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College basketball preview: Top freshmen in the Big 12

A look at a stellar recruiting class for Texas, as well as Isaiah Austin, Marcus Smart, Perry Ellis and all of the freshman in the conference who could make an impact this season.

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

A response to Monday's article previewing the Texas basketball season.

I think you're spot on about the returning roster analysis. Kabongo should have every opportunity to become a college star in his sophomore year. Unfortunately, the NCAA's archaic rules and regulations may mean that Kabongo sits out a handful of games. The last thing this young team needs is their floor general watching in plain clothes. Lewis is the team's best defender and will draw minutes even if he never blossoms as an offensive threat. Same story with Jaylen Bond and his rebounding. But like you, I'm absolutely bullish on Sheldon McClellan: I think he becomes a better college player and NBA pro than Jordan Hamilton.

One thing I love about Texas' freshmen and sophomore classes is that the players mesh well as a team. Most everybody has one or two elite talents that will coalesce well with their teammates' skills. Cameron Ridley is the five-star centerpiece of the class, but like with Kabongo last year, fans should temper expectations. Most freshmen bigs don't immediately become Anthony Davis. Ridley is a bulldog inside and will get rebounds and easy buckets almost by default. But he'll be frustrated by quicker forwards and does not yet possess the elite offensive skill set to dominate the post. If I had to guess, I'd take 10 PPG / 7 RPG and would be ecstatic with 12 and 8.

If Ridley is the bulldog, Prince Ibeh is the gazelle. Former Baylor Bear Ekpe Udoh is the natural comparison for Ibeh, who has all the skills to be an elite defender but will need some semblance of an offensive arsenal to make it to the NBA. Golden State supporters had no idea, but Udoh actually had a nice face-up and post game during his junior season to help buoy Baylor's Elite 8 run. Right now, Texas fans should be happy to see incremental development with a potential for greatness. Actually, the hope is that neither Ridley nor Ibeh puts its all together this year, a la Tristan Thompson. Otherwise, Longhorn fans may just be left lamenting another NBA early entry.

Ioannis Papapetrou gets the "Tremendous Upside Potential" tag based on his summer play (previous winners: Jaylen Bond, J'Covan Brown, Varez Ward, etc.). But like you said, it'd be wise to temper expectations for freshmen players--elite or non-elite. Papa, Connor Lammert and DeMarcus Holland are basically roster filler at this point, with the hope they develop down the road.

If there's intrigue left in the 2012 class, it's with point guard Javan Felix. A New Orleans native, Felix draws immediate comparisons to former Texas star D.J. Augustin. He may be as quick as D.J., but Felix doesn't look anywhere close to the potent scorer that Augustin was at Texas. If Kabongo does draw a suspension, look for Felix to get first crack at the starting point guard job. Even if Kabongo doesn't miss games, the strong possibility that young Myck leaves after his sophomore year means that Felix will need to prove he can handle taking over the lead guard role in 2013.

Really quick on a few of the recruiting classes. For Baylor, star recruit Isaiah Austin draws comparisons to Perry Jones III (look like Tarzan, play like Jane), but I think he'll be more assertive and not let Pierre Jackson's trigger-happy ways walk all over him. L.J. Rose was all but Texas-bound three years ago; injuries and Felix's commitment changed things. Rose is a stout passer, but questions remain about the rest of his offensive game. I personally feel the real gem of the class is Ricardo Gathers, who could end up being a Quincy Acy clone.

I have no doubt in Kansas head coach Bill Self's ability to develop big men, be it All-American Perry Ellis or diamond in the rough Landen Lucas. But it will take time, and I wouldn't actually count on Ellis' breakout year until his sophomore season. Wing Ben McLemore is the guy Kansas fans are excited about. Similar to J'Covan Brown's story, qualification issues held McLemore back a year, but he should step into the starting lineup immediately and be the favorite for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

Losing out on Oklahoma St.'s Marcus Smart stings. He doesn't really possess outstanding athleticism or any discernible elite basketball skill, but he's a winner in every sense of the word, with off-the-charts intangibles. There's a reason why Travis Ford named him the starting point guard as a true freshman, and it's not just because the Cowboys depth at the 1 stunk. I like the Cowboys as my sleeper Big 12 team this year, but I'll let you talk up the Big 12 teams.

Back to Texas: I think the Longhorns will surprise a lot of teams this year. Ken Pomeroy's preseason rankings put Texas 13th overall, which sounds about right to me. I want to see Texas finish second in the conference and line up for a 3 seed in the NCAAs. That may seem unreasonable for a team stocked with just freshmen and sophomores, but keep in mind the Longhorns return experience, if not age.

For the Longhorns to exceed preseason expectations and meet mine, a few things have to happen. 1) Kabongo becomes a star. 2) McClellan develops into a potent and elite scorer. 3) A quality big man rotation develops with Ridley, Holmes, Bond, and Ibeh all playing positive contributing roles. 4) Rick Barnes doesn't suck the life out of his basketball team as he has done in years past.

Do you think Texas is the second-best team in the Big 12? I'm done picking against Kansas, but the Jayhawks lost some talent--is their run as Big 12 champions done? What's your take on newcomers West Virginia and TCU? And how badly did Billy Gillispie screw up Texas Tech?

Check back on Wednesday for a preview of the rest of the conference.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.