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Conference Countdown: No. 2 Big XII

Pre-season Awards

Player of the Year: Jacob Pullen, Kansas State

I remember watching Pullen play as a freshman and sophomore, and I can honestly say I never thought he would develop into the player he did as a junior. Coming into last season, the guy everyone was talking about in the K-State back court was the dynamic Denis Clemente, but after some impressive performances in high-profile non-conference wins, Pullen (deservedly) developed the reputation of a big-time shooter and scorer. With Clemente gone, Pullen will be the focal point of a Kansas State team that doesn’t have a ton of offensive options, especially in the back court. This is still a very good team -- they are big, long, athletic, and will defend and rebound as well as anyone in the country -- but at the end of a game or the shot clock, the ball is almost assuredly going to be in Pullen’s hands. He’s going to get plenty of opportunity to put up points this year, and if he can improve his ability to distribute the ball -- he will command a lot of attention defensively -- I don’t see why he can’t be a 20+ ppg scorer and average 4 assists. If you put up those numbers for the conference favorite, you deserve player of the year consideration.

And a close second goes to: LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor

Dunn is in a similar situation to Pullen. His talented back court mate -- Tweety Carter -- is gone, which means that he is going to have to carry even more of the offensive load. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, as Dunn is one of the best shooters in the country. I think Dunn has a chance to be conference player of the year and a first team all-american, but Pullen got the nod because Dunn plays off the ball. Where Pullen is more of a point guard and has the ability to create for himself off the dribble, Dunn is more of an off-guard, a catch-and-shoot kind of guy. I worry that a lot of his success this season will be determined by the development of AJ Walton as a point guard. Dunn’s placement here is with the assumption that he will not miss an extended amount of time for the alleged assault against his girlfriend.

Breakout Star: Marcus Morris, Kansas, and Jordan Hamilton, Texas

The Big XII has a number of kids that I think are capable of having a breakout year -- AJ Walton, BJ Holmes, David Loubeau, Michael Dixon, Ray Penn, Christian Standhardinger. But Morris and Hamilton are the two kids that I think are all-but-guarantees for a big season. Morris showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore, starting at the four and becoming the Jayhawks most reliable offensive option in the post. With the amount of talent that Kansas is losing, Morris is the guy that will be counted on to pick up the slack. After seeing how much he improved after putting on some strength between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, I see no reason that he isn’t first-team all-conference, and possibly even an all-american, this year.

Hamilton is a bit of a different story. A consensus top 10 recruit last year, he spent last season as the Longhorns hired gun off the bench. The problem is that Hamilton has yet to develop a sense of shot selection. As a freshman, if he touched the ball, more than likely a shot was going up. When he was on, he was a nightmare for opponents (ask Oklahoma State), but when he was missing he really hurt Texas. There’s not a doubt in my mind that this kid can be a lethal scorer in the Big XII, but only when he develops a better sense of what is a good shot. (Although, it should be noted that as he gets better and becomes a bigger part of the Texas offense, the standard of what is a “good shot” for him will become more lax.) Generally speaking, the biggest improvement tends to come between a player’s freshman and sophomore years. I think Hamilton can make the jump.

All-Conference First Team

  • POY- Jacob Pullen, Kansas State, Sr.
  • G - LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor, Sr.
  • G - Cory Higgins, Colorado, Sr.
  • G - Kim English, Missouri, Jr.
  • F - Alec Burks, Colorado, So.
  • F - Marcus Morris, Kansas, Jr.

All-Conference Second Team

  • G - Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas, Jr.
  • G - Jordan Hamilton, Texas, So.
  • G - John Roberson, Texas Tech, Sr.
  • F - Jamar Samuels, Kansas State, Jr.
  • F - Quincy Acy, Baylor, Jr.

Freshman of the Year: Josh Selby, Kansas

This is kind of awkward because Selby has yet to be cleared by the NCAA. If he does end up getting cleared, Selby -- the No. 1 recruit in the country according to Rivals -- should make an immediate impact. Selby plays a similar brand of basketball as former Jayhawk point guard Sherron Collins. He’s a scorer that can beat his man off the dribble, knock down a contested 25 footer, and is capable of creating for teammates in the lane. But where Collins was built like a running back, Selby is built like a basketball player -- 6'3", long arms, excellent athleticism. There is going to be quite a bit of returning talent in the back court, but if Selby lives up to the hype, he will be the creator for Bill Self’s club.

All-Freshman Team

  • G - Phil Pressey, Missouri
  • G - Cory Joseph, Texas
  • F - Cameron Clark, Oklahoma
  • F - Perry Jones, Baylor
  • F - Tristan Thompson, Texas

What Happened?:

  • Expansion: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know already. Nebraska left. Colorado left. We thought the world was going to end, but the world didn’t end. That enough summary? It is for me.
  • Texas A&M’s rough summer: First, the Aggies lost their star recruit Tobi Oyedeji, a 6'9" kid out of Bellaire, TX, who tragically passed away when he crashed his car on Prom Night. Nowhere near as tragic, but still depressing is that Derrick Roland, who snapped his leg just about in half last season, was denied an extra year of eligibility, ending his collegiate career.
  • Scandals galore: Missouri’s prize recruit, Tony Mitchell, looks like a long shot to be on the Tiger roster this season after he wasn’t allowed to graduate from high school. The reasons are plenty, including unexplained absences, questionable test results, and the fact he attended a school accredited as a home school his first three years. Mitchell has been ruled ineligible for the first semester already.

    He’s not the only star recruit that has yet to be cleared. Josh Selby, a consensus top five recruit from Baltimore, has not been cleared by the NCAA due to a relationship he has with Carmelo Anthony’s agent. It is not clear whether that agent is acting as an advisor or he has an agreement with Selby to become his agent, but one thing that is clear is basketball players from Baltimore stick together. Its very possible that this agent is doing nothing but help this family work through a complicated process. But Selby was also spotted driving a white benz. So who knows.

    Oklahoma also had a controversy in their program. Freshman Tiny Gallon was alleged to have been given $3,000 by a financial advisor, which likely played a role in his decision to leave Norman after one season. Then Tommy Mason-Griffin and Willie Warren, neither of whom did anything impressive last year, both hit the road as well. Between transfers and graduation, Capel is left with ... well ... a lot of youngsters.

    And how can we forget about LaceDarius Dunn. The potential all-american broke his girlfriend’s jaw. His suspension hasn’t been announced just yet, but he is back in school and allowed to practice with the team.

  • Jacob Pullen’s beard...: He’s keepin’ it, y’all.
  • The Canadian-Texan pipeline: Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph are both top 25 recruits this season. They are also both Canadian. Myck Kabongo will be joining them at Texas next season after a two day decommitment. There is some talent north of the border, and while it is a different border than we are generally talking about when dealing with Texas, I don’t think Longhorns fans will have a problem with this kind of immigration.
  • Coaching changes: Believe it or not, no head coaches were fired from Big XII schools this off-season. There were two changes, however. Jeff Bzdelik took off for the opening at Wake Forest when Dino Gaudio was fired, replaced by Northern Colorado’s Tad Boyle.

    Greg McDermott left Iowa State to head back to the MVC and coach Creighton. He was replaced by local hero, Fred Hoiberg, who will have his work cut out for him with all the players that left and the floods that hit Iowa in August.

  • Royce White lands: The troubled youngster who went to Minnesota before dropping out -- he never stepped on court after getting in trouble a couple of time for shoplifting and possibly stealing a laptop -- ended up at Iowa State. No word on whether he will be able to suit up this season.
  • Nick Sidorakis is a stand-up guy: Enough with the depressing stories already. Give this piece on the Oklahoma State senior a read, who gave up his scholarship for a teammate.

What’s Next?:

  • The Big X: So Nebraska and Colorado are both leaving the conference before the start of next season. After all that the teams in the league had to do to keep from disintegrating, the question now becomes how long will it last? Is this a temporary peace treaty, one that lasts until the season is over and everyone gets to arguing about television dollars and inequitable payouts? Will Texas A&M jump ship to the SEC? Will the Pac-10 get the four other teams that they wanted originally?
  • This conference is good: The talent level is this league is ridiculous. There are nine schools that have a legitimate chance at making the NCAA Tournament. Depending on how some freshman pan out and the development of some bench players, there could be four, maybe five, teams capable of making a deep tournament run. Would anyone be shocked to see three players -- Pullen, Dunn, and Morris -- make first team all-american? This season will be a lot of fun to follow in the Big XII.

Power Rankings

  1. Kansas State: The Wildcats have a lot of talent on their roster, enough to win the Big XII and likely spend the year in the top ten. It starts with Jacob Pullen, who will be one of the early favorites for Big XII player of the year and a potential first team all-american. We all know about Pullen -- a big time scorer and shotmaker -- that has really developed in his four years in Manhattan. Frank Martin’s club is also going to be loaded up front again. With a rotation of Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels, Wally Judge, Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, and Florida International transfer Freddy Asprilla, K-State has one of the biggest, most athletic front lines in the country. Make sure you box the Wildcats out this year. The biggest question mark for K-State is going to be where Pullen gets his back court help from. Denis Clemente graduated and Dominique Sutton transferred out, leaving quite a bit of inexperience behind -- three sophomores, three freshman, and one transfer. Someone from this group is going to need to step up and become a guy that can defend and knock down open jumpers. Rodney McGruder is a 6'4" sophomore off-guard that hit 18-43 threes in limited minutes last year. Martavious Irving and Juevol Myles are point guards that could allow Pullen to play off the all. And keep an eye on freshman Nino Williams, a Kansas native that was a top 100 recruit in 2011 before enrolling early.
  2. Kansas: The Jayhawks won’t be as loaded as they have been the past two seasons. That’s what tends to happen when you lose players like Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, and Xavier Henry. The good news for the Jayhawks? They actually return everyone else from a team that had as much talent top to bottom as anyone in the country. The Morris twins will be back on the front line, and its not a stretch to think that Marcus could end up being a first team all-american. Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, two talented freshmen that didn’t see many minutes last season, should also thrive in expanded roles. The back court will, once again, be loaded for Kansas. Josh Selby, if he gets eligible, should be an adequate replacement for Collins as a playmaker at the point. If he isn’t, Tyshawn Taylor also returns and should be expected to play an expanded role this year as well. Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed will be back to play their roles, and don’t be surprised if Travis Releford or Elijah Johnson prove to be playmakers if and when they get a chance. While the Jayhawks lost some star power, this is still a team with a very deep, very talented roster that will compete for a Big XII title, maybe even a Final Four, depending on how some of their bench guys from last season develop.
  3. Baylor: Scott Drew’s club is losing both Ekpe Udoh and Tweety Carter, their best interior player and starting point guard from a year ago. Coming back, however, is LaceDarius Dunn, a Big XII player of the year candidate that was second in the league is scoring as a junior. The Bears will also once again have a very big, very athletic front line headlined by freshman phenom Perry Jones. Jones is a kid with a ton of potential -- size, mobility, perimeter skills -- but he lacks some aggressiveness and assertiveness. His partner up front is 6'7" junior Quincy Acy, an athletic freak that quite possibly could be the hardest dunker in the country. Rounding out the Bears front line is Anthony Jones, a 6'10" lefty with three point range, Cody Jefferson, a highly regarded recruit that didn’t get many minutes as a freshman, and 6'8" junior Fred Ellis. The issue for Baylor is going to be their back court, specifically at the point. AJ Walton had a promising start to his freshman season, starting the first four games for Baylor with Carter out. Walton, who proved to be a solid defender as well, will need to be able to fill the void left by Carter. Nolan Dennis, another highly regarded sophomore that saw limited minutes, will be counted on for increased production as well. whie freshman point guard Stargell Love will see time. Baylor has a star in Dunn and size and athleticism up front. Depending on how guys like Jones, Acy, Dennis, and (especially) Walton develop, Baylor could very well finish in the top three or four in the league.
  4. Missouri: You know what you are going to get with Mizzou. They are going to pressure you defensively, using their 40 minutes of hell defense. While the Tigers lose a couple of key role players -- JT Tiller, Zaire “Mr. Big Shot” Taylor, Keith Ramsey -- there is still quite a bit of talent on this roster. It starts in the back court, where leading scorer Kim English and offensive sparkplug Marcus Denmon both return. Promising point guard Michael Dixon also returns, and with the addition of Ricky Kreklow and Phil (freshman) and Matt (JuCo transfer) Pressey, the sons of Paul Pressey, Mike Anderson will be able to go six deep on the perimeter. On the front line, Laurence Bowers and Justin Safford are both versatile 6'8" forwards that are athletic, can defend, and have three point range. Junior Steve Moore, sophomore John Underwood, and freshman Kadeem Green will also see time up front. Perhaps the biggest knock suffered by Mizzou this offseason was the investigation into Tony Mitchell. Mitchell is the kind of versatile, athletic forward that thrives in Mizzou’s system. Even without him, this is a tournament team that, possibly a top four team in the league.
  5. Texas: The Longhorns were quite the disappointment last season. A preseason national title favorite that climbed to No. 1 in the country, the ‘Horns stumbled down the stretch, eventually being ousted in the first round by Wake Forest. While the Longhorns lose a ton of talent -- Damion James, Avery Bradley, Dexter Pittman, Justin Mason -- this roster was as equipped as any to handle it. In the back court, J’Covan Brown, Jordan Hamilton, and Jai Lucas are back, while Dogus Balbay should be back to full strength after suffering a season ending injury last season. The best Longhorn guard may just end up being Cory Joseph, a top ten recruit out of Canada that could very well be the starter at the point from day one. Don’t be surprised is Jordan Hamilton becomes a dangerous player for Rick Barnes. He’s a gunner, but if he can learn some shot selection, the kid can really put up points in a hurry. The front court is a bit thinner than it was last year, with Gary Johnson, Alexis Wangmene, and seldom-used Shawne Williams all back. Like the guards, the best big man of the group will likely end up being Tristan Thompson, Joseph’s high school teammate at Findlay Prep and fellow Canadian. I don’t think the Longhorns can win a Big XII title this season, but a top four finish and possibly a Sweet 16 run are not out of the question.
  6. Texas A&M: It was a rough year to be an Aggie, between Derrick Roland’s leg, Tobi Oyedeji’s unfortunate passing, and the loss of Brian Davis and Donald Sloan. The cupboard is far from bare, however. BJ Holmes and Dash Harris both looked like they could develop into good players in the Big XII, especially with the amount of minutes opening up in the Aggie back court. Expect sophomore Naji Hibbert to see an increased role on the perimeter as well. Up front, A&M has a fairly solid rotation. David Loubeau may be primed for a break out season, as he looked very impressive last season, and with Khris Middleton, Ray Turner, and Nathan Walkup returning and three freshman coming into the program at 6'8" or taller, the Aggies once again look like they are going to be a physical defensive team. Mark Turgeon’s clubs have never been flashy. They grind you out and win games through execution and defense. This team is loaded with offensive firepower, but if a couple of guys develop and this group continues to play the way Turgeon wants them to, this group should be, at the least, in the bubble conversation come February.
  7. Colorado: The Buffaloes, perennially a Big XII doormat, finished eighth in the league last year and stand to make another jump this season. Colorado, who lost head coach Jeff Bzdelik to Wake Forest in the spring, return essentially their entire starting line-up, including Alec Burks and Cory Higgins. Burks and Higgins are two of the most underrated players in the country, mainly because they play for a Colorado team that rarely gets national exposure. They play different styles -- Burks is more of a slasher and a small forward, while Higgins is one of those crafty scoring guards with “old-man” game -- but combined, they averaged over 35 ppg. Burks was also the team’s leading rebounder. Also returning is Marcus Relphorde, a forward who transferred in from Indian Hill CC, that is a solid defender and led the team in threes. Beyond that, Colorado doesn’t have a ton of talent on their roster. Nate Tomlinson is a decent point guard, there are a couple of capable bigs, and new head coach Tad Boyle will have two freshman at his disposal. This team will ride their big two, but if the Buffs can get a bench and a couple of other role players stepping up alongside Relphorde, there is a decent shot this team makes a run at the tournament.
  8. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lost their two leading scorers in James Anderson and Obi Muonelo, but the rest of the roster is returning for Travis Ford. And while the 35 ppg that those two provided is a lot to replace, there are some pieces on this roster. Keiton Page and Ray Penn are both undersized in the back court, but make no mistake that both are talented kids. Nick Sidorakis and Fred Gulley should both see expanded roles in the back court as well, with freshman Markel Brown also getting some valuable minutes. A big issue the Cowboys are going to face losing Muonelo is that he was a good enough rebounder at 6'4" that he was able to play the four. It will be interesting to see how Ford handles that change. Don’t be surprised if Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim start to play more together, but there are still going to be quite a few minutes to be earned. Last year’s crop of newcomers -- Roger Franklin, Torin Walker, Jarrid Shaw -- had quite first years, with Franklin the only one cracking the rotation. This year, four newbies -- freshmen Michael Cobbins (a top 50 recruit and Ford’s best newcomer) and Brian Williams, Juco transfers Darrell Williams and JP Olukemi -- will have a good chance at earning playing time. The Cowboys will be a borderline tournament team this season, but the future looks good in Stillwater.
  9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders got off to a hot start last season, but thanks to a late losing streak fell (way) out of contention for an NCAA bid. The good news is that Tech brings back seven of their top nine, including leading scorers forward Mike Singletary and point guard Jon Roberson. Singletary and Roberson form one of the better 1-2 punches in the league. Tech is much more than just those two, however. David Tairu is a tough kid that should start alongside Roberson in the back court. Brad Reese, D’walyn Roberts, Theron Jenkins, and Robert Lewandowski form a solid quartet of front court players. I like the make up of this roster -- a lot of experience (nine upperclassmen, seven seniors), a lot of tough kids, two go-to players. The question will be whether Pat Knight can make it all come together on the defensive end of the floor.
  10. Nebraska: Like Colorado, the Cornhuskers will be playing their final season in the Big XII. But unlike the Buffaloes, Nebraska doesn’t look like they will make much noise in the league on their way out the door. If the Huskers are anything, they are big. With Brian Diaz returning and Christopher Niemann (hopefully) getting healthy after back-to-back acl tears, Nebraska will be able to boast two seven foot centers. Also expect a big season out of 6'8" forward Christian Standhardinger, who averaged 8.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg in a super productive 15 mpg after missing the first 15 games of the year with eligibility issues. Brandon Richardson, Eshaunte Jones, and Lance Jeter give the Huskers an adequate back court, but there is simply not enough talent on this roster to give Nebraska a shot at competing in the league.
  11. Oklahoma: Jeff Capel is facing quite the rebuilding process in Norman. Many expected the Sooners to be a top 25 team last season, but injuries and attitude problems kept Oklahoma near the bottom of the league. And now, with their top four scorers gone, Capel will be playing this season with, essentially, one returning upperclassmen -- senior shooting guard Cade Davis. The cupboard isn’t completely bare. Steven Pledger and Andrew Fitzgerald both showed flashes of promise as freshmen. Capel also brings in seven newcomers, headlined by top 50 small forward Cameron Clark. The biggest issue Capel is going to face this season is a lack of size inside, as there are really only three post players on the entire roster. It will be a while before the Sooners are competing for the Big XII title in hoops again.
  12. Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg is going to have a long season in his first year back at Iowa State. His two best players -- Craig Brackins and Marqus Gilstrap -- are both pursuing professional careers. Lucca Staiger left the team midseason for to return to Germany. Charles Boozer was kicked out. Their home court was flooded. Its so bad in Ames that Greg McDermott left to return to the MVC and Creighton, which may actually be the better job. Senior Diante Garrett is a bright spot for the Cyclones, and he may be the only one. I can honestly say that Iowa State could go winless in the Big XII, and I wouldn’t be that surprised.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.