Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball [Print without images]

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Big 12 ShootAround: High expectations for a league that retained its star power

ESPN.com

Douglas Jones/US Presswire

Sherron Collins and the stacked Jayhawks have all the pieces in place for another national-title run.

10 Offseason Storylines

1. Rock chalk, get ready for Jayhawk talk: When Tyler Hansbrough & Co. decided to return to Chapel Hill for the 2008-09 season, North Carolina became such a prohibitive favorite that people were already tired of talking about the Heels by November. Replace Hansbrough with Cole Aldrich, Chapel Hill with Lawrence and you've got this season. The combination of experienced talent (Aldrich, Sherron Collins, Marcus and Markieff Morris and Tyshawn Taylor) and young talent (Xavier Henry) will launch Kansas to the top of every preseason list.

2. Happy draft day: The Big East was so good last season because it was able to keep its top talent out of the NBA for an extra year. The same theory holds for the Big 12 this season. When Oklahoma's Willie Warren and Iowa State's Craig Brackins joined the Kansas inside-out combo in deciding to stay in school, the league automatically got better. But that crew is merely the headline for a league full of depth. Consider: seven of the league's first- and second-teamers are back, four of its top five scorers, six of its top 10 rebounders, three players who earned All-America honors on some ballot and the entire all-rookie team.

3. Who's got next? Kevin Durant begat Michael Beasley begat Blake Griffin, giving the Big 12 a three-year stranglehold on national player of the year honors. So can the league continue the run this year? There are candidates, the most likely being KU's dynamic duo of Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins. But don't count out a guy like Craig Brackins. His Iowa State team won't get the same attention as the Jayhawks, but Brackins, who is the league's top returning scorer (20.2 points per game, along with 9.5 rebounds per game), continues to put up numbers that make him hard to ignore.

4. Six-guard rotation, anyone? Rick Barnes has a problem. Not that he'll get any sympathy. The Texas coach has a backcourt so talented and deep, he ought to be offering guys out on loaners. Along with Dogus Balbay, Varez Ward and Justin Mason, the Longhorns will add top recruit Avery Bradley, Florida transfer Jai Lucas and class of '08 stud J'Covan Brown, who was recently given the OK to play by the NCAA. There's not a bad one in the bunch, so divvying up playing time and keeping everyone happy will be Barnes' No. 1 task.

5. Stability at Colorado: Jeff Bzdelik's tap dance with the Minnesota Timberwolves this summer left a lot of people uneasy in Boulder. The uphill climb that is Colorado hoops -- one winning season in the past five, one conference win last season, facilities that can't compete with the upper tier of the conference hierarchy -- would have become Sisyphean if Bzdelik had bolted. Now that he's agreed to stay, at some point the CU administration might want to do something to keep him.

Mike Anderson

Richard Clement/Icon SMI

After a 31-win season, Mizzou was able to hang on to Mike Anderson.

6. Not going anywhere: Two seasons ago Mike Anderson endured a nightmarish season complete with suspensions and gunshot wounds. Then he led Missouri to the West Region final and became one of the hottest coaches in the country, with Georgia coming at him hard and Memphis making overtures. By signing Anderson to a new seven-year deal, Missouri all but assured last season's run won't just be a flash in the pan.

7. Sounding the all is not clear: Anderson and Travis Ford will have to do some shuffling after their top recruits did not meet the NCAA's eligibility requirements. Keith Dewitt was expected to help Missouri get over the loss of DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, while Karron Johnson, ranked 50th in his class, would have been a big boost to the Oklahoma State roster. Instead both will enroll in junior college.

8. High-impact transfers: Texas isn't the only school about to get an injection of new talent in the form of a transfer. Baylor is expecting big things from former Michigan man Ekpe Udoh, while Kansas State welcomes Curtis Kelly from Connecticut. The 6-foot-10 Udoh earned all-Big Ten defensive team honors in his final season with the Wolverines, racking up 92 blocked shots. He should make an immediate impact for a young Bears team. Kelly didn't play much for the Huskies, but that will change at KSU, where the skilled forward fills a void for the Wildcats.

9. New blood: John Calipari isn't the only one hoarding talent like a squirrel. The Big 12 has its share as well. Twenty-one of ESPNU's top 100 players will make their debut in this conference, including five of the top 15. That includes top-ranked Avery Bradley and eighth-ranked Jordan Hamilton, who are both going to Texas; third-ranked Xavier Henry, who joins loaded Kansas; Keith "Tiny" Gallon (No. 11) and Tommy Mason-Griffin, who are off to Oklahoma; and No. 15 Wally Judge, ready to bolster K-State.

10. Golden summer: He may take a backseat in the preseason hype to teammates Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, but Tyshawn Taylor made an international name for himself this summer. The sophomore helped the American U-19 team to its first gold medal in 18 years. He scored 18 points and chipped in six assists and five steals in the championship game against Greece and finished as the team's leading scorer, averaging 10.8 points per game. That's a huge confidence boost for an already-gifted player.

10 Key Players

Denis Clemente, Kansas State: Clemente is K-State's best returning offensive threat, not to mention the Wildcats' floor leader. But he is the king of H-O-R-S-E right now. Clemente's ridiculous off-the-scoreboard, nothing-but-net shot is a YouTube sensation. But for the Wildcats to be really good, the Puerto Rico native will have to make more traditional shots with equal ease.

Cory Higgins, Colorado: His dad played 13 years in the NBA; Michael Jordan is his godfather. Hoops by osmosis, anyone? After a terrific freshman season, Higgins doubled his production last season, a good sign that at least some progress is taking place in Boulder.

Willie Warren, Oklahoma: Careful what you wish for. Warren said he welcomed the pressure of becoming the face of Sooner hoops with the graduation of Blake Griffin. Now it's time to see how he handles it. A great scorer, he will need to become smarter with his shot selection if he wants to become the dominant player he is capable of being.

Damion James, Texas: The Longhorns are equally deep in the backcourt and frontcourt. James is the best among the forwards. Tenacious on the boards -- he led Texas in rebounding last season -- he needs to become as consistent of an offensive threat.

Craig Brackins

Stephen Mally/Icon SMI

Craig Brackins averaged 20 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game for Iowa State last season.

Craig Brackins, Iowa State: His wasn't exactly a household name. Being the second-leading scorer in a league where a guy by the name of Blake Griffin is the leader will do that to you. But if Brackins' scoring and rebounding can lift the Cyclones out of anonymity, he could be this year's James Harden, a guy everyone knows by season's end.

Sherron Collins, Kansas: No one would have blamed Collins if he had bolted for the NBA. He grew up in a hardscrabble part of Chicago and has a young son. But Collins wisely realized that with so many guards in this year's draft, this wasn't his year. Two seasons ago he made the play that set up Mario Chalmers' heroics. Maybe this time he simply makes the play.

Cole Aldrich, Kansas: The big man spent the summer working on his lower-body strength, matching himself against NBA talent at the LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire camps. It could pay off immensely. A surefire first-round pick had he come out after his sophomore season, Aldrich could emerge as the latest national player of the year to come out of the Big 12 if he puts together the sort of season most people expect.

J.T. Tiller, Missouri: If Mike Anderson's swarming defense has a face, it belongs to Tiller. He is nothing shy of relentless, a one-man wrecking crew that wreaks havoc as he leads the Tigers' menacing, full-court pressure. Without Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll, Tiller will need to add equal parts offense to that defense.

James Anderson, Oklahoma State: OSU's leading scorer (18.2 ppg) last season, Anderson will be even more important to the Cowboys with the departures of Byron Eaton and Terrel Harris, along with the non-arrival of top recruit Karron Johnson. More performances like the 35 points he put up at Texas and the 37 at Oklahoma will go a long way toward keeping the Pokes relevant in the Big 12.

Tweety Carter, Baylor: His decision to come to Baylor signified the official rise of the program out of the abyss that Dave Bliss created. The all-time scoring leader in U.S. high school history, Carter has been good for the Bears but not nearly as good as those high school credentials. He needs to be now as Baylor transitions from its NIT runner-up season.

10 Freshmen We Can't Wait To See

Avery Bradley, SG, Texas: Bradley, who finished his high school career as the top-rated player in the ESPNU 100, is a high-level athlete that is outstanding in transition. His perimeter shooting has continued to improve, which compliments his superior midrange game. He has the ability to be a lock-down defender once he learns the nuances of the college game.

Aaron-Mike Davis, SG, Texas Tech: Davis is just what Pat Knight needs at Texas Tech -- a strong, physical guard who consistently plays with a high level of intensity on both ends of the floor. He has a good feel for how to play and understands how to play to his strengths. His ballhandling and passing skills will take some pressure off the point guard.

Xavier Henry, SG, Kansas: Henry is a scoring machine with range out to the NBA 3-point line. The left-hander, who missed a good portion of his senior season recovering from an injury suffered in a car accident, should benefit from a healthy preseason program and make an instant impact with the Jayhawks.

Keith Gallon

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

There's nothing small about Houston native Keith "Tiny" Gallon, including his prowess in the paint.

Keith Gallon, C, Oklahoma: Gallon's development should be fun to watch. He is a surprisingly agile athlete for a player his size (300 pounds) and possesses a solid set of perimeter skills. He will need to assert himself as an inside/out player and avoid drifting to the 3-point line too often. Adjusting to the size and strength of the post players at the collegiate level should be no problem, but conditioning may prove to be his biggest challenge.

Tommy Mason-Griffin, PG, Oklahoma: The powerfully built point guard looks as if he could play on the gridiron for the Sooners, but I am sure Coach Capel will find enough to keep him occupied this fall. TMG shoots it with range, excels at drawing contact and finishes at the rim. His ability to penetrate into the heart of the defense and find the open man will help make him a favorite amongst his teammates.

Jordan Hamilton, SF, Texas: After missing his senior season, Hamilton is a bit of an enigma. If he is able to quickly regain his timing at a high level, he could be one of the top impact freshmen in the nation. He is a gifted offensive player who is skilled and can score in a variety of ways.

Raymond Penn, PG, Oklahoma St: The 5-9 point guard has a scorer's mentality and does a great job of pushing the ball in transition. He is fearless attacking the rim and drawing contact. Penn is an explosive athlete that uses his quickness to get into the paint and create for his teammates. He also can beat you from behind the 3-point arc.

Wally Judge, PF, Kansas State: Judge has great upside and should provide K-State with immediate help on the front line. He is a great-looking athlete who runs and jumps with the best of them and is able to impact the game with his rebounding and shot-blocking ability. Judge can score facing up from 15-17 feet or with a little jump hook over his left shoulder. He's also effective around the rim as an offensive rebounder.

Nolan Dennis, SG, Baylor: Baylor benefited from John Calipari's departure from Memphis by winning the recruiting battle for Dennis after he was released from his national letter of intent. The Texan is a long athlete who plays with some bounce and is effective at driving the ball to the rim.

Elijah Johnson, PG, Kansas: Johnson is a gifted athlete who will fit perfectly in Bill Self's system. He is a powerfully built point guard who has the ability to dominate his position with his strength and skill level. He excels in transition, where he is a threat to get it to the rim and finish or knock down the pull-up jumper.

10 Nonconference Games We Can't Wait To See

Kansas vs. Memphis, Nov. 17: Too many new faces to call this a legit rematch of the 2008 national championship game. (You know … the one the NCAA says didn't happen.) But don't think that retroactively imaginary game won't be brought up several times when these teams square off at the Hall of Fame Showcase in St. Louis. KU probably will be too much for the Tigers to handle right now, but it'll still be must-see TV.

Texas A&M vs. Clemson, Nov. 26: A nice first-round matchup at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, Calif. There's no such thing as an NCAA elimination game this early, but these are two similar teams trying to distinguish themselves from the middle of their conference packs. Edge to the winner.

Washington State at Kansas State, Dec. 5: The Cougs may be under new leadership in the form of Ken Bone, but Wazzu has one of the best players in the Pac-10 in Klay Thompson. This Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood series game will be a good early December barometer for a Wildcats team expected to again be in the hunt for an NCAA berth.

Arizona at Oklahoma, Dec. 6: Nic Wise versus Willie Warren? Not bad. Two teams that should be good but have questions -- new coach for the Wildcats, no Blake for the Sooners -- should make for an even more intriguing show.

Dexter Pittman

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In a four-day span in December, Dexter Pittman and the Longhorns will take on both teams from the 2009 national title game.

Michigan at Kansas, Dec. 19: The Wolverines could be the first of back-to-back visits by top 25 teams in Lawrence. No doubt this will be a tall order for John Beilein's still emerging team, but Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are a potent duo that will make KU work.

Michigan State at Texas, Dec. 22: Just three days after the Longhorns face defending national champ North Carolina at the Dallas Cowboys' new palace -- and yes, we also can't wait to see that one -- the national runner-up comes to Austin. The Spartans could have their hands full trying to handle the Longhorns' depth inside. Still, this should be a terrific top-5 matchup.

California at Kansas, Dec. 22: Yes, another Kansas game. The Jayhawks are going to be preseason No. 1 and are playing the sort of schedule -- they also travel to Tennessee in January -- that top teams are supposed to play. So sue us. Cal will be a player on the national scene and will be looking to make national headlines. Beating the Jayhawks at the Phog would do it.

Baylor at South Carolina, Jan. 2: The Bears don't have a ton of nonconference sizzle on their schedule. Winning a legit road game against a decent Gamecock squad will go a long way to giving Baylor some pop with the selection committee.

Iowa State vs. Duke, Jan. 6: Do the Cyclones have a legit shot at the tourney? They'll have a good indication after squaring off against the Blue Devils at the United Center in Chicago. What program trying to prove it's on its way back up doesn't love an opportunity to prove it against a blue blood like Duke? Should be fascinating to see how Coach K devises a game plan for Craig Brackins.

Texas at Connecticut, Jan. 23: Another great matchup in yet another nice home-and-home series for Texas. Jerome Dyson helps even things out for the Huskies in the backcourt, but like with Michigan State, the Longhorns should have the edge inside.

A Quick Look Around The League

Big 12
BaylorBaylor
Louisiana natives Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, the first McDonald's All-Americans to ever come to Baylor, will need to live up to their credentials for the Bears to continue to climb out of the ashes. Baylor loses the winningest class in school history, a class that included Curtis Jerrells. Help, however, is on the way in the form of a six-man recruiting class ranked in the top 25 nationally. It counts Nolan Dennis and A.J. Walton among its members.

ColoradoColorado
The problem for the Buffaloes is simple: Even if they are markedly better (and they should be since so many players got valuable experience last season) climbing up the Big 12 ladder will be difficult in a season when the conference is so good. So Colorado may have to value its progress on something more than wins and losses. The continued growth of guys like Cory Higgins, who finished fifth in the league in scoring (17.3 ppg) last season, will bode well for Colorado in the long term.

Iowa StateIowa State
The Cyclones haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2005, but Greg McDermott has reason to believe this year could be the one. Craig Brackins' stunning decision to return to school despite skyrocketing NBA cred immediately put Iowa State back in the tourney discussion. Brackins gets help from three other returning starters, including hot-shooting Lucca Staiger, plus talented JUCO transfer Marquis Gilstrap.

KansasKansas
So the Jayhawks are going to be pretty good. If you don't know that, it's not likely you're reading this anyway. Only a hoops fan stranded in Alabama (or some other state where the moon looks mysteriously like a football all fall) or a person who doesn't know a box-and-one from Botox doesn't know that Kansas will be, and deserves to be, the national championship favorite when this season officially tips off.

Kansas StateKansas State
This is not Michael Beasley, Part II. When Beasley came to Manhattan, he was the superstar with a seriously lacking supporting cast. Frank Martin has a great recruiting class -- as in more than one player -- to complement a host of solid veterans, led by Denis Clemente (he of the 44-point explosion at Texas last season). In other words, the Wildcats appear to be building for the long haul this season, not the one-and-done success that Beasley brought to town.

MissouriMissouri
The Tigers opened eyes to Mike Anderson's version of Nolan Richardson's 40 minutes of hell when they mopped up Memphis in the Sweet 16. In order to avoid becoming just a decent 20 minutes of heck, Mizzou needs consistent scorers to replace Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll. Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller, two great defensive players, need to up the offense.

NebraskaNebraska
Cookie Miller, the starting point guard for the past two years, has transferred to Miami (Ohio). Christopher Niemann, the man Doc Sadler thought could be his starting center, tore his ACL this summer. In other words, the Cornhuskers have more questions than answers right now. Niemann, who was ruled ineligible last year because he played for a German pro team, would have given Nebraska some much-needed size. Now the Huskers, who have mastered Sadler's defensive approach but need to find more ways to score, will have to hope JUCO transfer Lance Jeter finds his scoring touch in a hurry.

OklahomaOklahoma
The temptation is easy: Blake Griffin is gone, the Sooners are rebuilding. Not so fast. Replacing Griffin is impossible -- he's a once-in-a-decade kind of player -- but that doesn't mean Oklahoma is a mess. Jeff Capel has a strong nucleus of returning players and a hot newcomer class that, together, should help ease the loss of Griffin. The biggest question: Can role players such as Tony Crocker and Austin Johnson step into the spotlight? They're going to have to.

Oklahoma StateOklahoma State
By the end of the season, Travis Ford had the Cowboys playing well enough to earn an NCAA tourney berth. They even won a game once they got there. But with veteran point guard Byron Eaton and backcourt mate Terrel Harris gone, can Okie State continue to progress? Ford has a host of freshmen to call on, plus Matt Pilgram, who transferred to Stillwater after John Calipari decided he didn't need him at Kentucky. He was granted a waiver by the NCAA that allows him to play immediately.

TexasTexas
The Longhorns are in the sweet spot. Everyone is talking about Kansas, putting Texas off in the shadows of the Big 12 race. That's dangerous with a team that, as one Big 12 coach said simply, "has guys.'' Along with the ridiculously deep and talented backcourt -- that's one way to replace D.J. Augustin -- the Longhorns welcome back inside powers Damion James, Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman. This team is Final Four-good.

Texas A&MTexas A&M
Another year, another stunning departure for the Aggies to deal with. A year after A&M lost DeAndre Jordan to the draft, Mark Turgeon was shocked to see Chinemelu Elonu take his talents to the NBA. Elonu's decision leaves the Aggies with less experience than they had hoped, especially coupled with the graduation of Josh Carter. Bryan Davis and Donald Sloan need to become consistently productive for A&M to earn its fifth consecutive NCAA tourney invite.

Texas TechTexas Tech
Defense plagued the Red Raiders last season and will continue to be their downfall in this loaded league if they don't figure out how to stop somebody. Tech allowed 78 points per game, way too many for a team simply not yet equipped to outscore people. John Roberson and Mike Singletary can't do it alone, though it's sure fun watching the latter try. Like when he came off the bench to score 29 straight points against Texas A&M last season, part of a 43-point attack in TTU's upset win.

2008-09 Big 12 Standings

Big 12 record Overall record
Kansas* 14-2 27-8
Oklahoma* 13-3 30-6
Missouri* 12-4 31-7
Texas A&M* 9-7 24-10
Oklahoma State* 9-7 23-12
Texas* 9-7 23-12
Kansas State^ 9-7 22-12
Nebraska^ 8-8 18-13
Baylor^ 5-11 24-15
Iowa State 4-12 15-17
Texas Tech 3-13 14-19
Colorado 1-15 9-22
*NCAA tournament
^NIT appearance

For all the Big 12 news and notes, check out the conference page.

Top Returning Scorers

Player PPG
Craig Brackins, Iowa State 20.2
Sherron Collins, Kansas 18.9
James Anderson, Oklahoma State 18.2
Cory Higgins, Colorado 17.4
LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor 15.7
Damion James, Texas 15.4

2009-10 predictions

By Fran Fraschilla
ESPN

It's never too early for predictions. Fran Fraschilla offers up his thoughts on the upcoming season in the Big 12:

1. Kansas: Bill Self may have a deeper team than the one that won the NCAA title in 2008. All five starters from last year's Sweet 16 team return and when Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins eschewed the NBA draft, the Jayhawks became the favorite to win a second title in three years. Sophomore shooting guard Tyshawn Taylor is back after leading the USA to an Under-19 World Championship in July. Juniors Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed give Self depth off the bench, especially if ESPNU's third-ranked player in the Class of 2009, 6-6 Xavier Henry, is ready to step in at small forward. Two big keys for Kansas will be the continued maturity of 6-9 sophomore twins, Markieff and Marcus Morris, both of whom garnered a lot of minutes a year ago. If they don't step up, 6-8 freshman Thomas Robinson will.

2. Texas: The Longhorns have won 20 or more games in 10 consecutive seasons and the safest bet in college basketball this year is that that streak will continue. In fact, this is the program's best chance to get back to the Final Four since 2003. It has been a great offseason for Texas. Senior Damion James is back after flirting with the NBA draft. His 16 double-doubles were the second most in the Big 12 last season. Junior big man Dexter Pittman has rapidly improved and should make another huge jump this year. And it's no surprise that Rick Barnes racked up another monster recruiting class, led by 6-3 shooting guard Avery Bradley (ESPNU's No.1-ranked high school recruit). His intensity level on both ends of the court will be to his new coach's liking.

3. Oklahoma State: Four of the Cowboys' top six scorers return this season, along with a promising first full recruiting class for Travis Ford. Although guards Byron Eaton and Terrel Harris will be missed, 6-5 junior James Anderson returns as one of college basketball's best scorers. Juniors Obi Muonelo and Marshall Moses and sophomore Keiton Page have all become very effective role players for the Cowboys. The key in this frenetic offense will be at point guard. While there are several quality newcomers on the way, the most pressure will be on 5-9 Raymond Penn out of Houston. All he has to do is replace Eaton, OSU's heart and soul.

4. Oklahoma: How does Jeff Capel replace National Player of the Year Blake Griffin? Start by building around another potential player of the year candidate, Willie Warren, whom KU coach Bill Self once told me was the best offensive player he's ever recruited. The 6-2 Warren, a scoring machine in high school, fit in unselfishly as a freshman but will be asked to take on more of the scoring burden this season. Senior Tony Crocker, a proven long-range sniper, is the other returning starter. If the freshman class, including McDonald's All-Americans Tommy Mason-Griffin and Keith Gallon, is a good as advertised, the pain of losing Griffin will be lessened. Gallon, a strong and agile post player who has had maturity issues in the past, should benefit from Capel's youth and energy. If he plays to his ability, the Sooners should dance again in March.

5. Kansas State: The Wildcats are another one of those sneaky teams that lurk right below Kansas and Texas. Frank Martin has a solid core of returnees, led by guards Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen. Combined, those two led Kansas State in scoring in 25 of 34 games a year ago. The front line will be improved with 6-10 UConn transfer Curtis Kelly, and a top-25 recruit from Martin's Washington, D.C., pipeline, Wally Judge. Martin's teams get kudos from Big 12 coaches for their defensive intensity. That should bode well for another postseason finish.

6. Texas A&M: The Aggies suffered a minor blow in their quest for a school-record fifth straight NCAA appearance when junior center Chinemelu Elonu left his name in the NBA draft and was selected in the second round by the Los Angeles Lakers. Mark Turgeon will also have to replace four-year starter Josh Carter, no easy task. The good news is that there is enough experience and talent returning, along with Turgeon's best recruiting class, that the Aggies will fight for the third spot on the Big 12 ladder. High school teammates Donald Sloan and Derrick Roland give the Aggies a hard-nosed backcourt. Senior Bryan Davis is a workhorse inside and 6-8 sophomore power forward David Loubeau could be a breakout player this year.

7. Baylor: The Bears are coming off back-to-back postseason appearances for only the second time in school history and represent one of college basketball's most miraculous rebuilding jobs. All coach Scott Drew has to do now is to replace the three 1,000-point scorers, Curtis Jerrells, Henry Dugat and Kevin Rogers, who laid the groundwork for the program. The good news is that Drew has some firepower returning in rising junior LaceDarius Dunn and solid 3-point shooter Tweety Carter. And Michigan transfer Ekpe Udoh will be a 6-10 force inside. The Bears caught a break late in the recruiting process when Dallas shooting guard Nolan Dennis (No. 44 overall in his class) was released from his letter of intent by Memphis after John Calipari left for Kentucky.

8. Missouri: How do you top a record-setting, 31-win season if you are Tigers coach Mike Anderson? The first thing he must do is to replace three key seniors in DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence. Fortunately, Missouri has one of the most underrated backcourts in the league. Point guard Zaire Taylor is a no-mistake player, J.T. Tiller was Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year and sophomore Kim English has the potential to be an all-conference performer. A huge key for the Tigers will be the development of promising 6-9 sophomore Laurence Bowers, a typical under-the-radar recruit for Anderson who had moments of brilliance as a freshman.

9. Iowa State: No one has suffered through more hard luck, via injuries and player defections, than ISU coach Greg McDermott. Happily, his luck may be about to change. Junior Craig Brackins, the league's most improved player a year ago, would have been a first-round pick in last June's NBA draft but chose to return to school. A first-team All-Big 12 selection, Brackins scored 20 points a game from all over the floor and is just as aggressive on the glass, where he grabbed nearly 10 boards a game. German import Lucca Staiger, currently playing with his national team in the European Championships, is a long-range shooter. But the missing link to McDermott's first postseason appearance as a Cyclone could be 6-6 junior college transfer Marquis Gilstrap, who has only one year of eligibility so he must make the most of it.

10. Texas Tech: Junior guard Mike Singletary provided some fireworks for the Red Raiders in the Big 12 tournament last March when he torched Texas A&M for 43 points, including 29 straight, the second-longest string in NCAA history. He returns along with junior playmaker John Roberson and senior Nick Okorie to provide TTU with a solid nucleus in his backcourt. Coach Pat Knight will have improved depth in his second full season by adding three JUCO transfers, including highly regarded guard David Tairu. By the way, sophomore Robert Lewandowski is 15 pounds away from being an effective Big 12 low post scorer and should make nice strides this season.

11. Nebraska: Doc Sadler's team was the smallest in college basketball last season, but may have played with the biggest heart. The Huskers squeezed 18 wins and an NIT bid out of average talent. While this year's NU team may be bigger, the offensive woes that plagued it, at times, may still be apparent. The 43.9 field goal percentage a year ago was 10th in the conference. Sek Henry, Ryan Anderson and Paul Velander return for Sadler and he has dipped into the JUCO ranks, where he was a highly successful head coach, for three recruits.

12. Colorado: The bright side of last season's 9-22 disaster is that the CU freshmen and sophomores accounted for 72 percent of its points. Junior guard Cory Higgins, Colorado's most prolific scorer, was third-team All-Big 12 during a wonderful freshman season. Backcourt mate Dwight Thorne II has improved under head coach Jeff Bzdelik and is a good complement to Higgins. No one in the league doubts Bzdelik's coaching ability and there is hope that his first real recruiting class is enough to begin the rebuilding process.

What One Big 12 Head Coach Is Saying

"There's a lot of talk about the incoming freshmen, who are going to be very good, but I think the best prospects are going to be Willie Warren and Cole Aldrich. I think Willie has a chance to be the best all-around guard in the country and Cole the best big man.''

Final shots

• Kansas is the consensus preseason No. 1. That much is clear. But where do its fellow league members place in our rankings? Here are Andy Katz's Top 25 and Dick Vitale's Top 40.

• Joe Lunardi projects the Big 12 getting half the No. 1 seeds this March. How many other league teams does he see making it? Bracketology.

• Which early season events are Big 12 teams taking part in? We have a list of the tournaments that will be scattered around the first two months of the college basketball calendar. Schedule