A response to Wednesday's article previewing the Big 12 season.
I absolutely hated Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson's games their first two seasons, but both pleasantly surprised me last year. They're just two more feathers in Bill Self's cap, and are now two of my favorite players in the Big 12. If Kentucky's Anthony Davis didn't grab all the headlines, people would have been talking about Withey's All-World defense (he led the nation in block percentage).
I think Johnson will step in seamlessly as lead guard now that the frustrating Tyshawn Taylor is finally gone. Also on the "My Guys" list: I already talked up Sheldon McClellan and Marcus Smart in my previous post. I can't enough Will Spradling, who looks and plays like a poor man's Aaron Craft, and Rodney McGruder, my pick for Big 12 Player of the Year. To that end, I see Kansas St. coming in third in the Big 12, with Oklahoma St. surprising people with a fourth place finish.
Baylor loses two five-star talents in Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller, but their biggest loss is glue guy extraordinaire Quincy Acy. However, I think recent track record will have them in the NCAAs as the fifth Big 12 team. And I know the midwesterners are hyped about Fred Hoiberg and his merry band of transfers, but I just can't see the Cyclones holding serve after losing a once-a-decade type talent in Royce White. To me, Lon Kruger is like melba toast. I'm from Missouri on newcomer West Virginia, but I'm confident that TCU and Texas Tech will bring up the rear for the conference.
Looking forward, Kansas looks set as the king of the Big 12 for the next 10 years or so, unless those rumors that Louisville is Big 12 bound actually come to fruition. With the Longhorns brand losing its recruiting cache nationally, Texas will have its hands full with Baylor, which isn't going anywhere soon. I'm disappointed that the conference loses Missouri, an exciting team that seems primed to sustain success under Frank Haith, and Texas A&M, which could have recruited the heck out of the Lone Star state in a way Rick Barnes seems disinclined to do. But like you, I'm interested to see what "Huggy Ball" will bring to the Big 12.
Let's talk a little recruiting, starting with Plano's finest Julius Randle. He recently narrowed down his list to six teams: Texas, Florida, Kentucky, N.C. State, Kansas, and Oklahoma. The most recent scuttlebutt is that Texas and Florida lead. Connections are important to Randle, and it's good news that he's very familiar with the Longhorn coaching staff and good friends with current players like Prince Ibeh. Rainmaker Russell Springmann, who once landed Kevin Durant, has taken point in Randle's recruitment. Florida gets the nod as Billy Donovan was Randle's U-18 USA head coach this past summer, and N.C. State is the home of Randle's close friend, Rodney Purvis. And, of course, Kentucky has Coach Cal and are considered early frontrunners to cut down the nets in April 2014.
For Texas to land Randle, the Longhorns have to put together a very promising season this year, setting up National Title aspirations in 2013. Even though Randle takes his personal relationships very seriously, like any elite player, he wants to win. If he doesn't think he can do that in Austin, he won't pick Texas. Because of the youth and depth of the current roster, Texas currently does not have a single commitment in the 2013 class. Beyond Randle, the Longhorns are publicly looking at just three recruits: combo guards Brandon Austin and DeMarcus Croaker, and center Joel Embiid. Austin and Embiid both just took official visits to Texas but don't have the Horns as their #1 school, while Croaker has test score qualification issues and has yet to make it to Austin. The bottom line, though, is that none of those players is a difference maker like Randle, a transcendent player that Texas needs to reestablish the Horns among the elite.
The Horns haven't sniffed a Sweet 16 since 2008, despite landing multiple five-star recruits in that time. Unfortunately, the recent Findlay Prep/Canada pipeline that brought Texas Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, and Myck Kabongo died in 2011. Grassroots Canada AAU coach Ro Russell was ousted from power after a scathing news report, and Findlay Prep head coach Michael Peck Peck left for an NBDL head coaching opportunity. Meanwhile, Texas assistant Rodney Terry, credited with the Canadian recruitments, took over Fresno State's basketball program.
Locally, it's well known that Rick Barnes has had contentious relationships with certain Texas AAU coaches. Thus, the rise of Texas hoops has proven more beneficial to area teams like Baylor (Perry Jones III, Isaiah Austin) and Oklahoma St. (Le'Bryan Nash, Marcus Smart), while also bringing interest from national powers like Duke (Rasheed Sulaimon, Matt Jones) and Kentucky (the Harrison twins). In short, Julius Randle is a wickedly important recruit for Barnes, both to reestablish Texas has a regional and national power on the recruiting scene.
Like I said earlier, the Bears aren't going anywhere. Baylor has already secured commitments from two 2013 top 100 players, wing Ishmail Wainright and PF Johnathan Motley. Texas was interested in both players, and Scott Drew continued his recruiting wizardry by securing two talented hoopsters. The Bears are also the favorite to land 4* C Dominic Woodson, who grew up in Round Rock, and is a player for 4* SG Daniel Hamilton, Jordan Hamilton's little brother.
Kansas also has a top-ranked class in the works, with a stout backcourt committed: SF Wayne Selden, SG Brannen Greene, and PG Connor Frankamp. Selden is a McDonald's All-American candidate, with Greene and Frankamp top 100 building blocks. The Jayhawks are looking for another difference maker, and are pursuing five-stars like Randle, SF Aaron Gordon, and the number one overall prospect in the nation, SF Andrew Wiggins.
Both Kansas St. and Oklahoma St. did a double dip into the state of Texas for some mid-tier recruits. The Wildcats picked up PG Marcus Foster (Wichita Falls Hirschi) and SG Wesley Iwundu (Houston Westfield), while the Cowboys secured SF Leyton Hammonds (North Richland Hills Richland) and SF Jeff Carroll (Rowlett). But of all the Big 12 schools, TCU made the biggest splash this fall. New head coach Trent Johnson secured a big time commitment from top 50 prospect C Karviar Shepherd (Dallas Prime Prep), who could be a real difference maker at the college level. Unfortunately, Shepherd, along with 2014 teammate PG Emmanuel Mudiay, were both ruled ineligible to play high school ball this season.
For high school hoops fans, the state of Texas is packed with prospects for the next few years. Mudiay is a top 10 prospect in the 2014 class, and is considering most the Big 12 schools along with national powers. Likewise are fellow five-stars SF Justise Winslow (Houston St. John's) and SF Justin Jackson (Houston HCYA). Other names to know include SF Kelly Oubre (Fort Bend Bush), an ex-HS teammate of Cameron Ridley, C Elbert Robinson (Garland Lakeview Centennial), PF Khadeem Lattin (Houston Westbury Christian), and PF Melvin Swift (Houston Yates). 2015 also has some talent, headlined by a trio of Dallas area prospects: SF Mickey Mitchell (Plano PCA), younger brother of 2013 football recruit Mike Mitchell and Randle's high school teammate, SG King McClure (Dallas Triple A), and PF Elijah Thomas (Rockwall).
Expect Kansas, Texas and Baylor to look nationally like they always do. The Bears already have a commitment from 5* SF Leron Black, a native Tennessean. Some other early names to track include a pair of elite PGs, Tyus Jones and Jaquan Lyle, SF Kevon Looney, a silky scorer compared by some to Kevin Durant, and SG Rashad Vaughn. Those players have all shown interest in the top tier Big 12 schools.
Let's wrap this up by bringing it back to the upcoming season and talk Final Four picks. You well know I'm also a fan of Kentucky, and although they don't have the Anthony Davis/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tag team from last year, I think their blend of returning experience and talented freshmen is enough to land them in the last four. I'll begrudgingly include Louisville as well, as the Cardinals should boast the number one defense in the country. If any team has a better D than the Fightin' Pitinos, I would place odds on Aaron Craft-led Buckeyes. I think both Craft and fellow junior DeShaun Thomas make "the leap" and get Ohio St. into the Final Four. Call me crazy, but I see another Big 10 team, the Michigan St. Spartans, cutting down the nets at the end of the year. The Spartans have a deep, talented team, and in a year devoid of elite stars, I think it's time for Tom Izzo to win himself another championship.