, while Drew noted that the Bears would "not be happy with [4-12] again" in league play, it's a victory in itself for Drew and Baylor that we're just talking about wins and losses again.
It's heresy, right? To even think that Texas could be better this season without Kevin Durant?
It's not completely crazy. Texas returns the other four starters from last season's 25-win team, three of whom -- D.J. Augustin, Damion James and Justin Mason -- who could blossom even more as sophomores. Plus the Horns have the best overall depth they've had in awhile.
Without Durant, coach Rick Barnes expects more balanced scoring (how could it not be?), but more importantly, expects a more conventional lineup to be better more defensively and inside.
"We're going to, I think, be a better defensive team than we have been the last couple of years," he said. "I don't think we were a good defensive team last year. We were basically playing last year with five perimeter players."
One player poised to see more minutes is the slimmed-down center Dexter Pittman, who has lost more than 100 pounds since arriving in Austin.
"Dexter will give us something that we haven't had in a long time," Barnes said, "and that's a guy who, if we can get it to him around his area where he's effective, he's going to score the ball and he'll put some fouls on people."
That last part sounds a lot like the guy Texas needs to replace.
-- Andy Glockner
* NCAA Tournament
# NIT particpant
Last season, the Big 12 sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. Joe Lunardi still has the Big 12 with four teams in the Dance, but which teams?
-- Joe Lunardi
For all the 2007 Shoot Arounds, click here.
Yes, the Bears return all five starters from last season, but unless they have improved defensively, that's not necessarily a good thing. That said, the Bears have four quality guards returning and their perimeter strength will be further fortified by the arrival of top-25 recruit LaceDarius Dunn. Look for many three- and even four-guard sets in Waco this season while also looking for continued production from junior Kevin Rogers (12.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg), the lone frontcourt presence who delivered consistently last season.
Jeff Bzdelik may not yet have the talent in Boulder to compete every night, but you can bet the Buffaloes will play a more discplined brand of offensive basketball than they did last season. Princeton/Air Force offense or not, don't expect a repeat of a 23.8 percent turnover rate (293rd in D-I) or 30.8 percent shooting from the arc as a team (298th in D-I). A prime beneficiary should be senior guard Richard Roby, who has scored consistently in his first three seasons but has seen his shooting percentages decrease significantly.
The Cyclones overachieved in Greg McDermott's first season in Ames but might be hardpressed to match those accomplishments this season. Iowa State looks fairly solid in the frontcourt, with all three starters -- Jiri Hubalek, Rahshon Clark and Wesley Johnson -- returning, but the backcourt is a large question mark after the summer dismissal of leading scorer and assist man Mike Taylor. Two other guards also transferred, meaning both perimeter positions will be in new hands. That's not good news for a team that struggled to score from everywhere on the floor last season.
Would you have guessed that Kansas was the best defensive team in the country last season? The Jayhawks had the stingiest defensive efficiency in the nation (allowing only 87.4 points per 100 possessions). While the loss of Julian Wright and the questionable mobility of Brandon Rush when he returns from his ACL tear may impact the Jayhawks on that end, the bigger challenge for KU will be to improve its ability to get to and convert from the free throw line. Kansas shot a mediocre 66 percent at the free-throw line and made just 14 freebies a game.
If Michael Beasley and Bill Walker live up to billing, the Wildcats will be very tough because few teams in the league would have a better "third" option than senior forward David Hoskins. The 6-5 Hoskins averaged 14.5 points and 5.9 rebounds a game last season and only needed 10 shots a game to do so.
The Tigers jumped from 12 wins to 18 in Mike Anderson's first season in charge and looks primed for more improvement this season. Mizzou returns the vast majority of its production from last season, including four starters, and adds quality Vanderbilt transfer forward DeMarre Carroll, who averaged 10.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game as a sophomore. Carroll could be a huge addition for a club that got pounded regularly on the glass last season. The Tigers also will have to tighten up on the perimeter a bit. They allowed way too many uncontested 3s (37.9 percent allowed).
Aleks Maric brings his 18.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game back to Lincoln for his senior season. He's the top returning scorer and rebounder in the Big 12. The Huskers aren't all Maric, though. Sophomore Ryan Anderson had an excellent debut last season, averaging 10.1 points a game and shooting over 43 percent from the arc. A highly touted incoming class also includes 5-11 guard Steve Harley, a first-team juco All-American at South Plains College in Texas.
Jeff Capel proved himself to be Jeff Capable last season in his Norman debut. Capel kept the Sooners playing determined defense. Now he needs to improve an offense that struggled, particularly from the arc (32.9 percent; 246th in D-I). Capel still has some pieces in place. Those include physical big man Longar Longar (10.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg), guard Tony Crocker (8.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and two highly regarded in-state freshmen, 6-9 forward Blake Griffin and 6-5 guard Cade Davis.
Returnees Byron Eaton, Obi Muonelo and Terrel Harris will struggle to make up for the 36 points a night that left with Mario Boggan and JamesOn Curry. Defensive stopper Marcus Dove should return from a suspension for DUI to provide some bite on the defensive end. Incoming freshmen James Anderson should make an immediate impact and Brad Garrett, a transfer from College of Southern Idaho, could provide the perimeter shooting that was lacking at times last season. But the Cowboys had an awful time handling the ball last season, turning it over on over 22 percent of possessions.
If Rick Barnes' beliefs about better balance and rebounding pan out, people might want to watch out for the Horns. Last season, without any true post players, Texas understandably was hurt on the defensive glass (209th in D-I in rebounding rate). Getting more minutes for true post players like Dexter Pittman also should help remedy Texas' offensive imbalance from last season. Just think if the Horns eventually have highly touted freshman forward Gary Johnson available. He hasn't been cleared for activity yet after suffering a heart ailment and could end up missing the season.
The Aggies should look different this season, as they lose Acie Law IV and Antanas Kavaliauskas but add stud freshman big man DeAndre Jordan. Jordan should pair with senior Joseph Jones to comprise one of the nation's most imposing frontcourt tandems. Then mix in guards Josh Carter, Donald Sloan and Dominique Kirk, and new head coach Mark Turgeon has some very good pieces. "We'll have to pound it inside [more]," Turgeon said. "We're big, strong, we look good, [but] we have a lot of inexperience."
The loss of standout guard Jarrius Jackson is a big one, but the Red Raiders still have Martin Zeno and Charlie Burgess as notable returnees, and you know The General will make the sum of these parts better than the individual pieces. Given the Red Raiders' struggles in keeping foes off the glass last season, the additional losses of forwards Darryl Dora and Jon Plefka makes it imperative that Tech finds some size that can contribute. A prime option is 7-footer Elmer Rizvic, who is back after fracturing an eye socket midway through last season.
-- Andy Glockner
If all goes well with Brandon Rush's rehab from summer knee surgery, the Jayhawks will be a serious contender for a Final Four berth and a national championship in April. Self has an outstanding backcourt in Sherron Collins, Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson. Up front, Darrell Arthur was on the verge of stardom at times last season but probably made the wise decision to stay around a little longer. This team is the obvious league favorite. However, as Self knew when he came back to Lawrence four years ago, the only thing that matters to Kansas fans is what happens in late March and early April.
2. Texas A&M
The Aggies' frontcourt is one of the nation's best and is led by senior Joseph Jones, the most physical player in the Big 12. Freshman DeAndre Jordan is a future lottery pick with a great frame and is quick off his feet. Josh Carter is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. If the Aggies take care of the basketball and make sure Jones and Carter get a lot of touches, there is no reason they can't go deep again in the NCAA Tournament.
The burden of leadership falls to sophomore point guard D.J. Augustin. Based on his freshman season, he's capable of a Jameer Nelson-like Player of the Year season before he leaves Austin. A.J. Abrams, who set a Big 12 record with 120 3-pointers, will complement Augustin with his long-range shooting. Barnes has a host of young big men --notably Clint Chapman and Lexi Wangmene -- who he hopes will provide some inside scoring punch.
With the core of the team returning, this could be an NCAA team come March. Stefhon Hannah, the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year, led the Tigers in scoring, assists and steals. Junior Matt Lawrence went from the "invisible man" under former coach Quin Snyder to shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line last season. And sophomore Keon Lawrence was dynamite down the stretch. If there is a Missouri weakness, it will be on the frontline. Marshall Brown is a small power forward and Leo Lyons is a small center by Big 12 standards.
5. Kansas State
Bill Walker's rehab from knee surgery will be critical because he ballooned by about 40 pounds this past spring. A healthy and in-shape Walker gives Martin one of the conference's most explosive and entertaining scorers. David Hoskins is a mismatch problem for opponents. Great things are expected from incoming freshman Michael Beasley, a power forward with the agility of a wing player. He won't dominate like Kevin Durant did, but he probably will also be around for only one season. The point guard position could be the difference between an NCAA bid and an NIT bid at the end of this season.
Brothers Blake Griffin and Taylor Griffin will team up with much-improved senior Longar Longar and sophomore Keith Clark to give Jeff Capel a frontline that is as physical as any in the league. But the Sooners are probably another recruiting class away from being back in the NCAA tourney picture.
The Bears have as many quality perimeter players -- Aaron Bruce, Curtis Jerrells and Henry Dugat -- as anyone in the Big 12. If coach Scott Drew can get a solid effort from his young frontline, the Bears will improve on their 4-12 conference record and have a realistic shot at a postseason appearance. Junior Kevin Rogers needs to be a physical presence inside if Baylor wants to jump into the top half of the conference.
8. Texas Tech
Senior Martin Zeno returns as one of the Big 12's most versatile performers, and this is coach Bob Knight's best recruiting class at Texas Tech. Freshmen John Roberson, Mike Singletary and D'Walyn Roberts come out of three of Texas' best high school programs and are used to success.
Second-year coach Doc Sadler has the conference's best low-post scorer in 6-11 senior Aleks Maric. The Aussie is nearly impossible to handle one-on-one; he notched games of 41, 36 and 31 points last season. How quickly a plethora of Cornhuskers recruits will adjust to Big 12 play will determine if another solid year by Maric will go to waste.
10. Oklahoma State
With Marcus Dove in limbo because of a summer DUI, the graduation of Mario Boggan, and JamesOn Curry's early departure for the NBA, coach Sean Sutton has to move on and create chemistry quickly. He'll need to combine a very good recruiting class with some young, talented but enigmatic veterans. The key will be the maturity and development of junior Byron Eaton, who has battled weight issues his first two years.
No one may benefit more from coach Jeff Bzdelik's arrival than senior Richard Roby. A proven scorer but a volume shooter, Roby must have an efficient senior season for the Buffaloes to have any chance to be competitive. One building block that Bzdelik can count on is sophomore Xavier Silas, the son of former Spurs star James Silas. Unfortunately, he is the only other Big 12-level player, at this point.
12. Iowa State
Rebuilding the Cyclones will continue for the foreseeable future, especially with the loss of last season's leading scorer, Mike Taylor, due to discipline issues. While there are a lot of new faces on this Iowa State roster, sophomore Wesley Johnson has already become familiar to conference coaches because of a Paul Silas-like nose for the ball.
-- Fran Fraschilla