College Sports

College basketball preview: Big 12 wonders if it's finally not Kansas' year

Baylor has so many potential NBA players on its roster that the Bears have become a popular darkhorse pick to make the Final Four.

If everything falls into place for Scott Drew's bunch, that seems like an attainable goal. Come April, preseason Big 12 player of the year Perry Jones, gifted forward Quincy Acy and the versatile Quincy Miller could find themselves in New Orleans before jumping to the professional ranks.

But can they also bring a Big 12 championship trophy to Waco, Texas for the first time in program history? Somehow, that aspiration seems more difficult.

Like everyone else in the Big 12, the Bears, despite all their talent, are still looking up at Kansas.

"Until somebody beats them," Drew said, "they are obviously the champs in my book."

The Jayhawks, under coach Bill Self, have been champs for a long time. They have won or shared the conference championship in seven consecutive seasons. When the Big 12 released their preseason coaches poll, it came as no surprise that five of them picked Kansas first and it sat atop the poll in a tie with Texas A&M.

Though many began predicting the Jayhawks' streak to end when they lost Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Josh Selby to the NBA, and incoming recruits Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor were ruled academically ineligible, they remain the most respected team in the conference.

If they win the league this season, that respect will grow even higher.

But this is the best chance programs like Texas A&M, Baylor and Missouri have had to dethrone the Jayhawks in years. All three are on an upswing, while traditional powers Kansas and Texas begin the season with question marks.

The Longhorns return only four players who contributed a year ago, and the Jayhawks don't have any proven talents beyond Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson. Inexperience, injuries and the Big 12's new round-robin schedule could all be difficult to overcome.

"We're a very thin team," Self said. "We're a thin team that's pretty talented. But certainly less margin for error, because we don't have the depth that we had in years past."

Kansas will rely on junior guard Elijah Johnson, swingman Travis Releford and center Jeff Withey much more than it did a year ago. Self is high on both Johnson and Releford, and Withey has potential as a shot-blocker.

The hope is all three can develop into solid role players next to Taylor and Robinson, and Kansas can defend its usual spot on top of the Big 12.

"I don't think really expectations should change that much," Self said. "We've got good players. We don't have the numbers that we've had in the past. There would be a lot of teams that like to start a team with Taylor at point and Robinson inside. I mean, that's not a bad way to start a team."

But will it be enough at the end of the year? Texas A&M, behind standout guard Khris Middleton and new coach Billy Kennedy, will have something to say about that. So will Missouri, which returns five players who scored more than 10 points per game last season, and Baylor.

In past seasons, many teams in the old Big 12 South division have complained that Kansas had an unfair scheduling advantage by playing Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa State twice a year while they only faced them once. That complaint is no more.

All 10 teams in the Big 12 will play each other home and away this season. Everybody will face the same, more difficult schedule.

"Thirteen and five got you third in the league the last couple of years," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. "Thirteen and five will probably be a strong record and one good enough to win the league the way it is right now."

The new schedule might not be as hard as some coaches will make it out to be. Four teams are breaking in new coaches this season, and Oklahoma and Texas Tech are in total rebuilding mode.

But the top of the conference is still strong. At least five teams should make it to the NCAA Tournament, and some will be capable of making deep runs into March, Baylor included.

"Top to bottom, this is the deepest team I've ever coached," Drew said. "Our league is going to be good this year, but we really feel good about the options we will put on the floor. We have a great chance to win the Big 12,"

First they have to get by Kansas.

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