After 10 years of winning at least a share of the Big 12 men's basketball conference title, Kansas has generally earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to picking a preseason favorite. The Big 12 coaches gave Kansas the nod this year over Texas, who also ranks second highest among Big 12 in the preseason Top 25 released last week.
But is anything past benefit of the doubt leading voters to place Kansas atop the conference? Kansas was able to win the title outright last year, but not without some bumps in the road that ultimately led to the first 10-loss season of the Bill Self era and an anticlimactic out against Stanford in the first weekend of the tournament.
This year, Kansas must replace the 1st and 3rd picks in the draft in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, along with starting point guard Naadir Tharpe, and first big man off the bench Tarik Black. They have several talented freshman coming in to do just this, but replacing talents like Wiggins and Embiid is a tall order.
Given this, winning an eleventh consecutive conference title will be a difficult task for Self and the Jayhawks. Just how difficult will depend greatly on the level of competition they face. With that in mind, I've set out to take a closer look at Kansas' top competition for the Big 12 crown in 2014-15. Both the Big 12 coaches and the RCT Illuminati have determined that there are only four real competitors for that top spot: Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Kansas State. Below you'll find a breakdown of each team, why they're a threat, and why they might not be good enough to bring home the trophy.
Iowa State Cyclones
2013-14 Record: 28-8 (11-7 Big 12)
2013-14 Finish: T-3rd
Why they're a threat: Fred Hoiberg has earned the benefit of the doubt. Since his rocky first year in Ames, Hoiberg has amassed a 34-20 conference record, and hasn't finished any worse than a tie for 4th. Last year, Iowa State was able to win the Big 12 Tournament and made it to the Sweet 16 in a fantastic offensive year. The 13-14 Cyclones led the Big 12 in both 3 pointers attempted and made, as well as points per game, defensive rebounding and assists. They lose some pieces, but return a conference POTY candidate in Georges Niang, and a very underrated player in Dustin Hogue (124..2 ORtg, 61.4% eFG, 20.3% defensive rebound%), along with young sharpshooters Monte Morris and Naz Long. They also bring in senior transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, the preseason newcomer of the year, and UNLV's leading scorer and assist man from last year's team.
Why they're not: While Hoiberg has a track record of putting together strong teams, he's yet to do better than 12-6 in conference, and he's replacing quite a bit of firepower from last year's team. Along with Niang, DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim were the biggest reasons for ISU's success last year, and both are gone. They have a freshman 7 footer from Greece coming in, but they will likely be playing with a very undersized frontcourt most of the time, and not having Ejim to bang around on the boards will likely bring down their rebounding numbers from last year. While this team is going to be a threat on any given night, they were only able to finish 3rd last year, and may have taken a step back in talent.
Kansas State Wildcats
2013-14 record: 20-13 (10-8 Big 12)
2013-14 finish: 5th
Why they're a threat: The biggest reason Kansas State should be considered a threat is that they return almost everyone from their tournament team last season. The only notable losses are Shane Southwell, who was inconsistent at best during his time in Manhattan, and Will Spradling, who had a very low ceiling as a player at this level. Coming back are big man Thomas Gipson (11.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 9.7% oreb, 18.5% dreb, 56% FG), who finally started to show glimpses of being a strong presence in the paint last year, and Marcus Foster (15.5 PPG, 39.5% 3P, 20.8% assist%), who is an All-Big 12 caliber player. Sophomore Wesley Iwindu should also improve after a decent freshman campaign in which he started all but one game. Bruce Weber has shown he can have success without any NBA talent in his first two seasons at K-State, and he's likely to put together a respectable team with so many young players returning.
Why they're not: Simply put, talent. Foster is an excellent offensive player, and Gipson has been learning some moves on the blocks, but this team will be a step behind their other competitors in athleticism and skill. Though neither Southwell or Spradling is a huge loss talent-wise, it should be noted they were the Wildcats' third and fourth highest scorers from last year. This means that Weber will once again be relying on young, unheralded players to step up and help carry the load. While he may have them ready for a top-half finish, it will be very tough to hang with the very top of the conference.
2013-14 record: 23-10 (12-6 Big 12)
2013-14 finish: 2nd
Why they're a threat: Lon Kruger's Sooners were Kansas' closest competitors last year, and lose only one major player from the team in Cameron Clark. Clark's absence will be felt, but Oklahoma brings in Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas to replace his presence on the boards. Junior guard Buddy Hield is coming off a fantastic offensive season (16.5 PPG, 54.7% eFG, 113.6 ortg), and big man Ryan Spangler (58.4% FG, 125.1 ortg, 12% oreb, 22.8% dreb) is frustratingly good down low. Guards Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard are both outside shooting threats who averaged double digit points last year as well. This team also shot 75% from the free throw stripe last year, making late comebacks tough. Kruger himself has to be considered an asset as well, and it can be safely assumed that he'll have this team ready to play the style that best suits them for the coming season.
Why they're not: It's tough to find a reason, honestly. Oklahoma plays fast and shoots well, but despite their smaller lineup, they don't suffer much defensively or on the glass. Their biggest shortcoming may be reliance on the 3-ball, which they shot more of than anyone in the conference outside of Iowa State. Without a big scoring threat down low, this opens them up to some struggles when threes aren't falling. It also remains to be seen how big a loss Cameron Clark will be, as the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder.
2013-14 record: 24-11 (11-7 Big 12)
2013-14 finish: T-3rd
Why they're a threat: Texas had a pair of excellent post defenders last year in Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, the top rim protecting duo in the conference who led the Longhorns to a 10.1% team block % (1st in the Big 12). This year, they added 5-star freshman Myles Turner to the mix. Throw in stretch 4 Jonathan Holmes, and Texas will likely have the top frontcourt in the Big 12. Guards Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor return to the backcourt, both double-digit scorers themselves. In fact, every player from last year's team returns, putting Rick Barnes' Longhorns in great position to improve on last year's strong results.
Why they're not: Rim protection is important, but so is offense. Texas struggled to get the ball in the basket at times last year, scoring just 1.07 points per possession (7th in the Big 12), with a team eFG% of just 47.4% (9th in the Big 12). Though Felix and Taylor can both score, neither is an adept jump shooter, and the team struggled at the free throw line as well (67.1%, 9th in the Big 12). The 'Horns should be able to score in the post, but if teams can clog the paint effectively and dare Texas to beat them from outside, Texas may find themselves trying to turn games into low-scoring slugfests. With potent offenses in the league like Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma, that may be a tough task.