College Basketball Insider

College Basketball Conference Previews: Big 12

Nobody's decision to return to school for another season was more surprising than the decision Marcus Smart made to return to Oklahoma State. He was a consensus top-five pick, one who could've reasonably gone as high as second overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. But the 6-foot-4 guard chose college over cash (at least temporarily), and now the Big 12 should have the most intriguing battle at the top of any league.

Yes, Kentucky-Florida is interesting in the SEC. So is the Michigan-Ohio State-Michigan trio in the Big Ten. But what's better than two top-10 teams (OSU and Kansas) led by two legitimate National Player of the Year candidates (Smart and Andrew Wiggins) battling for a conference title? Answer: Not much. And that's why I can't wait for Jan. 18, which serves as the date for the first of two scheduled meetings between the Cowboys and Jayhawks.

Here's a preview of the Big 12:

Coach's Take

"Baylor has two pros. Iowa State might be better than you think. But it should be Kansas and Oklahoma State playing for the conference championship. They might have the country's two best players. Flip a coin. But the champion will be one of them."

Projected Order of Finish

Kansas

I visited KU late last month, watched the Jayhawks workout, and, man oh man, did I come away impressed with the amount of talent and athleticism Bill Self has assembled. Andrew Wiggins is what I think he is, which is good enough to make him the CBSSpports.com Preseason National Player of the Year. Fellow freshman Wayne Selden is bigger and more aggressive than I realized, and Joel Embiid is so gifted that I genuinely believe he could be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft if the 7-footer spends more than one year at KU, meaning the Jayhawks could conceivably have the first overall picks in the next two drafts in the form of Wiggins and Embiid. Simply put, Self has prospects on top of prospects on top of prospects. And that's why he should win at least a share of the Big 12 title for the 10th consecutive season -- provided KU gets adequate point guard play from Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason.

Oklahoma State

Every relevant player from Oklahoma State's team that won 24 games last season is back, including All-American Marcus Smart and fellow double-digit scorers Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte. So Travis Ford has a roster capable of winning the Big 12 and anything else, and the Cowboys would've probably been the projected league champ if not for Wiggins committing late to KU. That said, nobody should be surprised if the Cowboys do in fact end the Jayhawks' streak of 10 consecutive Big 12 titles. OSU is not as talented top-to-bottom as Kansas, but the Cowboys are more experienced, and Smart is a special talent and leader capable of carrying his teammates into April.

Baylor

Scott Drew was on the verge of losing his top three scorers after last season -- one to graduation (Pierre Jackson), two others to early entry into the NBA Draft (Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson). But both Austin and Jefferson decided to return to school after flirting with being professionals, and the byproduct of that is that Baylor has one of the nation's most proven and talented frontcourts. Combine Austin and Jefferson with veteran sharpshooter Brady Heslip, junior college point guard Kenny Chery, top-40 recruit Ish Wainwright and the possible addition of Denver transfer Royce O'Neale (Baylor is still waiting to hear whether the NCAA will grant O'Neale a waiver to play this season), and the talent appears in place for the Bears to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in seven seasons.

Iowa State

Whatever questions accompanied Fred Hoiberg's arrival at Iowa State have long been answered and eliminated. He's no longer a risky/out-of-the-box hire. He's now one of the nation's hottest coaching prospects, and Iowa State is fortunate to still have him after back-to-back trips to the NCAA tournament. Eventually, most think, Hoiberg will bounce to the NBA because he seems to possess all the qualities necessary to work at that level. But for now he'll continue to build his alma mater into a consistently intriguing Big 12 program, one that should make the Field of 68 again this season thanks to the return of Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim, and the addition of Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane.

Kansas State

Bruce Weber's second season at KSU was always going to be tougher than the first because of the loss of Rodney McGruder -- the Wildcats' top scorer (15.6 ppg) and rebounder (5.4 rpg) a year ago. But the challenge became stiffer when point guard Angel Rodriguez decided to transfer to Miami. Now KSU is without its top two scorers from last season's team that finished the regular season tied with Kansas atop the Big 12 standings, and so KSU fans are wondering whether they'll eventually go through what Illinois fans went through with Weber, i.e., a hot start courtesy of a previous staff's prospects that cools when said prospects exit the program. Whether that's a fair concern is debatable. But that won't stop the whispers, particularly if KSU slips out of the top half of the Big 12 this season.

Oklahoma

Lon Kruger led the Sooners to the NCAA tournament in just his second season in Norman. It was surprising and impressive. But the top three scorers -- Romero Osby, Steven Pledger and Amath M'Baye -- are all gone from that team, and OU doesn't really have any newcomers who project as instant-impact guys at this level. In other words, a second consecutive appearance in the Field of 68 is unlikely, especially with so many questions in the frontcourt. The leading returning scorer? That's sophomore Buddy Hield -- a two-star recruit out of high school who averaged 7.8 points per game last season (while shooting 38.8 percent from the field and 23.8 percent from 3-point range) before breaking a bone in his foot in February.

West Virginia

Bob Huggins is a Hall-of-Fame-caliber coach who has been consistently great at the Division I level for more than two decades regardless of the parts, which is why it was weird to watch him struggle to a 13-19 record last season. For whatever reason, Huggins couldn't get his players to play hard, and now three of the most talented ones from that roster (Deniz Kilicli, Aaric Murray and Jabarie Hinds) are no longer in the program. So with a team devoid of talent, is it reasonable to expect West Virginia to be that much better? If you believe in Huggins, yes. But that's probably the only reason. And, even then, a finish in the top half of the Big 12 seems unlikely.

Texas

Whether the Longhorns should be picked sixth, seventh or eighth in the Big 12 is debatable. But it's also beside the point. Because what's clear is that Texas can't reasonably be projected in the top half of the league, and that -- combined with last season's seventh-place finish in the Big 12 -- is precisely why Rick Barnes' proverbial seat is hotter than almost anybody's … except for Mack Brown's, of course. Seriously, Texas basketball is in a bad place right now. The Longhorns have lost too many players early (Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, Ioannis Papapetrou) and haven't enrolled enough suitable replacements, mostly because of lackluster in-state recruiting. They're going to lose a lot of games. Then it'll be up to the administration to decide whether to give Barnes one more year to try to right things.

TCU

A frontcourt of Devonta Abron and heralded recruit Karviar Shepherd was intriguing for TCU on paper, and it probably would've been on the court, too. But Abron tore his Achilles tendon during a preseason trip of exhibitions in Canada. So now the Horned Frogs will be forced to rely more heavily on bigs Amric Fields and Aaron Durley, both of whom are coming off knee injuries. That's not ideal for a team with just one returning player (Kyan Anderson) who started more than seven games last season. Trent Johnson is good. But it's going to be difficult to win much with this diminished roster in this league.

Texas Tech

Texas Tech is a tough job and Tubby Smith is a great coach. So, in theory, the school should be considered lucky to have someone of this caliber leading its program. But I still can't help but think it's a bad fit for both sides because it's hard to imagine a 62-year-old on the downside of his career being able to recruit well enough to ever make the Red Raiders competitive in a league like this league. Texas Tech is a young man's job, a grinder's job, a job for somebody who can steal a recruit from Texas, Texas A&M or Baylor, then land enough junior college talents to fill the gaps. It's why Billy Gillispie could've been great there if not for other issues. It's why Smith probably won't -- this season or in any other, barring a surprise.

Our Preseason All-Big 12 Team

G: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
G: Wayne Selden, Kansas
F: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
F: Cory Jefferson, Baylor
F: Isaiah Austin, Baylor

Our Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

Wiggins was considered by some as the best high school prospect since LeBron James, and he's projected by most to be the No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft. Beyond that, the 6-foot-8 forward is the CBSSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year. So Wiggins gets this honor by default, though Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart is a strong alternative selection.

Our Preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

If Wiggins, a freshman, is the Player of the Year he must also be the Newcomer of the Year. So he's the Newcomer of the Year, too.

Our Preseason Big 12 Coach of the Year

Bill Self, Kansas

Self has established himself as a future Hall of Famer, and he has a roster this season good enough to win his 10th straight Big 12 title and second national championship. It's just a matter of the young guys developing from November through March, and there's no reason to think Self won't get the best out of them.

Three Numbers to Know

1: That's the number of top-40 prospects from the state of Texas that Rick Barnes has committed from the past seven recruiting classes. Twenty have chosen other programs, which is among the reasons why UT finds itself picked near the bottom of the Big 12.

2: That's the number of times West Virginia's Bob Huggins has missed the NCAA tournament in his past 21 seasons as a head coach. One of those times was last season. The next time projects as this season.

5: That's the number of different Division I schools Oklahoma's Lon Kruger has led to the NCAA tournament. They are Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, UNLV and OU.

CBSSports.com Staff Big 12 Predictions

Big 12
Finish

Gary Parrish

Jeff Borzello

Matt Norlander

Doug Gottlieb

Jerry
Palm

Jon Rothstein
1.
KANSAS

KANSAS

KANSAS

OKLAST

KANSAS

KANSAS
2.
OKLAST

OKLAST

OKLAST

KANSAS

OKLAST

OKLAST
3.
BAYLOR

BAYLOR

BAYLOR

BAYLOR

BAYLOR

BAYLOR
4.
IOWAST

IOWAST

IOWAST

IOWAST

IOWAST

IOWAST
5.
KSTATE

OKLA

KSTATE

OKLA

KSTATE

OKLA
6.
OKLA

KSTATE

OKLA

WVU

TEXAS

KSTATE
7.
WVU

WVU

TEXAS

TEXAS

WVU

TEXAS
8.
TEXAS

TEXAS

WVU

KSTATE

OKLA

WVU
9.
TCU

TXTECH

TCU

TCU

TXTECH

TCU
10.
TXTECH

TCU

TXTECH

TXTECH

TCU

TXTECH
 
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