| ||Monday, November 1|
Special to ESPN.com
|Every conference goes through its ups and downs, and last year was a down year for the Big 12. As a whole, the teams struggled against quality opponents outside the conference.
Part of the reason for the Big 12's decline last year was that it was dominated by sophomores. This year, however, the players are a year older and stronger, indicating that the Big 12 is prepared for a rebound season.
To find the strength of the conference, take a look inside the paint. The Big 12 is dominated by big men -- centers such as Chris Mihm at Texas and Eric Chenowith at Kansas, and power players such as Marcus Fizer at Iowa State and Eduardo Najera at Oklahoma. Teams will rely on size and strength for their improvement this year.
Kansas, always a dominant team, had an uneven season last year after losing Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce to the NBA. But the Jayhawks have nearly everyone back and should return to the top of the conference. They are loaded at every position, have good size and strong newcomers. Jeff Boschee, last year's Big 12 Freshman of the Year, is one of the better all-around guards in the country. Chenowith has become a force inside. Luke Axtell, a transfer from Texas, gives the Jayhawks a 6-9 sharp-shooter who can also pass. How he fits in with Kansas will be the question mark.
Other than Kansas, Texas should be strong once again. There are few frontcourts better than the Longhorns, with Mihm and power forward Gabe Muoneke. Muoneke's talents probably get overlooked, since his temper has a tendency to come out. But he may be one of the strongest, most physical post players in the country, especially defensively. Texas also adds Chris Owens, a transfer from Tulane and a top 25 prospect when he came out of high school.
Oklahoma State, with four starters back, should be stronger this year. And I believe first-year head coach Quin Snyder will do a fine job at Missouri, taking over from Norm Stewart. After playing for Final Four teams and coaching as an NBA assistant, Snyder has probably never been around the kind of talent he will have at Missouri. He will find that the coaches in the Big 12 are some of the best in the country. He will need to make adjustments to know what style will win ballgames for the Tigers.
Mihm is my preseason player of the year because he will be the focal point for the Longhorns. He may not be as valuable to this team as Najera and Fizer, but he will be Texas' go-to player. He emerged last year and probably should have been the Player of the Year over Nebraska's Venson Hamilton.
Axtell can hardly be called a newcomer, because he has already been in the league while playing at Texas. But he qualifies as a newcomer because he is playing in a new environment. Axtell has already proven he can play at this level and will give the Jayhawks a strong perimeter shooter with size.
Best backcourt: Oklahoma State
Best frontcourt: Texas
Team on the rise: Texas A&M
He has been able to win games with his defense alone -- steals, tipped balls, transition baskets. I don't think he gets his due. Belcher is good enough to be a first-team all-conference selection. I enjoy watching him play.
Toughest road game: Oklahoma State