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Friday, August 27, 2010
Best Case/Worst Case: Big 12

By Eamonn Brennan

The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues again this week with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive August look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds -- check out today's Big 12 preview here -- yours truly will be adding some related commentary on the blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the Big 12.

BAYLOR

Best case: It's hard to know whether the Bears' 2009-10 Elite Eight finish was the program's "breakthrough" year. After all, the Bears have won 20-plus games three seasons in a row. So let's skip the semantics. Under coach Scott Drew, Baylor has become a legitimate Big 12 program, and with guard LaceDarius Dunn back for his senior year, forward Quincy Acy patrolling the middle, and future lottery pick (and likely one-and-done candidate) Perry Jones entering the fray, Baylor should have no problem maintaining last season's success. If all goes well, the Bears could eclipse it.

Worst case: For all of Baylor's returning talent, the Bears will miss two of their more productive players from 2009-10. The first is Ekpe Udoh, an ultra-athletic big man who wreaked havoc in the middle throughout the season. The second is Tweety Carter, Baylor's senior point guard. If Dunn draws too much backcourt pressure and the young Jones can't replace Udoh's production, the Bears will still be good. But when you're shooting for "great," good sounds awfully bad.

COLORADO

Best case: It looks like the Buffaloes will spend two years in realignment purgatory before moving to the Pac-10 in 2012. Even so, they shouldn't be overlooked. Sophomore Alec Burks is an NBA-level talent, and Cory Higgins, the team's leading scorer in 2009-10, will be alongside him. It's not inconceivable that Colorado could be a sleeper to finish in the top half of what ought to be a top-heavy conference.

Worst case: If Burks' improvement stalls and the rest of the Buffs play about as well as they did in 2009-10 -- or, for whatever reason, new coach Tad Boyle can't get his guys together -- Colorado will probably be looking at another let's-just-not-be-last competition with Iowa State, Texas Tech, and Nebraska.

IOWA STATE

Best case: New coach and prodigal son Fred Hoiberg has done a decent job landing players since he returned to his former school this offseason. Those players -- Minnesota's Royce White, Michigan State's Chris Allen -- come with some baggage, but Hoiberg realizes that he has the political capital to take on those risks. Neither player will be available this season, though, and a rebuilding Iowa State team would probably be happy to stay competitive.

Worst case: The stakes are low. So what if ISU finishes last in the conference? Hoiberg won't take the blame, and if he can manage to sell genuine prospects on the possibility of playing with Allen and White in 2011 (not the easiest sell in the world, given that duo's sketchy record as teammates), then even a winless conference season can be taken with a grain of salt.

KANSAS

Best case: It's not often a team loses its three best players from a 33-win season and expects to contend for a conference title and a Final Four spot the year after. Kansas, on the other hand, has that kind of depth. It also has a great incoming recruit in point Josh Selby. Assuming Selby gets eligible, he could compete for Big 12 Player of the Year honors, and he'll have talented big man Marcus Morris, guards Tyshawn Taylor and Brady Morningstar, and a host of young players from KU's all-star bench stepping into larger roles to help him along.

Worst case: Even if Selby does get eligible, there will be questions about this team's ability to score. Morris is a capable shooter, but he got a lot of open looks thanks to the focus on dominant center Cole Aldrich. Without Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry pouring it on from the outside, Kansas will need someone to step up and keep pace. If they don't, the Jayhawks could lose out on the conference title for the first time since 2003-2004.

KANSAS STATE

Best case: The Wildcats have some very un-Kansas State goals in 2010-11. They want to win the Big 12. They want a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And they want to win it all. Those goals, un-Kansas State though they might be, are realistic. That's thanks largely to Jacob Pullen, who might be the country's best guard in 2009-10, as well as forward Curtis Kelly, who should make big strides by taking on an increased offensive role.

Worst case: Sure, those goals are realistic, but they're also a little ambitious. The Wildcats did lose senior guard Denis Clemente, who dominated the ball and pushed the pace as well as any guard in the Big 12. Defensive stopper Dominique Sutton transferred home to be closer to his family in North Carolina. Without Clemente, can Pullen do it all in the backcourt? Can the Wildcats still get stops? And would a repeat of last season -- a good conference record, and an impressive tournament run -- ultimately be a disappointment?

MISSOURI

Best case: Thanks to 40 Minutes of Hell's ability to destroy opponents with pressure, Mike Anderson's teams seem to succeed even when his personnel is inferior. This season, the personnel in Missouri might not be inferior at all. Leading scorer Kim English is back, as are Missouri's other top two leading scorers. Better yet, Anderson will welcome the No. 14-ranked recruiting class in the country to campus this fall. If the youngsters can step into Anderson's demanding system right away, Missouri could have an outside shot at the Big 12 title. You certainly wouldn't want to play them in the tournament.

Worst case: Despite the returning talent, Anderson's teams are better off with a deep rotation. If the recruits can't hack it (or if Tony Mitchell isn't eligible), Missouri will still be a year away from taking a place at the Big 12 big boys' table.

NEBRASKA

Best case: It's the Huskers' last season in the Big 12 before realignment sees them off to lucrative Big Ten territory. Unless something surprising happens, Nebraska's last season in the Big 12 will probably go about as well as the 70 or so that preceded it. Which is to say: not well.

Worst case: That said, Nebraska is not completely without talent. Six-foot-eleven sophomore Brian Diaz was an effective rebounder in his rookie season, and Lance Jeter and Brian Richardson return with some experience from last season's 3-15 conference campaign. But let's not kid ourselves. Nebraska will finish out its last season in the Big 12 and then look toward a new future -- complete with a brand new arena in downtown Lincoln, Neb. -- in the Big Ten.

OKLAHOMA

Best case: As bad as Jeff Capel's offseason has been, the upcoming hoops season isn't likely to be much better. Thanks to the inadvisably early defections of disappointing freshmen Tommy Mason-Griffin and Keith "Tiny" Gallon, Capel has struggled to complete his roster, let alone find players that will help him improve on last season's 13-18 record. A .500 season would put Capel in the running for coach of the year. (I'm kidding, but only barely.)

Worst case: Worst case is probably what Oklahoma will get, though, which is a season marred by inexperience and inferiority. The worst case might actually come off the court, where Oklahoma is conducting an internal investigation into alleged money Gallon received from a financial advisor in Florida while Oklahoma was still on probation for Kelvin Sampson-related sanctions. If anything comes down that seedy pike, OU's struggles on the floor will seem minor by comparison.

OKLAHOMA STATE

Best case: Is this a rebuilding year? It certainly feels like it. The Cowboys lost All-American shooting guard James Anderson to the NBA and forward Obi Muonelo to graduation. But there is still some experience here. Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim could both take a larger role, and Keiton Page, despite his 5-foot-9 frame, is a tremendous shooter and a skilled passer. If touted power forward recruit Michael Cobbins can replace Muonelo's productivity in the paint, the Cowboys can avoid falling too far behind their competition in the top half of the league.

Worst case: If Anderson and Muonelo's departures prove too much to overcome, though -- and if you're staking your scoring hopes on Page, they probably will be -- Oklahoma State could have a small but noticeable slide into dreaded sub-.500 conference record territory.

TEXAS

Best case: Let's all be honest and say we have no clue where to go with this one. Predicting a team based on talent is easy. Predicting how that talent will mesh together -- and how all the little things basketball players do to make each other better or worse will balance out -- is much more difficult. Based on the former, Texas should be a Big 12 title contender. Based on the latter, who knows? The Longhorns will need to incorporate talented shooting guard Cory Joseph into an already overloaded backcourt, while Tristan Thompson will have to play well with small forward Jordan Hamilton, who could be primed for a breakout season. If Barnes can put the puzzle pieces together -- he couldn't in 2009-10 -- there's no reason for this Texas team to languish in the middle of the conference for another season.

Worst case: Worst case is pretty much what happened last season. The team has talent, but for whatever reason that talent doesn't jell, and what looks on paper to be one of the better teams in the country -- both on the roster and in tempo-free reports -- ends up with a mediocre finish and a handful of NBA draft defections. Weak.

TEXAS A&M

Best case: Can role players become stars? That should be the hope in College Station, which waved farewell to its three best hoopsters -- Donald Sloan, Derrick Roland and Bryan Davis -- this offseason. That means junior forward David Loubeau will have to do more than grab offensive rebounds. Likewise, senior guard B.J. Holmes will have to take on some scoring. If those two can morph into effective high-usage players, Texas A&M could have another quietly good Big 12 season.

Worst case: Without much talent entering the lineup, though, that could be tough. Freshman forward Daniel Alexander is Mark Turgeon's lone ESPNU 100 recruit. Even if Alexander excels, the Aggies are probably a year away from replacing the leaders of 2009-10's solid squad.

TEXAS TECH

Best case: What good is experience? The Red Raiders are about to find out. Tech coach Pat Knight will oversee the returns of five of his six highest-usage players from 2009-10's season, and all five -- John Roberson, Mike Singletary, Brad Reese, David Tairu and Theron Jenkins -- will be seniors. Can a cohesive group of upperclassmen outwit some of the younger, more talented teams in the Big 12? Raiders fans will have to hope so.

Worst case: Experience is great, but most players are who they are by the time they're juniors, so the hopes of a sudden and collective improvement in Lubbock is probably a pipe dream. Even if freshman guards Javarez Willis and Jamel Outler contribute immediately, Tech is probably bound to have another just-OK, plus .500, nothing-to-write-home-about season in the low middle of the conference.