By Blake Lovell
What is the best conference in college basketball?
Everyone makes their arguments, and we all agree to disagree. But heading into the 2015-2016 college basketball season, one conference may be solidifying its case as the best conference in the country.
The Big 12 enters the new campaign surrounded by intrigue. There’s three potential national contenders, which we’ll get to shortly. There’s two new coaches – Shaka Smart at Texas and Steve Prohm at Iowa State – set to make a big splash in their first years. And then there’s the usual assortment of highly-talented players all around the conference.
Sure, it’s possible that the Big 12 will come up empty in its search for a national title. However, you can guarantee that it won’t be boring to watch.
5 Storylines to Watch
1. Is Oklahoma a legitimate national title contender?
Buddy Hield won the Big 12 Player of the Year award in 2014 for a reason. Instead of taking his talents to the NBA, he came back to Norman to take a shot at winning it all. A lot of talent returns on a Sooners team that managed 24 wins and a Sweet 16 berth a year ago. With Hield leading the way and players like Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler backing him up, there’s no doubt that Oklahoma has the talent to win a national title. But finding consistency will be key in making a serious March run. Will the momentum of last season’s success help get them there?
2. How quickly can Shaka Smart transform Texas?
Talent has never been an issue for the Texas Longhorns. Getting the most out of that talent has been. Insert Smart, who will look to bring the same type of up-tempo style to Texas that he had so much success with at VCU. The question is, how long will it take? Smart already has a talented enough roster at his disposal to win a lot of games, and the expectations in year one shouldn’t be incredibly high due to the time it takes to implement a new system. Passion and energy will be what drives Texas this season, and as more talent makes its way to Austin over the next several years, the Longhorns will find themselves back in the national title picture.
3. Can Steve Prohm keep the momentum going at Iowa State?
The Cyclones were a national title contender a year ago. But a shocking round of 64 upset courtesy of UAB combined with the exit of head coach Fred Hoiberg for the Chicago Bulls didn’t make for a calm off-season for Iowa State fans. However, the good news is that the program landed a fantastic leader in former Murray State head coach Steve Prohm. There is also plenty of talent on this roster to give the Cyclones a shot at learning from their March mistakes a season ago and delivering a Final Four run in the process. If Prohm can improve some defensive concerns, a trip to Houston may be in store.
4. Could the Big 12 winner have at least a handful of conference losses this season?
It’s become quite obvious that anyone in the Big 12 can win on any given night. Last season, Kansas finished at 13-5 in the conference, which was the most Big 12 losses the Jayhawks have had in a single season under Bill Self. Don’t be shocked if that same scenario plays out this year. Even lower-tier teams like Kansas State, Texas Tech and TCU will be a threat to knock off the conference’s best teams. That’s why the Big 12 is going to be so fun to watch.
5. How hot is Travis Ford’s seat at Oklahoma State?
Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Travis Ford’s seat in Stillwater is at around 211 degrees Fahrenheit right now. Ford enters his eighth season at the helm, and after bowing out in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, Cowboy fans are begging for improvement. Will that happen? Probably not this season. There are too many unknowns for Oklahoma State heading into the year, as Ford may struggle to replace Le’Bryan Nash, Michael Cobbins and Anthony Hickey. A middle of the pack finish seems to be the ceiling for this team.
Potential Sleeper Team
Right now it appears that the Big 12 title will belong to one of three teams: Kansas, Iowa State, or Oklahoma. While Texas and Baylor are the popular picks to possibly mess with that hierarchy, sleeping on West Virginia would be a mistake. Bob Huggins had the Mountaineers in the Sweet 16 a year ago, and the pressure defense will once again be West Virginia’s biggest strength. If Huggins can find more consistency on offense, no one will want to play this team in the latter stages of the season.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Kansas Jayhawks: As much as we all want to pick someone else winning the Big 12, the Jayhawks are still the class of the conference.
2. Oklahoma Sooners: Really, really, really wanted to put the Sooners at the top. No. 2 will have to do, and Oklahoma is still a legit Final Four contender.
3. Iowa State Cyclones: Prohm’s team should win 25+ games and have the chance at finishing higher than third.
4. Texas Longhorns: They may not be a national title contender just yet, but the Longhorns will easily be a 20-win team.
5. West Virginia Mountaineers: Remember, don’t sleep on this team. Huggins has enough talent to do some damage come March.
6. Baylor Bears: It feels odd putting Baylor this low since they will certainly be an above average team. However, sixth in a loaded Big 12 isn’t exactly terrible.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys: It’s hard to see Ford returning to Stillwater after this season. There simply isn’t enough there for the Cowboys to be contenders.
8. Texas Tech Red Raiders: This team only won 13 games last season and asking for more than 15 or 16 this year may be a tall order. But watch out for this team come 2017.
9. Kansas State Wildcats: The Wildcats may very well be a mess. There are too many unknowns to place them any higher.
10. TCU Horned Frogs: TCU got better last season, but there’s a lot of production to replace. This is still a work in progress for Trent Johnson and company.