Hoop It Up!
The college basketball season tips off this month. What can we expect from Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri?
Wayne selden Jr. of Kansas Jayhawks at big 12 basketball tournament at sprint center, march 14, 2015, against iowa state
The Big 12 received an enormous amount of accolades last season for sending seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament, and deservedly so. The race for the Big 12 title, eventually won by Kansas for what seems like the 100th year in a row, was a wild and dramatic grind that saw five teams in the mix for the trophy. But the league was a disappointment in the NCAA Tournament, responsible for the two biggest upsets of the first weekend: Iowa State (to UAB) and Baylor (to Georgia State). Only two Big 12 teams made it to the Sweet 16.
For the SEC, it's been a slow build to respectability. In 2014, the 14-team league could only muster three teams in the Big Dance. They bumped that number to five in 2015 and are poised for more teams to get NCAA bids in 2016.
Once again, the Jayhawks have all the potential in the world to be top-five material when the season begins Nov. 13. K-State and Missouri, on the other hand, need some work as they try to navigate their respective conferences.
Big 12: It's Kansas...but not just Kansas
You don't get many opportunities to represent your country in college basketball, but Kansas not only played in the World University Games in South Korea this summer, they won the gold medal against Germany in double overtime. More practices and more games have been a huge bonus for the Jayhawks.
"It gives them an extra layer of experience. If anything, I noticed a renewed confidence in some of the players, and I think it's going to really help them going into this season," says Fran Fraschilla, a mainstay on ESPN's Big 12 coverage. "Wayne Selden's a guy that probably played some of the best basketball of his Kansas career while on the trip to Korea [averaging 19.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game]."
They need to prove they aren't the same players who lost to Stanford in 2014 and got outplayed and outclassed by Wichita State in 2015.
KU could be even more formidable with the addition of freshman Cheick Diallo, a 6-foot-9 freak of an athlete from Mali who averaged 17.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks for Our Savior New American in New York. But like Josh Selby, Ben McLemore and more recently, Cliff Alexander before him in Lawrence, Diallo's eligibility is in question. The NCAA notoriously likes to work glacially on these matters, so nobody really knows if or when fans can see Diallo in a Kansas uniform. With or without him, Bill Self's Jayhawks are the favorite to win yet another Big 12 championship. As Fraschilla says of Diallo, "He's the difference between very good and very, VERY good."
As with last season, though, the Jayhawks have company in this league. Experience is the name of the game as Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield returns to Oklahoma with fellow seniors Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins, along with junior point guard Jordan Woodard. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is one of the most respected men in college basketball, and he assembled a freshman class with some size to complement his upperclassmen. The consensus is that the Sooners have all the tools to challenge Kansas again and be a sexy Final Four pick.
Coach Steve Prohm walks into an equally exciting and daunting situation at Iowa State, leading a roster full of returning players that won back-to-back Big 12 Tournaments (Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Jameel McKay) but replacing a legend in Fred Hoiberg, who is now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
"It's hard to imagine a player in the recent history of college basketball who had a more magical run as both a player and as a coach as Hoiberg at his alma mater. There may be somebody I'm missing, but what Hoiberg did in Ames, Iowa, was remarkable," Fraschilla says. "It's just a matter of Prohm getting comfortable with his team, with the program, with the university. I'm confident that he will."
At Kansas State, however, Bruce Weber practically has to start from scratch. His mercurial star player, Marcus Foster, has transferred to Creighton, and the list of dismissals and defections is extensive. But they do have a talented kid in Wesley Iwundu, who has an opportunity to be a go-to guy for Weber and the Wildcats.
"From what I gather in Manhattan [Kansas] and from the people I've talked to, Weber likes his team. It's a young team, it's athletic. The one thing you know about Weber's team is that they are going to play hard and defend," Fraschilla says. "The big question is going to be where they get 75 points a game from on that roster."
SEC: The Long and Winding Road for Missouri
At 9-23 and 3-15 in the SEC, Missouri slogged through their worst season since the Bob Vanatta days of the mid-1960s. With suspensions and injuries, you never seemed to know who was available, and that inconsistency in the roster made for some tough sledding in coach Kim Anderson's first season.
"This is a long-haul process for Missouri. This is a rebuild process for Missouri," says Sean Farnham, who calls SEC action for ESPN. "And I think that Coach Anderson is going to need the time and the patience of the fan base to get to the level of success that I believe that he can get to at Missouri.
And that SEC landscape is packed with talented freshmen. Malik Newman, who Kansas tried to recruit at one time, is ready to roll at Mississippi State with his great scoring ability. LSU reloads with Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney. And former Kansas State coach Frank Martin might have his best team at South Carolina by signing P.J. Dozier.
"This is the year that South Carolina really breaks through. When you think about sleepers in the SEC, South Carolina is that team," Farnham says. "P.J. Dozier is just going to make a tremendous amount of difference for Frank Martin when you add a 6-foot-6 guard who can handle the ball and play the way that he does."
Farnham believes Vanderbilt could be the second-best team in the league. Texas A&M and Georgia could also be NCAA Tournament teams. But toppling Kentucky in the SEC? That's too tall of an order. An undefeated season looked like a fait accompli for the Kentucky Wildcats in 2015 until they face-planted in the Final Four against Wisconsin, but Kentucky coach John Calipari has another team this season that could easily win the conference.
Several SEC schools also made fascinating coaching hires in the offseason. Rick Barnes moved closer to home, from Texas to Tennessee; Ben Howland gets another chance to turn around a program at Mississippi State; Avery Johnson leads his first college team at Alabama; and Michael White succeeds NBA-bound Billy Donovan at Florida after coaching bracket bridesmaid Louisiana Tech.
"There's a lot of quality coaching going on in the SEC, and that's where you win battles nowadays in recruiting," Farnham says. "That's how you improve your conference — through coaching. The college game is still about coaching. Why is Bill Self so successful every single year? He's Bill Self. Why is Tom Izzo so successful? He's Tom Izzo. Why is Coach K? He's Coach K. It's the Mount Rushmore of today's active college basketball coaches. The SEC is trending in the right direction in terms of coaching, and they're also investing in their basketball facilities."
And as a result, it doesn't get any easier for Missouri as it tries to regain traction with its basketball program.
A Challenge for Both Conferences
This marks the third year for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, which is no longer played during the non-conference portion of the schedule. All 10 games are being played on January 30, 2016, smack dab in the middle of league play. It's a break from seeing all the usual suspects in the conference, and it also distinguishes itself from other events like the ACC/Big Ten Challenge that take place in November or December.
Missouri is not a participant, but Kansas State plays host to Ole Miss, and in a titanic showdown, Kentucky visits Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.
"The eyes of college basketball are going to be focused on what's going on in those games and the statement that those two conferences are trying to make," Farnham says, "essentially right before the start of February when we make that turn and really start determining who are the contenders, not only for the national championship, but to get into the NCAA Tournament."