Big 12 preview: Challengers line up to try to dethrone Kansas

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Big 12 preview: Challengers line up to try to dethrone Kansas
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Yahoo Sports will break down the top 10 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 10 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 3 league, the Big 12.

The last time Kansas didn't win at least a share of the Big 12 title, none of Bill Self's current players had even started middle school yet.

Don't expect the Jayhawks to make it easy for someone to end that 10-year streak this winter.

Though Kansas lost No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins, fellow lottery pick Joel Embiid and starting point guard Naadir Tharpe, there's reason to believe the Jayhawks could accomplish more than they did last season when they won 25 games but fell in the NCAA tournament's round of 32. The optimism stems from the return of standouts Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis and the arrival of yet another ballyhooed crop of newcomers.

The foundation will be Selden and Ellis, both returning starters. The 6-foot-8 Ellis, who may wind up being a rare four-year player for the Jayhawks, averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds last season, best among the returning players. Selden is a breakout candidate this season at wing after averaging 9.7 points per game as a freshman despite an injured knee that hampered his aggressiveness attacking the rim.

Complementing Ellis and Selden are an array of newcomers highlighted by McDonald's All-Americans Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre. The 6-foot-8 Alexander is a bull in the paint who overpowers opposing players on the low block and on the glass. Oubre is a smooth 6-foot-7 lefty who isn't the spectacular athlete Wiggins was but can score at all three levels.

One of the big questions for Kansas are whether the Jayhawks shoot well enough from behind the arc to keep defenses from clogging the lane, a potential problem exacerbated by the transfer of sharpshooter Conner Frankamp earlier this month. The other is whether the combination of sophomore Frank Mason and freshman Devonte Graham can solve the point guard woes that have plagued the program since Tyshawn Taylor graduated.

Should Kansas slip even a little bit this season, there are a wealth of fellow Big 12 contenders frothing at the mouth to make the Jayhawks pay.

Chief among them is Texas, which returns almost everyone from a 24-win NCAA tournament team that excelled defensively and on the glass. The Longhorns also add elite prospect Myles Turner to an already formidable frontcourt, giving Rick Barnes the pleasant problem of having to figure out how to make room for a springy, shot-blocking 7-footer in his lineup.  

Also worthy competition for the Jayhawks and Longhorns are Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas State, each of which made the NCAA tournament last season.

The perimeter duo of Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins and the interior scoring and rebounding of Ryan Spangler give Oklahoma enough firepower to not only return to the NCAA tournament but also make more of an impact once it's there. Iowa State also has immense potential if UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean Jones can score enough to help make up for the graduation of DeAndre Kane yet can do so without hogging the ball and hoisting bad shots. And keep on an eye on Kansas State, which boasts one of the best inside-outside duos in the league in Marcus Foster and Thomas Gipson but needs role players to step up around them.

The consensus is that those five are the Big 12's upper echelon, but it wouldn't be a huge shock to see Baylor, West Virginia or Oklahoma State crack the league's top half. Those three just have more questions than the teams above them thanks to transfers, early defections or both.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Phil Forte, Oklahoma. Playing alongside Marcus Smart last season, Forte excelled in the role of complementary spot-up shooter, attempting more than three-quarters of his shots from behind the arc and making an impressive 44.1 percent of them. The question now for Forte is can he continue to sink such a high percentage with Smart in the NBA, opposing defenses keying on him more and the Cowboys counting on him to become a more well-rounded scorer.
Best playmaker: Juwan Staten. There are few better multi-threat point guards in the nation than Staten. The former Dayton transfer averaged 18.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game as a junior for West Virginia, and the production was efficient too. He shot 48.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc. He also made the conference's all-defense team and had nearly three times fewer turnovers than assists.
Best defender: Demarcus Holland. Why did Holland average the second-most minutes on his team last season if he sank the fewest shots of any starter? His defense. The Big 12 all-defense selection smothered opposing guards with his on-ball defense, created steals with his quick hands and helped spark a Texas resurgence last year with his all-out hustle. Those are big reasons why Holland will still be a key contributor for Texas whether his outside shot improves or not this season.
Top NBA prospect: Kelly Oubre, Kansas. This category is probably a battle between the conference's three most decorated freshmen — Oubre and Cliff Alexander at Kansas and Myles Turner at Texas. The choice here is the 6-foot-7 Oubre, who isn't the out-of-this-world athlete Andrew Wiggins was yet could exceed his impact at wing this year because of his jump shooting, assertiveness and ability to attack the basket.
Best backcourt: Kansas. Even though Kansas lost No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins, you can make the case the Jayhawks are more loaded at wing this season than they were last year. Wayne Selden is a year older and stronger, Oubre is an elite talent and Brannen Greene and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk both should contribute off the bench. The major question is at point guard, where Frank Mason and freshman Devonte Graham need to combine to solidify a position of weakness for the Jayhawks the past two years.
Best frontcourt: Texas. The Longhorns already had the Big 12's best returning frontcourt before adding elite recruit Myles Turner to the mix this past spring. The springy 7-footer adds to a collection of talent that also includes last year's starters Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes and key reserves Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh. If Holmes can spend some time at small forward, it will help clear the logjam a bit and ensure that everyone receives enough minutes to keep them happy.  
Best recruiting class: Kansas. For all the discussion about McDonald's All-Americans Oubre and Alexander, Graham could also make a big impact. The late-blooming former Appalachian State signee will push Mason for playing time at point guard from the get-go and might even usurp the starting job by midseason. He is a year older than most true freshmen and has more scoring ability and longterm upside than Mason.
Coach on the rise: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State. NBA franchises continue to beat down the door in pursuit of Hoiberg, so Iowa State should be grateful "The Mayor" has such a deep connection to Ames. All he has done is lead the Cyclones to three straight NCAA tournament bids and a Big 12 tournament title and Sweet 16 appearance. More success could be on the way this season too with Georges Niang and UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones leading another talented roster.
Coach on the hot seat: Travis Ford, Oklahoma State. At the end of a tumultuous 2013-14 season that began with Oklahoma State ranked in the top 10 and ended with a sub-.500 Big 12 record, athletic director Mike Holder gave a revealing interview to the Oklahoman. Asked about the 10-year contract extension Ford signed in Sept. 2009, Holder acknowledged, “In retrospect, it wasn’t good for him or us." It's easy to understand Holder's frustration given Ford's underachieving track record. In six seasons at Oklahoma State — the last two with lottery pick Marcus Smart and a talented supporting cast — Ford has produced a 52-50 Big 12 record and just one NCAA tournament win.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: None.
Regular-season winner last season: Kansas
Tourney winner last season: Iowa State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2013-14: 2nd, 2012-13: 5th, 2011-12: 3rd
NCAA bids the past three years: 18 (Kansas 3, Iowa State 3, Kansas State 3, Baylor 2, Oklahoma 2, Oklahoma State 2,  Texas 2, Missouri)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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