I bet if you asked the average college basketball fan to identify names like James Johnson, Kevin Willard, Stan Heath, Pat Chambers, Larry Krystkowiak, or Johnny Jones, that fan would whiff on just about every name, even though all of those guys are head coaches in a major conference. What’s interesting, though, is that the Big 12 is the one conference whose coaches are all recognizable to anybody who follows college basketball. Just look at this list of names:
Scott Drew (Baylor)
Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State)
Bill Self (Kansas)
Bruce Weber (Kansas State)
Lon Kruger (Oklahoma)
Travis Ford (Oklahoma State)
Trent Johnson (TCU)
Rick Barnes (Texas)
Tubby Smith (Texas Tech)
Bob Huggins (West Virginia)
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that these are the best coaches in college basketball. Some of these guys are future Hall of Famers and some of them are Travis Ford. But all of them have name recognition. In fact, the median number of years of Division I or NBA head-coaching experience in the Big 12 is 17.5, which is by far the highest total of any conference in the country.1 Fred Hoiberg is the only coach on the list who hasn’t been coaching for at least a decade, but he’s such an important figure in Iowa State basketball that it feels like he never left the Cyclones, even when he was in the NBA.
I’m still trying to figure out what this says about the Big 12. Is it coincidence that no coach in the conference is getting his feet wet? Is it coincidence that half of the coaches have 20 or more years of experience? Is it coincidence that three of them used to coach at Illinois? I don’t know. By now it’s obvious that Texas Tech’s hiring strategy is to get past-their-prime big names and hope that the old lions of college hoops can rediscover their magic. I’m not sure what TCU, Kansas State, and Oklahoma are up to, however. I guess TCU had to jump at the chance to get a coach like Johnson, whom recruits will recognize from his stints at Stanford and LSU, since the program doesn’t have much else going for it. But why would Oklahoma, a program in need of stability, hire Kruger, who has never stayed at a job for more than seven years? And I remain mystified as to why any school would hire Weber after the way Illinois’s 2012 season ended.
To get a better idea of the Big 12’s hiring trends, I guess we’ll have to wait and see whom Texas hires when it fires Rick Barnes after this season.
I’m thinking there’s like a 40 percent chance it just rehires Barnes.
Top Three Teams
2. Oklahoma State
Kansas has won so many consecutive Big 12 championships that I’ve actually washed my jeans since its streak started. At this point, you could probably give Bill Self the Jamaican bobsled team and a month of practice time and he’d still find a way to win the Big 12, so there’s no telling what he’s going to do with the most talented team he’s ever had. The Jayhawks lost their entire starting five from last season’s team, which lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16 thanks to Trey Burke’s heroics and Elijah Johnson’s Elijah Johnson–ness. But the new players who have arrived in Lawrence are, despite their inexperience, unquestionably more gifted than what was lost. Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden, Conner Frankamp, and Brannen Greene are all ESPN top-50 recruits. They’re the most talented group of freshmen outside of Lexington, Kentucky. And Tarik Black, a senior transfer from Memphis, is the perfect combination of enormous (6-foot-9, 260 pounds) and hungry to prove himself after averaging only 20.8 minutes per game last season.
The two biggest concerns surrounding Kansas are the Jayhawks’ lack of experience and whether Naadir Tharpe can meet expectations and become Kansas’s next great point guard. Even though he was inconsistent last season, I think Tharpe will succeed. Elijah Johnson was never really a point guard for Kansas, in the sense that he was never interested in facilitating the offense and instead he was just out there playing ball. In his defense, Kansas didn’t have a ton of offensive weapons, so Johnson was often doing what was necessary to put points on the board. But because he wasn’t great at getting his teammates involved, the Jayhawks’ offense looked awful when Johnson played poorly. This is exactly how the TCU embarrassment occurred. Tharpe won’t have the same problem because he doesn’t have a scorer’s mentality, not to mention he’ll be surrounded by so much elite talent that if he turns into a gunner, Self won’t hesitate to bench him in favor of someone else.
I do expect Kansas to struggle some with the team’s inexperience, though. It’s easy to point to John Calipari and Kentucky and say that experience is overvalued in college basketball. But the big difference between Kansas and Kentucky is that Self has never relied so heavily on freshmen and sophomores. He has historically run his teams at Kansas like a football team, in that incoming freshmen ride the bench for a couple years to learn from the upperclassmen before they get their chance as juniors and seniors.2 Now, it’s like Self will need to go from being an honors calculus college professor to being an eighth-grade algebra teacher. At the end of the day, he’s still teaching the same subject, but he’ll be dealing with a completely different classroom situation. I’m confident Self will figure it out and become Big 12 basketball’s version of Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, and Kansas will have its typical success, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few bumps along the way.
Of course, Oklahoma State fans might tell you something different. The Cowboys bring back the best returning player in college basketball in Marcus Smart and one of the best returning trios in Smart, Markel Brown, and Le’Bryan Nash. There’s optimism in Stillwater that this will finally be the year Travis Ford breaks through. I don’t think Oklahoma State has enough size or depth to match up with Kansas, but it will certainly be the second-best team in the Big 12. The Cowboys have enough talent for some experts to pick them to make the Final Four, even though Ford’s coaching record in the NCAA tournament is 1-4. Smart can do anything that can be done on a basketball court, and he’ll almost certainly be a top-five pick in the 2014 NBA draft. Brown is a threat to score 30 points on any given night. And Nash probably has the most raw talent on the team. Throw in Phil Forte, Smart’s high school teammate, who should be one of the best shooters in college basketball this season, and you have four returning double-digit scorers. Outside of freshman point guard Stevie Clark, I’m not sure how much I’d trust Oklahoma State’s bench, but the Cowboys’ big three can go 40 minutes if needed, so that shouldn’t be too big of a problem.
Finally, Baylor won’t come close to winning the Big 12, but it should be the third-best team by a wide margin thanks to Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. There will be question marks surrounding Baylor’s guard play all season, though. Losing Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton means that Baylor’s remaining guards will have impossibly huge shoes to fill. Gary Franklin is a solid role player at best and Brady Heslip can’t do much more than make it rain from deep and ferociously chew his gum. That means juco transfer Kenny Chery will be under a ton of pressure to run the offense and create action when everything stalls. Considering I had high hopes for Colorado this season until Chery’s 14 points and four assists helped Baylor spank the Buffs last week like they were Anthony Davis on a locker-room floor, I’d say Chery and the Bears should be fine.
Best College Player — Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)
If I were 100 percent sure I actually knew what “ironic” means, I’d say it’s ironic that Andrew Wiggins is so often compared to LeBron, since there’s another player in the Big 12 who fits the LeBron label better. Before I go on, let me first say that comparing young basketball players to legends is both unfair to the young prospects and doesn’t make much sense. It happens all the time and I’m guilty of it along with everyone else, but that doesn’t make it right. There will never be another LeBron. Just like there will never be another Jordan, another Kobe, or, God willing, another Scot Pollard.3 Every player has nuances that make him unique. But since it’s so ingrained in basketball culture to compare prospects to some of the best to ever play the game, let’s just run with it — Marcus Smart is a 6-foot-4 LeBron James.
Your jaw isn’t going to drop when you watch Smart play, and you’ll never find yourself debating with friends whether he’s better than Jordan. But as a 6-foot-4, 220-pound point guard, Smart is a man among boys. He’s taller and/or stronger than every point guard in America, which allows him to impose his will. His size also allows him to do a little bit of everything. I made the same point in a column last season, but it’s worth repeating that if Smart cared more about stats than winning, he could probably average double digits in four or five statistical categories. He’s not a great shooter and he turns over the ball more than he should, but it’s easy to look past these criticisms when you realize that he’s a point guard who can post up, he was the second-leading rebounder for Oklahoma State last season, and he can guard four positions. I could go on all day about how good Smart is, but regurgitating statistics and finding new ways to say how versatile he is doesn’t do his game justice. Just know that he’s the reason some experts think this is the season that Kansas’s conference title streak will finally end.
Best Pro Prospect — Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)
There’s no point in telling you that Wiggins is great, because you’re about to see for yourself when Kansas plays Duke tonight in the Champions Classic. Speaking of which, are you ready for these games? If you’re reading this at work, go tell your boss you’re taking the rest of the day off because you have hundreds of highlight mixtapes to watch. I’ve been hearing people talk about the Champions Classic for months now, and I still think it’s not getting enough hype.
Too much attention is being paid to the fact that no. 1 is playing no. 2 and no. 4 is playing no. 5 in the Champions Classic. The narrative tomorrow will be that the two winning teams are better than we thought because they survived a big early test, and that the losing teams need more time to get familiar with each other. But those narratives mean nothing because all four of these teams will be completely different in March.
The real story with the Champions Classic, and what makes it the greatest night of non-tournament hoops in college basketball history, is that the majority of guys who play will be first-round NBA draft picks. That’s not hyperbole. If you make a list of every guy who sees the court tonight in Chicago (provided neither game is a blowout), more than half of those names will be first-round picks. I’m hearing rumors that the scorer’s table printed off Chad Ford’s Big Board and won’t let anybody check into either game unless his name is listed.
Now think about this: We’re not even three games into the season and it seems like people are already jumping off the Andrew Wiggins bandwagon. The kid is being billed as the next LeBron or T-Mac, he scored 16 points in his debut, and people are already declaring him overrated. That’s how insane this draft is. That’s how good Julius Randle and Jabari Parker are. One of the most hyped players in college basketball history might not even go first in the draft? I can’t even fathom that.
Anyway, I’m just a little excited for the Champions Classic. It’s like I’ve been sober for six months and a party bus driven by Rob Ford just pulled into my driveway. I don’t even know why other games are being played this year. Just throw Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon on Michigan State, give Duke Doug McDermott and Semaj Christon, tell every other team to take the year off, and let these four teams keep playing each other over and over. Make every doubleheader a pay-per-view with Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse, and Florida as the undercard and I’m dropping 60 bucks on that once a week with no hesitation.
Most Underrated Player — Perry Ellis (Kansas)
Kansas started four seniors and a lottery pick last season, which is another way of saying that Bill Self didn’t go to his bench unless he absolutely had to. The Jayhawks were basically seven-deep, with Ellis subbing for interior guys who got into foul trouble or needed rest and Tharpe doing the same for the guards. The main difference is that Tharpe also got to check in when Self wanted to rip a new one into Elijah Johnson, which explains how Tharpe averaged six more minutes per game than Ellis. Tharpe played more than Ellis and he’ll run point for Kansas, so he gets attention for being the Jayhawks’ key returner, and the newcomer get attention for being so talented. Meanwhile, everyone forgets that Ellis was a McDonald’s All-American who put up solid per-minute numbers as a freshman.
I have a feeling it won’t take long for the rest of America to figure out what Kansas fans already know. In fact, I’d even say that Ellis will end up being the second-best player for the Jayhawks this year. Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden are better NBA prospects and Tharpe might be the most important player, but I think Ellis will be the most productive Jayhawk not named Andrew Wiggins. In Kansas’s season-opening win over UL-Monroe, Ellis had the type of game I expect him to have regularly, finishing with 12 points and eight boards and probably not saying a single word. It was as if he were thinking: You kids go have your fun. I’ll be here in the paint doing my thing while you get on SportsCenter tonight. If Kansas manages to be consistently excellent this season despite playing so many freshmen, Ellis’s steadiness and willingness to do the little things will be a major reason why.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — Melvin Ejim (Iowa State)
Iowa State’s leading rebounder and second-best returning scorer from a season ago is out until at least December with a hyperextended knee. What the Cyclones, a team full of freshmen and transfers, are missing until he returns is a senior leader who has been in Ames his entire collegiate career. They’ll also be missing one of the few players on the team who can do the dirty work in the paint. That’s what makes Ejim so valuable. Iowa State will again play small ball this season, shoot a buttload of 3s, and cross its fingers that it doesn’t get screwed by the refs. A guy like Ejim, who can rebound and score from inside the 3-point line while also not slowing down the rain-making of Iowa State’s guards, is a great luxury for Fred Hoiberg.
While I certainly don’t expect Ejim to play a single second in the NBA, I wouldn’t be shocked if someone took a chance on him for his versatility and athleticism. I could see the Spurs — because it’s always the Spurs — drafting him in the second round, sending him to Europe or the D-League, and then turning him into Kawhi Leonard’s backup in five years. No, wait. I got that wrong. What I meant is that a different team will draft Ejim, bury him on the bench, and then end up trading him to the Spurs as a throwaway piece of a bigger trade. Then the Spurs will realize that he’s an athletic, physical swingman who can shoot, and Gregg Popovich will sprinkle Ejim with the pixie dust he uses to turn guys nobody else wanted into playoff contributors.
Player Who Best Fits the Label “Loose Cannon” — Le’Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State)
Watching Le’Bryan Nash play basketball is more frustrating than watching my grandma use a computer. The guy has all the talent in the world and has the look of an NBA star, yet he seems to tap into that potential only every other game. Check out his game log from last season. If you made a line graph of his production and then built a ride on Roller Coaster Tycoon that followed the same trajectory, every guest in your park would throw up just looking at it. I mean, how do you score 26 points in an overtime rivalry win vs. Oklahoma and then score eight in 48 minutes in a must-win game four days later against Kansas? How do you score 24 on the road against Baylor and then go oh-fer the very next game? He ended up averaging 14 points per game last season, and it seems like he arrived at that by scoring 28 in half his games and zero in the other half.
In Oklahoma State’s opener on Friday, Nash recorded the first double-double of his career, finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds in a blowout win over Mississippi Valley State. I want to get excited about the thought of him being more aggressive and consistently engaged, but I can’t. It’s too soon. He broke my heart way too often last season. It felt like every time I got excited to watch him play, he’d go through the motions for the first five or 10 minutes, pick up a couple fouls, and spend the rest of the first half on the bench. And every time I didn’t catch an Oklahoma State game, he’d play out of his mind. So I’m going to wait until at least January before I get excited about Nash. I’ll definitely keep an eye on him, but I’m not going to stand up on a table, thrust my hips, and say he’s all growns up until I see him string together four or five great games against Big 12 opponents.
Most Intriguing New Coach — Tubby Smith (Texas Tech)
I can’t explain why, but I’ve always been a Tubby Smith fan, maybe because I don’t think he deserves all the criticism he gets. I know his national championship at Kentucky came from inheriting Rick Pitino’s players, who had gone to title games in each of the last two years. And sure, his teams at Minnesota always looked like Big Ten contenders in December and then found themselves on the bubble by late February. But I still think it’s unfair that he’s considered by some to be among the worst coaches to win a national championship, especially since that title belongs to Jim Harrick and there isn’t a close second. The truth is that Smith had success at Tulsa and Georgia before he got to Kentucky, and long after Pitino’s recruits were gone he was still racking up SEC championships and making deep tournament runs. Plus, besides the 1997 team, Minnesota had been irrelevant in the previous 15 years before he got there, so for Smith to build up the program to a point where Gophers fans could feel the pain of getting the rug pulled out from under them instead of just sucking all year long is somewhat of an accomplishment. I’m not going to lead the campaign to get Smith in the Hall of Fame or anything, but I do think he’s a better coach than he’s given credit for.
Speaking of coaching misconceptions, now that Smith is taking over at Texas Tech, it’s hard not to draw a comparison to Bob Knight’s twilight years in Lubbock. Both had national championships on their résumés when they were hired, both spent a decade or more as the head coach of a blue blood program, and both took the Texas Tech job knowing that a national title was unrealistic and that it would probably be the last gig of their careers. But Knight’s stint at Texas Tech was kind of like Michael Jordan’s baseball career in that it was much better than you probably remember.4 Before I looked it up, I would’ve guessed that Knight coached at Texas Tech for three or four years, made one or two NCAA tournament appearances without winning any tourney games, and then decided to retire after going something like 9-20 in his final season. In reality, Knight made the NCAA tournament in four of his six full seasons, won three NCAA tournament games, won 63 percent of all his games, and even made the Sweet 16 in 2005.
The Red Raiders will be awful this season and there’s no telling when they’ll be competitive again. But before you dismiss Smith going to Texas Tech as nothing more than a past-his-prime coach with a recognizable name taking over a bad program just so he can collect some paychecks before retirement, keep in mind that he has been successful at every stop of his career and that Knight proved it’s possible to build a winner at Texas Tech.
Coach on the Hot Seat — Rick Barnes (Texas)
If I ever decide to climb a mountain and ask the monk sitting at the peak questions that I’m guaranteed answers to, I’ve already got my queries lined up. Who is responsible for Oreo O’s going off the market? What would happen if somebody accidentally drank Alex Mack when she was in her liquid state? Considering Justin Timberlake clearly ripped off Janet Jackson’s boob cover on purpose, what was supposed to happen if her wardrobe didn’t malfunction? And why is Rick Barnes on the hot seat every year, yet always keeps his job after a disappointing season?
I always laugh at the lists of the best coaching jobs in America. Inevitably, schools like Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, and Indiana are at the top, which makes sense given the history of those programs. But I think of it another way — if I could pick any job, where would I want to coach? I’m sure if this really happened, I’d jump all over the chance to coach one of those blue blood programs, but in my hypothetical world I always end up deciding that the four best college basketball coaching jobs are Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Ohio State.
Think about it. All four of those schools are willing to shell out big bucks to have a great basketball program. But at the end of the day, football is king. As coach, you have the resources to win a national championship but you don’t have the pressure. Take Indiana, for example. Tom Crean just won an outright Big Ten championship for the first time in 20 years and he has great recruits lined up for the next few seasons, yet he’s catching heat from at least one bozo sportswriter who wants to see him fired. At a football school, that level of success would be cause for celebration. A huge salary, great facilities, a place where recruits want to play, and virtually no pressure is what I’d consider a perfect situation.
I’ll never forget the poll I saw last season on Eleven Warriors, the best Ohio State blog, asking readers if they’d rather have a basketball national championship or a win over Michigan in football. That the question was even asked was laughable to me, until the results revealed that a majority of the more than 1,000 voters would rather beat Michigan. I still can’t wrap my head around that. I know Big Ten football is awful right now, but there could conceivably be a time when OSU might lose to Michigan and still win a national title in football. That doesn’t matter to these fans. A single regular-season football win is a bigger deal than a basketball national championship. Basketball is nothing more than icing on the cake at football schools.
While you can get away with not having the greatest icing on a cake, unfortunately for Barnes the cake isn’t very good, either, as Texas football has been pretty disappointing the last few years. Now that I think about it, though, this could be a good thing for Barnes. I initially thought that Texas fans would get more upset knowing that their basketball team can’t give them something to be excited about during another depressing offseason, but maybe this will work in Barnes’s favor. I can just imagine Texas’s new athletic director, Steve Patterson, calling a meeting with Barnes and saying, “Look, the pressure is on. We haven’t been where we need to be as a program, and if we don’t get back to the level that is expected from Texas, some changes are going to have to be made.”
Then Barnes replies: “Totally agree with you there, Steve. Mack’s gotta do a better job with that football team. Sixth place in the Big 12 just isn’t good enough for Texas,” hoping Patterson doesn’t realize Barnes’s team finished seventh in the conference and had a losing record last season. Meanwhile, Texas fans spend so much time debating whether it’s time to move on from Mack Brown that they forget Barnes has won only three Big 12 titles in 15 years despite regularly bringing an absurd amount of talent through Austin.
You know, never mind. I guess I do understand why Barnes never loses his job.
Most Intriguing Story Line — Kansas’s Streak
Conference championships seem to be losing their luster with each passing season, especially with the NCAA tournament continuing its rise in popularity and conference realignment redefining the importance of a regular-season championship. Given the choice, my guess is a majority of fans would rather see their team finish third in its conference and make the Final Four than win the conference and bow out of the NCAA tournament early. As an owner of two Big Ten championship rings and one Final Four ring, I can tell you that if I could somehow trade both of my Big Ten rings for another trip to the Final Four, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Hell, I’d even consider trading them for another trip to the Elite Eight and a family-size box of pizza rolls. There’s just nothing like getting hot in March and riding that wave of momentum through the most insane tournament in sports.
Having said that, Kansas’s streak of nine consecutive Big 12 championships is nothing short of remarkable and should almost warrant its own banner in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. I know the Big 12 isn’t known for powerhouse basketball programs, and cynics will point out how many times Kansas has choked in the NCAA tournament during this stretch. That doesn’t matter. The Big 12 is still a major college basketball conference and it’s nearly impossible to sustain that level of success in the one-and-done era. At some point, every team loses too much talent to graduation or the NBA, or injuries knock them out of contention for a year. How Bill Self has managed to consistently bring in top recruits and keep most of them in Lawrence for more than a year, how he has developed non-marquee names into perfect role players, how he gets his players to buy into his defensive-minded approach, and how the Jayhawks always seem to get the right amount of luck at the right time is mind-boggling.
And Self’s body of work is not just impressive for this era. Think back to when all the great coaches were at the height of their power: Adolph Rupp at Kentucky in the ’40s and ’50s, John Wooden at UCLA in the ’60s and early ’70s, Bob Knight at Indiana in the ’70s, Dean Smith at North Carolina in the ’80s, and Mike Krzyzewski at Duke in the ’90s and early 2000s. Those just might be the five best coaches in college basketball history, and during those years their programs were overflowing with some of the biggest names the sport has ever seen. But despite their dominance in those eras, Wooden is the only one (and the only coach in history aside from Self, for that matter) to win nine straight championships in a major conference.5 And even though UCLA won 13 straight AAWU/Pac-8/Pac-10 titles from 1967 through 1979, Wooden was on the bench for only the first nine of them, meaning that if Kansas wins the Big 12 this season, Self will be alone in the record books.
Water Cooler Comment That Will Make It Sound Like You Really Know What You’re Talking About
“Since the NCAA tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the closest a major conference has been to getting all of its tournament teams to the Final Four was the SEC in 1996. Kentucky won the national title, Mississippi State made the Final Four, and Arkansas and Georgia made the Sweet 16. No other SEC teams were in the tournament that year. It’s a long shot, but if Iowa State sucks, Baylor falls apart in the conference season, and Kansas State continues to lose to teams like Northern Colorado, there’s a chance Kansas and Oklahoma State — two Final Four contenders — will get the only Big 12 bids.”