2013-14 Conference Previews: Big 12
Last season may not have met expectations, but Scott Drew’s squad made the best of their situation and ended the season with a win in the NIT Championship. There will be big expectations again this year, and last year’s most vital player, point guard Pierre Jackson, has moved on. Still, the high expectations are not without legitimate reasons, starting with the frontcourt. Senior Cory Jefferson and sophomore Isaiah Austin may both be in position for big seasons. Jefferson, who finally had his chance at big minutes last season, uses his athleticism well to finish around the basket. The 7’1 Austin is capable of scoring from the post and the perimeter, though his lack of strength affects him around the basket on offense and defense. Strength is not a problem for sophomore Rico Gathers. Gathers plays much like an old-school power forward, backing players down in the post and using his wide-body to rebound. Senior guard Brady Heslip is the team’s gunner, with more than ¾ of his shots coming from behind the arc. Heslip’s ability to hit at around a 40% clip does open up the floor for his teammates. Freshman guard Ish Wainright is a bull when he gets the ball, using his body to power his way to the basket.
What to Watch For – Though Jackson was known more his scoring abilities, he did a good job last season running the Bears’ offense and distributing the ball. His replacement should be JUCO transfer Kenny Chery, whose game is similar to Jackson in a lot of ways. Jackson had some troubles adjusting his first year at the NCAA level as a distributor, so it will be worth monitoring how Chery adjusts, especially with a talented group around him relying on getting the ball.
Fred Hoiberg has built a consistent winner at Iowa State with a healthy influx of transfers, but the most important players on the team this season may be one who started in Ames last year as a freshman and one in his 4th year there. Georges Niang is a highly-skilled forward capable of scoring, rebounding and is a good passer out of the high or low post. He is joined in the frontcourt by senior Melvin Ejim is an undersized 4, but he is constantly active, allowing him to be a big contributor without having to have plays run for him. Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane is a point guard with good size, the ability to get into the lane, but some control issues. Junior Percy Gibson has garnered a lot of minutes over two years, but as a wide-bodied center, he offers the Cyclones an efficient scorer around the basket who can bang bodies with bigger players. Freshman Monte Morris will get minutes at the point, allowing Kane to look to score more.
What to Watch For – The Cyclones lost 4 players who averaged more than 9 points per game, including the 3 biggest perimeter threats in Chris Babb, Tyrus McGee and Korie Lucious. Scoring will need to come from somewhere, though Kane is capable of scoring in bunches next to Niang and Ejim. Freshman Matt Thomas was one of the top high school shooters in the Class of 2013 and should help immediately, as well as Sherron Dorsey-Walker, a guard who redshirted last season. Both of those players will need to show something to open up the court for Kane and Niang.
It’s not easy for a team to replace 5 starters off of a Sweet 16 team, but that’s what Bill Self has to do this year, and he may just have a better team come next March. Junior Naadir Tharpe has had the opportunity to watch and learn from Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson, and now it’s his turn to run the show. Tharpe showed a nice ability to distribute and get the offense moving as Johnson’s back-up this year, but part of his charge this season will be breaking in a new group of players, both returning players who played limited minutes or freshmen. Perry Ellis showed flashes of his scoring ability throughout the season, but really started to show what he could do towards the end of the season, including 23 points on 10 of 12 shooting in the Big 12 semifinals. Ellis uses his athleticism well around the basket, and he has gotten more aggressive when he catches the ball and looks to attack. Redshirt sophomore Jamari Traylor and redshirt freshman Landen Lucas will provide forwards who look to be active on the offensive glass and can guard multiple forward spots. Memphis transfer Tarik Black never really showed much scoring in 3 years with the Tigers, but he is a physical post player who will help the Jayhawks with defense and rebounding.
What to Watch For – It’s all about the freshmen. The players mentioned above will all contribute to Kansas’ success, but how far the Jayhawks advance in the NCAA Tournament is dependent on how far a star-studded freshmen class comes along. Andrew Wiggins was the #1 high school player in the country last year, and many may think he will be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft next year. Athletic and skilled, Wiggins is capable of scoring in a variety of ways, including some highlight reel dunks. Wayne Selden Jr. Another big-time athlete who can score and defend, Selden’s ability to hit from the perimeter will make him valuable right away. Center Joel Emblid is a raw 7-footer, but his ability to block shots will help fill the gap left by the graduation of Jeff Withey. Brannen Greene is a solid scorer from the wing, though his minutes will likely be very limited this year just due to the talent ahead of him. It’s an impressive group with a lot of potential, but how quickly it comes together will be the key to Kansas’ season.
Bruce Weber’s team impressed last season, even in a down year for the Big 12. 27 wins, including 14 conference wins had them easily in the NCAA Tournament, though they exited quickly. Some of the key components from that team are gone, and Weber will be hard-pressed to lead them back to the NCAA’s. The team’s leading scorer, Rodney McGruder, graduated and point guard Angel Rodriguez transferred to Miami. The senior backcourt of Shane Southwell and Will Spradling is experienced, and they may have been the team’s 2 best perimeter threats last season. Thomas Gipson uses his big body well around the basket, and he the Wildcats may need him to be a bigger force on the glass. Guards Omari Lawrence and Nino Williams will have a shot at increased minutes on the wing, and the Wildcats will need at least one to emerge as a scoring threat.
What to Watch For – The loss of McGruder and Rodriguez, as well as center Jordan Henriquez, leaves holes in many areas, and nobody on the team has shown flashes of being anything other than a role player. Southwell and Spradling did fine when the focus wasn’t on them, but how will they respond when the team is relying on them. Spradling may end up with point guard duties, though most of his game experience has been off the ball. It may be a period of trial and error for Coach Weber as he tries to find an 8 or 9 man rotation that can compete at a high level all year.
Lon Krueger has turned around another program that was going through a rough period, and he has put the Sooners in position to carry this turnaround forward at least a few more years. This season though, Krueger is dealing with some big losses, including the team’s 3 leading scorers, top 2 rebounders, and leading assist man. Senior Cameron Clark came off the bench last year after 2 seasons as a starter, and he should make his way back into the starting line-up again. Sophomore guard Buddy Hield played a lot as a freshman, and while fun to watch, he wasn’t very efficient on the offensive end. Fellow sophomore guards Je’lon Hornbeak and Isaiah Cousins were a bit better shooters, but not by much. All 3 will need to find ways to get better shots this season. Massive JUCO transfer Keshaun Hamilton should give the Sooners a decent post presence, though he will have to prove himself first. Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler should get strong minutes right away at the 4, and he should be able to help right away on the boards. JUCO transfer DJ Bennett didn’t play last season, but he will bring an athletic scorer who likes to get out in the open court.
What to Watch For – All of the returning guards are more scorers than they are actual “point guards” so it may fall on newcomer Jordan Woodard. Woodard was a do-it-all guard in high school, but with plenty of scoring guards, he should an opportunity to ease into the college game looking just to set his teammates up. If Cousins ends up at the point, there is a good chance the offense will not run smoothly, so Woodard will need to prove himself quickly.