That's right kids, I'm back to give my NCAA basketball previews, conference by conference, for another year, because it's about that time, to bring forth the rhythm and the rhyme, I'm a get mine so get yours, I want to see sweat comin' out your pores. I'm starting with the Big 12 this year because that's where my sleeper for the NCAA Championship resides. Come on, swing it.
1. Baylor Bears. And this would be that sleeper. They did lose three starters off the Elite 8 team from last year, including lottery pick Ekpe Udoh and starting point man Tweety Carter, but the pieces are in place for a deep run by the Bears. LaceDarius Dunn is back, might be the best guard in the nation, and is capable of taking over a game all by himself, and talented freshman center Perry Jones is the type of freshman who can carry a team and will be one of the top newcomers in the country. The key to how far they'll be able to go will be the development of a couple of sophomore guards who were bit players last year but were both highly regarded recruits. If either Nolan Dennis or A.J. Walton can fill that Tweety Carter role the Bears could absolutely be cutting down the nets at the conclusion of the season. Actually I'd even go so far as to say probably. They'll probably be cutting down the nets. Current odds: 30-1. You might want to throw a sawbuck on that.
2. Kansas Jayhawks. Like Baylor, the Jayhawks lose a lot of firepower from last year, but it's not like Kansas just goes around recruiting stiffs - there are a ton of very talented guys who will be asked to step up their contributions this year, and based on pedigree they shouldn't have a problem doing it. Assuming Josh Selby ends up being declared eligible they will be a national contender, and even if he isn't they should be a quality, deep team. I would guess he'll be cleared, being that this is Kansas and not Kentucky. Expect Kansas to be one of the best teams in the country and a top seed, only to be upset in the tournament for something like the 9th time in the last 10 years, not counting that year they won of course.
3. Kansas State Wildcats. Expect these guys to be media darlings this year (one magazine I've looked at picked them first in the conference) due to their crazy eyed coach and Jake Pullen and his beard. I absolutely love Pullen, and have written about him on this blog a couple of times, but it will be interesting to see how he responds without backcourt mate Denis Clemente this year. Still, besides Pullen there are a bunch of athletic, talented big men and wings, and if a couple of them can improve upon last year (particularly Wally Judge, a top 20 recruit according to Rivals a year ago who played only 12 minutes per game last year) they could go far. Also you know that mafia looking coach of there's has mob ties, so if anybody hears anything about a fix involving K-State can you let me know so I can throw some dollars at it?
4. Missouri Tigers. Mizzou took a hit when prized recruit (#12 according to Rivals) Tony Mitchell was ruled ineligible for the fall semester, but there's still plenty of talent returning including the team's three top scorers from last year in guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon and forward Laurence Bowers. They are pretty well stocked in both the backcourt and the frontcourt and have a very nice recruiting class coming in, even without Mitchell. The Tigers traditionally play an awesomely fun 40-minutes of hell type of ball, and with their stockpile of guards and athletic wings they're loaded for a nice run. Or, more accurately, 40 minutes of run per game.
5. Texas Longhorns. It pains me to praise them after they stole Cory Joseph from the Gophers, but the Longhorns will be much the same - supremely talented - despite losing four starters. Will that talent gel, like in 2008, or will it fizzle into disappointment as it did last year? Don't know, but it should be fun to watch. Joseph and Tristan Thompson are two of the top freshman in the country. Jai Lucas was a highly touted PG out of high school who has disappointed but is looking for a new start. Jordan Hamilton looks like a likely breakout star. Gary Johnson has been an excellent sidekick for years, but will finally be a feature player. Like I said, lots of talent. Let's see if Rick Barnes screws this one up, because you know there's only three things in Texas: steers, queers, and underachieving sports teams.
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders. I'm not sure how talented they are, but they are definitely experienced with five of their top six players returning, all of whom are going to be seniors. Mike Singletary (not that one) was talented enough to score 43 against TAMU a two years ago and score 20 in a game ten times last year, and John Roberson led the Big 12 in assists last season. With some good talent coming in to join the experienced old people this team will probably end up being tough to beat. They aren't going to be any kind of real contender for the national title or anything, but they'll probably upset some of the top conference contenders at home.
7. Colorado Buffaloes. Colorado actually has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament this year, which seems weird to say but they have a couple of supremely talented players in Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. Burks actually flirted with the NBA draft this offseason after winning Big 12 Freshman of the Year, but ultimately returned for another year, and Higgins has been All-Big 12 third team twice in his career. If these two get any help, any help at (from, say, former Gopher recruit Austin Dufault) all they'll threaten to make the NCAA Tournament and will be the best Buffaloes team in a long time. Although I suppose that isn't saying much since they have just two tournament appearances (and one win) since 1970. So they're due.
8. Texas A&M Aggies. While most of the other teams above them in this ranking seem to have at least one of their key contributors back, the Aggies are going to be looking for some role players to step up. David Loubeau gets the most press as a possible breakout type, but Khris Middleton is the guy I expect to make major strides and become a star. He hit double-figures in scoring in four of the Aggies last five games last season after getting there just six times prior, while hitting 12 of 22 three-pointers. He's a three point marksman who is also an athletic scorer. Or, as I like to call it, a perfect basketball player. Yes, I'm saing Middleton basketball player heading towards multiple All-American teams and a likely Hall-of-Fame NBA career. What of it?
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys. James Anderson won't be easy to replace, and losing second leading scorer Obi Muonelo is an extra little kick in the teeth, but there is some good talent returning. Marshall Moses showed some nice flashes last year, and Keiton Page is fun in that mad-bomber kind of way. Still, the key to the season might be freshman Michael Cobbins, one of the top ranked power forwards in the country according to Rivals, and the kind of player, if as good as advertised, who could take this team from "meh" to "huh."
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers. We here in Big Ten country will get to see them just a bit more often in the future, and hopefully for them the move will help their talent level because this is one of the more moribund college hoops programs in the country. That isn't to say there's no talent here - Brian Diaz is a nice seven-footer who is just a sophomore and had some high quality games for the Huskers last year- but it's not the kind of talent that's going to compete for anything meaningful. Again. Hopefully the conference move and a new stadium will help upgrade the talent level because, frankly, we've already got a Penn State.
11. Iowa State Cyclones. Freddy Hoiberg is certainly in for two very different years the next couple of seasons. Next year, with an interesting recruiting class this year (including eligibility risk Calvin Godfrey) and next joining up with Big Ten problem children Royce White and Chris Allen there will be a lot of eyes looking to see how his "take a chance on anybody with talent, despite the baggage" strategy works out. This year, however, there's no pressure and no worries because there isn't much talent (although I am a fan of Diante Garrett) and only four players are back from last year. I am betting things turn around in a hurry with Hoiberg and his risk/reward strategy, however. Or blow up in his face like Royce White at the Mall of America.
12. Oklahoma Sooners. Losing your three best players (Willie Warren, Tiny Gallon, Tommy Mason-Griffin) who made up basically your entire offense is going to hurt, but perhaps not as much as any possible ramifications coming down from the NCAA due to the Tiny Gallon situation. Capel is an excellent young coach, but with nearly the entire starting lineup gone and nobody signed for after this season things aren't exactly looking up in Norman. There is some talent in the large recruiting class coming in this year, with an elite-level player in Cameron Clark, so if they can squeak past the NCAA hit squad things could turn around, but for this year they'll probably be a scrappy, last-place team that scares a lot of conference opponents at times, but loses out on talent at the end. Like Gopher football, except without the scaring opponents part. Or the scrappy part.
If you came here for baseball talk, what with the playoffs and all, don't worry your pretty little head. I'm cooking up a little ALDS primer, coming your way tomorrow. Or possibly Wednesday morning. Here's a preview: We're doomed.