Editor's note:This is the second of two articles previewing the Big 12 men's basketball conference season, with short capsules on what to look for from each of the 10 teams. Today's article looks at the teams projected to finish in the top half of the Big 12 regular-season standings.
If there were term limits on how many conference championships you can win, the Kansas Jayhawks would be in serious trouble.
Kansas has won outright or shared the last eight regular-season conference championships in basketball and has won 12 of the 16 since the Big 12 came into existence in 1996. Overall, the Jayhawks have won 52 conference championships in basketball, far more than any other school in the Big 12 and all of its previous iterations dating back to 1907, when Kansas was a member of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
The Jayhawks, who are off to a 7-1 start to the 2012-13 season, are the heavy favorite once again to extend their supremacy in Big 12 men's basketball to nine consecutive seasons. Of course there are a lot of games to be played between now and then and there are nine other conference teams that will have something to say about the final outcome.
On Wednesday, we previewed the projected bottom half of the conference in men's basketball. Today we move up the ladder and take a look at what to expect from the teams expected to be the top contenders, along with Kansas, for the 2012-13 regular-season Big 12 crown (in descending order).
(Head coach: Bill Self; 2011-12: 1st)
Kansas is and has long been the epitome in college basketball of the team that rarely, if ever, rebuilds; the Jayhawks simply reload and manage to keep on winning, year after year, seemingly without missing a beat. If you thought it was going to be any different this year after losing two first-round NBA draft picks in big-man Thomas Robinson and table-setter Tyshawn Taylor, you would be wrong. Last year's Jayhawk team, which finished 16-2 in league play and first in the conference for the eighth consecutive year on the way to a 32-7 overall record and runner-up in the NCAA Basketball Championship, may have over-achieved a little, largely on the basis of heart and sheer determination. This year's Jayhawk squad lacks veteran floor leadership, nearly half of the rotation could be first-year players, but in the long run, the roster this season is deeper, which gives head coach Bill Self more options, and the talent level may be higher overall. Returning starters Elijah Johson, Travis Releford and seven-footer Jeff Withey are expected to be the on-floor leaders. Combined the three averaged just over 27 points and right at 14 rebounds a game a year ago.
2. Baylor Bears
(Head coach: Scott Drew; 2011-12 season: 3rd)
Baylor finished third in the conference a year ago, with a school-record 30-win season. The Bears lost 36 points of scoring and almost 20 rebounds a game with the departure of big men Quincy Miller and Perry Jones III to the NBA and the graduation of Quincy Acy, yet this year's team could be even better. The Bears do return, however, what could be the best backcourt combination in the conference in Preseason Player of the Year Pierre Jackson and three-point artist Brady Heslip. Jackson, a senior from Las Vegas, averaged 13.2 points a game last season and Heslip added 10.2 ppg on 45 percent accuracy from behind the three-point line. The addition of seven-foot freshman Isaiah Austin, regarded as the highest-profile recruit in Baylor program history, will help ease the huge hit coach Scott Drew's team took in the front court, plus they have 6-9 junior forward Cory Jefferson back. Jefferson would probably have started for most other Big 12 teams last year, but was relegated to reserve duty behind the Bears' talented frontline trio. Baylor has been to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight two of the last three years, but it has not enjoyed a winning conference record in two consecutive seasons since 1986-87 and 1987-88. This could well be the year.
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys
(Head coach: Travis Ford; 2011-12 season: 7th)
The 2012-13 Oklahoma State team is an interesting study. After being left out of postseason play last season, the Cowboys were looking forward to reversing their fortunes this season. They suffered a big blow, however, when senior power forward and projected starter Darrell Williams was convicted of sexual battery charges and dismissed from the team. Williams would have provided some needed size and strength in the paint, but the Cowboys' are still loaded with ample talent and firepower. Sophomore Le'Bryan Nash is OSU's top returning scorer after averaging 13 points a game last season. Freshman sensation Marcus Smart, projected as the preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, is expected to be one of the keys to the Cowboys' improvement this season. Strong contributions on offense and at the defensive end are also expected from returnees Markel Brown and Michael Cobbins. Oklahoma State was ninth in the conference in rebounding.last season, which is an area coach Travis Ford wants to improve.
(Head coach: Bob Huggins; 2011-12 season: 9th in Big East)
West Virginia is expected to be an immediate contender in its first season in the Big 12. The Mountaineers are without their top two scorers from last season in Kevin Jones and Darryl Bryant. Jones led the Big East in both scoring (19.9 ppg) and rebounding (10.9 rpg). Huggins is hoping to replace the loss of more than half of the team's offense with several talented transfers that will bring size, quickness and experience to the starting five. Aaric Murray, a 6-10 center, wing player Matt Humphrey and guard Juwan Staten are transfers from LaSalle, Boston College and Dayton, respectively. All are expected to make major contributions this season. The Mountaineers are also counting on more offensive production from 6-9 senior forward Deniz Kelicli from Istanbul, Turkey. There are questions concerning the team's perimeter shooting and how well newcomer Murray and Kelicli will co-exist on the floor. If they can overcome those two issues and a rigorous nonconference schedule, the Mountaineers could challenge Kansas for the league title.
(Head coach Rick Barnes; 2011-12 season: 6th)
Coach Rick Barnes will field a very young team in the 2012-13 season. But don't be fooled. This group is extremely talented. Finding players with great talent and high potential is something you can always count on at Texas. The Longhorns are hoping they will have sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo, who is being forced to sit out to start the season while the NCAA rules on an eligibility issue. Kapongo averaged nearly 10 points and over five assists a game in his freshman season. True frontcourt strength has been lacking for several years in Austin, but the Longhorns appear to be well stocked this season with newcomers 6-8 freshman Ioannis Papapetrou and highly-touted, first-year 6-9 center Cameron Ridley. Some are saying that Texas hasn't had an impact player with the kind of talent potential that Ridley possesses since Chris Mihm (1999-2000). Barnes is also counting on a key contribution from Kabongo's backcourt mate, sophomore Sheldon McClellan, who averaged double digits in scoring a year ago. As young and inexperienced as Texas is this season, the Horns are still plenty good enough to advance to their 15th straight NCAA Tournament.
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