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2017-18 Big 12 men’s basketball preview

The Big 12 conference is no stranger to quality basketball, boasting the No. 1 conference RPI three out of the last four years, as well as an average margin of victory of 7.9 points.

The 2016-17 season was thought to be a success for the conference, with TCU winning the NIT, Kansas, West Virginia and Baylor reaching the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament, as well as Frank Mason of KU winning the National Player of the Year award.

Going into this season, parity is once again a factor. The Big 12 has three teams in the USA Today preseason Coaches Poll (No. 3 Kansas, No. 10 West Virginia, No. 24 Baylor), as well as three other teams receiving votes (TCU, Oklahoma, Texas).

With all that said, let’s take a look at each team in the Big 12 and what potential they have for the upcoming season, ranked based on their place in the Big 12 preseason poll.

No. 10 Oklahoma State

2016-17: Record: 20-13; Conference Finish: 5; NCAA Tournament: Round of 64

The Cowboys look to re-brand themselves under first year head coach Mike Boynton, especially after the loss of talented guards Jawun Evans and Phil Forte.

Boynton took came to the team in March, but has previous experience at South Carolina as a player and assistant, as well as being on staff at Stephen F. Austin during their recent NCAA tournament runs.

In the past, Gallagher-Iba Arena has been one of the most dangerous places to play in the Big 12 and a key advantage for the Cowboys. Boynton wants to bring back that home court advantage this season, particularly with a more defensive-minded team.

“I think our fans need to see that there is a commitment to playing the game the right way,” Boynton said. “ To having guys committed to representing Oklahoma State in the best way possible in terms of trying to have success. As you try to continue to win games you will have more people interested in coming to watch you.”

The Cowboys bring in a younger team, but Boynton expects veterans such as seniors Mitchell Solomon and Preseason All-Big 12 selection Jeffrey Carroll to lead the team back to the promised land, hopefully ending in another NCAA tournament berth.

Key Games:

Dec. 9 vs. Wichita State, Feb. 10 at West Virginia, March 3 vs. Kansas

 

No. 9 Iowa State

2016-17: Record: 24-11; Conference Finish: T-2; NCAA Tournament: Round of 32

This team has always been dangerous, and the fact that they are picked to finish so low is both a testament to the parity of the league as well as the talent that the Cyclones lost last season.

As the season progresses, though, head coach Steve Prohm plans to ignore the hype and push his team to see what they are made of.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to really, you know, challenge and figure out how to make this team great,” Prohm said.  “I think as a coach and as a player this is a great challenge for us and that’s what you want as a competitor. I think stance wins over hype, are we doing the right thing every day?  Are we getting better?  And if we do that good things will happen.”

Prohm is entering his third season and is coming off a fantastic 2016-17 season. The Cyclones won the Big 12 tournament as well as being one of the rare teams to win a game at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Cyclones will look to young players such as sophomore Solomon Young and freshman Lindell Wigginton to step up as leaders and make the big plays Cyclones fans have become accustomed to in recent years.

Key Games:

Nov. 10 at Missouri, Jan. 9 at Kansas, Jan. 17 at TCU

 

No. 8 Kansas State

2016-17: Record: 21-14; Conference Finish: 6; NCAA Tournament: Round of 64

The Wildcats are a bit of an enigma, as they are every season. Head coach Bruce Weber always seems to have a solid mix of returning players, such as juniors Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes, yet at the same time still having huge holes to fill by losing players such as Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson.

Last season, KSU got back into the NCAA tournament and won their first game in the First Four, something that Weber said motivates the team this year to chase more success.

“Getting in the NCAA Tournament and winning the game, it was great for our program,” Weber said. “A nice reward for our seniors, but I think more than anything else it was a great motivator for our younger guys.  They have had a great taste of that and we have had a great offseason.”

Some key factors for the Wildcats this season will be rebounding and having an established leader this season according to Weber. The team will also look to outplay their preseason ranking and challenge to finish in the top half of the conference.

Key Games:

Nov. 23 vs. Arizona State (Las Vegas), Jan. 1 vs. West Virginia, Jan. 29 vs. Kansas

 

No. 7 Texas Tech

2016-17:  Record: 18-14; Conference Finish: T-7; NCAA Tournament: N/A

Experience is the name of the game with Texas Tech and head coach Chris Beard. The Red Raiders have five seniors on the roster, led by Preseason All-Big 12 team selection Zach Smith.

Beard has appreciated how the seniors have taken a leadership role in offseason workouts and practices. According to Beard, Smith in particular has shown great promise going into the upcoming season.

“Zach has been working hard to get his skill level to match his athleticism,” Beard said. “I’ve been really impressed with him, it started last year as a junior getting things done individually, being recognized as an honorable mention-type guy.  He had a great summer and he’s looking to continue that this fall. We look for great things out of all our seniors and certainly Zach is on top of that list.”

Some other players who look to step up are senior Keenan Evans and redshirt junior Norense Odiase who Beard believes “has a chance to be one of the better players in the Big 12.”

The Red Raiders look to improve offensively and if the seven freshmen on the roster grow quickly, then this team could challenge for top four finish in the conference, as well as an NCAA tournament berth.

Key Games:

Jan. 2 at Kansas, Jan. 27 at South Carolina, March 3 vs. TCU

 

No. 6 Oklahoma

2016-17: Record: 11-20; Conferenc Finish: 9; NCAA Tournament: N/A

Head coach Lon Kruger knows how to win. This team is just two years removed from Buddy Hield leading the Sooners to the Final Four. Last season was just a huge drop-off for the team.

There are signs of a resurgence with the huge recruitment of highly-rated point guard Trae Young. Young decided to stay home and go to Oklahoma, a huge decision considering he received offers from Kansas, Kentucky and Washington.

Kruger has believes Young will make a smooth transition to the college game and shows great potential to get the Sooners back on the right track.

“Trae has outstanding skill,” Kruger said. “Anytime you’ve got a player like that, he’s got an opportunity to make players around him better by attracting attention, by driving and attracting help defender and kicking.  He’s very fast out of the back court so he’s creating some hopefully easy buckets in transition.”

Young will have a lot on his shoulders surrounded by a group of players that have yet to live up to their potential. If Young can score in bunches and get the rest of the starting five involved, this team could potentially be a sleeper team in conference play.

Key Games:

Dec. 16 vs. Wichita State, Jan. 6 at West Virginia, Jan. 23 vs. Kansas

 

No. 5 Baylor

2016-17: Record: 27-8; Conference Finish: T-2; NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16

The Baylor Bears may be the hardest team to predict in the entire conference. They consistently have solid regular seasons under head coach Scott Drew, yet don’t quite live up to hype all the time.

Baylor had a solid 2016-17 regular season, just coming up short in their Sweet 16 game against South Carolina. They also lost key big man Jonathan Motley, which will be a huge hole to fill inside, along with Ish Wainwright and Al Freeman.

Along with losing those key players, the team is down to seven healthy scholarship players. Health could be an issue for this team and could make replacing the aforementioned players increasingly more difficult.

Nonetheless, Drew is still confident in the players that he does have this season and that they show a lot of promise for this upcoming season.

“The reason we’ve been so successful I think with interior scorers is each and every year the returning players improve so much,” Drew said. “I think, again, because of the leadership and the young guys going against great players each and every day in the inside has made them better. Iron sharpens, iron.”

If Baylor can find a way to bend but not break while having younger players step up to fill these gaps, the Bears should finish high in the Big 12 once again.

Key Games:

Nov. 20 vs. Wisconsin (Kansas City), Dec. 2 vs. Wichita State, Feb. 10 vs. Kansas

 

No. 4 Texas

2016-17: Record: 11-22; Conference Finish: 10; NCAA Tournament: N/A

This is an interesting ranking for Texas. On one hand, the Longhorns show lots of promise this season, with highly rated recruit Mohamed Bamba and returners sophomore Andrew Jones and junior Dylan Osetkowski.

But on the other hand, this team tied for 205th in the country in field goal percentage and tied for 302nd in points per game. This team was, for lack of a better term, horrendous on offense.

Head coach Shaka Smart has put an emphasis on passing and putting his players in good situations for quality shots, something that will translate to games he hopes.

“[Shooting is] definitely an area where we need to take a big jump from last year,” Smart said. “We shot a lot better in practice, but as you know, carryover to the game is what really matters. I think we have some guys on our team that are better shooters than they shot last year.  It’s a matter of putting them in position to get high-quality shots as much as possible and then for them to jump up and knock ’em down.”

Smart has another year under his belt which should help the team a lot considering how rigorous the Big 12 conference is. If both him and the team continue to grow together, they can live up to their potential and get back into the NCAA tournament.

However, even if they do improve from last season, they still have a long way to go before I can call this team legit.

Key Games:

Nov. 23 vs. Butler (Portland), Dec. 5 at VCU, Feb. 26 at Kansas

 

No. 3 TCU

2016-17: Record: 24-15; Conference Finish: T-7; NCAA Tournament: N/A; NIT: Champion

Outside of West Virginia and Kansas, this is the most dangerous team in the Big 12. Head coach Jamie Dixon is a fantastic coach and brought his years of success at Pittsburgh and translated that immediately to Fort Worth.

The Horned Frogs had a late surge last season and showed what potential they have by winning the NIT. That finish led to TCU being ranked higher in the preseason than their football counterpart who sit at No. 4 in the country at the time of writing, something Dixon and football coach Gary Patterson have joked about.

Obviously, many people expect Dixon and the Horned Frogs to continue on an upward trend, continually improving each and every game, this season led by Preseason All-Big 12 team selection senior Vladimir Brodziansky and sophomore Jaylen Fisher.

After years of futility it seems as though the administration is all in on the basketball team, with the hire of Dixon prior to last season and new facilities. As this is now a new program under Dixon, he views the team as more of a “start-up” instead of a rebuild, considering the team’s history.

“ this is the first time we’ve been in a conference like this with the resources, with the new arena, with you guys as players,” Dixon said. “I never was the guy that was saying it’s going to take some time. We expected to win and we expected to win now and that was our mentality.  It was great for us. We won 24 games, but in my mind we should have won more, so I wasn’t satisfied.”

Fort Worth will quickly become one of the better home court advantages in the Big 12, as well as helping the Horned Frogs to an NCAA tournament bid and high finish in the conference.

Key Games:

Dec. 5 vs. SMU, Jan. 6 vs. Kansas, Feb. 12 at West Virginia

 

No. 2 West Virginia

2016-17 Record: 28-9: Conference Finish: T-2; NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16

With players like junior Esa Ahmad and seniors Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles, Jr. returning, the Mountaineers are once again ready to make a lot of noise this season.

West Virginia have won 25 or more games each of the past three seasons and look to keep that trend going under head coach Bob Huggins. One key factor of that success is the home court advantage in Morgantown as well as the nickname of the Mountaineers stellar defense, “Press Virginia.”

Going into this season, Big 12 officiating made changes to how fouls will be called such as traps, loose ball fouls and illegal screens. As Huggins is “all for offense,” he still has some concerns with the potential of tighter calls this season.

“I wish we could kinda go back, to a degree, of let the guys officiate the game,” Huggins said. “But that’s not the direction that we’re headed.  We’re going to adjust. It’s going to vary from game-to-game just because of the way different people perceive the game should be played, officiated, coached, whatever.”

Offensively, guard play will be key, as well as how Huggins plans to fill in the hole of Ahmad for the first two months of the season due to a suspension.

Key Games:

Dec. 5 vs. Virginia, Jan. 15 vs. Kansas, Jan. 27 vs. Kentucky

 

No. 1 Kansas

2016-17: Record: 31-5; Conference Finish: 1; NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight

As always, head coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks look to win yet another regular season Big 12 conference championship. They’ve done so each of the last 13 seasons and, even with the increased parity in the league, I don’t see any reason why that won’t happen again.

This team is senior guard Devonte Graham’s team now in the departure of 2016-17 national player of the year Frank Mason. However, the intrigue for the Jayhawks will come from the play of big men Udoka Azubuike, Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot considering the team’s lack of depth inside.

The Jayhawks have never had a problem playing small, with Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick as projected starters. But if Kansas is going to go far in the Big 12 and NCAA tournament this year, inside scoring and rebounding will be crucial.

“We played eight guys the other day [against Missouri] because we only have eight guys on scholarship that are eligible to play,” Self said. “So we have four guys sitting out. Depth is certainly a concern.  Eight is plenty as long as you’re healthy, but whenever injuries start occurring or peak guys start wearing down it’s a concern.”

Nonetheless, Kansas looks to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament and win 30 or more games for the third season in a row.

Key Games:

Nov. 14 vs. Kentucky (State Farm Champions’ Classic), Dec. 29 at Texas, Jan. 9 vs. Iowa State

The Big 12 is the best conference in college basketball and with every team gaining confidence and adding more and more talent, the 2017-18 season looks to be more of the same.

 

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