Friday, November 2, 2012

Kansas Jayhawks Remain Big 12 Favorites

The long wait will soon be over when the first official NCAA basketball game of the 2012-13 season will tip-off on Nov. 15. Some of our favorite players have moved on the ranks of professional athletes, new recruits have been polishing their games in gyms with recognizable logos on the court, and schools have switched conference allegiances. Through a series of conference previews, the BDD crew will do its best to prepare you for the next 4.5 months of collegiate hoops.

Jeff Withey blocks; Myck Kabongo has bad dreams. (Eric Gay/AP Photo)

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

Of all the information in BDD's conference previews, this should be the least surprising. If they haven't been the sole holders, the Jayhawks have won at least a share of the last eight regular season titles in the Big 12. Kansas is not a stranger to the NCAA tournament — 1989 was the last time the 'Hawks failed to participate — and tends to use conference play as a warm-up.

Questions remain about how head coach Bill Self will find adequate minutes for his current players and what scheme he has devised to deal with the losses of now-professionals like forward Thomas Robinson and point guard Tyshawn Taylor, but there are no concerns about Kansas' current roster. The No. 10 recruiting class, 2011 recruits Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor, and the experience of Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. These are Self's tools and he is too good of a coach not to utilize all of their abilities.

Baylor is stacked, too, but not quite as much as Kansas, and with three NBA draft picks gone, the Bears will reel a bit more than their (relatively) northern counterparts. Head coach Scott Drew's teams tend to rely on their stars enough to appear disjointed as a team, and that is a big reason they got just one first-place vote — eight fewer than than the Jayhawks —in the Big 12 preseason poll.

Dark Horse Team to Watch: Kansas State Wildcats

Since Frank Martin said goodbye to his office in the Little Apple, there has been much contention around exactly how much the Wildcats can achieve in 2012-13. Their new head coach, Bruce Weber, was fired from Illinois after nine years of mostly mediocre finishes. Compounding the issue is the loss of Jamar Samuels, a senior last year who was suspended shortly before his team was vanquished from the NCAA tourney by Syracuse.

It makes sense that Kansas State was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12. KU and Baylor are perennial powerhouses; LeBryan Nash is expected to lead a young but talented Oklahoma State team; and Texas will be solid unless the NCAA hammers sophomore shooting guard Myck Kabongo for his alleged indiscretions.

That said, it would be wrong to forget the Wildcats were a Sweet 16 team in March. They were a tough defensive draw under Martin and that shouldn't change under Weber, who has had success with players recruited by other coaches. Save Samuels, all of last year's roster is back, including the backcourt tandem of sophomore Angel Rodriguez and Will Spradling, a junior. For the second year, guard Rodney McGruder will be the Wildcats' most dynamic scorer and could earn All-American honors if his issues with inconsistency don't resurface. And if 6'7", 270-lb., sophomore Thomas Gipson is has grown his game to match his frame, he could be a problem for any opponent in the post.

The mantra "defense wins championships" is old, but it's worked for the man down the hall from Weber and could bring the basketball 'Cats to the conference's forefront if Weber and the team can produce an offense — both have sketchy histories on that end of the court — effective enough to match with the toughness of their projected defense.

Player of the Year: Pierre Jackson, Baylor

Realistically, this title could go to players from four different schools. Of the preseason All-Big 12 selections, three were unanimous selections — Jackson was not.

This is possible because of Baylor's aforementioned dependence on relatively few players. Playing point guard also allows Jackson to be the spark plug of the Bears' offense. This particular situation makes him ripe for a POY award.

His 223 assists last season were good for second-place all-time in school record books, but he is also an adept scorer, averaging 13.8 points per game and putting up 10 or more points in 27 games.

Jackson is multi-talented; an equal threat to get points or set up his teammates. Coming off a loss to eventual-champions Kentucky in the regional round of the NCAA tournament, Jackson's leadership will help Baylor in a big way come conference competition. His importance to Baylor may outweigh that of any other individual player in the Big 12 and, if he continues to build on that reputation, Jackson will run away with POY recognition.

Newcomer of the Year: Perry Ellis, Kansas

Texas center Cameron Ridley could take a role of increased importance and Newcomer of the Year if Kabongo does miss the season, but Perry Ellis has too many dimensions to be counted out even then.

The 6'8" Kansas native has post play reminiscent of Thomas Robinson, KU's standout forward from last year, but Ellis is also a legitimate threat to make baskets from the perimeter. Alone, either of those skills would be beneficial; they might be downright scary together, especially if opposing forwards are a second late to realize Ellis can shake them with his ball handling and go for either option.

As for the Jayhawks' deep bench? It should have little impact on Ellis' numbers, as he is expected to start. Any highlight tape of the forward will include several dunks, but if viewers stick around for more than the eye candy, the three-ball shows up and shows a game refined beyond that of most freshmen college basketball players.

That is why Ellis is the Big 12's best newcomer.

Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas

A three-peat — Self won outright in 2010-11 and split with Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg last season is well within reach with the roster Self has in place. The Jayhawks will drop few games in conference play, as usual, but it will be more impressive as Kansas relies on eight players who have no experience playing collegiate basketball.

Going into '10-'11, the Self's team was unheralded. They lost their Morris twins frontcourt and point guard Sherron Collins.

A 16-2 record in the Big 12 followed, as did an appearance in the national championship game.

The Jawhawks are not nearly as experienced this year. However, Self is expected to get his young team to coalesce enough to warrant a unanimous first-place vote before a single game is played. Why would Self not win COY?

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