Last year, within the span of a single season, the Big 12 witnessed the arrival and departure of arguably the most dominant freshman in college basketball history. Now everyone wants to know who will be "this year's Kevin Durant." No contradiction is seen there. Maybe one should be. We are, after all, coming off a season that saw much ink similarly spilled on "who will be this year's George Mason?" The answer, depending on one's point of view, was either "no one" or "Georgetown and/or UCLA," the Hoyas and Bruins being the scrappy underdogs who, as lowly twos, represented the lowest-seeded teams to advance to the 2007 Final Four.
Which is to say Kevin Durant was an event. Hey, the event might happen again, but don't wait up nights, particularly not the very next year, because:
- He was Kevin Durant. Other people are not.
- Durant had help. More than help, really; the stars fairly aligned in Austin last year. It's not inconceivable that another equally talented freshman could emerge, but said freshman may not land on a team with a prodigious assist machine like point guard D.J. Augustin or with a genuine scoring threat in his own right like shooting guard A.J. Abrams.
- Durant was lucky enough to pick a coach, Rick Barnes, who had the rare good sense to give the 18-year-old the keys to the car, as it were, and say: "Have fun." A significant portion of D-I coaches, conversely, would have muttered sagely about needing to work on defense (Durant was in fact an outstanding defensive rebounder), "learning to play at the right speed," etc. Barnes let Durant be Durant. Future absurdly talented freshmen may not be as fortunate.
So instead of scanning the horizon for a "this year's Durant" who may never arrive, we might be better advised to keep our eyes peeled for what we know has to emerge from somewhere in 2008: this year's Florida. Who knows, it could come from the Big 12 in the form of the Kansas Jayhawks. They have a rarefied blend of about-to-be-drafted youth (Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush), defensive warriors (Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson), grizzled old geezers (Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun) and spry depth (Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich). For the second consecutive season, Bill Self has more weapons at his disposal than any other coach in the conference.
Speaking of other coaches in the conference, they're a fast-changing cast of characters. While the latest round of off-season changes wasn't on the same order of magnitude as the previous year's--when half the coaches in the conference were new--this year's shifts mean that over the past two calendar years no fewer than 21 different head coaches have prowled the sidelines in the Big 12. Incredibly, there are just four current Big 12 head coaches who can say they held the same job 30 months ago: Rick Barnes at Texas, Bob Knight at Texas Tech, Scott Drew at Baylor and Bill Self at Kansas. The rest of the conference's jobs have turned over. (Kansas State's has turned over twice.)
So let's meet the new guys…
- Jeff Bzdelik, Colorado. This hire helps Bzdelik continue his quixotic, almost Borat-like personal quest to inhabit, however briefly, every last professional and collegiate head coaching position along the Front Range. Before coming to Boulder, Bzdelik had already served as head coach of both the Denver Nuggets and the Air Force Academy. (Still to come: Northern Colorado and Colorado State.) Bzdelik landed his latest gig by presiding over some famously efficient offenses at Air Force. That caliber of offense won't spring suddenly to life in his first year, of course, but the new coach at CU certainly bears watching. It's a rare D-I coach, to say the least, who brings "X's and O's" and "NBA" together so comfortably in the same sentence. Note, however, that Bzdelik represents what might be called a "reset" hire by Colorado (former coach Ricardo Patton left rather involuntarily) whereas the Big 12's other two new hires represent backfill for previous coaches who left on their own terms.
- Frank Martin, Kansas State. Martin served as an assistant on the staff of former coach Bob Huggins not only at K-State, but at Cincinnati. Huggins is at West Virginia now, but Manhattan is still more interesting than it's been in a long, long while. First, Martin is a head coach for the first time in his career. Second, he'll have a freshman who, like four or five other freshmen nationally, has been called the nation's number-one high school recruit this year: 6'10" power forward Michael Beasley. (Beasley, who by my count appears to have attended no fewer than six high schools, is reportedly a mortal lock for one-and-done status.) Lastly, K-State will be trying to replace one of the best (if most underappreciated) players in the Big 12, the now departed Cartier Martin. A lot of intriguing storylines will collide in Manhattan this season.
- Mark Turgeon, Texas A&M. Turgeon left Wichita State a year later than many thought he might: in 2006 he led the Shockers to the Sweet 16, where they lost to George Mason. The new coach in College Station, like the new coach at Kansas State, has a highly regarded freshman on hand who may be a lottery pick in June: seven-footer DeAndre Jordan should help the Aggies adapt to life without Acie Law. Turgeon replaces Billy Gillispie, now the head coach at Kentucky.
The offseason personnel changes weren't confined to the coaching ranks. Within the span of just a few days this July, the conference lost two prominent seniors-to-be when Missouri's Kalen Grimes and Iowa State's Mike Taylor were both dismissed from their teams. (Grimes was cut loose after he was charged with second-degree felony assault; Taylor was jettisoned for undisclosed reasons.) Will their unscheduled departures hurt their respective teams? Maybe not as much as you think. (More to follow in the coming days.)
Another question this year will be how well the conference's "sophomore" coaches fare. The Big 12 went on a hiring spree before last season and now Greg McDermott (Iowa State), Mike Anderson (Missouri), Doc Sadler (Nebraska), Jeff Capel (Oklahoma) and Sean Sutton (Oklahoma State) are all about to embark on their second seasons. (If you're keeping track that's three pure "reset" hires, one backfill and one none-of-the-above: Sutton. As it happens, all of those teams went 6-10 in-conference last year, with the sole exception of Missouri, who went 7-9.) First-year blanket forgiveness is over for all of them. Now they'll be expected to at least show glimmers of better things to come.
In terms of point differential per possession, last year the gap between Kansas and the second-place team in the North was much larger than that between second place and the cellar. That will likely be the case again this year. With that said, buy your Iowa State stock now. I've seen them projected by some observers as the 12th-best team overall in the Big 12. Don't believe it. Even with all the turmoil and transfers that followed the sudden implosion of former coach Wayne Morgan's tenure, Greg McDermott somehow put a team on the floor that had the fourth-best defense in the conference. And as for the loss of Mike Taylor, well, we'll cover that in the team preview. The Cyclones will do better than expected this year.
In the South, Texas without Durant will be less fun to watch, sure. (How could they not be? Wasn't every game last year 104-103 in triple-OT? Seems like it.) They're still a team with four returning starters, including one outstanding point guard/shooting guard combo in D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams. Meanwhile Oklahoma is well-positioned to make Jeff Capel look good. Their point differential could stay exactly the same and they could improve to 9-7 from 6-10 just by getting a few bounces. Lastly, Oklahoma State has fallen off for a surprising reason. Marcus Dove notwithstanding, they just don't play D in Stillwater anymore.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
Kansas 14.5 85.8 14-2
Missouri 8.0 88.8 8-8
Kansas St. 9.2 44.7 8-8
Iowa St. 4.3 49.1 8-8
Nebraska 5.1 54.3 7-9
Colorado 2.6 69.8 3-13
Texas 11.6 79.3 11-5
Texas A&M 12.7 58.5 10-6
Oklahoma 9.0 64.3 9-7
Baylor 4.5 88.6 8-8
Texas Tech 7.8 59.9 6-10
Oklahoma St. 4.7 48.1 4-12
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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