Best Team — Kansas
Kansas tied with Texas A&M for the top spot in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll, but I’m giving the nod to Kansas here for the sheer fact that the Jayhawks have won at least a share of the past seven Big 12 titles, which I’m pretty sure is the longest active streak in the conference.
Sure there are a lot of question marks surrounding this year’s Kansas team (mainly its inexperience and lack of depth), and most college basketball experts don’t expect the Jayhawks to be nearly as good as they’ve been in recent years. But if there’s one thing Ric Flair has taught me, it’s that getting drunk on a private plane while wearing nothing but a bejeweled robe is generally a bad idea. And if there is one more thing Ric Flair has taught me, it's the philosophy that in order to be the man, you must first beat the man. Well, in the Big 12, Kansas is quite clearly the man. This looks like it could be the year that it finally gets knocked off its Big 12 throne, but until I see that actually happen I have no choice but to name Kansas the conference favorite heading into the season.
Best player — Perry Jones III (Baylor)
Jones was named the preseason player of the year in the Big 12 with good reason, considering that, much like me with the ladies, the 6-foot-11 sophomore forward is versatile, is very long, has a pretty smooth game with a large repertoire of moves, and is an explosive finisher. After breaking an NCAA rule toward the end of last season and facing a five-game suspension at the start of this year if he chose to return to school, many thought Jones would flee to the NBA, where he would have surely been a first-round draft pick. But he instead chose to serve his suspension by returning to Baylor so he could become more NBA-ready. This promises to be a good move on his part since he more or less failed to live up to the lofty expectations that came with being a top-10 recruit last year. With the added year of experience to help polish his game this year, I have a hard time envisioning how he’s not going to be a lottery pick in the 2012 draft, should he choose to enter it.
Overrated team — Kansas
I know it probably doesn’t make any sense to have Kansas as both the best and the most overrated team, but we’re talking about a conference that calls itself the Big 12 even though it has only 10 teams and is home to schools with illogical abbreviations such as the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the University of Kansas (KU), so not making any sense seems to be the norm. Still, it’s not that crazy to pick the Jayhawks for both categories, because my reasoning for doing so is actually pretty sound: I think Kansas will win the Big 12 this year, but I don’t think it is the 13th-best team in the country (which is where it is ranked in the preseason polls).
Here's the logic behind my thinking: It appears as though this year is going to be a down year for the Big 12 as a whole, from the standpoint that there aren’t any elite teams in the conference that could be classified as national title contenders (as Kansas has consistently been, and Texas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State have been in some recent years). And there don’t seem to be any individual players who are clear-cut first-team All-Americans (like Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley, or Kevin Durant in recent years). Keeping this in mind, and the fact that over the past 15 years Kim Kardashian has been married and divorced as many times as Kansas has lost a conference game at home, it’s hard to imagine the Jayhawks losing too many games in the Big 12 this year.
But with nonconference games against two top-five teams in Kentucky and Ohio State in the first half of the season, I have a feeling we’ll find out pretty quickly that Kansas isn’t exactly going to make the rest of the teams in the country shake in their boots this year (perhaps the more important thing to discuss here is why the rest of the teams in the country are wearing boots in the first place). They certainly will be talented, and I expect them to be ranked for most of the season, but the Jayhawks' talent isn’t going to be enough to compensate for their inexperience and lack of depth. I don’t think they’ll be considered a top-15 team by season’s end.
Sleeper team — Missouri
The good news for Missouri is that it is by far the most experienced team in the Big 12, as it returns all five of its starters and its top six scorers from last season. The bad news is that these same players were only good enough to lead the Tigers to an 8-8 conference record last year and a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament.
Most people seem to think that having a lot of experience is a positive for college teams, but the truth is that it’s only a positive if the experienced team is good to begin with (just ask Illinois fans about last season). McDonald’s has a ton of experience in the restaurant business, but you’d have to be crazy to expect that experience to turn their cheap, greasy hamburgers into juicy prime rib. At the end of the day, they’re still McDonald’s, they still serve barely edible food, and they still screwed me out of the Happy Meal toy 15 years ago that would’ve completed my Space Jam train collection.
That being said, I anticipate this Missouri team being considerably better than last year if for no other reason than first-year head coach Frank Haith will provide a spark and shake things up so that the Tigers don’t repeat last year’s mediocre season. Plus, Missouri’s problem last year certainly wasn’t that it had a lack of talent, as it was the ninth-highest scoring team in all of college basketball and returns five guys who averaged 10 or more points. The leader of this group, senior guard Marcus Denmon, averaged 17 points per game and was named to the All-Big 12 first team a season ago. But he is far from Missouri’s only weapon.
Team You Wouldn’t Realize Was Good If You Hadn’t Been Following College Basketball For the Past Few Years — Baylor
If you were to ask the average sports fan from outside of Big 12 territory what they know about Baylor athletics, my guess is that they’d probably mention the Patrick Dennehy murder scandal or say something about Robert Griffin III tearing up defenses this year.
Unless they follow college basketball pretty closely, it’s unlikely that they’d have any idea that the Baylor’s men’s basketball team is going to be really good this year and is probably the most talented team in the Big 12.
The truth is that Baylor has been relatively good for a few years now and is expected to have perhaps the best team in its program’s history this season. After dealing with the fallout of everything surrounding the Dennehy murder scandal, Scott Drew got the program on the right track, guided the Bears to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years in 2008, and followed that up two years later with an Elite Eight appearance in 2010.
Last year, the Bears were huge underachievers and managed only an 18-11 record, but this season promises to be a different story. That’s because the conference’s best player, Perry Jones, has a year of experience under his belt and should be much more refined and polished than he was a season ago. Joining him in the frontcourt are senior forward Quincy Acy’s 12.4 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game, as well as Quincy Miller, who is a highly touted freshman and, like Jones, is surely a future lottery pick in the NBA draft. With A.J. Walton — the Big 12’s leader in assists a season ago — also returning to spread the rock around to these three guys, it’s easy to see why the bar has been set higher than ever in Waco.
Team to Cheer For If You Don’t Have a Favorite — Texas A&M
I typically would never tell you to adopt a team that is picked to win its conference championship as your new favorite team, but I’m making an exception with Texas A&M this year because its coach, Billy Kennedy, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I admittedly don’t know much about the disease outside of Michael J. Fox's appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm earlier this year, but I know enough to know that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I can’t imagine what the 47-year-old Kennedy must be going through, and I like to think that I speak for everyone when I say that I wish him nothing but the best.
Kennedy’s diagnosis isn’t the only reason you should make the Aggies your team this year, though. Texas A&M is going to have a really talented team and, like I mentioned earlier, is the preseason favorite with Kansas to win the Big 12 title, so you should be safe in knowing that you’ll be able to cheer on a winner. The Aggies are led by junior forward Khris Middleton, who averaged 14 points and 5 rebounds a game, was an All-Big 12 second-team performer last season, has a chance to be the conference’s best player this year, and is one "h" away from sharing a name with each of the people who married into royal families this year.
He’s got some solid players around him, too, including senior forward David Loubeau, sophomore forward Kourtney Roberson, senior guard Dash Harris, and a bunch of other guys whose names you wouldn’t have remembered anyway (but you will if you follow the Aggies this year!).
Before you complete your jump onto the A&M bandwagon, I feel obligated to mention that, like Pitt (my Big East pick for team you should cheer for), the Aggies have had a rough go of things in the NCAA tournament recently. But unlike Pitt, Texas A&M isn’t a perpetual underachiever in the NCAA tournament and instead just seems to have terrible luck.
In 2006, the Aggies made their first tourney appearance in 19 years as a 12-seed and beat Syracuse in a first-round upset, only to lose to LSU by one on a last-second 3 (LSU eventually made it to the Final Four).
In a 2007 game against Memphis to advance to the Elite Eight, "Captain Clutch" Acie Law missed a relatively easy layup with less than a minute to play and the Aggies holding onto a one-point lead. Texas A&M didn’t score the rest of the game, and ended up losing by one.
In the second round in 2008, after Darren Collison hit a shot with 12 seconds left to give top-seeded UCLA a two-point lead, the refs swallowed their whistles as A&M’s Donald Sloan was hammered by two UCLA guys while taking what would’ve been the game-tying shot, and A&M lost by two (UCLA eventually made it to the Final Four). In 2009, well, they were blown out by UConn in the second round. But in 2010 they returned to form and lost in the second round by two in overtime thanks to Purdue’s Chris Kramer sinking a layup with six seconds left.
Last year, Florida State pulled away from the Aggies in the game’s final eight minutes and won by seven, but whatever. The point still stands — Texas A&M has terrible luck in the NCAA tournament (I choose to think of it this way instead of taking the pessimistic route and saying the Aggies don’t know how to close big games). Having a few more fans may be what they need to get over the hump, so cheer on the Aggies this season and cross your fingers that this is finally their year (spoiler alert: it’s not). Or at the very least, cross your fingers that when they do lose in the tournament, they don’t do so in the same heartbreaking fashion that they typically do.
Player to Cheer For If You Don’t Have a Favorite — Thomas Robinson (Kansas)
Like Texas A&M, my pick for your player to cheer for comes with a sad story attached to it, as Robinson’s mother died of a heart attack during the middle of the season last year.
Robinson’s one of the best players in the country, which makes him pretty easy to cheer for. In his sophomore season last year, Robinson didn’t get a lot of burn because he played behind the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus), but he made good use of the time he did get on the floor, as he averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in just 14.6 minutes a game. With the Morris twins gone to the NBA, Robinson figures to be Kansas’ anchor this season and will probably have to carry Kansas in some games this year for the Jayhawks to claim the Big 12 title for the eighth straight season. Either way, Robinson is pretty much a lock to be All-Big 12 this year, but if he has the monster year he’s capable of, it’s not out of the question for him to be named the conference’s top player. I, for one, am kind of hoping for this and for Scott Drew to win the conference’s coach of the year award, if for no other reason than I’m pretty sure it would be the first time in college basketball history that a conference’s best player and best coach had two first names and two last names, respectively.
Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don't Put Me In Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is scheduled to be released in March. You can follow him on Twitter at @clubtrillion.
Eds. note: This post was updated to remove a reference to Missouri forward Laurence Bowers, who tore his ACL and will miss the season. Which is a bummer.
Previously By Mark Titus:
Club Trillion's Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular
Why Ohio State Will Win the National Championship
Let the (Midnight) Madness Begin
In Defense of Wussing Out in the NFL
OK, Ohio State Fans. Maybe We Don't Have This
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