2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview: The Big 12

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

One week into the college basketball season, the Big 12 has emerged as the sport’s most intriguing conference. I can’t believe I once doubted if the Big 12 would be fun to follow this year. I knew there would be plenty of good teams, but I sensed that last season’s Big 12 had been so compelling that there was nowhere to go but down.

Remember how crazy last year was? Andrew Wiggins flipped between being overrated and underrated 1,593 times. Joel Embiid started as nothing but raw potential, and then he was pretty good, and then he was Kansas’s best player, and then he was the next coming of Hakeem Olajuwon, and then he missed the entire postseason. Isaiah Austin’s story made it impossible to cheer against Baylor  and that was before we learned he had Marfan’s syndrome. The league was so deep that West Virginia had the conference’s leading scorer and fourth-leading scorer and the Mountaineers still couldn’t crack the top half of the league standings. Texas and Oklahoma were surprising overachievers. Melvin Ejim had one of the best individual seasons in Iowa State history. He was so good that he caused me to forget that Iowa State is cursed in the NCAA tournament. Kansas State had a solid season. Texas Tech pulled off some upsets. TCU was also in the conference. And then, of course, there was Marcus Smart:

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The Big 12 had a karate kick. It had an altercation between a superstar player and a fan that took over the mainstream news cycle for a couple days. It had seven teams make the NCAA tournament. There were six overtime games in conference play, one double-overtime game, and one triple-overtime game. The Big 12 last year was as entertaining as college basketball gets. I thought there was no way this year could match it.

And then this happened.

Tubby Smith as Shaft is funny enough. Having him ride a motorcycle takes it to another level. But him falling off the motorcycle as a half-empty arena groans is such a perfect metaphor for Texas Tech basketball that I may be laughing at this clip for the rest of my life. And this happened four weeks before the season started? And in the first week of games, 10-time defending Big 12 champion Kansas was mutilated by Kentucky and dark-horse Big 12 contender Oklahoma gave up an 18-point second-half lead at Creighton, making the conference title race seem more up in the air than it has been in years?

I’m sold. Once again, the Big 12 is going to be awesome.

The Top Three Teams

self-bill-kansas-coachJamie Squire/Getty Images

1. Kansas
2. Texas
3. Iowa State

Do I really think that Kansas is the best team in the Big 12 right now? Of course not. Did you see Tuesday’s Kentucky game? Kansas looked like the guy at the Y who wanders onto the court thinking he’ll join a game or two for his cardio because he hates the treadmill, only he has no idea how intense the games are. Um, guys  can you maybe tone it down a little? I’m out here only because I forgot to use sugar-free syrup on my pancakes this morning. I didn’t realize you were going to shove your knees in my face while dunking on me and yell, “Get that shit out of here!” while you volleyball-spike my shots.

So why am I picking the Jayhawks to win the Big 12? Because at this point, I have no choice. Kansas has won 10 straight conference titles. I don’t care that this is a new season and this team had nothing to do with the previous 10. I don’t care that Kentucky just obliterated the Jayhawks. I don’t care that Texas and Iowa State look great this season. If it’s been 35 degrees and raining every single day for 10 years, I’m not going to wake up one day and decide to wear a tank top. The Big 12 season is still a month away, a lot of Kansas’s key players are young, and Bill Self has done more with less. I’m not going to overreact to one game.

That said, we also can’t pretend the Kentucky game meant nothing. Kansas has some very real concerns. For starters, the Jayhawks need a reliable starting lineup. If Self starts his five best players — Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, Kelly Oubre, and Cliff Alexander  Kansas will struggle against big teams, since Alexander is more of a power forward and Oubre is more of a small forward. If he starts Jamari Traylor, who is only 6-foot-8 but plays much bigger because of his physicality, then Self has to bring a projected lottery pick (either Alexander or Oubre) off the bench. Self went with a different starting lineup against Kentucky than he used in Kansas’s season opener against UC Santa Barbara, and I won’t be surprised if he keeps experimenting with different lineups in the Jayhawks’ next two games before their December 5 showdown with Florida.

Then there’s the issue of point guard play. Two games into the season, Frank Mason has attempted 20 shots and logged just one assist. Is Mason experiencing the same growing pains that Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe went through? Or is the problem more serious? And what about Perry Ellis? Are we sure he can lead this team? What if his destiny is to be a really good sidekick who struggles in the spotlight? If that’s the case, how long until Self hands the keys to Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk? I’m half-joking because Mykhailiuk is my new favorite person, but I’m also half-serious because he was the only Kansas player who didn’t look scared against Kentucky. How long is it going to take Self to figure all of this out? Will he figure it out?

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If it weren’t for Kansas’s historical vise grip on the Big 12 championship, Texas would probably be the favorite to win the conference. The Longhorns were one of the biggest surprises in college basketball last season, when they earned a 7-seed in the NCAA tournament even though they were picked to finish eighth in the conference. Now, Texas brings back virtually everyone from last year’s team and adds the no. 2 recruit in the nation, Myles Turner. The Longhorns look scary good.

Just ask Iowa fans. After Texas came out flat to start Thursday’s game and Iowa led by six at halftime, the Horns completely suffocated Iowa and put together the kind of second half that nightmares are made of. Texas is 10 deep with a ton of size, which you may have noticed is a combination that will torment Kansas, their toughest competition for the Big 12 title. The Horns have a star in the making in Isaiah Taylor. They have probably the best backup point guard in the country in Javan Felix. They have an experienced leader in Jonathan Holmes. They have a bruiser in Cameron Ridley and a skilled big man in Turner. They have it all.

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I was ready to give Oklahoma the third spot after the first half of its game against Creighton on Wednesday. For 20 minutes, the Sooners were executing as well as any team I’ve watched this season. But Oklahoma’s second-half collapse sent me scrambling to figure out who should be third in the Big 12. TCU is out because TCU is TCU. We’ll get to West Virginia’s problems soon enough. Texas Tech is … well …

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Kansas State will always be a threat because of Marcus Foster and Thomas Gipson. Oklahoma State still has Le’Bryan Nash (a.k.a. the Perry Ellis of OSU) and Phil Forte. Baylor rolls nine deep with Kenny Chery leading the way, plus the Bears have a junior forward named Deng Deng who is averaging almost a point for every minute he has played this season.1

But I like Iowa State better than all of them, mostly because the Cyclones’ starting lineup  Monte Morris, Naz Long, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Dustin Hogue, and Georges Niang  is as good as any in the Big 12. You already know that Iowa State will shoot a million 3s and barely play defense, and that will lead to a couple of games where the Cyclones get upset by mediocre teams, get blown out, or both. And it’s a foregone conclusion that their season will end in the NCAA tournament with a loss to the eventual national champion and/or due to shitty officiating. But Fred Hoiberg has proven that his teams can hang with anyone in the country, and the Cyclones are off to a hot start. That’s enough to call them legit Big 12 contenders.

Best College Player: Juwan Staten (West Virginia)

staten-juwan-west-virginiaCooper Neill/Getty Images

How much money will it take to make West Virginia and Utah play each other? I’ll start the Kickstarter right now. Just tell me who I have to bribe, promise me the game will be on national TV, and promise me it will go into 15 overtimes. All I want for Christmas is a Juwan Staten vs. Delon Wright matchup that never ends.

If I had any idea how fantasy basketball works or if fantasy college basketball was a real thing, I’d say that Wright and Staten are the Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning of fantasy college hoops. Wright is a National Player of the Year candidate, and Staten is basically a smaller version of Wright. Both players put up stats that make you wonder how they do it all in a 40-minute game.2 The only reasons why Wright has a better chance at winning national awards is because Utah will be better than West Virginia. Also, Wright’s height and length make him a better defender and rebounder than Staten, who stands just 6’1”. If there were a Steve Logan Award that went to the best pound-for-pound player in the country, though, Staten would win and it wouldn’t be close.

Staten led the conference in scoring at 18.1 points per game last season, and he did it as a small-ish point guard with no reliable 3-point shot.3 Staten’s points mostly come in four ways: He scores in transition; he gets to the free throw line; he drives past his defender, then freezes the help-side defenders with his handles and quick feet so he can knock down a 10-15 footer; and he gets all the way to the rim, where he throws up a shot that would sail into the fifth row if you or I tried it but somehow consistently goes in for Staten. Oh, there’s also this.

If you want to nitpick and say that that dunk didn’t count because it was after the whistle, then try this one on for size.

Staten still has all that in his arsenal, but this season he seems to have added more three-point shooting as well. He’s shooting just 33 percent from the 3-point line, but he’s also averaging three attempts per game, which tells me he’s expanding his game. If he can get his percentage up a little bit while still shooting threes at the same rate, teams might as well not even try to stop him.

The good news for the rest of the Big 12, though, is that no matter how much Staten scores, West Virginia still won’t be much of a factor in the conference. The Mountaineers were 17-16 last season, before Eron Harris transferred to Michigan State and took his 17.2 points per game with him and before Terry Henderson took his 11.7 points per game to North Carolina State. The Mountaineers brought in zero top-100 recruits, and although WVU did land JUCO transfers Jaysean Paige and Tarik Phillip, neither of them will make a huge difference.

In other words, West Virginia is Juwan Staten. Stop him and you stop the Mountaineers. Sounds easy enough, right?

Best Pro Prospect: Kelly Oubre (Kansas)

oubre-kelly-kansasRich Sugg/Kansas City Star/MCT

Kelly Oubre might be one of the five best pro prospects in the world, yet he can’t seem to crack the Kansas rotation. In his first college game against UC Santa Barbara, Oubre played just four minutes and didn’t even attempt a shot. He started against Kentucky in the next game and scored six points, but because of his poor defense and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk’s fearless play, Oubre only ended up playing 13 minutes. If you didn’t know better, you might wonder if Oubre is sick or injured or if there’s some off-court issue going on.

But if you know anything about Bill Self, you know that he: A) doesn’t care about mock drafts, and B) does care about defense. Oubre will have to earn his minutes just like every other Jayhawk. The easiest way to do it is to be a nasty SOB on defense, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what Oubre was against Kentucky. He’s 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan and he’s ultra-athletic  he’s got the physical attributes of a great defender. Tuesday night, however, he looked lost. It was almost as if the pressure of a big game was swallowing him alive.

This is not the end of the world for Oubre, by the way. The One-and-Done era has conditioned us to expect big-name freshmen to dominate as soon as they arrive in the college game. But that’s not how it goes for every player. Just because Jahlil Okafor has been Duke’s best player since the moment he set foot on campus doesn’t mean Oubre should face the same expectations. He’s an 18-year-old freshman who is learning to navigate a new environment. As much as impatient Kansas fans don’t want to say so, it’s OK if Oubre doesn’t have it all figured out right now. Eventually things will click for him. He’ll figure out how be as good on defensive as he is on offense. And Self will figure out a rotations that will allow Oubre to get consistent burn and then flourish. It will take some time, though, and Oubre will have to earn it.

Most Underrated Player: Isaiah Taylor (Texas)

taylor-isaiah-texasMike Stobe/Getty Images

Here’s something you probably didn’t know unless you’re a Texas fan: Isaiah Taylor moved from the Bay Area to Houston before his junior year of high school because he had zero scholarship offers and wanted more exposure. That’s pretty remarkable. When I faced the same situation, I just stared into my bathroom mirror and told myself how much I sucked. Imagine the confidence Taylor needed to move across the country with no guarantee that it would lead to a scholarship offer. I guess Taylor knew what he was doing, because he wound up being courted by several schools, including Texas, Illinois, LSU, SMU, and Florida State.

Taylor ended up at Texas and quickly made a name for himself in Austin, even if he hasn’t quite yet established himself on the national stage. Last year, as a relatively unknown freshman, Taylor torched North Carolina, Baylor, and Iowa State in true road games. He torched Michigan State, Kansas, and Oklahoma State at home. He went toe-to-toe with Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert in his first NCAA tournament by putting up 22 points and five assists against Michigan. He played more minutes, scored more points, and racked up more assists than any Texas player. Not bad for a three-star recruit.

Of course, Taylor had plenty of freshman kinks last season that he can improve on as a sophomore. He plays with an edge  that massive chip on his shoulder that comes from being overlooked  and that’s what makes him such a dangerous scorer. But it can also lead to Taylor shooting his team out of games.4 Taylor shot just 39 percent from the field and 26 percent from the 3-point line as a freshman, and his 1.66 assist-to-turnover ratio needs to get better. But all of that was to be expected for a freshman point guard. What no one expected was how good Taylor can be when he’s got it going.

From now until April, you might hear commentators say that the addition of Myles Turner has made Texas a national title contender, and that’s true. But make no mistake about it  the most important player in a Texas uniform from now until he leaves Austin will be Isaiah Taylor.

Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: Jonathan Holmes (Texas)

holmes-jonathan-texasStacy Revere/Getty Images

Even though Taylor was probably Texas’s best player last season, I’m tempted to switch my vote to Jonathan Holmes. The Longhorns big man also has a decent case for being a better pick than Taylor as the Big 12’s most underrated player. Holmes was Texas’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder last season, yet most college basketball fans probably had no idea who he was until he notched a double-double in a three-point win at North Carolina. And who could blame the fans? As a freshman in 2011-12, Holmes played about half of every game, averaged seven points, and was probably the sixth-best player on a forgettable Texas team. Holmes followed that with a sophomore slump that saw his minutes, scoring, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage all drop, while playing on a Longhorns squad that didn’t even make the NCAA tournament. His first two years at Texas weren’t exactly the greatest.

Last season, though, Holmes looked like a different player. He improved in just about every statistical category. He averaged 12.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks, and shot 50 percent from the field. What makes this so crazy is that he only played about four minutes per game more than he did the previous year, yet he practically doubled his output. This season, Holmes is averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 boards while shooting 71 percent from the field (!!!), including 70 percent from the 3-point line (!!!!!!!!). Best of all, he’s taken on a leadership role for the Longhorns. This was evident at the start of the second half of the Iowa game, when Holmes’s eight straight points wiped out Iowa’s halftime lead and gave Texas momentum it would never relinquish.

With all the talent, experience, and size in Austin, the Longhorns were always going to be a threat to Kansas for the Big 12 title. If Holmes can keep this up, though, you might as well just give the Longhorns the trophy now and fast-forward to March.

Most Frustrating Player: Perry Ellis (Kansas)

ellis-perry-kansasTravis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT

I hadn’t even considered this problem before Kentucky beat down Kansas, but now I can’t stop thinking about it: Can Perry Ellis be a leader? Can he handle the pressure that comes with being the face of the Kansas franchise? Look at the other players who have been in that position in recent years: Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid; Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson; Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor; the Morris twins; Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. Does Ellis belong in that group? If you added Ellis to those names and had Kansas fans rank them from “We could definitely win a national title with that guy leading the team” to “We’re screwed,” where does Ellis fall?

Ellis is extremely talented. That much is clear. He was teammates with two of the top three picks in last year’s NBA draft, yet in several games he shone as the best player on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s as inconsistent as he is talented. These box scores from back-to-back games last season are Perry Ellis in a nutshell:

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With Wiggins, Embiid, Naadir Tharpe, and Tarik Black gone, I figured this would be the year when Ellis launched into superstardom. Then the Kentucky game made me wonder if this is a completely different situation for Ellis  one that he may not be cut out for. He’s the veteran leader on a team full of freshmen and sophomores. He’s the preseason first-team all-conference pick. He’s not under-the-radar Perry Ellis anymore. What if he thrived last year because opponents devoted so much energy and attention to stopping Wiggins and Embiid? For Kansas to be great, Ellis needs to produce night in and night out. Can he find a way to affect games when he isn’t at his best? Or is he just destined to be a role player who occasionally explodes?

These questions bubbled to the surface during the Kentucky game, when Ellis went 1-for-6 and did nothing to rile up his teammates and get Kansas back in the game. And while I’m trying not to overreact to one game, it’s hard to look at Ellis and his inconsistency last season without wondering if the Kentucky game was a sign of things to come. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre are both works in progress. Frank Mason has his own issue in trying to balance looking for his shot with playing the point guard’s traditional role as an offensive facilitator and distributor. Maybe Wayne Selden can help take charge, but this is definitely still Ellis’s team. Here’s to hoping he can rise to the occasion.

Most Intriguing New Coach Player: Bryce Dejean-Jones (Iowa State)

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There are no new coaches in the Big 12, so let’s talk about Bryce Dejean-Jones, the best player to transfer into the conference. Iowa State is Dejean-Jones’s third college team. He was a four-star recruit for USC coming out of high school in 2010. He was even ranked two spots ahead of Juwan Staten by ESPN. He started the first 10 games of his freshman season and ended up averaging 7.6 points for a USC team that eventually lost to VCU’s Final Four team in an NCAA tournament play-in game. But then Dejean-Jones got kicked off the team for punching a teammate in the face, so he transferred to UNLV.

Dejean-Jones had two solid years for the Rebels, including last season when he was the team’s leading scorer. But he ran into more trouble: The team suspended Dejean-Jones for its final regular-season game for undisclosed violations of team rules. He also clashed with teammates, including a locker room tirade he unleashed following a loss in the Mountain West tournament. So he decided to transfer once more, this time to the Cyclones.5 And you’ll never believe this, but Iowa State decided to extend a hand to an insanely talented college basketball player looking for a new home. Now seems like a good time to revisit something I wrote about Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg in January:

He’s like Mother Teresa running a basketball soup kitchen in Ames. I don’t care that some of you were barely recruited, that some of you were exiled from your former teams, or that some of you are Canadian. You’re safe now. Come, my children. Come to me and I will make you complete. I will give you a place to call home and a green light to shoot from anywhere on the court. I will clothe you, give you shelter, and play you at least 20 minutes a game. The world may look at you and see a dirty lump of coal, but you know what you can do with coal? You can grill some filet mignon wrapped in bacon. Have you ever had bacon-wrapped filet? That shit is delicious. That can be you. Greatness can be yours. Let me show you the way.

So far, the Fred Hoiberg Soup Kitchen has been good to Dejean-Jones. He’s averaging 17.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in his first two games as a Cyclone, and most importantly, he hasn’t punched a teammate in the face (that we know of).

All signs point to him basically playing that do-everything role for the Cyclones that was played last year by DeAndre Kane, who was also a graduate transfer who only played one year in Ames. That’s not to say Dejean-Jones is the same type of player as Kane. It’s just that heading into the season I was worried Iowa State wouldn’t be able to make up for everything Kane and Melvin Ejim did on the court. And although it’s very early in the season, Dejean-Jones has at least shown he’s willing to fill as much of the Kane void as he can. Having a player with Dejean-Jones’s versatility is crucial to the makeup of Hoiberg’s teams, which is why if Dejean-Jones can maintain his level of play from the first two games, the Cyclones can be very, very good.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Trent Johnson (TCU)

johnson-trent-TCU-coachCooper Neill/Getty Images

I have no idea how safe Trent Johnson’s job is because I have no idea how much TCU’s athletic department cares about basketball. The Frogs have won one NCAA tournament game in 45 years and you can count on one hand the number of TCU alums who have played more than a season in the NBA.6 Neil Dougherty was fired in 2008 after only one winning season in six years, and this is just Johnson’s fourth year in Fort Worth, so maybe he’s got a couple of more years to work with. Either way, I’m not going to pretend Johnson should be competing in the Big 12 and consistently making NCAA tournaments. I just want TCU to be semi-competitive. I want to hear that TCU won a Big 12 game and not rush outside to see if the 10 plagues have started. I mean, isn’t there somebody  anybody  in the Big 12 that TCU can beat this year? Maybe some sort of sex machine to all the chicks; some sort of guy out there who would risk his neck for his brother man?

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Ya damn right, Tubby.

TCU will be awful, and not even Mike Krzyzewski would be able to do anything about it. At this point, though, “awful” might be an improvement. Last season the Frogs went 9-22 overall and 0-18 in the Big 12, which put them six games behind the next-worst team in the conference. That’s insane. If TCU had won three more conference games than it did, it still would’ve been the worst Big 12 team by a wide margin!

I like to think that Johnson couldn’t care less about any of this. He’s been in this business long enough to have earned plenty of money. He won an SEC championship at LSU and he’s been to multiple Sweet 16s. Coaching at TCU seems like his version of being a Walmart greeter  he does it for the extra cash and because it gives him an excuse to get out of the house. This is why I’m convinced that whenever someone mentions how awful his tenure at TCU has been, he just pulls the following schedule out of his pocket, hands it to them, puts on a pair of sunglasses, lights a cigar, and then walks away without saying anything:

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Trent Johnson is making $2 million a year to live in a major U.S. city with great weather and great food and coach a team with zero expectations. The search is over  I’ve found the man with the best job in the world.

Something to Keep an Eye On: Kansas’s Big 12 Title Reign

Bill Self is the only coach in the history of college basketball to win 10 straight major conference championships. EVER. That includes the days when all it took to win a conference championship was to find five guys on campus without polio, put them in short shorts, and then make them line up for a picture that looks like they’re all taking each other to prom. So if you think I’m beating a dead horse by constantly bringing up Kansas’s streak of Big 12 titles, you’re wrong. If anything, the streak should be talked about more. We are watching something that has never happened in the history of the sport and may never happen again.7

And look, I understand that many fans think the Jayhawks should win the Big 12 every year. Kansas is the only school in the conference that undoubtedly cares more about basketball than football. When you pour all of your attention and resources into something and your competitors don’t, it makes sense that you’ll excel at that thing. But the Big 12 has been one of the strongest conferences in the country throughout Kansas’s streak. Over the last 10 years, the Big 12 has averaged 5.6 bids per NCAA tournament. And in eight of the 10 years, there has been a Big 12 team other than Kansas that earned at least a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament. Kansas hasn’t dominated the Big 12 because there’s no competition. Kansas has dominated the Big 12 because it’s damn good.

Also, if Kansas’s streak was just as easy as emphasizing basketball over football, Kentucky would be gunning for its 90th consecutive SEC title by now. At some point, guys leave for the NBA or they transfer. Eventually, the recruiting well runs dry. At some point, the players who were supposed to do big things don’t pan out. At some point, every program faces a rebuilding year. Except Kansas.

Five Pressing Questions:

1. Can the Big 12 get seven NCAA tournament bids again this year?

2. Which school will Conner Frankamp’s dad pick for him to transfer to?

3. Remember when Tubby Smith fell off a motorcycle?

4. Which is the most mind-blowing: Charles Manson getting married, the Bill Cosby allegations, or Brady Heslip scoring 78 points in two D-League games?

5. How is Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk’s nickname not “The Ukrainmaker” yet?

Filed Under: College Basketball, 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview, Big 12, Bill Self, Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State Cyclones, Isaiah Taylor, Jonathan Holmes, Juwan Staten, Kansas Jayhawks, Kelly Oubre, Perry Ellis, TCU Horned Frogs, Texas Longhorns, Trent Johnson, West Virginia Mountaineers

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

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