LAWRENCE — If Kansas is to win an unprecedented 10th straight Big 12 regular-season basketball title this spring, the Jayhawks will have vanquished an Oklahoma State squad that could be their most dangerous challenger yet.
The Cowboys return sophomore guard Marcus Smart, the reigning Big 12 player of the year, and two other players (Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash) with pro potential.
For now, consider the two programs co-favorites: Kansas and Oklahoma State tied for first in the Big 12 basketball preseason coaches poll, which was announced Thursday morning.
The two teams split the 10 first-place votes, and each coach is not allowed to vote for his own team. That means KU coach Bill Self and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford each cast a first-place vote for the other’s team.
It’s the third time the preseason Big 12 poll has resulted in a tie — the last time was 2012, when Kansas and Texas A&M shared preseason honors. (The Jayhawks won the Big 12 title.)
“Like I’ve said all along, preseason predictions don’t mean much,” Self said. “I know going into it that other teams in our league, primarily Oklahoma State, return basically their entire team and we have a lot of newcomers.”
That’s certainly the case. The Jayhawks will feature five new starters off last year’s team, which earned a No. 1 seed and advanced to the Sweet 16 before falling to No. 4-seed Michigan. Kansas also has a roster with six freshmen and eight total newcomers — seven of whom are eligible to play minutes this year.
But by now, it’s hard to pick against Kansas in the Big 12. In Self’s 10 seasons at KU, the Jayhawks have been the preseason choice six times. Each time, they’ve backed up the prediction with another Big 12 title. Add in the deepest recruiting class of Self’s tenure at Kansas, and the Jayhawks look capable of adding a 10th Big 12 trophy.
In all, Kansas has won at least a share of the Big 12 title in 13 of the league’s 17 seasons.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to put ourselves in a position to play for a championship,” Self said. “I am excited about the pieces we have and I look forward to the challenge of being able to compete in what will be, once again, a highly competitive league.”
Baylor, with returning standouts Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson, is picked third.
Iowa State was projected fourth, the highest preseason spot for the the program since 2000-01. The Cyclones, led by Melvin Ejim, are looking to make it back to the NCAA Tournament after reaching the third round last season.
The teams picked tied for fifth, Kansas State and Oklahoma, made the NCAA Tournament last year, and both have big shoes to fill.
The Wildcats lose their top two players from last year, Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez. The Sooners are replacing scoring and rebounding leader Romero Osby.
West Virginia, Texas, Texas Tech and TCU were the final four in the poll.