MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As America’s focus shifts toward the Final Four in oh-so-quaint AT&T Stadium, all the Big 12 teams—having been dumped along the roadside—have shifted their focus toward next season.
Here are my thoughts on how the Big 12 race shapes up for 2014-15, with the full acknowledgment that several teams remain in the running for one more recruit or a last-minute graduate transfer:
No. 1 KANSAS
Andrew Wiggins looked justified in becoming a one-and-doner, but Joel Embiid remains open to coming back, essentially, because of his back, which forced him to miss KU’s last six games. Bill Self has reloaded with the No. 4 recruit in the country, power forward Cliff Alexander, and the No. 12 prospect in 6-7 guard Kelly Oubre. The Jayhawks also stand to sign the No. 6 recruit, 6-11 Myles Turner, if Embiid enters the draft. But Turner also has Texas, Arizona and Duke on the line. Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden are quality players, but Kansas won’t be a Final Four threat next season unless point guard Naadir Tharpe improves his decision-making.
2014 finish: 25-10 overall (suffered NCAA third-round upset to Stanford 60-57)
2015 forecast: 26th straight NCAA bid and favorite to win 11th consecutive league title
No. 2 TEXAS
With junior forward Jonathan Holmes (12.7 points) announcing his return, Rick Barnes projects to have his entire roster intact for next season—a level of continuity almost never seen in today’s game. The inside-out threat Holmes joins Cameron Ridley (11.2 points, 8.2 rebounds), guard Javan Felix (11.6 points) and point guard Isaiah Taylor (12.6 points) in leading what could be a top-10 team. Add to that mix the 6-7, four-star recruit Jordan Barnett—who spurned Michigan, Florida and Michigan State—and Barnes will hear squawking if the Longhorns don’t make a deep run into March.
2014 finish: 24-11 overall (lost NCAA third-round game to Michigan 79-65)
2015 forecast: Second straight NCAA bid and chance to unseat Kansas as Big 12 champion
No. 3 IOWA STATE
How will the Cyclones recover from losing Big 12 player of the Year Melvin Ejim and versatile one-and-done transfer DeAndre Kane? By unveiling the newest batch of transfers—6-8 power forward Jameel McKay (an elite juco player who spent only a couple months at Marquette) and 6-7 swingman Abdel Nader, who averaged 11.4 points in two seasons at Northern Illinois. With the supremely skilled Georges Niang returning from a broken foot that sabotaged Iowa State’s Final Four hopes, the Cyclones will continue to stress defenses in a multitude of ways. With Monte Morris becoming a full-time point guard, Naz Long threatening from deep and Dustin Hogue scrapping for every loose ball, the program should remain among the Big 12’s elite. And that’s the case even without Fred Hoiberg landing another springtime transfer, which he just might.
2014 finish: 28-8 overall (lost NCAA Sweet 16 to UConn 81-76)
2015 forecast: A fourth straight NCAA bid.
No. 4 OKLAHOMA
Lots of perimeter threats return in Buddy Heild, Jordan Woodard, Frank Booker and Isaiah Cousins. Yet after finishing 18th nationally in 3-point makes—and leading the Big 12 in percentage of scoring from beyond the arc—the Sooners are starving to find some interior balance. That will fall upon Ryan Spangler (just 7.5 points in his last 176 games) and two top-150 prep recruits: the 6-9 Khadeem Latin and 6-7 Dante Buford. Forward Cameron Clark (15.6 points) departs after a breakout senior season. While Lon Kruger has instantly made OU competitive again, his Sooners are 0-2 in the Big Dance.
2014 finish: 23-10 overall (suffered upset in NCAA opener against North Dakota State 80-75 in OT)
2015 forecast: Third straight NCAA bid
No. 5 KANSAS STATE
Bruce Weber lost only two seniors, including up-and-down small forward Shane Southwell, who was as hard-to-guard and he was hard-to-predict. The Wildcats will be better at point guard—with Jevon Thomas supplanting Will Spradling—and Marcus Foster proved he can play with the best combo guards in the Big 12. Thomas Gipson should find some help inside from 6-10 juco signee Stephen Hurt. K-State needs to pick up Weber’s motion offense, which finished ninth in the conference in efficiency.
2014 finish: 20-13 overall (lost NCAA opener to Kentucky 56-49)
2015 forecast: Sixth consecutive NCAA bid
No. 6-tie WEST VIRGINIA
Juwan Staten will be the league’s preseason player of the year, though West Virginia shouldn’t need him to do as much with Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon finally entering the mix. That Eron Harris-sized hole at shooting guard (17.2 points per game) could be plugged by Terry Henderson, presuming he avoids the back/shin/illness maladies that forced him to miss time the past two seasons.
2014 finish: 17-16 overall (lost NIT opener to Georgetown 77-65)
2015 forecast: Bubble team.
No. 6-tie OKLAHOMA STATE
Marcus Smart, the point guard who was supposed to reignite OSU’s basketball fortunes, leaves school without having won an NCAA tournament game. Travis Ford, the coach who couldn’t win an NCAA game the past two years, would be likely be leaving too if he didn’t have (gulp) $11 million left on his contract. Senior Markel Brown also departs, which could render the Cowboys vulnerable, but Ford—who still recruits a heck of a lot better than he coaches—has signed three four-star prospects who should contribute immediately. The key component is Le’Bryan Nash returning (which we presume he will). OSU also will benefit from having Michael Cobbins healthy again at power forward.
2014 finish: 21-13 overall (lost NCAA opener to Gonzaga 85-77)
2015 forecast: Bubble team.
No. 6-tie BAYLOR
This insanely topsy-turvy season was the last for seniors Cory Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin. The biggest roster determination now involves the draft decision facing 7-1 forward Isaiah Austin (11.2 points), who finished fourth nationally with 118 blocks. Deemed a late-first round pick last year, he returned to school because a shoulder injury prevented him from working out. Then his sophomore season featured a regression, leaving him viewed as a second-rounder at best. Point guard Kenny Chery is solid, but Scott Drew will need more from Royce O’Neal and Rico Gathers because Baylor’s incoming class doesn’t have a superstar.
2014 finish: 26-12 overall (lost NCAA Sweet 16 to Wisconsin 69-52)
2015 forecast: Bubble team with Austin. NIT without him.
No. 9 TCU
The Frogs regain some players but lose their arena next season. (Their home games will be staged at another locale in downtown Fort Worth while the Daniel-Meyer Coliseum undergoes a badly needed $45 million facelift.) Expect the interior production to blossom, with freshman center Karviar Shepherd making a leap, Devonta Abron returning from a torn Achilles, Amric Fields returning from his second knee injury and UTEP transfer Chrish Washburn becoming eligible. Keep an eye on 6-foot-5 senior transfer guard Trey Ziegler who was a standout at Central Michigan but a washout at Pitt.
2014 finish: 9-22 overall (no postseason)
2015 forecast: Won’t endure another winless year in the Big 12, but won’t threaten a postseason bid ether.
No. 10 TEXAS TECH
Tubby Smith must start over in Lubbock. Seniors Jaye Crockett and Dejan Kravic are gone, while the best underclassman Jordan Tolbert is joining the transfer cavalcade to SMU. Dusty Hannahs, the team’s top 3-point shooter but also a defensive liability, has transferred as well. Smith has signed six newcomers so far, including juco big man Justin Jamison, who had offers from Pitt, Oregon and New Mexico.