1. Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self will look to reload Kansas’ talent pool rather than retool this season, as he brings in one of the top freshmen in the country in Josh Jackson. Jackson will be the most talented player on the floor on most nights, but it will be Frank Mason III, the team’s primary ball handler, who will be the most crucial to Kansas’ success. as he looks to replace the leadership and scoring lost by departed senior forward Perry Ellis. With Mason at the team’s other starting guard spot will be junior Devonte Graham, who like Mason, is a very capable ball handler and will allow Kansas to have one of the best guard duos in the country.
Without Ellis, as well as guard Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas will need promising sophomore guard Lagerald Vick and talented but enigmatic sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr. to take on more prominent roles this season. These two, along with Jackson, will have to take up most of the scoring lost from Selden and Ellis (30.7 ppg) if the Jayhawks hope to contend nationally. Jackson is a silky smooth athlete in the same mold as Andrew Wiggins. Unlike Wiggins in his time at Kansas, Jackson has a killer instinct that will allow him to take control of games very early on in his career. If Mason can take the reigns, and Vick and Bragg can take the next step, look for Kansas to once again take the Big 12 regular season title.
2. Texas Longhorns
With the Big 12 ultimately being a battle for second place after Kansas, Shaka Smart will attempt to lead his young team to that position in the conference standings. It won’t be easy, Smart loses a lot of talent in Isaiah Taylor, Cameron Ridley, and Javan Felix, the team’s three leading scorers a season ago, as well as Connor Lammert, who played 28.6 mpg for the Longhorns a season ago. Sophomore Kerwin Roach Jr., although suspended for their first game, should take on most of the workloads Taylor left behind as the Longhorns’ primary ball handler. Roach, a sophomore, will have to take a big step forward as the front man of Smart’s trademark Havoc defense. Alongside Roach in the backcourt will be sophomore Eric Davis Jr., who, like Roach, came off the bench for the Longhorns on most nights. The transition these two make to a starting role will have an impact on how far they can go.
Beyond Roach and Davis, Smart and the Longhorns’ success will depend on the development of five-star freshman center Jarrett Allen. Allen, who will replace Ridley in the frontcourt, is a much better athlete than his predecessor. Unlike the big-bodied Ridley, Allen is lean, smooth, and athletic. Although Roach will be the head man of the Texas defense, Allen is the most important piece because of his length and ability to protect the rim. If Allen continues to develop, he will be leading the defensive oriented Longhorns to a second place finish in the conference and potential Sweet Sixteen berth.
3. Baylor Bears
Baylor has the difficult task of replacing Taurean Prince, the 12th pick in the NBA draft, and Rico Gathers, currently a tight end on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad. Most of the production lost from those two will be replaced by Johnathan Motley. Motley will become the primary option in the post for the Bears and will use his athleticism to beat opponents. Motley will be joined in the starting lineup by junior forward Terry Maston. Both Motley and Maston will struggle to replace the shooting that Prince provided for the Bears last season.
Luckily for them, they won’t have to, as University of Miami transfer Manu Lecomte will become Baylor’s best shooter as soon as he steps on the floor. Lecomte shot 43.4% from three in his two seasons at Miami, while starting 40 of 71 games. His shooting will be crucial in providing floor spacing for Motley to operate in the post offensively. Lecomte will be a crucial piece for the Bears if they hope to make a run in the NCAA tournament, because once March rolls around, a player getting hot from deep can make an enormous difference. Next to him in the backcourt will be Allerik Freeman, who is no slouch from three, shooting 38.4% from deep last year on nearly 4 attempts per game. He should receive even more open looks this year with Lecomte being such a threat from beyond the arc. The trio of Lecomte, Freeman, and the aforementioned Motley should lead the Bears to their second Sweet Sixteen appearance in three years.
4. Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State will be lead by senior guard, and potential Big 12 player of the year candidate, Monte Morris. Morris is one of the best players in the country and will need to do it all for the Cyclones this year. Morris will be relied upon to take over games with his scoring ability, and an uptick in his rebounding wouldn’t be surprising either. That’s because Iowa State will need to replace an immense amount of rebounding with the losses of Georges Niang (20.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Abdel Nader (12.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg), and Jameel McKay (11.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg). Morris is already a great passer as well, averaging 6.9 assists per game. Seeing a triple double or two this year would not be surprising.
The burden of replacing all of those rebounds will fall on the shoulders of incoming Louisiana Tech graduate transfer Merrill Holden, who will be the Cyclones primary post presence. Holden averaged 5.0 rpg for the Bulldogs and that number will need to increase for the Cyclones to make a run this year. Iowa State should still be reliable from the perimeter with the returns of senior 3-point specialist Matt Thomas (43.2%), and senior wing Deonte Burton, who looks to have a great stroke as well shooting 47.4% from deep, although on only 38 attempts. If Holden can be a presence in the post and force the defense to crash, it should create more chances for Burton and Thomas, and allow Morris to create offensive, giving the Cyclones their sixth straight tournament appearance and hope for another Sweet Sixteen run.
5. Texas Tech Red Raiders
After losing Tubby Smith to Memphis, the Red Raiders will turn to Chris Beard to lead them. Beard led Arkansas-Little Rock to a 30-5 record in his lone season there, and in the year prior, he was at Angelo State, a division two program. Beard’s team will be led by senior forward Zach Smith, one of two returning players to average at least 10 ppg last year, with senior forward Aaron Ross being the other. Smith will have to dominate the post this year and continue to rebound at a high level for the Red Raiders to have success.
They will need to replace last years leading scorer Toddrick Gotcher as well as second leading scorer Devaughnah Williams. Justin Gray will have to replace Gotcher’s shooting production, as he is their best returning shooter from deep. Their scoring production will have to come from junior Keenan Evans who averaged 8.7 ppg last year. Evans will need that number to jump to 12-13 for them to have any hope of getting a top eight seed in the NCAA tournament. With the help of Beard, I expect them to do just that and reach their second straight NCAA tournament.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma has the unenviable task of replacing last year’s Wooden Award winner, Buddy Hield. There really is no replacing of Hield, so Oklahoma will look to spread the ball around more and disperse the missing 25 ppg across the lineup. Taking on the largest portion will be senior guard Jordan Woodard. Woodard should see is ppg increase from 13 to close to 20. Woodard will take over primary ball handler responsibilities after the graduation of Isaiah Cousins and should see an increase in his assist totals as well.
Junior forward Khadeem Lattin will be the primary beneficiary of the departure of Ryan Spangler, as Lattin now becomes the Sooners’ go-to post player. Lattin will have to replace the 9 rpg as well as Spangler’s 10.2 ppg. Lattin should be up to the task, but his increased activity at the offense end may cause a decrease in his defensive prowess, which he played at an elite level last year. With Lattin and Woodard taking the reigns of the Sooners’ offense, and Lattin’s defensive ability, Oklahoma should find themselves once again fighting for an NCAA tournament berth.
7. West Virginia Mountaineers
Realistically, Tarik Phillip, Daxter Miles Jr. or Jevon Carter could have been the key player or X Factor for the Mountaineers. West Virginia will go as these three upperclassmen guards go. Bob Huggins has his work cut out for him this year, as he must replace the team’s leading scorer in Jaysean Paige and their leading rebounder in Devin Williams. Not only that, but he must replace the key cog to his full court press in Jonathan Holton. Holton’s length was key in pressuring teams last year and forcing a large amount of turnovers and bad decisions.
Williams and Holton do not look like they will be replaced easily, so Huggins will turn to his set of guards to spearhead his pressing attack. Phillip will likely lead the offense in scoring, because of his shooting ability while Carter figures to have the ball in his hands the most. West Virginia will struggle to rebound like they did last year without Williams and Holton crashing the offensive boards, so the turnovers must come in bunches if they intend on making the NCAA tournament with almost no frontcourt ability.
8. Texas Christian University Horned Frogs
Jamie Dixon’s first year at TCU looks like it will be a difficult one for the Horned Frogs. Dixon has already started to recruit at a higher level, but it will take a few years until the talent and depth are there for his use. For now, he will rely on freshman guard Jaylen Fisher, who is already the most talented player on the roster. Fisher will be the primary ball handler and will have a high usage rate because of it, putting a lot of pressure on the true freshman’s shoulders. To alleviate some of that pressure, Fisher will have junior guard Alex Robinson next to him. Robinson is a transfer from Texas A&M and figures to have a large role in Jamie Dixon’s offense. If Fisher struggles to adapt to Big 12 basketball, TCU could be in for a very long year, possibly even bottoming out at last place in the conference.
9. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Brad Underwood will not have an easy first year as head coach of the Cowboys. Oklahoma State returns most of its best players from last year, but that team went 12-20 with a 3-15 record in the Big 12. Guard Jawun Evans is the best player that Oklahoma State has, and he’s only a sophomore, so there is reason for hope for the future. Evans is a volume scorer, and only shot 47.1% from the field last year, but that should improve with the return of Phil Forte, Forte is a senior guard and a high level shooter. Having Forte should open Evans up more to get better looks. Outside of Evans and Forte, Oklahoma State will struggle to find any high level scoring. Players like Leyton Hammonds and Cameron McGriff may find themselves averaging near double-digits, if only for the fact that Underwood’s offenses tend to be position-less, allowing for players to take advantage of matchups and creating high scoring games. Underwood could find himself vying for an NCAA tournament berth by the time Evans is a senior, but for now, they’ll be stuck at the bottom of the Big 12.
10. Kansas State Wildcats
There isn’t a whole lot to say about the Wildcats in 2016. Bruce Weber is looking at what may be his last year at Kansas State, and they no longer have their Mr. Everything in Justin Edwards, who graduated. The good news is that Wesley Iwundu, a third team All-Big 12 selection last year, is returning this year to help anchor a Wildcat defense that was above average last year and looks to be the same again this year. On offense, Kansas State is almost entirely relying on Xavier Sneed to replace Edwards and be their offense for 2016. Sneed, like Edwards can do a little bit of everything as a wing but the entire offensive workload being his responsibility will be too much to handle for the true freshman. He’ll show flashes all year, but ultimately, this team will struggle mightily and Bruce Weber will be looking for a job come March.
Top 5 Draft Prospects
1. Josh Jackson, G/F, Kansas Jayhawks
Jackson is arguably the best prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft. The comparisons to Andrew Wiggins are easy to make because he goes to Kansas, but Jackson truly is that level of a talent. He is an elite athlete who takes no possessions off and plays a high level of defense. He will need to work on his shooting as he works his way through his freshman year, but his ability to get to the rim will be enough at the college level to dominate. Unlike Wiggins in college, Jackson has the killer instinct to take over games and will do just that at times this year at Kansas. Jackson is a surefire top 3 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
2. Jarrett Allen, F/C, Texas Longhorns
Allen will be able to showcase his elite length and athleticism in Shaka Smart’s Havoc defense this year. He has the length to be an elite defensive center in the NBA, but he needs to add weight if he doesn’t want to get bullied by NBA centers. He is limited to being a rim runner offensively, but that still has value in today’s game, and could still allow him to be a lottery pick. He must learn to play with more intensity. Allen could benefit from staying in college until his sophomore year in order to hit the ground running at the next level, but it would not be a total surprise to see him sneak into the first round with a good freshman year at Texas.
3. Lagerald Vick, G/F, Kansas Jayhawks
Vick has received a lot of praise this offseason, even being called the team’s most improved player by Bill Self. Vick is a great athlete, but his skill level has been a work in progress. He is good at getting to the rim and plays tough defense, but Vick struggles with his jump shot. Vick could see his stock soar this year if he has improved as much as Self says he has, and could find his way into the first round of the NBA Draft.
4. Kerwin Roach, G, Texas Longhorns
Like the rest of the top 5, Roach is a tremendous athlete. Roach explodes to the rim with the best of them, quite possibly the freakiest athlete on the college level, and he can blow by most college defenders. Roach will need to develop better passing skills, and will have the opportunity to do that as the main ball handler of the Texas offense. Roach has the kind of athleticism that can make NBA scouts drool, but he needs to develop the basketball skills necessary to compete at a high level if he wants to become a first round pick.
5. Johnathan Motley, F, Baylor Bears
Motley is a player that may translate better to the NBA level than college. Motley is a great athlete but not a good basketball player. He can make a big play defensively to spur momentum for his team, then go down the floor and turn the ball right back over. Decision making is the area he needs to show improvement, and the hope is that he will show better maturity this season. At the college level, he can rebound and defend because of his physical advantages, but he’ll need to learn to box out and play more fundamentally if he wants to get drafted. Motley’s best hope to play in the NBA is to be a high energy defender and rebounder off of the bench.