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Early look: Sizing up the Big 12

Who is the favorite in each major college basketball conference? Which teams are trending in the right (and wrong) directions? Over the next two weeks, we’ll take a look across the nation to see how college hoops’ most notable conferences are shaping up for next season. Today, the Big 12.

You can’t judge a league solely by its results in the NCAA tournament. That’s not fair, and it only feeds the mainstream miscalculation that college basketball’s value is tied only to the events that unfold at neutral sites in March and April. That’s not fair to the fans who follow the sport all year. It’s also not fair to the teams that work all season and push through nonconference slates and conference gauntlets.

But you can’t dismiss the significance of the Big Dance. After a top-25 team excels in the regular season, it makes sense that fans expect that team to roll through the NCAA tournament, right?

Well, the previous season, seven Big 12 teams, or 70 percent of the conference, made the NCAA tournament. Four of those squads -- Texas, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Iowa State -- lost in the first round. Kansas suffered a loss to Wichita State in the second round. West Virginia and Oklahoma both reached the Sweet 16.

The question the league faces now stems from the conclusion of its 2015-16 campaign: Will any Big 12 team make a serious run at the national championship? It’s a valid question -- again -- because the league will enter next season with multiple top-25 programs again. Kansas just won a gold medal. Seriously. Steve Prohm’s Iowa State squad has Georges Niang, Monte Morris and more. Buddy Hield is back for a legit Oklahoma squad. Rico Gathers will lead Baylor. Shaka Smart takes over a Texas team that will orbit around dynamic guard Isaiah Taylor. In all, 10 top-100 recruits, per RecruitingNation, will enter the league next season.

The Big 12 will be stacked again. And just like the previous year -- and the 10 before that -- it’s Kansas’ title to lose.

Favorite

Maybe you missed it. The games were played early due to the time difference in South Korea. But the Jayhawks (and SMU’s Nic Moore) won a gold medal Monday as America’s representatives in this month’s World University Games. Frank Mason looked great. Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis were strong too.

The trio combined to score 59 points in the USA’s double-overtime win over Germany. With those three returning, Kansas seemed positioned to win its 12th consecutive -- that’s ridiculous, folks -- Big 12 championship in March. Then Cheick Diallo committed to the program. The 6-foot-9 forward, along with top-100 prospects Carlton Bragg and Lagerald Vick, adds another five-star presence to a team with the manpower, size, athleticism and talent to rumble with any team in the Big 12 or the country.

The conference has multiple elite programs. The Jayhawks will have competition at the top. But it’s hard to bet against them. They have a legit point guard with Mason in charge. Selden hasn’t reached his full potential yet, but he’ll get there in 2015-16. Ellis is an All-American, and Bill Self’s recruiting class is potent too. Landen Lucas, Brannen Greene and Devonte Graham all return. Can any team knock KU off the perch it has been on since the final season of "Friends"? Think about that.

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Anything can happen with a coaching change, especially one made in June. But Prohm’s arrival stabilized things in Ames, Iowa. He magnified Murray State’s profile, and he helped Cameron Payne secure a first-round slot in the past month’s NBA draft. With Niang and Morris, Iowa State has the best chance to upset Kansas and win the Big 12 championship. Iowa State, even without Fred Hoiberg, is still on the rise.

Smart convinced Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach Jr. to maintain their commitments when he took the job at Texas. Plus, Tevin Mack followed him from VCU. Those three plus Taylor, Demarcus Holland and Javan Felix will comprise the athletic backcourt Smart will need to apply his aggressive defensive style. It’s still not clear how big-bodied Shaquille Cleare, Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert will fit into that scheme, but right now, Texas looks like a bigger, more athletic version of the squads Smart had in Richmond.

There is plenty to like about Hield and the Sooners too. Hield could be the favorite for player of the year honors. Lon Kruger’s squad is definitely a Big 12 contender.

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Gathers should be an All-American leader for Baylor. The shoplifting charge against him and subsequent arrest, stemming from an offseason incident at Walmart, didn’t help him prove as much. He’ll field questions, understandably, about his ability to lead a talented Baylor team (Taurean Prince and Johnathan Motley are back too) this season.

Bruce Weber has dismissed every player who has ever played at Kansas State. Michael Beasley? Done. Bill Walker? Outta here. Mitch Richmond? Gone. Kidding. But he entered the offseason with just five returning scholarship players after losing six guys, including Marcus Foster and Malek Harris, over the past year. Foster and Harris were both dismissed. Weber has seven commitments for next season. That pool features some juco guys and zero top-100 incoming freshmen. It’s a mess in Manhattan.

Notable newcomers

Perhaps the disappointment that Cliff Alexander’s lone season became should spur cautious expectations for Diallo. But he has the attributes to make his short stint at the collegiate level memorable.

Hallice Cooke should help Iowa State and newcomer Prohm if the former Oregon State standout (8.2 ppg) completely heals from multiple hip surgeries.

Smart left his best VCU squad to compete for a national title at a program with more resources and a bigger spotlight. The latter will help him if he wins big early, but it’ll elevate the pressure if he struggles. He has the right arrangement of guards, it seems. But what will he do with his big guys? How can they play his havoc style?