Kansas favored to win Big 12 again
Jayhawks have won five of the last six Big 12 championships
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bill Self’s Big 12 colleagues must believe him to be a genius.
Kansas lost six key players from last year’s squad and three of their most highly recruited freshmen have been declared ineligible. Only eight scholarship players are dressing to practice in historic Allen Fieldhouse.
Still, the league’s preseason coaches poll picked the Jayhawks and Texas A&M as co-favorites to win the league this season.
“I used to think coaches knew more about basketball than the media, but now I’m not so sure,” Self quipped Thursday at Big 12 media day. “We lost six key players off a pretty good team and recruited fairly well. But we didn’t get a chance to coach all the guys we recruited due to some NCAA academic situations. So we’re a very thin team.”
Kansas, the seven-time defending Big 12 champion, returns two key members from last year’s 35-3 team, point guard Tyshawn Taylor and junior big man Thomas Robinson, who mostly came off the bench for the now departed Morris twins. All together, they have only a shocking 10 players.
“We’re a thin team that’s pretty talented,” said Self. “But certainly, we will have less margin for error because we don’t have the depth that we had in years past.”
Texas A&M returns several key members of the squad that earned a school-record sixth straight NCAA tournament bid, including senior David Loubeau and junior Khris Middleton. They’ll be coached by first-year man Billy Kennedy, who came over from Murray State but was represented at media day by assistant coach Glynn Cyprien.
The school announced several days ago that Kennedy was taking leave to deal with a medical condition. In a release, Kennedy said he would return soon, and Cyprien echoed that sentiment.
“There’s not a time frame, but I will tell you soon, real, real soon,” Cyprien said.
With the league reduced to 10 teams with the departure of Colorado and Nebraska, basketball will play a round-robin format with everyone playing everyone else home-and-home for the first time. Some coaches expect their records to take a beating.
“We did a function for Coaches vs. Cancer a little over a week ago, and Bill Self said somebody can be 13-5 and win the league,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “Thirteen-and-five got you third in the league the last couple of years. Now 13-5 will probably be a strong record and one good enough to win the league the way it is right now.”
The Aggies have ruffled feathers and angered old friends around the league, especially in Texas, since announcing they will leave the Big 12 next year and join the Southeastern Conference. Their team bus was abused when the football team played at Texas Tech a few weeks ago and the basketball players are bracing for hard times on the road.
“We’re kind of expecting that,” said Middleton. “The crowd’s always going to be yelling. So it’s going to be a little rougher on the road with us leaving this year.”
The same fate will await Missouri if the school decides to also join the SEC. The school’s curators were meeting nearby Thursday and Friday, but no decision has been announced and first-year coach Frank Haith was loath to say much.
For the immediate future, he’s most concerned with the loss of senior big man Laurence Bowers, who blew out an ACL and is lost for the season.
“Losing Laurence Bowers obviously hurts our team,” Haith said. “But I will tell you that our guys have handled that very well.”
The preseason player of the year belongs to Baylor. Perry Jones III set a school freshman record last year with 30 starts and seemed to get stronger and more confident as the season went along, averaging almost 14 points and eight rebounds while shooting 54.9 percent. The agile 6-11 center surprised fans everywhere when he decided to return for his sophomore season.
The Bears were picked to finish third in the league.
“I think when you have people like Perry Jones come back to school, it’s a great compliment for Baylor University but it’s a great compliment for college basketball,” coach Scott Drew said.
Always-tough Texas brings in a crop of top recruits and was picked fifth. The Longhorns will be counting on junior guard J’Covan Brown.
“He’s really improved. He’s gotten better,” said coach Rick Barnes. “He’s the kind of player that’s made coaching fun because you see where he started, where he came in, where he’s gotten better in every area.”
Kansas State has much to replace. Sophomore Will Spradling will be taking over from point guard Jake Pullen, who goes into the record book as the leading all-time scorer for the Wildcats.
“I’m not looking to replace anybody,” said Spradling, a deadeye foul shooter who was 87.5 percent from the line for the year and perfect in eleven games. “It’s a team effort, an entire team effort.”
For leadership as well as production, Kansas State will also be counting heavily on Jamar Samuels, a 6-5 fifth-year senior.
“He’s much more prepared to accept that responsibility today than he was back in April,” said Martin. “He’s lived it. He’s breathed it. He understands and he’s being a lot more consistent with the things that he needs to do to accept that responsibility.”
Besides Kennedy and Haith, the Big 12 welcomes two more new head coaches. Lon Kruger, who once starred and coached at Kansas State, takes over at Oklahoma and Billy Gillispie, another familiar name who once was head coach at Texas A&M, is now at Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders were understandably picked last since they have 10 new players.
“We’re a work in progress,” said Gillispie, who for many years was a No. 1 assistant to Self at Tulsa and Illinois. “We have three returning players. But it is a challenge. I’ve never been around a team that’s had 10 incoming players with absolutely no experience at this level.”