The official name of the event was “Big 12 Media Day,” but it could just as easily have been called “Your Chance to Talk to Bill Self Day.”
Inside the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., last month, tables were set up for each of the Big 12 basketball coaches. Each coach fielded questions from a few reporters who strolled by periodically over the course an hour-long session.
Then there was Self, the Kansas coach who guided his team to the national championship game last season, where it lost to a Kentucky squad that looked more like an NBA farm team than a college basketball squad.
Surrounding Self was a wall of cameras, voice recorders, pens and note pads, all recording for posterity the coach’s words about a season still more than a month away.
Such is the life at the top of the college basketball universe.
“I’ve done this three years now, and I think it’s pretty much expected that this is how this thing works,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, cracking wise about the Jayhawks adulation.
It all comes with the territory of winning at least a share of eight straight Big 12 regular-season titles. Just how dominant has Self been in Lawrence? During his tenure, Kansas has more Big 12 titles (8) than it has losses inside Allen Fieldhouse (7). To put that into perspective, Texas Tech lost eight home games — last season.
All of that is to say it’s no surprise Self’s bunch is picked to win the conference again this season. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are gone to the NBA, but the Jayhawks return experienced leaders in Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, veterans who will be complemented by an infusion of talented newcomers like Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore.
Betting against Self’s teams — even ones that don’t appear to be loaded with superstars — has proven unwise, so I’m not using this space to predict the demise of a powerhouse.
But I don’t think we should be ready to hand Kansas the trophy just yet, either.
Several up-and-coming teams could challenge Kansas for Big 12 supremacy this season, including one team I believe will make giant strides from a season ago: Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys, as usual, are experiencing injury problems. Sophomore forward Brian Williams, a starter who averaged 12 points per game during conference play last season, is out for the year after injuring his wrist during a preseason practice. The Cowboys, though, still have a dynamic backcourt with sophomore Le’Bryan Nash and freshman Marcus Smart.
If those two McDonald’s all-Americans can develop chemistry, they could be one of the top 1-2 guard combos in the country. Nash has recovered from a wrist injury that cost him the latter part of the Big 12 season, while Ford has raved about the selflessness of Smart, the Flower Mound Marcus product who was one of the most highly coveted recruits in the country.
“Marcus affects a practice, affects games more than any player I’ve seen,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “He’s involved in every play in practice, whether it be a rebound, a loose ball, defensively, making assists. He’s involved in everything.”
Kansas State, under new coach Bruce Weber, could also be a darkhorse threat, thanks in large part to the return of guard Rodney McGruder, who turned heads nationally with a breakout performance during the NCAA tournament in March.
“He’s always in the gym,” Weber says of McGruder. “So that makes it easier. If your best guy is doing that, everybody else wants to watch.”
Texas should rebound from a disappointing finish with the help of one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. The new batch of Longhorns includes 6-foot-10 McDonald’s all-American Cameron Ridley, highly touted point guard Javan Felix and four-star forward Connor Lammert, the brother of Tech forward Clark Lammert.
Baylor, picked to finish second, has the Big 12’s preseason player of the year in point guard Pierre Jackson, who will shoulder heavy responsibility after losing three teammates — Quincy Acy, Quincy Miller and Perry Jones — to the NBA draft. The addition of 7-foot-1 freshman center Isaiah Austin, an Arlington native, should cushion the blow.
Don’t count out West Virginia, an experienced team with a coach in Bob Huggins who has already won a lot of games in the Big 12 stemming from his time as the coach at Kansas State. And even though Iowa State lost its key cog in do-it-all forward Royce White, coach Fred Hoiberg debuts another band of transfers, including former Michigan State guard Korie Lucious, who could help keep the Cyclones in the hunt.
Oklahoma is loaded with experience, and with a senior class that has yet to earn a postseason berth, the Sooners — led by guard Steven Pledger (16.2 points per game last season) — are desperate to turn the tide under second-year coach Lon Kruger.
Texas Tech and TCU still have growing to do before it can set sights on competing for the conference crown, but both squads are talented enough to give opponents problems, something the Red Raiders certainly didn’t do a season ago.
My guess is the exodus of a bevy of NBA players will create good parity in what should be an exciting Big 12 season. But will that be enough to pull some of those camera lenses away from Self’s crowded table in Kansas City?
The next few months will tell us, but I wouldn’t count on it.
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