Champion Chase

In this Big 12 basketball preview, can Kansas win its lucky 13th straight conference title, or can another team break through and usurp the Jayhawks' throne?



 

   It's not just the most outrageous accomplishment in basketball. It's the definitive modern example of sustained excellence in any sport.

   Rosters may change, but the Kansas Jayhawks' place in the league standings does not. KU has won or shared 12 straight Big 12 titles, a run of success so incomprehensible that you wonder if it could ever be equaled again in a major conference. In those 12 years, many worthy combatants have tried to wrestle it away from the Jayhawks, but by the conclusion of conference play — as Shirley Bassey once sang — it's all just a little bit of history repeating.

   At the Big 12 Media Day at Sprint Center in October, there was that hint of resignation from opposing players and coaches that yes, the Jayhawks have another talented team, and yes, they have the inside track at making it a baker's dozen. But there's also an awestruck respect about the hold Kansas has on the conference.

   First-year TCU head coach Jamie Dixon coached great Pittsburgh teams in two tough leagues, the Big East and the ACC. "It's hard to fathom coming from where I've been," Dixon says. "The Big East at the time was the best conference in the country. We had 11 teams getting into the NCAA Tournament. We had three No. 1 seeds, and we won the league that year. But there wasn't a team that was always at the top, and there was not a team that 'runs the league.' There's no doubt about it here."

   And again, it's not like the Big 12 is full of pushovers either. It's taken seven teams to the NCAA Tournament each of the past three seasons, the most bids in the country in that span. All 10 coaches in the conference have won at least one NCAA Tournament game, and the two other new head coaches, Oklahoma State's Brad Underwood and Texas Tech's Chris Beard, did it at mid-major schools against higher seeds. Eight of the 10 coaches in the Big 12 have at least one Sweet Sixteen appearance to their credit.

   "I'd put our league with anybody," Kansas coach Bill Self tells 435. "I'm the oldest guy now [based on tenure]. The Big 12 probably has as much coaching talent and young coaching talent as any league in the country."

Within the Sunflower State

   It's good to be a Jayhawk. When you're not winning conference titles and earning No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis at Kansas, you're living in a posh new building that would make Tarek and Christina on HGTV's Flip or Flop wish they had designed it themselves.

   Of all the amenities at McCarthy Hall, the KU basketball team's $12 million dorm, Devonte' Graham's favorite is the half-court basketball court.

   "If I can't sleep and I just want to wake up and go shoot at 3 o'clock in the morning, all I've got to do is go downstairs and start shooting," the Jayhawks' junior guard says. "And if I didn't have a good shooting practice or something, I could go down there and just put up a couple shots."

   Graham, the MVP of the 2016 Big 12 Tournament, and Frank Mason are widely recognized as one of the best guard tandems in the country. And they're also getting help from 6-foot-8-inch combo guard Josh Jackson, the top-ranked player in the 2016 recruiting class according to Rivals.com. Jackson is a tremendous athlete who has been lauded by scouts for his court vision, his transition game and his ability to defend.

   But with the graduations of Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis, the Kansas frontcourt has to catch up with the backcourt. Senior Landen Lucas and sophomore Carlton Bragg return to provide an inside presence for the Jayhawks, while freshman Udoka Azubuike is a 7-foot, 280-pound bruiser in the paint.

   "I think Landen and Carlton on paper look great," Self says, "But can we score with our back to the basket? Can Carlton switch a ball-screen late clock? I mean, there's a lot of things that we have to do that we were able to do last year with Perry or with Jamari. But I am encouraged by their talent. No question I'm encouraged by how well they pass it. And then Udoka gives us an added dimension that we haven't had in a while."

   An hour and a half to the west, there's a distinct possibility that Bruce Weber is coaching for his job at Kansas State. The win totals have dwindled in his four years in Manhattan, and it's especially pronounced in Big 12 play. In his first year, the Wildcats won 14 conference games, but they only managed a 5-13 record in a ruthless Big 12 last season.

Wesley-Iwundu-Dunk-KState-College-Basketball

K-State's Wesley Iwundu

 

   Of their 13 conference losses, seven were by single digits and three of those were in overtime, so K-State couldn't be faulted for being uncompetitive. And they did knock off No. 1 Oklahoma at Bramlage Coliseum, a game that is kryptonite for the Sooners just as much as it is for Kansas to play at Oklahoma State.

   "I definitely think Bramlage is one of the toughest places to play in the Big 12 because of the energy and the excitement that the fans have," K-State's Wesley Iwundu says. "Them yelling at the opposing teams just fuels our fire, and I think it just helps us win those big games and get over the hump."

   Iwundu, who scored 22 points and dished out seven assists in that game against Oklahoma, is one of the senior leaders on a team laden with underclassmen, and he's steadily improved every year since he stepped on campus.

   "The confidence in my jump shot I have right now is on a thousand," Iwundu says. "I'm shooting the ball much better now, and I think that opens up a lot of aspects of my game also to be pretty tough to guard."

 

Outside the Sunflower State

   In the era of early entries in the NBA Draft, it was an almost refreshing old-school throwback to see so many seniors make their mark on last season's Big 12 race.

   It'll be strange to see an Iowa State team without Georges Niang, one of the most unique and versatile players in college basketball who is second on the Cyclones' all-time scoring list. But senior leadership is not in short supply in Ames, Iowa, for coach Steve Prohm.

   They have the Big 12's preseason Player of the Year in senior Monte Morris, a stellar point guard who can score and distribute the ball with devastating efficiency. He's earned national prominence for an assist-to-turnover ratio that has averaged 4.6 in his first three years. Nazareth Mitrou-Long is back on the floor after he was forced to sit out the entire conference schedule to rest his surgically repaired hips, and fellow senior Matt Thomas is a 3-point launcher that can shoulder some of the scoring load.

   It wouldn't be too much of a surprise if Texas really gives Kansas a run for its money. Ballyhooed freshman Jarrett Allen is the jewel of coach Shaka Smart's recruiting class, and if Allen can fill out his 6-foot-10-inch frame, he could be a force inside for the Longhorns. Their highest returning scorers, Eric Davis and Kerwin Roach, both averaged more than 7 points a game as freshmen last year and showed how dynamic they can be on a team that was fourth in the Big 12 in Smart's rookie campaign.

   Oklahoma certainly has a different look this season after their run to the Final Four, the first for the program since 2002. You don't easily replace a bona fide star like Buddy Hield, now playing in the NBA for the New Orleans Pelicans, and other impact seniors like Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler have also moved on. Jordan Woodard is the elder statesman of this year's team with a ton of freshman and sophomore talent surrounding him.

   "We're young," Sooners coach Lon Kruger tells 435, "And we're going to make mistakes. We're going to have to grow very quickly, but it's a fun group, and we're working hard at it."

   As for the other half of the Bedlam rivalry, it's a season of second chances for Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte, a prolific scorer and perimeter threat who only played three games last year because of an elbow injury.

   "I'd never really been hurt. You put so much time and effort into the offseason and working out, and all of the sudden it's just taken away from you," Forte says. "That was definitely something different that I never really experienced before, but at least I've got that year back, and I get the chance to take the court. This year's kind of like a gift, just being able to have fun and enjoy it."

   His backcourt mate, Jawun Evans, also recovered from his own injury to his shoulder and is a star in the making for the Cowboys. Coach Brad Underwood, a former assistant for Frank Martin at K-State, led Stephen F. Austin to two NCAA Tournament wins, and it's not a wild assertion that he could put the Pokes in the top half of the league, even though they are tied for seventh in the Big 12's preseason poll and seventh in 435's standings.

   That's the thing about Big 12 basketball: Besides Kansas, it's so wide open again that a very good team could be in the middle of the pack. Iowa State and Baylor both earned top-five seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and they tied for fifth in the Big 12 in 2016. Baylor has the same potential to figure into the equation as they usually do, as does West Virginia with its maddening full-court pressure defense. Texas Tech brings back five of its seven top scorers with an excited Beard returning to west Texas after spending 10 years as an assistant coach in Lubbock. And there's optimism in the program again at TCU as Dixon coaches his alma mater, leading a team with four seniors that could make Fort Worth a tough road trip.

Iowa-State-Monte-Morris-Big-12-Basketball

Iowa State's Monte Morris, photo courtesy of ISU athletics communications

 

How Many Bids?

   The consensus among players at Big 12 Media Day was that six or seven teams can get NCAA Tournament invites, a continuation of the current trend. From the perspective of coaches like Self, the number of bids is strictly contingent on how these teams do with their nonconference schedule.

   At press time, Kansas has already played a ranked Indiana team in Hawaii and No. 1 Duke at Madison Square Garden in the Champions Classic. Additionally, the Jayhawks play at Kentucky in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Oklahoma has a Dec. 3 game at Wisconsin, a preseason top-10 team, in one of the more difficult road environments in the country. In November, Baylor played Oregon, ranked fifth in both preseason polls and everyone's pick to win the Pac-12. Other Dec. 3 road tests include Oklahoma State traveling to Maryland and West Virginia playing Virginia.

   "The reason we've done so well as far as bids is because once you get in the league, you're going to beat each other up," Self says. "So if you go 8-10, 9-9 or 10-8, that doesn't give you an automatic in. But what gives you an automatic in is if you're beating teams from other leagues that would be considered for the NCAA Tournament, and we've done really well the last couple of years with that."


435's PROJECTED BIG 12 STANDINGS

1. Kansas

2. Iowa State

3. Texas

4. Oklahoma

5. West Virginia

6. Baylor

7. Oklahoma State

8. Texas Tech

9. Kansas State

10. TCU