Kansas won its eighth consecutive Big 12 championship last March and advanced to the national title game in a season in which many expected the Jayhawks to be a bit down by their high standards. Forward Thomas Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor are now in the NBA, but the combination of some solid returning talent and some very promising newcomers make Kansas the preseason favorite to win a ninth straight Big 12.
The strength of the Jayhawks this season will likely be their frontcourt despite the loss of Robinson, a consensus first-team All-American and the runner-up to Anthony Davis in most national player of the year awards.
Center Jeff Withey will try to become a go-to scorer in the post after emerging as one of the nation's best shot blockers last season. Alongside him will be either 6-foot-8 standout recruit Perry Ellis or high-energy Jamari Traylor, who sat out all last season because of academic issues but started ahead of Ellis and last year's sixth man Kevin Young in the Jayhawks' first exhibition game on Monday night.
Two proven starters return at guard in Elijah Johnson, the team's best shooter, and Travis Releford, a lockdown perimeter defender. Johnson will likely shift from off guard to point guard this season to replace Taylor and make room in the lineup for Ben McLemore, a highly regarded scorer who at times was Kansas' best player in practice last season while sitting out the season due to academic issues.
That group has enough talent and experience to win another Big 12 title and contend for the Final Four, but the conference does feature other teams capable of challenging the Jayhawks this season. Chief among them is Baylor, which could once again be an elite team this season if its young frontcourt is ready to contribute immediately.
Baylor's backcourt will be a strength with dynamic point guard Pierre Jackson and deadly shooter Brady Heslip both back in addition to ultra-athletic Deuce Bello, veteran A.J. Walton and promising freshman L.J. Rose. If returner Cory Jefferson has a breakout season at power forward and McDonald's All-American center Isaiah Austin and rugged rebounder Ricardo Gathers make a smooth transition to college basketball, the Bears frontcourt also could be formidable.
Teams behind Kansas and Baylor in the pecking order appear to have more questions.
Big 12 newcomer West Virginia graduated star Kevin Jones and volume shooter Truck Bryant, so the Mountaineers will need impact transfers Juwan Staten (Dayton), Aaric Murray (LaSalle) and Matt Humphrey (Boston College) to help fill that void. Oklahoma State welcomes promising freshman Marcus Smart to provide scoring, size and leadership in the backcourt, but the Cowboys lost wing Brian Williams for the season and don't know if they'll have J.P. Olukemi beyond mid-December.
And then there's Texas, which is awaiting word from the NCAA regarding the status of star point guard Myck Kabongo. Even if Kabongo returns, the Longhorns need Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis to collectively make up for J'Covan Brown's departure and a young front line to provide interior scoring and defense.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Brady Heslip, Baylor. On a Baylor team loaded with athletic slashers whose strength is attacking the rim, Heslip is the Bears' designated shooter. The 6-foot-2 junior shot 45.5 percent from behind the arc last season and 92.2 percent from the foul line, making him one of two players in college basketball to shoot at least 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent on free throws.
Best playmaker: Pierre Jackson, Baylor. Once an unheralded recruit in high school, Jackson blossomed in junior college, won the starting job last season at Baylor and quickly emerged as a star. The 5-10 senior averaged a team-high 13.8 points and 5.9 assists as a junior, earning all-conference honors.
Best defender: Jeff Withey, Kansas. The center who played in the national title game and set an NCAA tournament blocks record wasn't Anthony Davis. It was Withey. The Kansas 7-footer blocked 31 shots in six games after averaging an impressive 3.6 blocks per game during the regular season.
Top NBA prospect: Isaiah Austin, Baylor. Meet the replacement for Perry Jones III. A legit 7-footer with a huge wingspan, Austin still needs to get stronger but he already has the ability to block or alter shots in the lane. Offensively, the highly touted freshman's post game is still developing but he has the ability to knock down shots out to about 18 feet and to handle the ball on the perimeter.
Best backcourt: Baylor. Scott Drew has so many backcourt weapons he can unleash, all of whom have different skill sets. There's Jackson, the league's best playmaker. There's Heslip, one of the nation's deadliest shooters. There's Deuce Bello, a high-flying wing best known for his ability to finish at the rim. And there's Gary Franklin, once an impact freshman at Cal before transferring. And as if that's not enough, freshman point guard L.J. Rose has the ability to distribute and get to the rim.
Best frontcourt: Kansas. The headliner is Withey, who will need to become a go-to scorer in the post this season in addition to providing his usual shot-blocking and rebounding. Five-star recruit Perry Ellis promises to be an instant impact player, as does fellow freshman Jamari Traylor, who sat out last season because of academic issues. And Kevin Young, Kansas' sixth man a year ago, also returns.
Best recruiting class: Kansas. Between Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma State and Kansas, the Big 12 landed seven top 75 recruits in the Class of 2012. What sets the Jayhawks apart is that in addition to standout forward Perry Ellis, they also get high-scoring wing Ben McLemore and rugged power forward Jamari Traylor, both Class of 2011 recruits who had to sit out a full year due to academics.
Coach on the rise: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State. Not only did Hoiberg get Iowa State to the second round of the NCAA tournament in just his second season in Ames, he also has the pieces in place to survive Royce White's early departure to the NBA. Transfer Korie Lucious from Michigan State will provide the Cyclones with the true point guard they lacked a year ago, Utah transfer Will Clyburn is an athletic forward who can score in bunches and low-post threat Georges Niang and guard Naz Long are the freshmen most capable of helping.
Coach on the hot seat: Travis Ford, Oklahoma State. The bad news is Oklahoma State has trended in the wrong direction under Ford the past few seasons, culminating in last year's disappointing 15-18 thud of a season. The good news is while Ford may need to make the NCAA tournament this season to keep his job, the arrival of impact freshman Marcus Smart and the return of LeBryan Nash, Markel Brown and several other key players from last year give him a chance to do it.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Bruce Weber, Kansas State (Had been coach at Illinois); Chris Walker, Texas Tech (Had been assistant under Billy Gillispie); Trent Johnson, TCU (Had been coach at LSU)
Regular-season winner last season: Kansas
Tourney winner last season: Missouri
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 4th ; 2010-11: 3rd, 2009-10: 1st
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 18 (Kansas 3, Texas 3, Missouri 3, Kansas State 3, Texas A&M 2, Baylor 2, Iowa State, Oklahoma State)
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