The outsiders APEven without CJ Miles, Rick Barnes has plenty of options.
Texas is getting ready to ascend to the top of the Big 12.
Not just next season, but beyond -- and for the foreseeable future.
The other major conferences have their annual standouts. We know UConn and Syracuse command the Big East (despite the addition of Louisville and Cincinnati this season). Duke and North Carolina share the ACC. Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin hold down the Big Ten (with Ohio State on the horizon?). The Pac-10 has Arizona and Stanford (with Washington a recent arrival). There's no question Kentucky rules the SEC.
But the Big 12 is different. Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech all have made runs at various times in the past five years.
Now Texas could be ready to push them out of the way and become the team to beat on a regular basis.
The Longhorns are the favorite entering the 2005-06 season. They have the best point guard in the league: Daniel Gibson. They have, perhaps, the best center in the league in LaMarcus Aldridge, back after a hip injury. The league's most versatile forward, P.J. Tucker, is due to be eligible after missing the second semester last season. The Horns also have Brad Buckman, one of the toughest forwards to defend because of his ability to score facing the basket as well as in the post.
Beyond that? The Longhorns just got a commitment from the second-best player (according to Scout.com) in the class of 2006: Kevin Durant from Rockville, Md.
Texas also has arguably the finest locker rooms, practice facility and overall comfort of any Big 12 team. Austin is clearly the best city in the league (arguments for Manhattan, Ames and Waco welcome here), and Barnes is showing no sign of leaving for any better job.
"Attractive city, good academic reputation, the best facility and Rick as a proven winner," said Miami head coach and former Barnes assistant Frank Haith. "They're getting the top players in the state, recruiting nationally, too. A lot is going well for them. This year's team is unbelievable, as good as any team in the country."
Two years ago, the Longhorns were in the Final Four behind point guard T.J. Ford, the national college basketball player of the year.
They could return in 2006.
"Rick has made that the best job in the league, no question," Haith said. "Rick has been part of the resurgence of Texas basketball."
How did this happen? Commitment.
The Longhorns don't waste time waiting for someone else to build something better. Texas was proactive in building one of the finest basketball facilities in the country, something we have illustrated here at ESPN.com a number of times.
That has helped get players to stay home. The state is loaded every year, with more than enough to go around -- as evidenced by Ford's going to Texas, Daniel Ewing to Duke, Deron Williams to Illinois, Bracey Wright to Indiana, Chris Bosh to Georgia Tech, Ike Diogu to Arizona State and Emeka Okafor to Connecticut, among others.
"Players were leaving the state for a lot of different reasons, and maybe one of them was the league, but the Big 12 is now on par with every other league in the country," Barnes said. "We felt that we could be successful if we did it locally, and if you go back to when T.J. Ford came, that's when it started. Most kids want to stay close to home, and that's what happened with Gibson and Aldridge. But I told them don't settle. If we don't have it, then go elsewhere."
Barnes' Southern accent (he's from North Carolina) has a comforting tone. Ford's parents, Mary and Leo, said when Barnes came for his recruiting visit, he was in a pair of khakis, shoes without socks and a golf shirt. He didn't try to come off as pretentious. He sold them on being himself and extending his family. It worked, and the Ford family and Barnes remain close, even though Ford played only two seasons in Austin.
Although getting Durant to commit is a major coup, getting players such as Gibson and Aldridge, in the class of 2004, was a must to continue to mine the state's best talent. This year, Texas landed one of the state's top players again -- Dallas' Miles. However, the Utah Jazz selected him in the second round and Miles opted for a two-year guaranteed contract.
Still, all of this talk about Texas' rising to the top of the Big 12 still needs to be validated by another Final Four run and a possible national title. Kansas went twice to the Final Four (in 2002 and '03) under former coach Roy Williams. Oklahoma was there in 2002. Oklahoma State made an appearance in 2004.
This season, Texas has a shot for its second trip in four seasons.
"We've been to seven straight NCAAs but we're still chasing the big trophy, that's what we're telling guys," Barnes said. "We moved into the neighborhood [of elite teams], but we want to get there [Final Four] and win the whole thing."
Texas limped to the NCAAs last season without Tucker (13.7 ppg in 17 games) and Aldridge (9.9 ppg in 16 games), losing to Nevada in an 8-9 game in round one.
"They had enough of a taste of it a year ago and understand what it takes to get back," Barnes said. "There's no doubt that this team has a chance. Daniel Gibson [leading the team with 14.2 ppg] had a phenomenal freshman season with the bull's-eye on his back, and adding those two guys [Aldridge and Tucker] makes us a totally different team."
Different enough to end up in Indianapolis.
The seeding and order in the standings might be a little different from usual, but our resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi still sees traditional powers Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas safely in the dance.
Which three other teams make it in our early look at the 2006 bracket? Click below to find out ...
Behind the numbers
In a November 2002 game against rival Notre Dame Prep, Winchendon Prep senior Curtis Stinson was unguardable.
Will Blalock tried everything he could, but Stinson still dropped a triple-double -- 25 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists -- on him.
By that August, Stinson and Blalock were roommates and teammates at Iowa State. Both had extremely successful freshman seasons. Stinson led ISU in scoring, assists and steals and was named Big 12 freshman of the year, and Blalock was second on the team in assists and steals.
Last season, they established themselves as one of the premier backcourts in the conference as Iowa State reeled off a seven-game conference winning streak during which the Cyclones beat Oklahoma and Texas Tech at home and Texas and Kansas on the road.
Now, as juniors, Stinson and Blalock are the leaders and faces of the Iowa State program. And it is their relationship that makes them so unusual.
"We have two years together, on and off the court," Stinson said. "We do everything together. We talk basketball. We go out together. We talk about everything and anything. He's like my little brother."
In what has become more of a tight-knit basketball family at Iowa State since Wayne Morgan became head coach, the maternal role is played by Sheila Blalock, Will's mother. Sheila moved to Ames to be closer to her son and found a position at ISU -- and with the basketball team.
"She's like the team mom," Stinson said. "Whenever we need a good home-cooked meal, we always ask Will to call his mom."
That's how close the team is. That's how close the backcourt is.
"I consider him family," Stinson said. "He was the first person I knew at Iowa State. We've been living together every day for two years. Even in the summer, when I'm in New York and he's in Boston, we visit each other. That's how close we are."
Because the two live together, hang out together and know each other so well, on the court it seems as though they each know what the other is going to do before he does it. For the most part, that's true, but there are the exceptions.
"We were playing Colorado," Stinson said, "I threw him a pass. He wasn't looking, and it bounced off his forehead. It came right back to me, and I laid it in. It was pretty funny."
Few Big 12 rivals will be laughing when they have to defend the Iowa State backcourt this season, as Stinson and Blalock's production thus far rivals that of some of the nation's most-heralded backcourts. Can they avoid the junior scoring slide?
Forget a junior scoring slide. Baylor needs Aussie guard Aaron Bruce to avoid a sophomore slump.
It might be hard if he doesn't get some rest this summer.
Bruce's U-21 Australian national team is on a European tour before heading to Toronto and then to Cordoba, Argentina, for the FIBA World Championships.
Bruce has to be there. After all, he is the team's captain. And the nation's best hope to pick up the reins from former Utah star-turned-No. 1 NBA draft pick Andrew Bogut at the U.S. college level.
Bogut's success definitely has resonated for Bruce.
"I was extremely excited for him," Bruce said. "At the same time, it also gave me direction ... Australians to the NBA. I think it's going to become a trend."
Bruce is a front-runner for Big 12 player of the year, an All-America candidate and the kid who is carrying the Baylor men's basketball program from utter annihilation to respectability.
"I think every great program starts with a foundation," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "Aaron Bruce is our foundation for becoming a great program."
He talks like Mel Gibson and plays like Steve Nash. He carries the weight of a nation and of a basketball program that is trying to recover from a gruesome murder and an infractions mess.
No time to rest for the best player you've never heard of.
* -- Big 12 freshman of the year
* -- NCAA Tournament
# -- NIT participant
Graduation and early entries leave a scoring void at the top of the conference -- and a lot of youth in the top five returnees.
Curtis Stinson's return to Iowa State was a coup for the Cyclones. He easily could have bolted for the NBA draft but apparently never seriously considered the option.
Oklahoma State won't get Gerald Green (Celtics) but still reeled in one of its best recruiting classes ever, led by Lincoln High (Dallas) point guard Byron Eaton.
Texas can absorb the loss of Miles with the addition of shooters JD Lewis, Craig Winder and AJ Abrams.
Texas A&M has turned the corner. The return of Acie Law with Joseph Jones and JC point guard Eddie Smith will keep the Aggies in the mix.
Kansas State has been a treadmill team in the league -- never awful, but never too much above water. Losing Jeremiah Massey and Fred Peete will really hurt this squad.
Texas Tech will miss Ronald Ross plenty. If the Red Raiders win again, it will be mostly thanks to their system.
Baylor should be the story of the league for at least the first week of conference play since the Bears won't play any nonconference games.
Oklahoma isn't crying over the departures of Drew Lavender and Lawrence McKenzie. Guard Terrell Everett had been the choice of the staff later in the season and would have received more minutes again. The Sooners have a rotation of five solid guards and inside studs Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout.
Kansas expects to start three freshmen now that J.R. Giddens is gone. Look for the Jayhawks to start Julian Wright inside, with Micah Downs and Mario Chalmers on the perimeter.
Colorado has a new athletics director, but that shouldn't matter for Ricardo Patton because this should be a much better season, what with only one senior on the squad last year.
Missouri's embattled Quin Snyder needs Jimmy McKinney, Thomas Gardner or Jason Horton to step up as a scoring leader after the departures of Linas Kleiza and Jason Conley.
Nebraska has been close to turning it around under Barry Collier with some upset home wins but it hasn't translated on the road on a regular basis. Having Jason Dourisseau and Joe McCray back gives the Huskers hope. Some view the Huskers as the dark horse in the league.
Expert take As the Big 12 Conference enters its 10th season of existence, there is no question that it has enjoyed a major impact on the college basketball landscape.
For the fifth time in six years, the conference placed six teams in the NCAA Tournament last season. Over the last four years, it has had five teams participate in the Final Four -- more than every other conference.
The success of the Big 12 has stemmed, in large measure, from the consistent success of programs such as Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. However, this year's race could be the most wide open in conference history. Ten of the league's top 20 scorers were freshmen or sophomores, and many of them resided in places such as Waco, Lincoln and Boulder.
Texas and Oklahoma return seven players who could vie for all-conference status. The Longhorns return two future lottery picks -- sophomores Gibson and Aldridge -- as well as junior Tucker and senior Buckman. The Sooners return seniors Gray, Bookout and Everett from last year's regular-season champions.
The Jayhawks and Cowboys were wracked by graduation, but both teams welcome outstanding recruiting classes. Julian Wright, a 6-7 forward from Chicago, might be Kansas' most talented player this season. Byron Eaton, a 5-11 point guard from Dallas, leads a group of seven newcomers to Stillwater to play for Eddie Sutton in what is likely the last season of an almost 800-win career. Both teams will still be very tough to beat at home.
Texas Tech and Iowa State have two of the best backcourts returning. Both could make runs for the top of the league if the guards get any help up front from a bevy of incoming recruits. Stinson helped fuel a late-season Cyclones charge into the NCAAs, and the Red Raiders return two Louisianans -- junior Jackson and sophomore Zeno -- who played key roles in a great Tech run into the Sweet 16.
Baylor, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M each has a sophomore who will burst onto the national stage this season. The Bears, who will not play a nonconference schedule because of NCAA sanctions levied as a result of the Dave Bliss scandal, can finally look to the future under coach Scott Drew. His team will be led by one of the country's best sophomore guards, Bruce. Bruce, a teammate of Bogut's on Australia's World Championship Under-20 team in 2003, scored 20 or more 11 times a year ago.
The Cornhuskers' McCray and Buffaloes' Roby were among the Big 12's scoring leaders all season as freshmen, and both swingmen are on NBA radar screens already. Billy Gillispie has started the Aggies' basketball resurgence in College Station with a 21-win NIT campaign. He will be helped by the emergence of one of the Big 12's best young men: 6-9 sophomore Jones.
Missouri and Kansas State will be the two mystery teams as Big 12 play gets started. Kleiza has left Columbia for the NBA, and time is running out for McKinney and Gardner to have the impact many expected they would when they were recruited. The Wildcats return four of their top six scorers from Jim Woolridge's best team, but Massey, like Kleiza, will have to be replaced.
In their own words"My dad is real happy right now. That's good. Things are going real well."
Texas Tech associate head coach Pat Knight on his father, Bob Knight, Texas Tech head coach
Hey, when Bob Knight is pleased with the way things are going, everyone around him has to be in a good mood.
It's hard to argue with what is going on right now with Texas Tech, coming off a Sweet 16 as Bob Knight establishes the Red Raiders as a consistent player in the Big 12. He has 854 wins, close enough that he could catch Dean Smith's record of 879 next season.
Making a Denton
Bob Knight has stuck to his core coaching beliefs, but he has adjusted his recruiting strategies since coming to Texas Tech from Indiana five years ago.
At Indiana, Knight could take his pick in the state and was a national player at times, looking for players who would fit his system.
At Texas Tech, national recruiting (in the elite sense) and prime pickings in the state are rare for the Red Raiders. So, Bob Knight, assistant coach (and son) Pat Knight and the rest of the staff had to look at another angle.
They found it at Mike Kunstadt's Great American Shootout in Denton, Texas.
"Three-fourths of our roster is from kids [who] go there, that don't get invited to the main exposure camps -- that's where we found Zeno," Pat Knight said of the wing who averaged 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists as a freshman for the Red Raiders last season.
"We could stay home the first three or four days of the exposure camps [i.e., Nike in Indy, Reebok in Teaneck, N.J., and Adidas in Atlanta] and head straight to Denton [held late last week]," Knight said.
He said his father found Zeno two years ago at the camp. He said his father was looking to watch another game right before the dinner break.
"He went back in the girls gym [actually Texas Women's University in Denton] by accident, where there was a game going on. A team from Louisiana was playing," Knight said.
Kunstadt said Bob Knight was the only college coach in the gym.
"[Kunstadt] came out to dinner and said he's got a kid for us, and it ended up being Zeno. We hit that tournament hard. We get our biggest bank of players from there. We just got back and have seven names that we didn't have before that we'll follow to Las Vegas [next week]."
Knight said Texas A&M coach Gillispie and Baylor coach Drew have caught on to the Denton experience, too, making the competition tougher.
"When we were at Indiana, we could outrecruit everybody, but now we're the opposite," Knight said. "The bigger schools like Kansas and Texas can get in the picture in the state and we have to find somebody else. So, we look for the players that are overlooked and focus on them."
The approach has been instrumental in the Red Raiders' resurgence under Knight. The consensus when Knight arrived was that he would have to go the JC route to lure players to Lubbock. He has sprinkled in transfers, but he's had significant recent success finding high school seniors who want to be there and will play in his system.
Zeno is a prime example. So, too, could be rising junior Jackson, the heir apparent as the go-to scorer now that Ross is gone. Classmate Darryl Dora also fits that mold, as do the newcomers.
A total of seven players have gone through the event (based at the University of North Texas and local Denton high schools) to play at Texas Tech.
"Coach Knight looks for a player that will play with a lot of intensity, a tough, hard-nosed kid who is coachable," Kunstadt said. "I think that some of these elite camps the kids try to be more show. At our event, he's going to see more of that type of player. You've got to play smart basketball, be tough and play hard all of the time for coach Knight."
Pat Knight said the Red Raiders finally have the depth they were missing in years past and have players such as 6-5 Terry Martin (Richwood HS, Monroe, La.), 6-7 Jeremy Buttell (Colleyville Heritage HS, Texas) and 6-6 Dior Lowhorn (Berkeley HS, Calif.) who continue to fit the Knight mold.
"We've got a total of seven newcomers coming in to add to our experience," Knight said. "We've finally got horses in the barn to where we could redshirt kids. We just have to see how everybody matures."
The Red Raiders likely will be picked in the middle of the Big 12 again, as they were a year ago. All they did was reach the Sweet 16.
"We've got enough guys who have played big games for us," Knight said. "We've got a solid core."
A core that's formed in Denton. Bob Knight has found his niche -- and it's working quite well.
One conference is deep in the heart of Texas (and Louisiana). The other lies hard by a river (and a valley).
How much do you really know about the Southland and Ohio Valley conferences? Click below to find out:
Next Friday's sessions: Atlantic 10, Sun Belt and Big South
Comments/questions about Summer Sessions? E-mail the editor.