The Big 12 is becoming more deep, more talented and more balanced every single season. They boast the national champion Kansas Jayhawks, up-and-comers like Baylor and Oklahoma, mainstays atop the standings such as Texas, and perennial dangerous teams Texas Tech, Kansas State, Missouri, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. It wouldn’t be wise to underestimate Colorado, Iowa State or Nebraska, either. With Kansas losing basically their entire championship roster, it’s time for a new team to emerge. Will it be Texas and A.J. Abrams? Oklahoma and Blake Griffin? Baylor and Curtis Jerrells? Here are my predictions for the 2008-09 season:
1. Oklahoma Sooners: While most preseason prognosticators have the Longhorns notched to the top spot, I’m picking Oklahoma based on three assumptions: 1) I feel like their backcourt of Johnson and Crocker will stay healthy and overachieve, 2) Willie Warren is going to have a major impact, and 3) Blake Griffin could be the best player in the country (hey, he is my preseason player of the year over Hansbrough). None of these expectations are out of the realm of possibility, and I may even argue they all have a high probability of happening.
Backcourt: Point guard Austin Johnson isn’t the type of player to wow anyone with his pure skills, but he’s a solid point guard and court anchor for coach Jeff Capel. He finished with near a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio last season, can drain a clutch three-pointer, and also led the team in minutes played per game. The drop in FT% from 93% to 73% is concerning, yet I feel that is more fluke than reality. Fellow backcourt mate Tony Crocker is a double digit scorer with one of the deadliest shots from behind the arc. Crocker shot 42% overall from three last year, but in Sooner wins he shot a stunning 52%. If he can improve on reducing the turnovers and become more of a complete guard, it’ll be awfully difficult to defend Tony Crocker this season. Completing Jeff Capel’s three guard lineup is freshman sensation Willie Warren, a dynamic scorer who may be Oklahoma’s top recruit in the program’s history. Warren has an outstanding mid-range jumper and exceptional athleticism, but Warren must learn to transition from the high school game where he dominated every night scoring-wise to more of a team-oriented passer and rebounder for the Sooners. Coach Capel believes he can, and Warren even predicted he’d average eight assists per game this season.
Frontcourt: The Griffin brothers. More famous than the Jonas Brothers? Probably not, but they play a decent game of basketball. Most would imagine Taylor Griffin may become slightly jealous of his younger brother, but the modest Taylor remains Blake’s biggest fan. He embraces his role as the team’s prototypical glue player, a guy never afraid to dive on the floor for a loose ball or snag the key offensive rebound. With the loss of Longar Longar, Griffin’s 4.9 RPG must improve for Oklahoma. Capel wants Taylor to play with “reckless abandon” this season in the paint. The more touted of the siblings is All-American brother Blake Griffin, the player that truly transformed the atmosphere around Oklahoma basketball. As a freshman, Blake showed the skills to average nearly 15 PPG and just over 9 RPG including a 57% mark from the field. Those stats don’t tell the entire story; Griffin really improved during Big 12 play and against the best forwards in the nation. If he can improve defensively, he’ll be the best player in college basketball and likely the #1 pick in the NBA Draft. Blake’s in the best shape of his life and ready to win a national title first.
Bottom Line: The Sooners have an experienced and tested backcourt with a little Willie Warren mixed in. They also have a duo in the frontcourt that does everything to win. Their bench is useful with JC transfer Juan Pattillo and senior Omar Leary. Coach Jeff Capel has done a tremendous job with this Oklahoma program, but with Warren a possible one-and-done and Griffin surely entering the draft, this may be his one year to shine in the near future. Look for him to take advantage.
2. Texas Longhorns: When I rank Oklahoma number one, don’t think that’s a slap in the face to the most underrated coach in the nation, Rick Barnes, and this Texas Longhorns squad. I just think very highly of the Sooners upside. Texas and Oklahoma will be neck-and-neck all through January and February battling for that conference banner much like Texas and Kansas did last season.
Backcourt: A.J. Abrams was told by NBA scouts after testing the draft waters that they viewed the 5’11 dynamo as more of a point guard than a shooting guard. Well, it appears like Rick Barnes agrees, and Abrams will be playing mostly the 1-spot this season. Abrams led the Big 12 in three-pointers made en route to a 16.5 PPG average in a season in which he made second team all-Big 12. Why does Barnes believe Abrams can play the point guard with flourishing success? How about only 31 turnovers total last year. The biggest knock on Texas heading into the season is whether they can find a dependable floor leader, but A.J. Abrams certainly fits that bill and he should have Texas competing for a #2 seed. Also in the mix will be Turkish guard Dogus Balbay, who played for the U20 Turkey club and led the team in assists per game over the summer. Justin Mason is Texas’s glue guy- a defensive mastermind who flies around the court and plays like the ultimate competitor he is. Mason only boasts average all-around offensive skills, but makes up for his weaknesses with effort and athleticism.
Frontcourt: Damion James is more of a perimeter-oriented forward that finished second in the conference in RPG last season with 10.3 per game. How is that possible? Watch James play on a consistent basis and you’ll find out: it seems like this athletic forward is about 15 different places on the court at one time. He’s truly a complete player, someone that can step back and drain a clutch three-pointer (41%) or lock down the other team’s top scoring wing on the other end of the floor. Seemingly his only true weakness is at the free throw line. Gary Johnson is the player that can turn Texas into an elite team. The 6’6 sophomore has finally recovered fully from a scary heart condition and the athletic forward should finally be able to see the floor on a consistent basis for Rick Barnes. When Texas is playing on all cylinders, center Connor Atchley is leading the charge. The breakout player from last year, a season in which he averaged nearly 10 PPG, shot 54% overall and blocked 80 shots, Atchley is looking to become one of the most feared postmen in the Big 12. Dexter Pittman is another wild card. He’s lost over 75 pounds since coming to Austin and still weighs around 315 pounds. When he’s able to play prolonged minutes, Pittman is a ferocious rebounder and a capable post scorer.
Bottom Line: Much like Oklahoma, Texas has plenty of question marks. Can Abrams run the point? Can Dexter Pittman contribute? Is Gary Johnson finally healthy? If most of these questions play to Rick Barnes’ favor, they should win another Big 12 title. They preach stout defense and can shoot from outside- a recipe for another successful year in Austin.
3. Baylor Bears: The rebuilding project of all rebuilding projects is finally crystallizing into something special for the Baylor Bears and head coach Scott Drew. Last season, Baylor was the last team admitted to the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday after winning 21 games and 9 conference contests. But that doesn’t tell the whole story: nine of the team’s 11 losses were by 10 points or less. That means Baylor won 21 games and was still unlucky last season. That bodes well for 2008-09 and the four returning starters.
Backcourt: The leading scorer in the history of United States high school basketball- Tweety Carter- will start at point guard for Baylor in his junior season. Carter isn’t a polished point guard by any means, but the quick tempo that coach Drew instills means half-court sets are a rarity, and Carter can do what he does best: score the basketball. He shot 43% from the floor last season, a good number for a 5’11 combo guard. Curtin Jerrells is the backcourt star, a 13.6 PPG scorer who should explode in his senior season. Someone with his pure talent could have bolted after Baylor was littered with punishments (including a year of zero non-conference games) but Jerrells stayed loyal and that decision is bearing fruit. He led the Bears in scoring- he’s led Baylor in scoring all three years- assists, minutes, field goals and free throws, finished second in three-pointers and earned a spot on the all-Big 12 squad. Sophomore LaceDarius Dunn may come off the bench like he did much of last season and provide coach Drew with an excellent shooter from outside and the free throw stripe. If Dunn can mold into a more fundamentally sound player on defense, he’ll be a national star by his junior season. Henry Dugat is yet another double-digit scorer who’s also Baylor’s top returning defender and is the opposite of Dunn- a complete and consistent player who simply contributes where he can.
Frontcourt: Kevin Rogers is the post anchor for Baylor. His numbers- 12.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 50% FG, 77% FT- are all extremely solid. It’s a luxury for Drew to have a consistent player like Rogers to depend on if the Bears need a basket inside. He notched 18 boards last year vs. tournament team Texas A&M and is an outside contender to average a double-double this season. The center position is much more of a question mark, meaning it’s entirely possible Drew goes with four guards and Rogers for the majority of the time. The 7 foot Josh Lomers started 24 games last year and shot 61% from the floor, using his size and strength to dominate for easy baskets in the post. Anthony Jones is a 6’10 freshman that should see major minutes. The lanky forward was ranked in the top-50 nationally in most recruiting magazines and should provide Drew with advanced defense and another scoring option. Quincy Acy is another freshman who may make an impact. Credit Drew with assembling recruits where he was clearly short-manned this season.
Bottom Line: The job this program has done through epic trials and tribulations to make the NCAA Tournament last season and hopefully contend for the Big 12 title this year is truly remarkable. They’ll be a national favorite and deservedly so. The talent assembled could reach unimagined heights four years ago with Dunn, Jerrells, Rogers and Dugat leading the charge. Watch out for the rejuvenated Bears.
4. Kansas Jayhawks: As the national championship banner rose to the rafters a couple Friday’s ago in Lawrence, only two contributors from that squad actually remained: Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Gone is hero Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson, Brandon Rush, Russell Robinson, Darrell Arthur and Sasha Kaun. Luckily for coach Bill Self, who finally tore that postseason monkey off his back, he’s recruited a top-flight class to keep Kansas in contention.
Backcourt: Sherron Collins needs to develop into one of the top point guards in the nation for Kansas to compete for a conference championship. Whether Collins is fully motivated and can get his weight and conditioning under control are two question marks that Bill Self hopes to answer in the affirmative. With the youth assembled on this Kansas team, Self needs Collins to be a leader more than anything, because we know the talented Chicago guard can score and distribute. Whether Collins can answer that call and become the face of the Kansas program is undetermined. Freshman Tyshawn Taylor, a former Crean recruit at Marquette, looks to be the second starting guard, but who really knows at this point. Taylor led St. Anthony’s to a 32-0 record and can really play the point guard position for someone his age, much like Kemba Walker at Connecticut. Mario Little could be Kansas’s top player by the end of the campaign. The top JUCO player in the nation shot 55% from the floor and 40% from three as a wing player. Freshman Travis Releford is an excellent defender and should play the role of knocking down a clutch three-pointer.
Frontcourt: The Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, are the gems of the incoming recruiting class. Marcus is a versatile forward who can handle the rock both inside and outside. He’s made outstanding improvements both defensively and rebounding the basketball in his last year, two areas where Self needs Marcus to contribute this season. Twin brother Markieff is much like Marcus in that he’s a versatile post player who can step outside and drive to the hoop. He’ll likely start off on the bench and give Self another defender and rebounding option. The most improved player in the nation this year could be center Cole Aldrich. He wasn’t able to see many minutes due to the frontcourt logjam for Kansas last year. Now he’s the starting center and ready to shine. Aldrich is a shot-blocker who could also led the Jayhawks in scoring and rebounding in his sophomore campaign. We saw glimpses of his potential against North Carolina in the national semifinal when he contributed with eight points and four blocks.
Bottom Line: It’s going to be a rebuilding year in Lawrence, and it’s probably a good sign that a rebuilding year means a likely winning record in conference and an NCAA Tournament selection nonetheless. The freshman talent is certainly assembled, they’ve lured two outstanding JUCO players, and Aldrich and Collins are two players who could really make the leap. Kansas will be right in the mix as always.
5. Texas A&M Aggies: Coach Mark Turgeon should have another competitive team in College Station. Three-point shooter extraordinaire Josh Carter returns, a 6’7 swingman who shot 50% from three as a sophomore to lead the nation and “fell off” to 38% last season. Donald Sloan went through rough times replacing Acie Law at point guard, but improved mightily in the second half of the year cutting down on turnovers and turning into a team leader. His jump shot still needs improvement. Forward Bryan Davis also improved as the season wore on for the Aggies, averaging 9.2 PPG and 5.2 RPG during conference play. He’s also A&M’s strongest post defender and shot blocker. Junior Derrick Roland should see minutes as a role player. Two freshmen will contribute immediately: Dashan Harris and David Loubeau. Harris is a 6’0 scoring point guard who’s ranked #70 by Scout.com nationally, and Loubeau, who averaged a stunning 29 and 17 as a senior, chose Texas A&M over UCLA and Pittsburgh.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys: New coach Travis Ford leads a backcourt-oriented Cowboys team into battle. Byron Eaton averaged 20.6 PPG during the Cowboys’ late winning streak in February and March, and with his weight under wraps, Ford expects Eaton to become a top point guard in the nation this season. He should bloom under Ford’s freer offense rather than the strict Sutton rules. I’m more excited about sophomore James Anderson and his potential. A future NBA talent, Anderson led Oklahoma State in three-pointers last season as a freshman and averaged 13.3 PPG. His numbers dipped mightily in conference play, though. Anderson will need to play a full season of top-notch basketball for the Cowboys to contend. Terrel Harris is another double-digit scoring returnee in the backcourt. Harris will need to improve on his dismal 27% from behind the arc. He’s a better shooter than that number indicates. Junior Obi Muonelo will need to step up in a thin frontcourt and provide OSU with more rebounding and toughness than he did last year. 6’11 sophomore Ibrahima Thomas and senior Anthony Brown need to play more in the post or Oklahoma State will be out-rebounded on a nightly basis.
7. Missouri Tigers: Coach Mike Anderson would love to play more of a fast-paced offense, but his two best players are both over 6’8: DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Carroll, a former Vandy transfer, emerged as the do-everything forward for Missouri, leading the team in rebounding, points, free throws made, steals and blocked shots. His two weaknesses are committing stupid fouls and struggles at the free throw line. Lyons really emerged in the second half of Missouri’s season, culminating in 27 points and 18 rebounds against Oklahoma State in February. Lyons can certainly score and rebound, and he may even prove to be an all-Big 12 type player if his defense continues to improve. 6’9 JUCO transfer Keith Ramsey will also contribute in the frontcourt. The loss of Keon Lawrence to Seton Hall could be crushing blow in what would have been a stellar backcourt that’s now just average. 6’7 senior Matt Lawrence is an outstanding jump shooter and 6’3 junior J.T. Tiller is a dependable point guard and defensive stopper. 6’2 freshman Marcus Denmon will also see plenty of minutes.
8. Kansas State Wildcats: Losing Michael Beasley and Bill Walker certainly stings. The only returning starter is Jacob Pullen, who finished third in scoring behind the dynamic freshman duo last season. He’s a smart ball-handler with shooting skills and made a mark with his 20 points in the epic win over Kansas. Sophomore Fred Brown should start at the other guard. He shot the three well at 37%, but has plenty of development to do before he’s a reliable contributor. Ron Anderson and Dominique Sutton should anchor the frontcourt. Anderson is a ferocious rebounder who shot 55% from the field a year ago in limited time. Sutton is also a strong rebounder who needs to become more of a scoring presence. Miami transfer Denis Clemente will help right away as a scoring combo guard. While this is a rebuilding year in Manhattan, coach Frank Martin has a great freshman class in line for next season.
9. Texas Tech Red Raiders
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers
11. Iowa State Cyclones
12. Colorado Buffaloes
Big 12 First Team
G- Sherron Collins, Kansas
G- A.J. Abrams, Texas
G- Curtis Jerrells, Baylor
F- Damion James, Texas
F- Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
Freshman of the Year: Willie Warren, Oklahoma
Newcomer of the Year: Mario Little, Kansas
Coach of the Year: Jeff Capel, Oklahoma and Scott Drew, Baylor
Player of the Year: Blake Griffin, Oklahoma