Marcus Smart (Getty Images)
Marcus Smart (Getty Images)
That nine-year streak could be in some jeopardy this winter thanks to the presence of a worthy challenger.
Oklahoma State returns nearly every key player from a 24-win NCAA tournament team including Big 12 player of the year and potential top-five draft pick Marcus Smart and fellow stars Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash. That trio has the Cowboys in the top 12 in most preseason polls and in position to capitalize if a freshman-heavy Kansas team hasn't fully jelled or matured by the start of Big 12 play.
Optimism about Oklahoma State begins with Smart, one of the nation's best returning guards as a result of his versatility, defensive prowess and leadership. Smart averaged 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals per game as a freshman, and the scary thing is he could get better as a sophomore if he can cut down his turnovers a bit and improve the consistency of his outside shot.
What will determine how much Oklahoma State improves besides Smart's development is its perimeter shooting and its interior defense.
Though the talented Nash and ultra-athletic Brown will provide ample scoring help for Smart, Oklahoma State shot just 31.6 percent from behind the arc a year ago. Top reserve Phil Forte and top freshman Stevie Clark both have the range to help the Cowboys turn this from a weakness to a strength.
Much of the interior defensive responsibility falls on 6-foot-8 Michael Cobbins, who makes up for his unpolished offensive game with his ability to gobble up rebounds and protect the rim. Cobbins routinely gives up a few inches and a few pounds to opposing big men in the Big 12, but he has bulked up this offseason in hopes of preventing foes from out-muscling him for position.
Impressive as Oklahoma State's collection of talent is, the Cowboys won't have an easy time dethroning Kansas because this won't be a down year for the Jayhawks. Buoyed by the arrival of Andrew Wiggins and the rest of a decorated freshman class, Kansas remains among the nation's elite teams despite losing all five starters from last season.
An explosive athlete and gifted scorer with ideal size and length for the small forward position, Wiggins is capable of easing the burden on the rest of his young teammates by carrying Kansas for long stretches. That should allow promising sophomore forward Perry Ellis to remain a complementary scorer, point guard Naadir Tharpe not to have to work as hard to initiate the offense and McDonald's All-American Wayne Selden and the rest of the freshmen to ease their way into their college careers.
Tharpe and freshman Frank Mason will have to solidify the point guard position, but there aren't many questions elsewhere on the roster. Selden, a 6-foot-5 wing, has at times been Kansas' best player in practice, while the combination of Ellis, experienced Memphis transfer Tarik Black, talented shot-blocker Joel Embiid and solid returner Jamari Traylor gives the Jayhawks a frontcourt that rivals any in the nation.
The only team besides Kansas and Oklahoma State that could realistically challenge for the Big 12 title is Baylor, which underachieved last season but rebounded a bit in March to win the NIT in emphatic fashion. The return of forwards Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and the addition of Denver transfer Royce O'Neale gives Baylor one of the nation's top frontcourts. Questions arise in the backcourt, where sharpshooter Brady Heslip must bounce back from a down season and junior college transfer Kenny Chery must fill the void left by Pierre Jackson's departure at point guard.
Several other Big 12 teams have NCAA tournament potential, especially Iowa State and Kansas State. The Cyclones need Marshall transfer Deandre Kane to solidify its backcourt and the frontcourt players to collectively step up for the first month of the season in the absence of injured Melvin Ejim. The Wildcats need a point guard to emerge with Angel Rodriguez having transferred and top freshman Jevon Thomas not available to start the season.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Brady Heslip, Baylor. Though Heslip is the Big 12's leading returning 3-point marksman, the Baylor senior is capable of far more than the 38.6 percent he shot from behind the arc a year ago. The two-year starter shot 45.5 percent from behind the arc the previous season when he helped lead the Bears to the Elite Eight.
Best playmaker: Javan Felix, Texas. With Pierre Jackson and Korie Lucious out of eligibility, Angel Rodriguez transferring to Miami and Marcus Smart more a scoring guard than distributor, the Big 12 lacks many point guards who look to create for their teammates. The best of the remaining crop is Felix, who averaged 4.1 assists and showed an ability to get into the lane as a freshman but may have to increase his scoring for the depleted Longhorns as a sophomore.
Best defender: Michael Cobbins, Oklahoma State. From defending multiple positions, to gobbling up rebounds, to protecting the rim, Cobbins is the key to the Cowboys' interior defense. In Oklahoma State's three wins last year against Kansas and Baylor, the 6-8 forward averaged 9.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, and three blocks.
Top NBA prospect: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas. Anyone who has watched Wiggins play seldom questions whether he has the talent to be the No. 1 pick in next year's NBA draft. An explosive athlete and gifted scorer with ideal size and length for the small forward position, Wiggins is capable of easing the burden on the rest of his young teammates by carrying Kansas for long stretches. The only knock on Wiggins is he sometimes coasts and doesn't always play relentlessly on every possession, but that's fixable as Wiggins matures.
Best backcourt: Oklahoma State. If Oklahoma State is going to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title, it will be the Cowboys' backcourt that spearheads the push. Marcus Smart likely would have been a top-five pick had he turned pro last spring. Senior Markel Brown is already a 1,000-point scorer and one of the more underrated players nationally. And off the bench, Phil Forte is an elite shooter and 5-foot-11 Stevie Clark was the two-time Oklahoma player of the year in high school.
Best frontcourt: Kansas. Baylor's frontcourt would take this honor in most conferences, but Kansas' may be the best in the nation. It starts, of course, with Wiggins, the potential No. 1 pick in next year's draft. Perry Ellis is a candidate to emerge as a breakout star as a sophomore, raw but ultra-talented Joel Embiid has lottery potential and Memphis transfer Tarik Black provides low-post scoring, rebounding and most importantly experience and leadership.
Best recruiting class: Kansas. If Kentucky's class is one of the best in years, then Kansas' isn't far behind. Wiggins is the crown jewel, but point guard Frank Mason Jr., wings Wayne Selden and Conner Frankamp and center Joel Embiid are also immediate impact players. Selden could be the best of the group right away, while Frankamp is an elite shooter, Embiid is a rim protector and Mason can spell Naadir Tharpe at point guard.
Coach on the rise: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State. Not only did Hoiberg get Iowa State to the NCAA tournament in both his second and third seasons in Ames, he also has the pieces in place to survive the loss of backcourt standouts Will Clyburn, Korie Lucious and Chris Babb. High-scoring Marshall transfer Deandre Kane will bolster the backcourt, while and sophomore Georges Niang an senior Melvin Ejim are two returning stalwarts in the frontcourt. Niang will miss the first month of the season with an injury but should be back by mid-December at the latest.
Coach on the hot seat: Rick Barnes, Texas. If Longhorns fans thought it was bad not advancing past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2008, wait until they see what's in store this season. Five underclassmen left the Texas program early between March and August including standout point guard Myck Kabongo (NBA draft) and transfers Ioannis Papapetrou, Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis. As a result, a down season appears inevitable, which will force the Texas administration to decide whether to show patience with Barnes or try to lure a high-profile coach with Texas ties to begin the rebuilding process anew.
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech
Regular-season winner last season: Kansas, Kansas State
Tourney winner last season: Kansas
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 5th, 2011-12: 3rd ; 2010-11: 3rd
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 16 (Kansas 3, Kansas State 3, Texas 2, Baylor 2, Iowa State 2, Missouri 2, Texas A&M 1, Oklahoma 1)
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