Roster reports and offseason team news from the Big 12.
Baylor managed to go deeper in a postseason tournament than any Big 12 team, yet could fly under the radar when the 2009-10 season begins.
Granted, the Bears appeared in the NIT and not the NCAA Tournament. The bid was a disappointment in some respects after Baylor was picked to finish third in the Big 12 but failed to meet expectations. But its postseason run was encouraging. Two berths in finals, first in the Big 12 Tournament and then in the NIT, proved the Bears had some heart.
While the Bears lost more than half of their scoring, rebounding and assists production, the late charge that led to a 24-15 finish helped with offseason dedication. Especially after returning veterans greeted six newcomers from a talented recruiting class.
Chances are Baylor won't be slotted high in any preseason predictions. Not after a 5-11 finish in the Big 12 last season dumped the Bears into ninth place. Prognosticators will consider that to be a lesson learned. Still, Baylor will be a team to reckon with in the powerful Big 12.
The return of two proven outside marksman, guards LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter, give Baylor some immediate scoring punch. Developing a better inside presence will again be a challenge, especially with the loss of underutilized forward Kevin Rogers.
A 6-10 transfer from Michigan, Ekpe Udoh, should help inside. Udoh was named to the All-Big Ten defensive team as a sophomore after starting 24 games for the Wolverines and blocking 92 shots, while averaging 6 points and 5 rebounds.
Through two seasons as the coach at Colorado, it has been hard for Jeff Bzdelik to assess a value on the growing pains both he and the Buffaloes have experienced.
The addition of five new players, including four freshmen, should create more depth, though Bzdelik was hesitant to use some newcomers last season because he feared they weren't ready to compete against Big 12 talent.
That allowed a few veterans to gain even more experience, particularly Cory Higgins, a 6-5 wing who led Colorado in scoring (17.4 ppg.), rebounding (5.4 rpg.) and steals (59) last season. Taking pressure off Higgins is an objective the Buffs may have solved with the addition of Marcus Relphorde, a 6-7, 225-pound transfer from Indian Hills Junior College.
Among the incoming freshman, Alec Burks could provide the most impact. The Missouri player of the year as a prep senior, Burks already has grown two inches since he signed with the Buffs and is now listed as a 6-6 guard some CU observers compare to former great Richard Roby when he arrived on campus.
Obviously, one of the toughest propositions for Colorado is climbing out of last place when the Big 12 may be as loaded as any league in the country next season. The Buffaloes not only are stuck at the bottom of the standings, but also attract the worst following and recently had to put the construction of a practice facility on hold because of the flailing economy.
The hardships have not prevented Bzdelik from running a disciplined offseason conditioning program, which has helped in particular with forward Austin Dufault and the strength he needed after fading late last season as a freshman.
Finally, Greg McDermott doesn't feel as if he's starting from scratch. Attrition caused the Iowa State coach to constantly shuffle his lineup and prepare for the worst during his first three seasons. The most devastating loss came last offseason when versatile Wesley Johnson surprisingly vacated his position as star-in-waiting and transferred to Syracuse.
Fortunately for the Cyclones, that helped Craig Brackins developed into one of the premier players in the Big 12. It also figured to launch Brackins' entry to the NBA. But the 6-10 forward chose to return to Iowa State for his junior season, and with other veterans mixing with a decent recruiting class, McDermott finally can sense some stability within his roster.
Although Brackins enjoyed a breakout season and was named to the All-Big 12 team after averaging 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds, the Cyclones finished 15-17 overall and were 10th in the conference with a 4-12 mark.
Brackins, at least, realized the need to gain more strength before moving on to the NBA. Another year of seasoning at the collegiate level will be extremely beneficial, and his return could also make Iowa State a sleeper in the rugged Big 12.
During the offseason, veterans have openly commented about how they feel the Cyclones can contend for an NCAA Tournament berth. McDermott doesn't discourage such optimism. "We want them to think like that," he said, while recognizing the Cyclones must find ways to finish after generally playing opponents even for the first 30 minutes of games.
Late additions to the Kansas roster have paid huge dividends for coach Bill Self. Just two seasons ago, when the Jayhawks captured the national title, standouts Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur were players KU obtained late in the recruiting process.
Now, another plum figures to surface and provide immediate help next season as Kansas embarks on what many believe will be a national championship quest.
Xavier Henry, a coveted recruit who first opted for Memphis but then settled on Kansas after John Calipari accepted the coaching vacancy at Kentucky, could step in as a wing and give the Jayhawks yet another scoring threat to go with returning center Cole Aldrich and point guard Sherron Collins.
The stir created by Henry's decision to join the Jayhawks caused many in the national media to install Kansas as the favorite to win its second national championship in three years. Self understands the expectations and doesn't necessarily dislike them, but he insists "there's not as much margin for error as we had when we had seven pros playing for us two years ago."
That could be, though Kansas exceeded expectations last season when it claimed a fifth consecutive Big 12 title and finished 27-8 after falling to Michigan State in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. Aldrich recorded a triple-double in the first round, while Collins continued to excel as a take-charge performer.
How Henry, as well as the other high-level recruits Kansas signed, fit in will be interesting. But there's little question the talent level is high.
The recruiting class Frank Martin welcomed after he was promoted to head coach at Kansas State was ranked No. 1 nationally by some services and included a freshman who would be named the national player of the year in some circles, Michael Beasley.
While the latest group of recruits didn't ascend to the top of any national ratings, it is a class observers rate highly. The good news, at least for Martin, is these freshmen won't be asked to carry the team like the group Beasley headlined.
"All those freshmen were being asked to act like 22- and 23-year-olds ... and they tried," Martin said. "They just weren't ready. It wasn't time."
The 2009-10 class, headed by power forward Wally Judge, will get to learn from four returning starters. At some point, perhaps, one of the regulars, or maybe even more, will be unseated by a newcomer. But the transition for the youngsters is certainly better with more veterans around to offer advice.
"We've got a group of guys who have paved the way, who have earned their stripes and who fully understand what Kansas State is all about and what we're about as a program," added Martin, whose team was picked eighth in the Big 12 last season yet tied for fourth. The Wildcats finished 21-12 overall after falling in the second round of the NIT.
Among the returnees, the guard tandem of Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen is among the best in the Big 12. Both will benefit by the addition of bigger backcourt players. Martin anticipates the Wildcats could run more plays over the top of opposing players after adding bigger players with more athleticism.
So, how does Missouri build on reaching a regional final in the NCAA Tournament and restoring the roar to a proud program?
That is the question Mike Anderson will field throughout the offseason. And the coach will consistently express confidence the Tigers will continue to build on a 31-7 finish, which included a third-place mark of 12-4 in the Big 12, as well as the championship in the postseason conference tournament.
There is cause for concern. The Tigers lost two valuable senior forwards who were their most consistent scoring threats, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons.
Still, the program began to rely on the depth Anderson wants to run a fast-paced style predicated on full-court pressure. The school-record 31 wins, which included an 18-0 mark in Mizzou Arena, is proof the Tigers probably weren't a flash in the pan capable of fading quickly.
The Missouri administration feels confident in Anderson, a coach it convinced to stay after other potential suitors emerged following the big season the Tigers enjoyed. Anderson was signed to a new seven-year contract worth $1.35 million annually, a $500,000 raise over the deal Anderson signed in 2006.
"Clearly, the success and what's gone on, on the court and off the court, certainly validate him as being a terrific basketball coach and a terrific teacher," said Missouri athletic director Mike Alden.
Throughout last season, many seemed to pity Nebraska coach Doc Sadler for fielding the smallest team in Division I basketball. Observers marveled at the Huskers' scrappy tendencies as small defenders often worked like gnats to swarm on bigger opponents and post the best defensive scoring average in the Big 12.
The end result was impressive as Nebraska reached the NIT before finishing 18-13. Its 8-8 finish in the Big 12 was another one-game improvement for Sadler, who went 6-10 and 7-9 in league play in his previous two seasons as the Huskers coach.
With a bigger roster to rely on in 2009-10, the immediate conclusion is Nebraska should stack up better underneath. While that's true, Sadler is encouraged by the size newcomers bring to all positions.
Nebraska will remain young. Just two of the eight players Sadler signed in his first recruiting class are still playing for the fourth-year coach. They are guards Brandon Richardson and Toney McCray. Two other guards, Ryan Anderson and Sek Henry, will be seniors the Huskers count on for leadership.
Consecutive appearances in the NIT are considered impressive results for the talent level Sadler has maintained while dealing with constant attrition. Still, the youthfulness in the Nebraska roster makes the upcoming season another difficult proposition. Three newcomers, wing Myles Holley, point guard Lance Jeter and forward Quincy Hankins, could all be asked to step in immediately.
Oklahoma will not be the same team without Blake Griffin. That much is obvious.
So the natural assumption is the Sooners could struggle mightily after the best player in college basketball left following his sophomore season to pursue an NBA career.
Don't write off Oklahoma just yet. Coaches throughout the Big 12 know better after the Sooners went 30-6 advanced to a regional final in the NCAA Tournament.
"Any time you lose a player of that caliber, there's going to be a transition, but Jeff's got some good players there," Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said. "Instead of being inside-oriented, they're going to be guard-oriented. Jeff's a very good coach. He's not going to have any problem adjusting. It's going to be a different style of play. Other guys will step up."
At least one other guy is among the best in the Big 12. Willie Warren was the league's top freshman last season and now has the opportunity to exert his own character as far as the team's makeup. Five newcomers will join the squad as part of a decorated recruiting class.
Still, it will be a change not relying on a big man the Sooners played through who dominated practically everyone he faced. The changeover will be interesting to watch, and it could take time for the Sooners to gel, but Jeff Capel is a coach who knows how to assess talent and get the most from his players.
Oklahoma State will have a considerable influx of youth. As many as five freshmen could be asked to contribute for the Cowboys in 2009-10. Still, the team can count on some experience to help pass along pointers about the new system Travis Ford installed last year after hiring on as coach.
James Anderson, a 6-6 wing, is the most dangerous offensive threat among the returnees after dismissing any notions of making a jump to the NBA. Marshall Moses is a strong, though undersized, post man. Obi Muonelo again provides a threat on the wing, while Keiton Page is a tiny sharpshooter who can surprise opponents with his range.
This could be an improved team in spite of a late push last season, which enabled Oklahoma State to earn an NCAA Tournament bid and go 23-12 after tying for fourth in the Big 12 at 9-7.
One huge dilemma does exist, however.
"What keeps me up at night," said Ford, "is who's going to replace Byron Eaton?"
The chunky point guard was a four-year starter who influenced games greatly with his ability to penetrate and either dish, score or draw fouls. His leadership will be sorely missed, especially since Anderson is quiet and unassuming.
The potential of the newcomers must be assessed early in the season, especially since some of the signees were dealing with issues regarding academic qualifications. Underneath, 6-10 Torin Walker is a freshman the Cowboys could count on to offer relief for the 6-6 Moses. The development of 7-0 Teeng Akol, a player Ford describes as "inherently lazy," remains a project.
Anyone who picks Texas to capture the national championship in 2009-10 will be riding a darkhorse. The Longhorns won't even be picked to win the Big 12 since Kansas is receiving the most affection nationally.
Still, Texas is in an enviable position. "Texas is like that horse (Mine That Bird) that ran in the Kentucky Derby. Everybody better not forget about those guys," cautioned Nebraska coach Doc Sadler.
The payoff for the Longhorns came shortly before the deadline for withdrawl from the NBA Draft. That's when Damion James announced his decision to return for his senior season with the Longhorns. His choice was influenced by scouts who contend James must improve his perimeter skills to play as a small forward in the NBA.
Already armed with a talented group of newcomers, as well as capable veterans, Texas figures to flourish with the return of James, a 6-7, 225-pound forward who averaged 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds last season. With James back, the Longhorns could be pointed to the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
James, as well as the remainder of the returnees, will be eager to improve. Although the Longhorns reached the NCAA Tournament, an event they've participated in each of Rick Barnes' 11 seasons as coach, they tied for fourth in the Big 12 at 9-7 and finished 23-12 overall. Texas expects to do better and Barnes expressed absolute confidence when asked about any initial concerns about next season.
Mammoth center Dexter Pittman, who came into his known during conference play a year ago, is the only other returnee with any guarantees to start. Jordan Hamilton, a 6-7 forward who was rated among the nation's top recruits, is part of a talented incoming class that also features 6-3 guard Avery Bradley. Jai Lucas, a transfer from Florida, could unseat Dogus Balbay at the point, though Lucas will not be eligible to play until the end of the first semester.
The biggest surprise among Big 12 underclassmen who made themselves available for the NBA Draft was Texas A&M center Chinemelu Elonu.
The 6-10 junior elected to forgo his senior season after earning his degree. While he had discussed such a move with Mark Turgeon for roughly two years, the Texas A&M coach was disappointed because Elonu could have benefited from another collegiate season.
Although Elonu was one of the Big 12's most improved players last season, when he ranked second in the league in blocked shots with a 1.6 average, he was ineffective down the stretch. The Aggies still advanced to the NCAA Tournament and finished 24-10 after tying for fourth in the Big 12 at 9-7.
The return of Elonu figured to give the Aggies their strongest collection of talent under Turgeon. Instead he enters his third season with additional concerns underneath to go with the departure of Josh Carter, a 6-7 wing who played the most games (98) of any player in A&M history.
The Aggies still return some mainstays, including seniors Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan. Newcomers should also factor into the mix, with A&M again working size into the rotation from power forwards Kourtney Robertson and Ray Turner, wing Khris Middleton and shooting guard Naji Hibbert.
After completing his first full season as a collegiate head coach, Pat Knight doesn't mind reflecting on the difficulty of replacing his legendary father Bob as the coach at Texas Tech.
"Try playing high school basketball in Indiana being Bob Knight's son," he said. "Talk about pressure, and people being on your (butt) all the time."
Knight probably realizes, however, that his Texas Tech teams better improve shortly. A 14-19 finish last season didn't exactly excite a fan base that had begun to show disdain for the program when Bob Knight was still coach. The Red Raiders finished 11th in the Big 12 after going just 3-13, though they did claim a home-court upset against league champion Kansas.
Establishing depth is a key issue and Knight was convinced Tech added more talent with the recruiting class it assembled. Knight hopes some of the newcomers impact his team immediately following the addition of three junior college transfers.
Still, improvement is required of the veterans, too. There is some promise, especially from guard Mike Singletary, who broke the Big 12 Tournament scoring record with 43 points in a first-round upset of Texas A&M. Singletary, who was comfortable coming off the bench in a sixth-man role, scored 29 consecutive second-half points as the Red Raiders rallied from a 21-point deficit.
Texas Tech was rarely prone to long funks offensively, but the 79 points it allowed on average was the worst defensive yield in the Big 12.