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Big 12 basketball preview: Kansas is team to beat in conference race

The Kansas Jayhawks are seeking their ninth consecutive Big 12 Conference crown as the 2012-13 conference season approaches.
The Kansas Jayhawks are seeking their ninth consecutive Big 12 Conference crown as the 2012-13 conference season approaches.
University of Kansas

Editor's note: This is the first of two articles previewing the Big 12 men's basketball season, including a scouting report on all 10 conference teams. Today we examine the projected bottom half of the conference race.

Big 12 basketball for 2012-13 is well under way, with most of the league’s 10 member schools already having played eight or more games. But it is at this point in the season, around mid-December, when things start to get really interesting in college basketball as the teams get ready for the start of the more competitive and more meaningful conference season right after the start of the New Year.

As we enter the second week in December, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State stand at 7-1 on the season, with Texas Tech close behind with a 5-1 record. Kansas and Oklahoma State are the only two conference teams ranked in the top 25, which is fewer at this point in the season than in the past couple of seasons. The Jayhawks check in at No. 9 in both the USA Today coaches’ poll and the Associated Press media poll this week.

The Jayhawks are gunning for their ninth consecutive Big 12 title in basketball, and as things stand currently, they are clearly the team to beat again this season. Behind the Jayhawks, it should be a real scramble among as many as five or six teams. Wins on the road this season could be at a premium in the Big 12 and a strong indicator of how high in the standings a team will finish.

Here are some fun facts you might find of interest about Big 12 basketball one month into the season:

  • All 10 Big 12 schools have a winning percentage of .556 or better through games of Dec. 10. The Big 12 is one of only three major conferences that can make that claim.
  • Big 12 teams are 41-5 in home games so far this season and 58-22 against teams from other conferences, the second fewest nonconference losses of any league in the country.
  • The Big 12 opened the 2012-13 season with 14 consecutive wins before losing its first game.
  • The combined Big 12 record at home against nonconference teams is an incredible 336-15, a winning percentage of .957.
  • All but one of the current Big 12 schools have been ranked in the nation’s top 25 since 2009, a greater percentage than any other conference over that time span.
  • At least one Big 12 school has been ranked every week in league history (since 1996-97), covering 311 consecutive weeks.
  • During the past five seasons, the Big 12 has won 62 percent of its games in NCAA play, the best in the nation over that time frame.
  • Texas is the only team in the Big 12 so far this season that has committed more turnovers per game than its opponents. The Longhorns are minus-4.33 in turnover margin.
  • Kansas State leads the conference in scoring margin, outscoring their opponents by an average of 18.5 per game after eight games.
  • The Big 12 has had more consensus First-Team All-Americans over the last five years than any conference in the country.

Big 12 men’s basketball team previews

(In projected ascending order of finish)

10. TCU Horned Frogs

(Head coach: Trent Johnson; 2011-12 season: 5th in Mountain West)

There are probably going to be times this season when TCU’s players and fans are going to wish they were back in the Mountain West Conference competing with teams more their own caliber. The Horned Frogs had their best season last year in their 7th season as a member of the Mountain West, finishing with an 18-15 record overall and 7-7 in the conference. With a new head coach, Trent Johnson, and a new league, TCU probably won’t come near to the same success in their debut year competing in the Big 12. Forwards Garlon Green and Amric Fields are the team’s top scorers from a year ago (both averaged close to 10 points per game), but aren’t a serious threat as inside scorers, settling mostly for jump shots away from the basket. The Horned Frogs are hoping that Arkansas transfer Devonta Abron gets cleared to play. A 6-8 sophomore, Abron would give TCU a big, physical presence around the basket, something the team has lacked for several years. Senior Adrick McKinney provides another big body for TCU in the paint. Sophomore Ryan Anderson had a good freshman season, but will be asked to do more this season at the point guard position. The Horned Frogs have made only seven appearances all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Their last appearance was in 1998 under former OU head coach Billy Tubbs.

9. Texas Tech Red Raiders

(Head coach: Chris Walker; 2011-12 season: 10th)

If you followed the Red Raiders in basketball last season, you’re going to be surprised with all of the turnover between last season and this season. It starts with the head- coach position. Billy Gillispie was forced to step down for health reasons, and he was replaced by one of his assistants, Chris Walker, who was named interim head coach. Walker has 17 years of college coaching experience and was at Villanova before joining Gillespie’s staff a year ago. The Red Raiders had six players leave the program after last season’s disappointing eight-win season (just 1-17 in the Big 12) and return only six scholarship players. Three of those returning players, guard Ty Nurse, and forwards Jordan Tolbert, the team’s top scorer last season, and Jaye Crockett, are being counted on for important contributions this season. The Red Raiders’ roster actually contains more newcomers than returnees. The best talent among the newcomers appears to be 6-9 freshman forward Wanaah Bail from Houston, who also had scholarship offers from Kansas, Texas and Arkansas but chose Texas Tech. This could be another difficult year for the Red Raiders, but they could surprise some people if they are able to get good, consistent production from the returning players and if Bail and a couple of the other players who are new this year get off to a good start, blend in well and meet or exceed performance expectations.

8. Iowa State Cyclones

(Head coach: Fred Hoiberg; 2011-12 season: 4th)

The Mayor, Fred Hoiberg, is back in Ames for a third year as head coach at his alma mater, and he brings with him a talented and experienced roster that isn’t about to let go of the successful year the Cyclones had in 2011-12 – at least not without a fierce fight. Gone to the NBA is leading scorer and playmaker Royce White, along with departed senior and three-point sharpshooter Scott Christopherson. Hoiberg’s formula of blending incoming talent from the high school ranks with roster returnees and talented transfers from high-major schools delivered a bullseye last season, and he is repeating the recipe again this year. This season, instead of White and guard Chris Allen, themselves transfers from Minnesota and Michigan State, respectively, the Cyclones will have Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious, a senior guard, and senior swingman Will Clyburn, who previously played at Utah, in the starting lineup. Lucious will join Chris Babb, a three-point threat, in the backcourt. Senior Tyrus McGee will also see time filling in at the guard position. Forwards Anthony Booker and Melvin Ejim will be counted on to complement Clyburn’s presence in the paint. The 23 wins by the Cyclones last season was the first time Iowa State had achieved the 20-win barrier since 2003-04. The 2012-13 edition of the Cyclones is going to pose a stiff challenge for every team they play this season.

7. Oklahoma Sooners

(Head coach: Lon Kruger; 2011-12 season: 8th)

Most Sooner fans, as well as coach Lon Kruger himself, are looking for substantive improvement from Oklahoma on the hardwood this season. Kruger has a stellar rebuilding record every where he has been in the college ranks – his alma mater Kansas State, Illinois, Florida and UNLV – and he is expecting more out of the Sooners in his second year on the job. OU has all five of its starters back from last season, led by leading scorer Steven Pledger (16.2 ppg). Senior Sam Grooms is back on point to run the offense. Grooms led the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio last season, but he wasn’t much of a scoring threat, which Kruger would like to change in his point-guard’s game. Newcomer Amath M’Baye, a starter at Wyoming his sophomore season two years ago, was considered to be the best player on the OU team last season, but had to sit out the year, as a transfer, by NCAA rule. Senior forwards Romero Osby and Andrew Fitzgerald both averaged double digits in the scoring column last season and are being counted on to give the Sooners solid production in the paint and on the wing again in the current season. Osby was sixth in the conference in rebounding in 2011-12, with an average of seven boards a game. The five players ahead of him, however, have all moved on to the NBA. Kruger would like to see more offensive consistency this season and major improvement in the team’s play on defense. The Sooners were last in the Big 12 a year ago in scoring defense. OU has not made it to postseason play since Blake Griffin’s final season in 2008-09. The Sooners would like to snap that string in 2012-13.

6. Kansas State Wildcats

(Head coach: Bruce Weber; 2011-12 season: 5th)

Kansas State has a new head coach, Bruce Weber, who brings a different style of play and coaching philosophy to Manhattan, Kan., than existed under his predecessor, Frank Martin. The Wildcats lost only one starter from last season (F Jamar Samuels) and return probably the most-experienced roster in the Big 12 from last year’s 22-11 team that finished fifth in the conference. Weber has installed a new motion offense into the K-State attack. The former Illinois head coach has retained Martin’s strong defensive mindset, but he is focusing more on improving Kansas State scoring opportunities on the offensive end. The Wildcats’ in-and-out game will be as strong, if not stronger, than any team in the league, with 6-11 senior Jordan Henriquez in the post and 16-point scorer Rodney McGruder operating outside and on the wing. In addition to his scoring and rebounding down low, Henriquez is one of the best shot blockers in the country. He owns the all-time K-State record for shots blocked in a single season and over a career. McGruder scored 30 or more points three times last season. Kansas State is also looking for major contributions from junior guard Will Spradling, who averaged nine points a game a year ago, senior guard Martavious Irving and 6-7 sophomore forward Thomas Gipson. This is an experienced and talented team. They will look different on the court, but Weber should have no trouble continuing the winning ways of the program.

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