Generally speaking, college basketball games at this time of year are not the best predictor of how a team will perform after the New Year and games against conference opponents take center stage. There are exceptions to this, as in the early season holiday tournaments and select matchups of ranked teams to attract television audiences, but through the first dozen games or so, most major teams schedule home games against teams that don't offer much of a challenge and produce confidence-building wins and inflated won-lost records heading into the real season: head-to-head league play.
A month into the 2011-12 season. Big 12 men's teams have put together an impressive run against nonconference foes. Through games of Thursday, Big 12 teams have a combined record of 61-16. Two teams remain unbeaten (Missouri at 8-0 and Baylor, 7-0) and three teams have only one loss (Kansas State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma). Noticeably absent from that group is Kansas, perhaps the best team in the conference in the Big 12 era and all-time.
The Jayhawks have two losses in eight games. But before anyone starts sending up distress signals over that, it's important to note that the two KU losses are to No. 1 Kentucky and Duke, another top 10-ranked team. The 16 Big 12 losses are the fewest of the six major conferences.
The conference season will begin sooner in the Big 12 this year because of the new 18-game round-robin schedule. In prior years, when the conference consisted of 12 teams, each school played 16 games in an unbalanced format in which the six northern-most schools played the southern schools only once every season but played each other twice in a home-and-away series.
Baylor is ranked seventh in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and Missouri is tenth. Despite its two losses, Kansas ranks 13th, and Texas A&M is 25th.
Beginning with this article, I will preview the Big 12 men's basketball race in a two-part series. Today I preview the teams I predict will finish in the second half of the conference standings: six through ten. On Monday, the Big 12 preview will look at teams predicted to finish one through five.
Big 12 Men's Team Previews
(Current season record)
6. Texas Longhorns (6-2)
Hindered by a significant lack of size, Texas may be forced to play a four-guard lineup much of the season. Redshirt senior Clint Chapman is 6-foot-10, but before redshirting last season he was more apt to fire it up from the perimeter instead of taking it down low. Freshman sensations Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph jumped to the NBA after one season, leaving head coach Rick Barnes with only three returning scholarship players with any college playing time to speak of. Guard J'Covan Brown, the Longhorns top returning scorer and Chapman are joined by 6-foot-7 Alexis Wangmene, a reserve a year ago. Almost half of Texas' roster consists of five incoming freshman, four of which are guards.
"This is what we have, and we've always adjusted our style to what we have, so we'll see where it takes us," Barnes said. Barnes won a Big 12 championship his first year at Texas (1998-97) with only seven scholarship players. If the Longhorns are going to make a 14th consecutive NCAA postseason appearance, it will depend on the play of Brown, Chapman and Wangmene and how well and fast the incoming freshman adapt to play in the Big 12.
7. Kansas State Wildcats (5-1)
There's no way around it. The Wildcats are going to severely miss the leadership and scoring ability of all-time leading scorer Jacob Pullen. The Wildcats do have senior forward Jamar Samuels and junior swingman (forward/guard) Rodney McGruder back again this season, but up and down the bench, K-State will be fielding a very young team. Head coach Frank Martin has overhauled his roster this year with a half-dozen new recruits. "We'll be young," Martin said. "We'll be learning as we go." One of the incoming players that Martin is counting on is St. John's transfer Omari Lawrence, a top defensive player and slasher. Aside from McGruder and Samuels, Martin was high on the play last season of a pair of sophomore guards, Will Spradling and Shane Southwell.
Martin reminded the media in the preseason that "when Michael (Beasley) and Bill (Walker) decided to leave the program early (in 2008-09), everyone said we were left with a bunch of people who were no-names. But we had guys who went out and established themselves, became team leaders, and the program has continued to get better," the fifth-year Wildcat coach said. About being projected to finish in the lower half of the standings this season, Martin said the opinions of the media change with the wind, but his expectations and those of his coaches and players never change. "Those are the only expectations that ever matter to me," he said. "Our expectations are to go into the season to win the Big 12, just like they were last year and the year before that."
8. Oklahoma Sooners (6-1)
Veteran college coach and former Kansas State coach and player Lon Kruger takes the coaching reins at Oklahoma beginning this season. Kruger takes over a program that is short on talent but long on desire. One of the new OU coach's claims to fame is that he has been through rebuilding efforts at each of four previous college coaching stops - Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV - and he has come out a winner every time. That's good news for a Sooners' program that is coming off its first back-to-back losing season in 45 years. Junior power forward Andrew Fitzgerald, junior shooting guard Steven Pledger and swingman Cameron Clark have proven they can compete with the best in the conference, and the trio will be counted on to deliver this season.
Kruger favors an up-tempo game, which will remind longtime Sooner fans of the days of "Billy Ball" in the 1980s under former coach Billy Tubbs. "I know we'll line up and play as hard as we can, and I think we'll play as well as we possibly can" Kruger said. That should result in winning games, he said, "How many? I have no idea?"
9. Iowa State Cyclones (6-3)
Last season, when Iowa State went 3-13 in the conference and 16-16 overall, the Cyclones best players may have been sitting on the bench waiting for their chance to play. Coach Fred Hoiberg, a former star at Iowa State and in the NBA, brought in a quartet of transfer players (from Michigan State, Minnesota, Penn State, Southern Illinois), but because of NCAA rules they were required to sit out a year. Only two starters return from last year, but the infusion of talent coming from the transfers and some other talented newcomers, Iowa State should be improved from the start this season. And Hoiberg has two more quality transfers (fomer Michigan State guard Korie Lucious and Utah's leading scorer and rebounder last year, Will Clyburn) in school and waiting to suit up next year. Senior guard Scott Christopherson is the leading returning scorer for Iowa State at almost 14 points per game, and he is a deadly three-point shooter.
The Cyclones were only able to use a seven-man rotation most of last season, but with a deeper, more talented bench to go to this year, "we'll be fresher to finish off games,' Hoiberg said. Translation: More Iowa State wins and a more satisfying season for the
Cyclone fan base.
10. Texas Tech Red Raiders (4-4)
For the first time in a decade, no one named Knight will be sitting in the lead seat on the Texas Tech bench. While Mark Turgeon left a well-stocked cupboard for Texas A&M's new coach, new Texas Tech coach Billy Gillespie is faced with quite the opposite situation. Gillespie, who took over a similar downtrodden team at Texas A&M in 2004, inherits a Red Raiders team that had only two scholarship players taller than 6-foot-6. Senior center Robert Lewandowski is the team's leading returning scorer, averaging 8.5 points in a little more than half a game of playing time. "I think it's going to be a lot of fun and there is a great deal of excitement, but there's very, very, very little experience for us," Gillespie said.
Because he was hired relatively late in the recruiting cycle, Gillespie hit the junior-college level hard looking for talented recruits to add scoring, rebounding and hopefully enhance his existing middling roster. Perhaps his most important addition is point guard Ty Nurse from Midland (Texas) Community College. Nurse, who led Midland to a 33-4 record last season, has the difficult task of replacing three-year starter John Roberson. Gillespie also added a pair of frontcourt prospects from Tyler (Texas) Community College, 6-foot-7 forward Jaron Nash and 6-foot-10 center Kader Tapsoba. All three junior-college transfers are expected to contribute right away.
Monday: Men's teams predicted to finish one through five in the Big 12
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