The race for the Big 12 crown will be thrilling this season. Kansas and Oklahoma State are consensus top-10 teams in college basketball, and Baylor, though definitely not as talented, could stick close with a stacked frontcourt.
Combine the title race with the NBA talent on those three teams’, and you have one of the most entertaining leagues in college basketball for 2013-14.
Kansas lost its top five scorers, but the Jayhawks may be even better than they were last season. They add an outstanding group of newcomers with freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid, and Conner Frankamp and Memphis transfer Tarik Black, and 2012-13 reserves Naadir Tharpe, Perry Ellis, and Jamari Traylor are all primed for breakout seasons.
Wiggins, Selden, and Embiid will be three of the nation’s top freshmen this season. Wiggins won the Naismith and Gatorade High School Player of the Year awards, and he also played in the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic games. He is an amazing athlete and can drive or shoot the ball.
Selden, another McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic participant, averaged a double-double as a high school senior and should start in the Jayhawks’ backcourt.
Embiid, a 7-foot center, has not received much media attention considering he was a top-10 recruit, but he has the potential to lead the Big 12 in rebounds and blocks.
Black, who has one year of eligibility, could also fit into Kansas’ starting frontcourt with Embiid. At Memphis last season, he averaged 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds, and two years ago he averaged 10.7 points and shot 68.9% from the field.
Tharpe, who did not start but appeared in all 31 games last season, will become Kansas’ starting point guard. The junior averaged 5.5 points and 3.1 assists last season and continued to look more comfortable as the season went on.
Ellis and Traylor, both forwards, could start but may be relegated to bench roles once again. Ellis has the potential for a breakout sophomore season after averaging 5.8 points and 3.9 rebounds as a frosh.
2. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State will once again challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title, but it may not have the pieces to beat out the Jayhawks.
The Cowboys return National Player of the Year candidate Marcus Smart along with Markel Brown and Phil Forte in the backcourt. Smart dominated the Big 12 as a freshman with 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and three steals per game. His steal percentage ranked No. 5 in the nation. Although he would have been one of the top picks in the 2013 NBA Draft, he chose to return for his sophomore season.
Brown is one of college basketball’s best athletes. The senior is coming off a great 2012-13 season where he averaged 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists, and shot 36.4% from beyond the arc. When the Cowboys upset Kansas last season, Brown recorded a season-high 28 points.
Forte, another sophomore, contributed 10.2 points per game while taking most of his shots from three-point range. Although he shot a mediocre 33.8% from deep, he proved he has the range to be an effective shooter with 2.1 treys made per contest. He made as many as six in a single game last season.
Freshman guard Stevie Clark, a top-100 recruit, should also receive some time as Smart’s backup.
At forward, the Cowboys return Le’Bryan Nash, Michael Cobbins, and Kamari Murphy. Nash made tremendous improvements last season, averaging 14 points on 46.2% shooting compared to 13.3 points on 39.4% shooting as a freshman. He made the All-Big 12 Third Team, and as he continues to develop into a more efficient player, he could become a first team wing.
Oklahoma State does not have many bodies in the post, which is why Cobbins and Murphy are so crucial this season. Cobbins, a junior, started in 18 games and averaged 6.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks last year while Murphy averaged 3.8 points and 3.9 boards.
Junior college transfer Gary Gaskins, a 6’10 center who averaged 9.1 points on 69% field-goal shooting, six rebounds, and 3.1 blocks at Brevard CC, will give the Cowboys much-needed size and defensive prowess down low.
The defending NIT champions, Baylor is a borderline top-25 team this season. The Bears lost star guards Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton, but they have arguably the Big 12’s best frontcourt in Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson, and Rico Gathers.
Austin, a 7’1″ forward who truly defies the confines of positions, could be an All-Big 12 First Teamer. Last season, he averaged 13 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks. Considering his size, his abilities to handle the ball and make shots from the perimeter are unique.
Jefferson is also one of the conference’s best forwards. He is the Bears’ top returner in points (13.3 ppg), blocks (1.9 bpg), and field-goal percentage (61%), and he also was second with eight rebounds per game. In Baylor’s five NIT games, he averaged 21.2 points and shot an unreal 71.9% from the field.
Gathers, a 6’8″ sophomore, came off the bench last season and averaged 5.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. Expect him to put up at least a handful of double-doubles this year.
The Bears also add point-forward Royce O’Neale, a Denver transfer. At Denver, O’Neale averaged 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists.
The Bears’ backcourt is a bit weaker, though. Returning are seniors Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin, and entering the mix are junior college transfer Kenny Cherry and freshman Allerik Freeman.
Heslip was one of the country’s best three-point shooters two seasons ago at 45.5%, but last season his numbers dipped a bit 38.6%. Franklin came off the bench last season, averaging four points and netting 34 three-pointers.
Cherry should start as the Bears’ point guard. At State Fair CC last season, he averaged 16.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Freeman, a top-100 recruit who initially committed to UCLA, will also log minutes in the backcourt.
4. Iowa State
Iowa State lost three starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team, but the Cyclones should still once again make it to the Big Dance with Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim returning.
Niang is coming off a great freshman season where he average 12.1 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 39.2% from beyond the arc. Niang, a senior forward, averaged 11.3 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, recording 15 double-doubles in the process.
To fill out the starting lineup, the Cyclones will rely on a handful of newcomers. Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane will have the largest impact of any new face. Kane had a great junior season for the Thundering Herd with 15.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, seven assists, and 1.8 steals per game. He posted a triple-double against Hofstra last November with 33 points, 11 boards, and 10 dimes.
Junior college transfers K.J. Bluford and Dustin Hogue should also make an immediate impact. Bluford, a 6’1″ shooting guard, averaged 17.8 points and made 113 three-pointers at Northeast CC in Nebraska. Hogue averaged 12.9 points and 5.4 boards at Indian Hills CC.
Four-star freshmen Matt Thomas and Monte Morris should also receive solid playing time in the backcourt.
5. Kansas State
Kansas State shared the Big 12 title with in-state rival Kansas last season. Although the Wildcats still could to be a NCAA tournament, their chances of repeating as conference champions are very slim.
The Wildcats have three veterans returning in Shane Southwell, Will Spradling, and Thomas Gipson. Southwell, a senior wing, averaged 8.4 points and 2.5 assists last season while making 43.6% of his three-pointers. The New York native will be relied on as Kansas State’s main scorer this season.
Spradling, also a senior, averaged 7.4 points and 2.4 assists while Gipson, a junior forward, posted 7.9 points and five rebounds per game.
The Wildcats will rely on increased contributions from 6’9″ D.J. Johnson, who is coming off a promising freshman year where he averaged 2.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in 9.3 minutes per game.
6. West Virginia
West Virginia returns three high-quality guards in its backcourt. Sophomores Eron Harris and Terry Henderson return on the wings, and junior Juwan Staten returns at the point. Harris led the Mountaineers in scoring with 9.8 points per game, and Henderson posted eight points per game and shot 40% on three-pointers.
Staten, a former Dayton transfer, averaged 7.6 points and 3.3 assists.
At forward, however, all the Mountaineers return is junior Kevin Noreen, who averaged 3.0 ppg and 4.4 rebounds. But head coach Bob Huggins is bringing in four forwards who are all worthy of quality minutes. Junior college transfer Remi Dibo averaged 18.2 points and shot 41.9% on three-pointers, Jonathon Holton averaged a double-double at Palm Beach State, and freshmen Devin Williams and Elijah Macon will both compete for a starting spot.
Oklahoma is looking for its second straight NCAA tournament under Long Kruger. The Sooners, who lost their top three scorers, return nearly everyone else from last year’s club.
In the backcourt, sophomores Buddy Hield and Je’lon Hornbeak are back. Hield was not efficient with a 38.8 field-goal percentage, but his raw numbers were solid with 7.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game. Hornbeak averaged 5.6 points.
6’7″ forward Cameron Clark is also back after averaging 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds.
8. Texas Tech
Under first-year head coach Tubby Smith, who was fired this spring by Minnesota, Texas Tech returns five of their top six scorers.
In the frontcourt, the Red Raiders return Jaye Crockett, Jordan Tolbert and Dejan Kravic. Crockett led the team last season with 11.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. The graduate student had four games with at least 20 points and eight double-doubles. Tolbert averaged 9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds, and Kravic averaged nine points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks.
At guard, the Red Raiders return Dusty Hannahs (6.9 ppg, 37.4 3p%) and Jamal Williams Jr. (4.7 ppg, 1.4 apg).
Texas struggled last season with a 7-11 record, and it lost its top four scorers.
The Longhorns do return junior Jonathan Holmes (6.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and sophomores Javan Felix (6.8 ppg, 4.1 apg), Connor Lammert (4.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg), and Cameron Ridley (4.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg), which should be enough to keep them from falling into last place.
10. Texas Christian
TCU won only two games in the Big 12 last season, with one of them miraculously coming against Kansas, and this season will be similar.
The Horned Frogs only notable returning player is junior point guard Kyan Anderson, who averaged 12 points, 3.4 assists, and 1.4 steals last season.
Big 12 Player of the Year
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Big 12 Freshman of the Year
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Big 12 All-Conference Team
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Markel Brown, Oklahoma State
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
Corey Jefferson, Baylor
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.