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Inside the College Game

Sat, 12/15/2007 - 1:34pm

By Adi Joseph
12/15/07

It’s a Bigger, Better 12 this time around.

[img_assist|nid=3584|title=Darrell Arthur - Larry Smith/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=336]The Big 12 is a conference of tradition. Like the Big 10, there is a certain old-school, rough-and-tumble feel about the Midwestern league. Kansas is basketball’s oldest program. Nebraska and Oklahoma are about as decorated as any football programs in the nation. And Texas was as good as anyone in football, basketball or baseball.

For years – essentially since the expansion from eight to 12 – it’s been those schools. You could count on the Jayhawks and Longhorns at the top of the conference hardwood scene while the Huskers, Longhorns and Sooners would scrap it out for the pigskin title. But the tides are turning in the Big 12.

All of a sudden, look around. While Missouri and Kansas are two of college football’s biggest surprises, basketball displays the new Big 12 even more. Texas A&M is No. 12 in the nation. Baylor and Nebraska are a more-than-respectable 14-3 combined, including the Huskers surprising win over No. 16 Oregon this Saturday. Oklahoma and Kansas State are resurgent programs. And Missouri may be able to scrap its way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in years.

Don’t get me wrong. Most, including myself, believe the Pac-10 is easily the top conference in America, even being pushed and going 6-4 in the Pac-10/Big 12 Challenge. But the Big 12 deserves a lot of credit. Big 12 basketball (Kansas aside) has been lambasted in the past for a lower standard of basketball than the other five major conferences. But with two straight years of truly outstanding recruiting classes coming in, the boys from Midwest have made tremendous strides.

Now, the conference has as much young talent as any other than the Pac-10. Including only freshmen and sophomores, the Big 12 talent pool is virtually an All-Star lineup. Start with point guards like D.J. Augustin (Texas), Sherron Collins (Kansas), and Stefhon Hannah (Missouri); continue on with super-talented swingmen like James Anderson (Oklahoma State), LaceDarius Dunn (Baylor) and Bill Walker (Kansas State); and finally, a list of the nation’s elite young big men like Michael Beasley (Kansas State), Darrell Arthur (Kansas), DeAndre Jordan (Texas A&M), Blake Griffin (Oklahoma) and Craig Brackins (Iowa State).

“I think we've had some good early season wins, us winning the NIT, Baylor winning their tournament, KU doing what they're doing, Texas winning at UCLA was huge for our league and huge for them,” Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon told the Houston Chronicle. “I think it's a very capable league. The schedule has helped. We schedule a little more difficult, which is good, and there are a lot more times just getting better.”

With the SEC, ACC and Big 10 all in the midst of relative down-years, the Big 12 is making huge strides. This is the result, in large part, of a core of up-and-coming coaches like Nebraska’s Doc Sadler, Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel and Baylor’s Scott Drew. It also helps that the conference’s marquee programs (Texas and Kansas) are spearheaded by top coaches Rick Barnes and Bill Self, respectively.

Maybe these past two recruiting classes have been flash-in-the-pans. But personally, I’m a believer that we may be seeing a major power shift. And with that, let’s get the ball rolling.

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Rebuilding in the truest sense

No team in the country lost more in two people than Texas A&M. Acie Law was the once-laughable program’s greatest player. Billy Gillespie was the architect of an extraordinary program turnaround.

In 2003-04, Law’s freshman season, the Aggies failed to win a conference game, ending the year with just seven wins. The next season, Gillespie replaced Melvin Watkins at the helm and after just one season took Texas A&M to the NCAA Tournament, followed by a Sweet Sixteen birth.

Coupling the loss of the star and the coach with the departures of sturdy center Antanas Kavaliauskas and key reserve Marlon Pompey, the Aggies are clearly a very different team than they were last season.

But they may not be any worse. DeAndre Jordan is a freshman phenomenon at center and former role players Josh Carter, Dominique Kirk and Donald Sloan have stepped up to ease the loss of Law. And coach Mark Turgeon has brought a slightly new look to the Aggies with continued success.

For everything that the Aggies lost, they are not on my list of the five biggest rebuilding jobs in the country this season. Let’s look into how those teams are rebuilding. Rankings are based on how much each team lost.

1. Florida Gators (Last season W-L: 35-5)

Key Losses: F Corey Brewer, F Joakim Noah, C Al Horford, G Taurean Green, G Lee Humphrey, C Chris Richard

Leading Returning Scorer: G Walter Hodge (5.7 ppg last season)

You shouldn’t have any sympathy for the defending back-to-back National Champions. They got everything they could have wanted from their departed stars, and then some. Coach Billy Donovan, who almost joined his top-six players from last season in the NBA, has kept the Gators alive with a fantastic recruiting class led by guard Nick Calathes, a legitimate star. The Gators are 10-1 so far this season, and they will almost certainly find themselves back in the Big Dance.

This year is proof that the Gators are more than just a flash in the pan, they are an elite program.

REBUILDING GRADE: A- – The Gators may very well find themselves back in the Sweet Sixteen, even if they can’t win a third consecutive Championship.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes (Last season W-L: 35-4)

Key Losses: C Greg Oden, G Mike Conley, G Ron Lewis, G Daequan Cook, F Ivan Harris

Leading Returning Scorer: G Jamar Butler (8.5 ppg last season)

Losing three of the heralded “Thad Five” recruiting class along with two starting seniors is a brutal blow for Thad Matta. He likely expected at least three of the group to return for a second season. But never fear because Matta is an incredible recruiter. Still, the Buckeyes have struggled this season because they lack depth, especially at the wings. Freshman Kostas Koufos is a completely new look at center, but he has replaced Oden admirably for the 6-3 Buckeyes. Matta is beginning to look like a master at retooling.

REBUILDING GRADE: B – There has been a drop-off in talent in Columbus, but that shouldn’t prevent a tournament appearance when the young Buckeyes click.

3. UNLV Rebels (Last season W-L: 30-7)

Key Losses: G Kevin Kruger, F Wendell White, G Michael Umeh, F Gaston Essengue, C Joel Anthony

Leading Returning Scorer: G Wink Adams (13.9 ppg last season)

After proving to be perhaps the top true mid-major (sorry Memphis, you don’t qualify) last season, the Rebels were bound to take a step back. They were a senior laden group, who unlike the previous two teams were not at all raided by the NBA (Anthony has made an NBA roster, though). Coach Lon Kruger, like Donovan, nearly joined his departing players as he could have accepted a job at Michigan. Instead, he’ll help the Rebels push for another Mountain West crown with several good returnees and a heralded recruiting class.

REBUILDING GRADE: B+ – Kruger has turned the Rebels into a true power once again, even if they must deal with a single, small step backwards.

4. Michigan Wolverines (Last season W-L: 22-13)

Key Losses: Coach Tommy Amaker, G Dion Harris, C Courtney Sims, G Lester Abram, F Brent Petway

Leading Returning Scorer: G Jerret Smith (5.7 ppg last season)

What happens when you take the top four players and head coach from a team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament? Probably another down year for Michigan. But Losing Amaker should prove to be a positive for the Wolverines, as new hire John Beilein is a far better coach. Harris, Sims, Abram and Petway were all underachievers, but they still need to be replaced. Freshman Manny Harris has a tremendous future and several role players from last season have stepped up, including DeShawn Sims. But there is still a long way to go for Big Blue.

REBUILDING GRADE: C+ – I knocked the grade up from C- because Beilein is such a huge improvement over Amaker in my eyes.

5. Virginia Tech Hokies (Last season W-L: 22-12)

Key Losses: G Zabian Dowdell, G Jamon Gordon, F Coleman Collins

Leading Returning Scorer: G Deron Washington (12 ppg last season)

Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon were more than one of America’s top backcourts. They were the heart and soul of coach Seth Greenberg’s game plan. Both were four-year starters who excelled on both ends of the court and could do anything Greenberg asked. Coleman Collins was a fairly reliable big man despite seemingly regressing last season. Factor in the loss of top recruit Augustus Gilchrist in the wake of the spring shootings, and the Hokies are a very different team. They are also extremely raw and thin all-around, especially in the backcourt.

REBUILDING GRADE: C- – I like Greenberg as a coach, but his program is significantly worse this season in comparison to last.

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Game Notes:

I’m no women’s basketball advocate, but the women’s game is improving at a steady rate. Candace Parker is a truly special player, but after watching UConn freshman Maya Moore I saw another top-tier player. Women’s college basketball is in for an incredible season… I attended Maryland’s home loss to Ohio Wednesday. It was the Terps’ fourth home non-conference loss in 19 seasons under Gary Williams. The Terps have fallen hard, and were No. 6 on my above list… I’m a huge fan of Pittsburgh this season, and their dismantling of Oklahoma State shows why. The Panthers are an exceptional efficient and tough team… You heard it here first: Arizona State will be a bubble team… The improvements of Mario Chalmers so far this season are going to prove huge for the Jayhawks all season long. He’s got incredible potential… Kentucky was overrated coming into this season because of group-think. Gillespie will turn the Wildcats into a top-tier program again, but it may take two-three years. This season, they’ll be a bubble team just like Arizona State… Clemson is undefeated midway through December again. And once again, I can’t convince myself Oliver Purnell is a good enough coach to deliver on his team’s early promise… Have a good week guys. Thanks for reading.

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