When the college basketball season ended on April 8, the scribes who cover the sport immediately started forecasting (guessing) about the 2013-14 season. At that time, the Big 12 Conference was an afterthought.
But Tuesday when the Conference conducted its summer teleconference with its men’s basketball coaches, the landscape had changed considerably.
Jeff Borzello of CBSSports.com wrote this recently: “I'm not sure any conference benefitted from the personnel moves of the offseason more than the Big 12, at least at the top of the conference. Instead of a league with a lot to prove, there are two legitimate Final Four contenders (Kansas and Oklahoma State), and two other teams with plenty of talent (Baylor and Iowa State).”
Led by freshman and player of the year Marcus Smart’s return for his sophomore season, Oklahoma State is regarded as a preseason top 10 player. Baylor also retained sophomore Isaiah Austin and senior Cory Jefferson. Plus, Kansas landed the top high school player (Andrew Wiggins) and a transfer from Memphis (Tarik Black) who will help the defending Big 12 champs make up for the loss of five starters.
“There’s a lot of talent in our league,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It will be one of the top conferences. There also is some great coaches in the league. Across the board there won’t be any nights off.”
The Big 12’s coaching roster glitters with stars. With Texas Tech’s hiring of Tubby Smith, six of the 10 schools are guided by a coach who has reached the Final Four. All 10 coaches have coached in the NCAA Tournament, a fact no other conference can boast.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been another league with 60 percent of their coaches having been in the Final Four,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “I don’t know if that’s ever been done in the history of college basketball.”
Here are the team-by-team highlights from Tuesday’s teleconference:
Coach Scott Drew said that the school has not yet submitted a waiver request to the NCAA that could clear Royce O’Neale to be eligible this season. O’Neale, a 6-5 guard/forward was granted his release from Denver and has enrolled at Baylor “I think we’ll find out in August or September,” Drew said.
Drew said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the Bears’ newcomers. With the return of Austin and Jefferson along with sophomore Ricardo Gathers, Baylor has a strong front court. Senior guard Brady Heslip returns but the Bears must replace point guard Pierre Jackson guard A.J. Walton.
The NIT champions have signed junior-college All-American Kenny Chery, a 6-foot point guard from State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo. Chery is expected to get first crack at replacing Jackson, who also was a junior-college All-American.
The Cyclones return their top two inside players in senior Melvin Ejim and sophomore Georges Niang. Coach Fred Hoiberg must replace four of his top six players – three starters plus sixth man of the year Tyrus McGee.
Iowa State has thrived with players who have transferred to the school and for the Cyclones to earn another NCAA Tournament bid, that formula will have to work again. DeAndre Kane, a transfer from Marshall who will be eligible this season, is expected to make a big impact in the back court.
“DeAndre brings us some much-needed experience, considering how much we lost on the perimeter from last year’s team,” Hoiberg said. “He has proven he can play and put up big numbers. I think he fits in perfectly with how we play.”
The Jayhawks’ chances of winning a 10th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title improved dramatically when Andrew Wiggins announced he would play for KU. Considered the top high school player in the country, Wiggins makes Kansas a top five team.
"Believe the hype,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “He's a special player."
Wiggins is 6-8. Tarik Black, a 6-9, 260-pound center, transferred from Memphis and is immediately eligible. The Jayhawks must replace its starting lineup from last year’s team that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“His ceiling is high, he’s as talented as any player in the country,” Kansas coach Bill Self said of Wiggins. “The bottom line is he’s still just 18 years old. Hopefully by midseason he’ll be comfortable and be able to just play and not think. I hope that happens quickly for him because he can impact our team.”
The Wildcats earned a share of the regular-season title in coach Bruce Weber’s first season in Manhattan. However, losing the opening game in the NCAA Tournament plus the unexpected transfer of point guard Angel Rodriguez has made for a trying offseason.
The departure of Rodriguez coupled with Rodney McGruder completing his eligibility and career means that K-State will be without its top two scorers. Rodriguez was the team’s starting point guard last season as a sophomore.
“A year ago, I thought we did our staff did a very good job of getting to know Angel,” Weber said of Rodriguez. “His game really improved, made all-conference. All of a sudden he popped into my office and said he wanted to be closer to his family (Rodriguez transferred to Miami).
“It (players transferring) is a growing culture, the way kids are now. They want instant success, instant gratification. They go to a school and if it’s not perfect, they transfer.”
Coach Lon Kruger made history when the Sooners were an at-large team in the NCAA Tournament. He became the first coach to lead five different teams to the Big Dance.
“It takes good players,” Kruger said. “You don’t get to the NCAA Tournament without good players. It seems every place I’ve coached the players have played unselfishly and played hard.”
Oklahoma reached the NCAA Tournament in Kruger’s second season in Norman.
“If two years ago when we came here if you said we would be in the tournament in the second year, we would have taken that,” Kruger said. “I was really happy for the players who had been here who had not played in the post-season.”
In August, the Sooners will make a 10-day trip to Europe and play five games against international competition. The summer trip will allow the team 10 practices in order to prepare. That should help Kruger blend in the newcomers on this season’s team.
With Marcus Smart returning for his sophomore season plus returning starters Le’Bryan Nash and Markell Brown, the Cowboys will be considered a strong challenger to unseat Kansas as the Big 12 regular-season champion.
“I don’t know about the favorite,” Oklahoma State associate head coach Butch Pierre said. “We have some experienced guys coming back and we’ve got guys working real hard. We have all our players here in summer school.”
Oklahoma State also announced Tuesday that a new video scoreboard will be installed at Gallagher-Iba Arena for the upcoming season. The video board will be more than 25 feet tall and more than 32 feet wide.
Amric Fields suffered an ACL injury and missed all but the first three games last season. During his sophomore season (2011-12) he was named the Mountain West Conference Sixth Man of the Year. His return should be a big factor in TCU’s improvement.
“Amric is very talented, very skilled,” said TCU coach Trent Johnson, who will be coaching the Horned Frogs for the second season. “He can cause a lot of problems for the other team as far as matchups.”
Johnson said Tuesday that Fields had a “minor setback” and needed a surgical procedure on his injured knee. The goal is to have Fields at full speed by October.
The Longhorns’ streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances ended at 14 as Texas went 16-18 – the first losing season in Austin for coach Rick Barnes. Since the final game of the 2012-13 season, guard Myck Kabongo declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft while Sheldon McClellan and Jaylen Bond decided to transfer elsewhere.
UT is a program in transition and Barnes believes it’s moving in the right direction.
“We knew we had to change our culture,” he said. “The players have done that, they have made the commitment to hard work. There’s a sense of urgency to get better every day. There’s not one guy in our program who hasn’t moved forward.
“We’ve had a nice offseason. I’m really impressed with the way these guys are together as a group. That’s what we’ve needed and what we’ve lacked.”
When the 2013-14 season starts, Tubby Smith will be the fourth Red Raiders coach in the last four seasons. The coaching veteran understands that for players such as Jaye Crockett, one of five seniors on the roster, that sort of continuing upheaval is unsettling.
“They’ve had a difficult run over the last few years,” Smith said, “And we’re trying to change that perception. It takes a while to get them to believe that they can win. There has been negative talk in the past. Let’s move forward.”
“It is hard to change what you’ve been conditioned. These players have had a lot of changes. I’m concerned about them as people.”
Smith, who coached at Minnesota last season, is still in the transition process. He still needs to hire a director of basketball operations but he completed his coaching staff this week by hiring Vince Taylor. The next step is the July evaluation period.
“We’ve got five seniors to replace. This is an important time for us in terms of recruiting,” Smith said.
Year One in the Big 12 was a learning experience for the Mountaineers. Adjusting to longer road trips plus adjusting to a different style of play was challenging.
“We had to figure out the best way to travel and we’ll get help from the conference this season in terms of scheduling,” coach Bob Huggins said. “It was a different style of play and with that the officiating was different. The Big East had more classic center-type players. By and large, in the Big 12 more teams play with smaller lineups. It’s more of a skill league.”
West Virginia finished the season on a seven-game losing streak and Huggins spent most of the season trying different lineups in search of a winning combination. This year’s team has six newcomers and just one senior. Sophomore Eron Harris, who started 17 games and led the team in scoring last season, could be a break-out player and could see playing time at point guard.
“We recruited him as a combo guard but we didn’t playing much at point last season,” Huggins said. “It’s great to have a guy at the point. He gives us length and athleticism on defense.”
Feeling A Draft
The NBA Draft takes place Thursday night and the Big 12 again figures to have a number of players selected. Here’s what some coaches had to say during Tuesday’s teleconference.
Kansas’ Bill Self on Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore: “I think Jeff needs to go a team where he can fit in with other talented players. Offensively, he’s not in a place where he’s gonna be able to average 13 points and eight rebounds a game. But he is a guy who can come in protect the rim. By January or February Ben could be a guy who is averaging 13 points a game for whoever takes him. He’s a guy who can stretch the defense with his outside shooting who is also a freak athlete.”
Kansas State’s Bruce Weber on Rodney McGruder: “He’s probably got the chance to be a second round pick or just getting with the right team as a free agent. Rodney has the mindset and mental toughness; he’s got a goal to make the NBA. He’s got to find a niche; 85 percent of the players in the NBA are role players. I hope for the best for him because he’s a tremendous young man.”
Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg on Will Clyburn and Chris Babb: “Will has had some really good workouts. They like his length, athleticism, his shooting ability. I think he’s worked out for almost every team. Babb has had some great workouts and generating a lot of good buzz.”
Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger on Romero Osby: “We’ve got quite a few calls about Ro. He’s had great workouts and made some strong impressions. He’s done a really good job. He’s a terrific guy and brings a lot of intangibles. We’ve got quite a few calls about Ro. I think when teams see what kind of person he is and what he brings to the floor, that’s bringing a lot of interest.”
Texas’ Rick Barnes on Myck Kabongo: “He brings intensity, a work ethic, he’s a guy who is gonna compete. But the NBA is a tough league to crack. I hope it works out for him.”
Baylor’s Scott Drew on Pierre Jackson: “Pierre has worked very hard and his hard work should be rewarded. He got hurt or he would have continued to move up the draft charts. The teams who have worked him out have been very excited and impressed.”
Hoiberg, a former executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves: “This is the time when everybody is lying to each other.”