The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the Big 12.
Once again, one of the most successful conferences in college basketball had one of the most successful years in college basketball.
The Big 12 placed three teams in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 (No. 4 seed Iowa State, No. 1 seed Kansas and No. 2 seed Oklahoma) with the Jayhawks making it to the Elite Eight, and the Sooners continuing all the way to the Final Four, where Oklahoma would fall to eventual champions Villanova.
The conference would also finish the year with the nation’s best non-conference winning percentage (.792) while having the No. 1 RPI in the NCAA.
In conference play, Kansas would run away with the regular season title after a 15-3 conference record, though West Virginia (13-5) and Oklahoma (12-6) were close behind. The Jayhawks would take down West Virginia in the Big 12 championship to capture the tournament crown as well, continuing their historic domination in the conference.
This season might not be too different.
The last time Iowa State had a player tabbed as the Big-12 Preseason Player of the Year — Jamaal Tinsley in 2000 — the player would go on to be named the league’s top player at the end of the year. That should be the case again this year with the Cyclone’s Monte Morris.
Morris, the only unanimous selection the All-Big 12 preseason team, had a stellar junior campaign. The 6-3, 175-pound guard averaged 13.8 points per game, making him the top returning scorer in the conference this season. Morris also led the Big 12 in assists (6.9 a game) and minutes played (38 per game), while second in steals with 62 (1.8 a game). Furthermore, his 4.23 assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.23 was the third best in the nation last year.
The senior is the only returning Cyclone to have started more than 28 games, and with last year’s leading scorer Georges Niang gone to the NBA, Iowa State will be looking to the Flint, Mich., native to be the leader for a team picked to finish No. 4 in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The best team in the Big 12 has barely changed at all in the recent history of the league, and it won’t shock anyone this year to learn that Kansas was picked to win the conference for the fifth consecutive year in the preseason coaches’ poll.
The Jayhawks lost leading scorers Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden Jr., but return four of their top six scorers from a team that managed Kansas’ 11th-straight year with 25 or more wins.
Kansas was the only squad this year to land multiple players on the preseason All-Big 12 team in junior guard Devonte’ Graham and senior guard Frank Mason III. Graham, who averaged 11.3 points and 3.7 assists per game, will be the Jayhawks’ go-to three-point specialist, as the guard knocked down a team-high 75 last season while shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc. Mason, who put up 12.9 points, 4.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest last season, earned All-Big 12 second team honors last season for the second straight year.
Though the Jayhawks do have one of the most experienced and impressive squads in the Big 12 this season, they will be tested very early in the year. Kansas’ first two games are against Duke and Indiana, two of the top-ranked teams this preseason. It could be a rocky start to the season for Bill Self’s squad, but if the Jayhawks can pull off one or two wins against that slate, the rest of the season will be very promising.
Last season, Texas finished an impressive 20-13 on the year, including 11-7 in conference play. It was the Longhorns’ third 20-plus win season in a row, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Texas finished the year with wins over North Carolina (ranked No. 3 at the time), Iowa State (No. 17 at the time), West Virginia twice (when the Mountaineers were No. 6, then No. 10), Baylor (No. 15 at the time), and Oklahoma (No. 3 at the time).
The Longhorns never climbed higher than No. 23 in the AP Poll, but Texas showed a ceiling that was extremely encouraging. Unfortunately, the three leading scorers on that team are all gone. Still, Texas returns Kerwin Roach Jr., who averaged 7.5 points per game and Eric Davis Jr., who averaged 7.4 a contest. The Longhorns also add 6-11, 235-pound freshman forward Jarrett Allen, who was Texas’ only representative on the preseason All-Big 12 team, where he was recognized as an honorable mention.
It isn’t the same team from last year, but it’s more than enough for Shaka Smart to make a splash with during his second year at the helm in Austin.
Freshman to Watch:
Arguably the best freshman in the country, Kansas’ Josh Jackson should have a breakout year for the Jayhawks this season.
Jackson, a 6-8, 206-pound guard, was tabbed the Big 12 preseason freshman of the year in the conference’s coaches’ poll, where he also landed an honorable mention for the All-Big 12 preseason team.
Just to get a sense of how much of an impact Jackson could have as a young player in Bill Self’s offense, Jackson started in every varsity game for his high school during 2011-12 — when he was in eighth grade.
The freshman has the length to be a force inside, but the athleticism and skill to threaten defenses from the perimeter as well. Look for Jackson to see significant time for Kansas as the Jayhawks look for their 13th straight conference title.