A response to Tuesday's article looking at the conference's top freshmen.
The Big 12 has quietly become one of the best basketball conferences in the country over the last few seasons. However, 2012 is going to be a major transition: not only is Frank Martin, who fueled an unlikely resurrection at Kansas State, gone for the SEC, but Missouri and Texas A&M are as well. Meanwhile, the conference lost a ton of underclassmen to the NBA draft -- Royce White, Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, Thomas Robinson -- and nearly every team will be depending on freshmen to play key roles.
I'm with you on Oklahoma State. If Smart can step in and run the team right away as a freshman PG (which, as we've been talking about, isn't easy), they might be the team best equipped to challenge Kansas. They've had an unbelievable amount of roster turnover over the last two seasons, but there's a lot of talent in Stillwater. The Cowboys will miss middle school mascot/four-year player Keiton Paige, but he really wasn't a point guard or a D1 level athlete in anyway.
I still don't know what to make of LeBryan Nash, a McDonald's All-American from Dallas who looked like the old Ron Artest at times last season and the new (and not improved) Metta World Peace at others as a freshman. He started to come on towards the end of the year and he has an eye-popping NBA body at 6'7 230; if he can improve his offensive efficiency, he should be a game changer at the college level as a sophomore.
They'll miss Brian Williams, out for the season with a wrist injury, but Michael Cobbins (6'8 220) and Markel Smart (6'3 190) are absolute stud athletes, and so is Jean Paul-Olukemi (6'6 215), if he's recovered from an ACL injury and is given an extra semester of eligibility. Philip Jurick, their 6'11 260 walking tattoo, could become the next Cherokee Parks, which is (kind of) a compliment: guys his size who aren't complete stiffs tend to wind up in the NBA. Combine that with one of the best home courts in the country in Gallagher-Iba Arena and they could make a lot of noise. This could be the year Travis Ford puts it all together.
I'm still surprised Kansas State let Martin walk, but he left behind a pretty solid core (Rodney MacGruder, Will Spradling and Jordan Henriquez) for Bruce Weber, who should be able to get them back to the Tournament. Weber's a good coach, but the question, long-term, is whether he'll be able to recruit in Manhattan if he couldn't do it at Illinois. Iowa State has some talent coming back as well, but they ran everything through Royce White, so it will be interesting to see how they do without the world's most famous bus enthusiast.
At the bottom of the conference, you've got Oklahoma, whose been steadily rebuilding under former NBA coach Lon Kruger, but is probably more of an NIT team after a long journey through the wilderness in the post Blake Griffin era. Texas Tech, yeeesh, is going to continue to be awful. Billie Gillispie looks like the next career to be buried out in Lubbock. Looking back, how impressive is it that Bob Knight made them a regular Tourney team?
Baylor under Scott Drew, is, as always, coached in an "interesting" manner. Quincy Miller should have stayed, but I can't blame him from leaving that disaster zone of poor coaching and roster management. This year, Pierre Jackson, Deuce Bello (who showed flashes late), Brady Heislip and Cory Jefferson will form a solid veteran core. The Bears should be a Tournament team again, but their ceiling depends on their freshmen, especially Isaiah Austin. I don't think it's too much to ask for Drew to be able to use an athletic 7'0 properly, but we shall see. Maybe this is the year J'Mison "Bobo" Morgan, a former 5-star recruit out of Dallas who transferred from UCLA and redshirted last year, can finally put it all together?
But with so many questions around every team, it's pretty much impossible to bet against Bill Self and Kansas at this point. Self is like the platonic ideal of a coach: he can recruit, develop players and game-plan. You don't need to reinvent the wheel in Lawrence: give a coach who knows what he is doing the keys to a blue-blood program like the Jayhawks and the results -- eight consecutive conference titles, two Final Fours, a national title -- speak for themselves.
The most impressive part, to me, is his ability to sync up the career trajectories of his best players. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor learned the ropes from the Morris Twins, who learned the ropes from Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins, who learned the ropes from Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and the rest of the 2008 title team. All of those guys are in the NBA, but not before putting a few years in Lawrence.
This year, Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey are ready to take the baton after being third and fourth wheels last season. Johnson is a five-star top 25 recruit who is just NOW being given the reigns to the offense -- as a senior! His per-game stats weren't great last year, but that's more a function of him caddying for Taylor and Robinson. He's an athletic 6'2 180 guard who can shoot, slash, pass, rebound and defend. I expect him to be the Big 12 POY, while Withey, while I have doubts about him on the next level, is still a 7'0 235 shot-blocking machine who should repeat as the Big 12 DPOY.
It's hard to see any program knocking Self and the Jayhawks off their perch anytime soon, but the dynamic in the conference will be different. West VA, a Big East refugee from a once great conference, was a top-heavy team last year who lost Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant, but Deniz Kilicli is an excellent collegiate big man and Huggy Bear is a great college coach, his "commitment" to academics notwithstanding. TCU has been a non-entity as a basketball program for a very long time, but they opened up the checkbook for Trent Johnson and could benefit, down the road, from being a Big 12 school in the Metroplex, one of the biggest recruiting hotbeds in the country. As a Dallas basketball fan, I'm just excited to be able to watch all these teams in person.
Going forward, how do you see the conference shaking out in the post-realignment world? Rick Barnes and Scott Drew have beaten Self on the recruiting trail in the past; will they ever be able to beat him on the court? Julius Randle, a five-star PF from Dallas, is the big prize of the 2013 recruiting class; what are the odds he stays at home? And who are the other big targets out there for Texas, Baylor and the rest in 2013 and 2014?
Check back tomorrow for a look at all the big recruiting battles and how they could affect the balance of power in the Big 12 going forward.