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Friday, August 19, 2011
A roundup of the Big 12's offseason

By Eamonn Brennan

Perry Jones, Thomas Robinson and Khris Middleton
Perry Jones, Thomas Robinson and Khris Middleton all return in what figures to be a wide-open Big12 race this season.
I'm no branding expert, but I think I've found the Big 12 a fast-food-inspired winner:

Enjoy a leaner and meaner Big 12 basketball season -- while supplies last!

OK, so it needs a little work. (Don Draper would probably ask for a rewrite. Or he'd fire me. One of the two.)

But you get the point: When Colorado and Nebraska respectively defected to the Pac-12 and Big Ten in 2010, the conference they left only got better. Without those two longtime also-rans in the fold, the Big 12 basketball picture became more competitive and less forgiving. The schedule became symmetrical; gone are the days when Kansas and Texas, cross-division rivals and Big 12 title hopefuls, met only once a season. This year, the Big 12 is switching to a round-robin schedule. Everyone plays everyone twice. It's going to be a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, this little slice of hoops-head heaven is already in jeopardy. In August, A&M made clear its desire to leave the Big 12 -- and the Longhorns' long shadow -- behind. The Big 12 had a tough enough time staying afloat after the Huskers and Buffaloes departed. If A&M goes, a new wave of conference realignment could be upon us, and no one knows what that could do to this tidy little 10-team Big 12.

Still, we know we'll get at least one season of the new-look league. And if all goes well, the 2011-12 Big 12 will be the most wide-open and competitive conference in the country. Here's a glimpse of what's to come:

Handicapped handicappers: Got a Big 12 title prediction? Great. Because your guess is as good as ours.

Consider the wide range of viable candidates, all of whom intrigue and confuse in equal measure. In no particular order, they are:
If a partisan fan of any one of these teams can explain why their squad is the one to beat, well, take it to the comments. But the objective folks in the audience will probably agree: None of these teams is obviously that much better than the other four. All we can do is sit back, grab some popcorn -- most underrated snack ever? -- and enjoy the show.

New neckties: Four coaches assumed new roles -- and thus new color-appropriate tie collections -- in the Big 12 this offseason: Kennedy at A&M, Haith at Mizzou, Billy Gillispie at Texas Tech and Lon Kruger at Oklahoma.

Kennedy and Haith were fortunate enough to inherit teams stocked with intriguing talent. Kennedy's Aggies will still have Middleton, the team's versatile star, as well as solid senior forward David Loubeau and an experienced supporting cast. Haith, as mentioned above, stepped into a seemingly ideal situation: The Tigers retained all five starters and nine of 10 top contributors to last year's 23-11 season.

Gillispie -- a sneakily brilliant hire by Texas Tech -- wasn't quite so lucky. Unlike Turgeon and Anderson, former Tech coach Pat Knight didn't leave the school for another gig; he was fired, and for good reason. The Red Raiders' top four contributors were all seniors in 2011. Turning around a limping program is difficult enough, but it's especially tough when you're starting from scratch. Gillispie might be the perfect coach to put Tech hoops on the map -- his close ties in the state and success at A&M are proven credentials -- but that turnaround will be more marathon than sprint.

Then again, if Gillispie ever gets discouraged, all he has to do his remind himself that he's not Lon Kruger. Kruger will feel Gillispie's pain and then some. Not only is the veteran coach inheriting a cratered roster -- a far cry from the high-flying days of Blake Griffin (and considerably less-high-flying days of his brother, Taylor) -- he's doing so as the NCAA prepares its findings into assistant coach Oronde Taliaferro's alleged arrangement of a loan for former one-year bust Keith "Tiny" Gallon. Those findings remain uncertain, but whatever happens, Sooners hoops will be hamstrung for years to come.

Miami's mess becomes Missouri's: By now, you've heard all about the sordid tale of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro's foray into collegiate athletics in Coral Gables. Most of that impact will be felt by Miami football, where the death penalty suddenly seems like a viable option. But like a virus, Miami's mess has already spread to Missouri, which hired Haith just a few months before Yahoo! Sports published allegations by Shapiro that Haith knew about -- and had assistant Jake Morton facilitate -- a back-door $10,000 payment to the family of 2008 recruit DeQuan Jones.

The Yahoo! report also included a handful of photos of Haith with Shapiro, including at a bowling fundraising function and a dinner table. It looks every bit as bad as it sounds.

Still, the real question is not whether it looks bad. The real question is whether Missouri can -- or even wants to -- cut ties with Haith before the NCAA has a chance to render its verdict on the matter. If athletic director Mike Alden does try to drop Haith, he could face a messy lawsuit over cause and lose his coach deep into the 2011 calendar in the process. If Alden waits, there's no telling what could happen. If he takes the middle road -- opting to put Haith on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation -- then Missouri hoops will enter a strange hierarchical limbo.

There's no good plan of attack. Eventually, Alden will have to answer his own questions about the Haith hire, an already questionable move that as Tuesday's allegations mutated revealed as an utter disaster. All the while, the Mizzou basketball team -- a likable, veteran bunch with its heart set on a Big 12 title and a deep NCAA tournament run -- will have its entire season put in jeopardy for reasons entirely outside its control.

The sun rises in Ames, Iowa: It could be a very good year for the folks in Ames. First, the deep-fried butter stick went viral. Then the political world turned its eyes to the Ames straw poll, one of the silliest and yet most strangely endearing fixtures in American democracy. Now, the Cyclones are looking to have their most -- how can I put this politely -- encouraging basketball season in recent memory.

The Cyclones of recent vintage were often one of the worst teams in high-major hoops. But these are not the Cyclones of recent vintage. Coach Fred Hoiberg's bevy of 2011 transfers become eligible this season. That bevy includes Chris Allen, a former Michigan State guard and Anthony Booker, a forward from Southern Illinois. (Former Michigan State guard Korie Lucious followed Allen to Ames, but he won't be eligible until 2012-13.) And perhaps most notably, it includes former highly touted recruit and Minnesota cast-off Royce White.

White torpedoed his Gophers career with legal run-ins and erratic behavior, but he seems to have matured in the year since. Most importantly, he's tearing it up on the court, where he averaged a triple-double in the YMCA Capital City League this summer. That performance has Iowa State fans irrationally excited for the upcoming season. Really, though, can you blame them?

Mark your calendars: Thanks to a tighter conference and a new round-robin schedule, there will be no shortage of intriguing games on the Big 12 plate this season. But the nonconference tests below will set the table for what we can expect when the new-look, limited-time-only conference gets underway:

Kansas vs. Kentucky, Nov. 15: Kansas won't have much time to introduce its new lineup to the rigors of elite hoops, as the Jayhawks will face a loaded Kentucky team in the first week of the season at the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. Big games rarely come this early, but hey, that's why the Champions Classic is awesome.

Baylor vs. San Diego State, Nov. 15: The Bears didn't challenge themselves in the nonconference in 2010-11, and the early 2011-12 slate is no different. But the Bears will get a frisky challenge from the rebuilt Aztecs, and we might not get a better look at how good this team is until the Big 12 season starts.

Missouri vs. Villanova, Dec. 6: Anything could happen between now and Dec. 6 -- Haith could be fired, he could be on leave, he could be on the bench as if nothing happened -- but whatever his status, the Tigers will have their first major challenge of the season versus a similarly speedy and versatile Villanova team.

Kansas vs. Ohio State, Dec. 10: The Jayhawks' schedule is brutal, but at least this game is at home. Ohio State is one of the nation's three potential national-title contenders entering the season, and forward Thomas Robinson will have a chance to prove his mettle -- and his NBA lottery credentials -- in a matchup with All-American Buckeyes sophomore Jared Sullinger.

Texas A&M vs. Florida, Dec. 17: The Gators again look like an SEC contender, and A&M will find itself facing an entirely unfriendly crowd in this quasi-road game in Sunrise, Fla.

Texas at North Carolina, Dec. 21: Playing at North Carolina is always tough. Playing at North Carolina when the Tar Heels are the No. 1 team in the country is even more difficult. Bringing a draft-depleted frontcourt to No. 1 North Carolina -- which happens to have four future NBA draft picks (Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and James Michael McAdoo) in its frontcourt -- well, yeah. You get the idea.