Big 12 preseason power rankings

The Big 12 might not be the best conference in college basketball this season – but no league will be as top heavy. Kansas will rank No. 1 on virtually everyone’s preseason top-25 ballot with Texas not far behind. When it comes to pure talent, Kentucky is the only team in the country that will be able to rival the Jayhawks and Longhorns.

One website that posts mock drafts, predicts that eight Big 12 players will be selected in the first round of next summer’s draft, including three players (Cole Aldrich, Craig Brackins and Willie Warren) in the top-10.

Also encouraging is that the conference’s lower-tier teams appear to be on their way up. That’s especially the case at Texas Tech, which believes it has legitimate postseason chances after winning just three league games last year; and at Iowa State and Colorado, who are hoping a few key newcomers help them shake their status as league doormats.

Once you get past Kansas and Texas, there will be more parity throughout the Big 12 than we’ve seen in a long time.

Here are our preseason power rankings.

Kansas – Along with being favored to win its fifth straight Big 12 title, Bill Self’s squad is the favorite to win the national championship, as well. Kansas will feature two potential All-American candidates in guard Sherron Collins – who will graduate as the winningest player in school history – and Cole Aldrich, a surefire top-10 pick in next summer’s NBA draft. What will put this team over the edge, though, is the addition of touted wing Xavier Henry and the emergence of sophomore forward Marcus Morris. Henry, who originally signed with Memphis, is slated to start, while Morris’ teammates raved about the improvement he made during the offseason. Starting guard Tyshawn Taylor is also back after averaging 9.7 points as a freshman last season.

Texas – Other than Kansas and Kentucky, there’s not a school in the country that boasts as much talent and depth as the Longhorns, who appear to have their best team of the Rick Barnes era. Damion James’ decision to withdraw from the NBA draft bolstered a frontcourt that should be one of the nation’s best with James, Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson. The difference, though, will be Texas’ backcourt, which should be markedly improved thanks to the addition of Florida transfer Jai Lucas and standout freshman Avery Bradley. Lucas, a point guard, is expected to become the starter once he becomes eligible in December. A combo guard, Bradley is a consensus top-10 recruit who is a pest defensively.

Oklahoma –The Blake Griffin era may be over at Oklahoma, but that hasn’t squelched the enthusiasm Sooners fans have about their basketball program. The return of guard Willie Warren – who would’ve been a top-15 pick had he entered the NBA draft – should make the Sooners one of the league’s top teams for the third year in a row. Warren averaged 14.6 points as a freshman last season, but that number should go up without the presence of Griffin. Still, it’s not as if Oklahoma will be lacking in the frontcourt, where 290-pound freshman Keith “Tiny” Gallon is expected to start alongside former role player Ryan Wright. Look for senior wing Tony Crocker to provide leadership on the perimeter, where freshman point guard Tommy Mason-Griffin is contending for a job.

Kansas State – What used to be the Kansas State athletic department’s biggest weakness is now arguably its greatest strength. From Michael Beasley going No. 2 in the NBA draft in 2008 to the Wildcats winning 22 games a year later, Kansas State basketball continues to make strides. The trend should continue this season, as Frank Martin’s squad is primed for what could be its best season in recent memory. Other than Darren Kent (9.0 points per game last season), every key member of the Wildcats’ 2008-09 team is slated to return. That list includes second-team All-Big 12 guard Denis Clemente and third-year starter Jacob Pullen who, unlike last season, will have high-quality post players to pass to in freshman Wally Judge and Connecticut transfer Curtis Kelly.

Oklahoma State – Not many teams finished the 2008-09 regular season as strong as the Cowboys, who won eight of their final 10 games before defeating Tennessee in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Travis Ford’s team is hoping the momentum continues despite the loss of two of its top three scorers (Byron Eaton and Terrel Harris). The good news is that Oklahoma State returns one of the Big 12’s top players in guard James Anderson, who averaged 18.2 points a game last season, along with emerging forward Marshall Moses. The key for the Cowboys, though, will be improving defensively. Oklahoma State ranked second in the conference in scoring offense last season with 80.2 points per game. But teams that can’t stop anyone can’t win – or even contend – for titles, which is why the Cowboys will be on the outside looking in.

Texas A&M – The Aggies received an offseason scare when three of their top underclassmen entered the NBA draft. Luckily, though, two of them elected to return to school. Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan benefitted from the process – but not to the point where they’ll be able to make the Aggies contenders in the Big 12 race. Davis is one of the league’s most underrated players in the paint, and he’ll have to step up his game even more now that 2008-09 leading rebounder Chinemelu Elonu is in the NBA. The Aggies will feature one of the most experienced backcourts in the league with seniors Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland, both of whom are returning starters who were also teammates at Seagoville High School in Dallas. Texas A&M made the NCAA tournament last year despite starting 3-7 in conference play. Wins should come a bit easier this season.

Missouri – One season after reaching the Elite Eight, Missouri may struggle to make the NCAA tournament after the loss of leading scorers Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll and Matt Lawrence, who combined to average 40.4 points last year. While the Tigers have some experienced returnees to lead their “Forty Minutes of Hell” defense, the key to their season – and their postseason hopes – will be finding someone to step up offensively. Forwards Justin Safford and Keith Ramsey, both of whom played well in the Elite Eight loss to Connecticut, could be the answer down low. The perimeter is stocked with guards such as seniors Zaire Taylor, who hit two game-winning shots last season, and reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year J.T. Tiller. Sophomores Kim English and Marcus Denmon are expected to compete for a starting position at the third guard spot.

Baylor – No Big 12 team was as disappointing in 2008-09 as Baylor, which missed the NCAA tournament and finished ninth in the league standings despite a roster chock full of experienced juniors and seniors. It’d be easy to say the Bears are entering a rebuilding year thanks to the loss of Curtis Jerrells, Kevin Rogers and Henry Dugat, but that would be short-changing the talent in Waco. Senior point guard Tweety Carter will team with LaceDarius Dunn to give Baylor one of the league’s top backcourts. Not many players in the conference can get hot quite like Dunn. Freshman Nolan Dennis, who initially signed with Memphis, is expected to start on the wing. Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh hopes to lead a frontcourt that also includes experienced players such as Quincy Acy and Josh Lomers. The Bears have enough pieces to finish in the top half of the Big 12. Then again, we said that last year, too.

Texas Tech – The Red Raiders went just 3-13 in league play last season, but by the end of the year they were improving at a rapid pace with wins over Kansas and Texas A&M and a near-victory over Texas in Austin. Virtually every key piece of that team returns, including forward Mike Singletary, who reached double figures in seven of his last nine contests and erupted for 43 points in the victory over the Aggies. Texas Tech is also hoping to get a big contribution from Trevor Cook, who missed most of last season with a back injury. Guard and former juco transfer Nick Okorie also returns after emerging during the second half of the 2008-09 season. He’ll be part of a backcourt that also features John Robertson, who averaged 6.4 assists as a sophomore. David Tairu, who teamed with Okorie at South Plains (Texas) Junior College when the school won the 2007-08 title, will be a key player on the perimeter, as well.

Iowa State – The Cyclones should be much better than they were a year ago – and not just because standout forward Craig Brackins decided to return for his junior season. Brackins, who averaged 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds last year, is a first-team All-American candidate. But the biggest reason for optimism centers around junior college transfers LaRon Dendy and Marquis Gilstrap, both of whom will contend for starting positions in the frontcourt. Point guard Diante Garrett returns after ranking second on the team in scoring last season with 9.8 points. He also averaged five assists. Garrett, though, will be pushed by freshman Chris Colvin, who chose Iowa State over Marquette and USC. A 6-foot-2 Chicago native, Colvin will see significant minutes whether he’s starting or coming off the bench.

Colorado – The Buffaloes return every key member of last year’s team. The problem is that team finished 9-22 and won just one Big 12 game. Colorado fans will certainly be expecting more – a lot more – out of coach Jeff Bzdelik in his third season. And there’s plenty of reason to believe that things could get better. The Buffaloes appear to have a bona fide star in junior guard Cory Higgins, who averaged 17.4 points last season. Two other players, Nate Tomlinson and Austin Dufault, started as true freshmen. Bzdelik is hoping newcomers such as Shane Harris-Tunks and Marcus Relphorde will help shore up some of the problems in the paint, where no player grabbed more than 5.4 rebounds last season. Tunks is a 6-11 behemoth from the Australian Institute of Sport. He should adapt to the college game faster than the typical freshman. Relphorde is a junior college transfer who signed in the spring after spurning offers from Arkansas and TCU.

Nebraska – The Cornhuskers enjoyed one of their best seasons ever under Doc Sadler, going 18-13 and finishing 8-8 (eighth) in the Big 12. This year, though, could be more of a struggle. Leading scorers Ade Dagunduro and Steve Harley graduated and point guard Cookie Miller transferred. As a result, Nebraska will have one of the most inexperienced teams in the conference, with eight scholarship players having never suited up for a Division I game. It also doesn’t help that 6-foot-11 Christopher Niemann, who was expected to contend for major minutes, suffered a knee injury over the summer that will force him to miss the season. Look for forward Quincy Hankins-Cole and center Brian Diaz to lead Nebraska’s frontcourt, with veterans such as Sek Henry and Ryan Anderson manning the backcourt. Henry started all but two games last season. Anderson, a senior, has averaged 26.5 minutes during his three-year career.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Sep 11, 2009