Kansas State is Kansas coach Bill Self’s preseason favorite in the Big 12.
Iowa State could be a challenger for a top three finish in the conference, according to Self, who joined this week’s March Madness 365 podcast.Self could be deflecting attention to his rivals, considering the Jayhawks will still be oozing with talent, although many players either transferred in (see: Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, Self's pick for a possible Big 12 player of the year) or are new to the program entirely (see: incoming freshman Quentin Grimes).
But it’s not crazy to think Kansas State could be picked to win the Big 12 since the Wildcats return essentially the same team that upset Kentucky in the Sweet 16 before losing to Loyola Chicago in the Elite Eight. Iowa State may have the league’s top guard in Lindell Wigginton, assuming he withdraws from the NBA draft by May 30.“It’s good to know Coach Self thinks we’re going to be pretty good,’’ said Iowa State coach Steve Prohm. “Now we just need to get to work.’’
Prohm said picking Kansas State to win the Big 12 next season wouldn’t surprise him, but “at the end of the day, if the voting were now, I’d have to go Kansas No. 1 and Kansas State No. 2 until someone knocks them off.’’
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber is already plotting how to handle the prediction.
“Expectations have changed from a year ago,’’ said Weber. “We were picked eighth and finished fourth. On paper, we do have a lot of experience back, basically our whole team. Last season, we took the negative that we were picked eighth and took it to heart. We said, ‘if you don’t wake up every morning with something to prove, then you’ll never improve.’ Now we’re on the opposite end. We will have high expectations and we will have to deal with that.’’
The Wildcats could be one of the most experienced teams in the country, not just the Big 12.
Their top eight scorers are all back, lead by Dean Wade. Wade was out for four of Kansas State's six postseason games (Big 12 and NCAA tournament) due to a foot injury. Weber said the plan is to get Wade free to play by July 1 without any restrictions. Wade averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 boards and if there is one stat Weber said Wade could improve on, it’s rebounding.
Weber said Barry Brown could become a more consistent shooter to add to his leadership, motor and defense; Xavier Sneed needs to improve his ball handling and passing since he has become a defensive stopper; Cartier Diarra has to continue to develop his pull-up jumper; Mike McGuirl could become more of a consistent shooter to go along with his strength and athleticism; Kamau Stokes needs to get healthy and increase his consistency as a 3-point threat and Makol Mawien needs to get stronger.
So, as you can see, the experience is there, the talent is in place, and the chemistry is already locked in, especially after the NCAA tournament run (I saw it in the locker room after the Kentucky win in Atlanta).
But beating Kansas is another matter.
“For Kansas to survive (the Big 12 last season) and still win it was amazing and impressive,’’ said Weber. “People have to beat them at their place. Texas Tech did and yes they had a few losses at home. We’ve had our chances the last two years. We’ve got to get them at their place if you’re going to dethrone them.’’
Weber wants to have a tough non-conference schedule with a team that could make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are in the Paradise Jam, which will return to the U.S. Virgin Islands after being moved to Liberty University due to hurricane damage last year. Missouri is the other potential favorite entering the tournament and would be a quality game for the Wildcats if the teams meet in St. Thomas. Kansas State must beat Eastern Kentucky in the first game, of course, and then get either Penn or Northern Iowa in round two. Missouri-Kennesaw State and Old Dominion-Oregon State are on the other side of the bracket.
Kansas State also plays at Marquette (a sleeper in the Big East), against Vanderbilt (a rising team in the SEC with a stellar recruiting class) in Kansas City, at Tulsa (danger game) and against Texas A&M in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
Iowa State has an even better schedule by playing in the loaded Maui Invitational with Duke, Gonzaga, Xavier, Illinois, Arizona, Auburn and San Diego State. The Cyclones go to Iowa, play Missouri at home and on the road at Ole Miss in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge.
“We will have an elite schedule,’’ said Prohm. “We’ll have a chance to be good next year. We’ve got good chemistry and have a lot more versatility and depth.’’
All of that hinges on the Wigginton decision. He wasn’t invited to the Chicago pre-draft camp last week but he has had a number of team workouts.
“He’s got a chance to be one of the elite guards in the country,’’ said Prohm.
Prohm agreed that Wigginton was overshadowed by senior guards in the league like Kansas’ Devonte Graham, West Virginia’s Jevon Carter and Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans, let alone Oklahoma freshman Trae Young.
Wigginton averaged 16.7 points last season but ran a complete floor game for the Cyclones.
“If he does come back, he will make that next step and could be elite,’’ said Prohm.
The Cyclones added Virginia transfer wing Marial Shayok, Nebraska transfer forward Michael Jacobson to go along with a strong recruiting class, led by Chicago’s Talen Horton-Tucker. Toss in returnees Cameron Lard, Nick Babb, Zoran Talley Jr. and Solomon Young and the pieces are in place to mount a climb up the standings.
“We will have a good mixture of youth and experience,’’ said Prohm.
The Cyclones were the only one of the 10 Big 12 teams that didn’t play in the postseason. But that didn’t come as a shock to Prohm. He thought there would be one season of rebuilding after losing a slew of seniors two seasons ago. The Cyclones only had one player this past season who played a part on the Big 12 tournament title team the prior season.
“We’ve got to get better defensively and be more selfless on offense,’’ said Prohm. “I think we can have a great year.’’