2001-02 Big 12 Conference Preview
by Craig Stanek
From top to bottom, this is one of the strongest conferences in the country. Let’s start with the teams. As most campuses across the country have finished up semester finals, the Big 12 schools have to receive high marks for their non-conference performance thus far. An amazing six of the twelve have either zero or one loss. Three teams (Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma State) appear poised to make a run at the national championship while several others will certainly make the path to this year’s conference title a difficult one.
Then there are the coaches. If you’re looking for experience and proven ability to consistently put winning teams on the court, look no further than Roy Williams at Kansas, Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State, and Dave Bliss at Baylor. No one can argue with the success Larry Eustachy has enjoyed in his three seasons at Iowa State, and Quin Snyder is quickly establishing himself as one of the top young coaches in the game. Oh yes, don’t forget about that “newcomer” down in Lubbock, Texas. Yes, Bobby Knight is back on the bench, having traded in his red Indiana sweater for a black one at Texas Tech. Be certain that “The General” will make his presence felt in the Big 12 – one way or another.
As for the players, if you don’t already know about Missouri’s Kareem Rush, you obviously don’t follow college basketball. The 6-6 junior forward is a preseason first team All-American and is the best pure scorer in the college game today. Kansas’ frontcourt combination of Drew Gooden and Nick Collison can dominate around the glass. Maurice Baker may not exactly be a household name nationally, but he and his fellow Oklahoma State Cowboys deserve some attention. Baker averaged nearly twenty points per game last season in addition to almost seven rebounds per contest, despite just a 6-1, 175-pound frame. Several freshmen should make an immediate impact as well, including Wayne Simien at Kansas, T. J. Ford at Texas, and seven-footer David Harrison at Colorado.
Thus, the table is set for what should be a fiercely competitive battle for this year’s conference crown. Here then is an overview of what to look for when the dust settles in March:
1. Oklahoma State Cowboys: What a story it would make – just one season after tragically losing two players and eight others in a plane crash on their way back from a road game at Colorado, the Cowboys capture the Big 12 conference championship. But there’s more reason than simply fate for picking this squad. Season after season, coach Eddie Sutton consistently puts together top teams with seemingly little notice from the national spotlight. This year’s bunch is no exception.
Led by Maurice Baker, all five starters return from last season’s 20-10 squad. Former Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, junior guard Victor Williams (a transfer from Illinois State before last season), and 6-10 senior Fredrik Jonzen give the Cowboys multiple threats on the offensive end. Meanwhile, 6-5 guard/forward Melvin Sanders generally draws the assignment of defensive stopper. Sophomore Ivan McFarlin, who was ineligible for his freshman year as a partial qualifier, has moved into the starting lineup, meaning Andre Williams, a starter a year ago, gives OSU added experience from a reserve role. But what may prove to be the deciding factor working in the Cowboys’ favor is the schedule. Oklahoma State plays the teams considered by many to be the conference favorites – Kansas and Missouri – only once each, and they get the Jayhawks in Stillwater. That should be enough to boost Sutton’s squad into first place.
2. Kansas Jayhawks: For the third consecutive season, the Jayhawks have been tabbed the conference favorite by the league’s coaches. As always in Lawrence, there certainly is no shortage of talent. While juniors Drew Gooden and Nick Collison control things down low, another junior, Kirk Hinrich, runs the show from the point. Senior guard Jeff Boschee is always a threat from beyond the three-point arc, and forward Wayne Simien supplies scoring punch off the bench. After missing the first five games of the season recovering from a knee injury, the highly touted 6-9 freshman is being eased back into action, averaging only fifteen minutes per contest in his four games, but has still managed to put up nearly ten points per contest.
The biggest question for Kansas and coach Roy Williams will once again be how far they can go in the NCAA tournament. Despite all of his accomplishments in his 13 years as head coach in Lawrence, Williams’ lack of a national title is well documented. And the prospects of ending that draught did not look good when the Jayhawks opened the season by being stunned by Ball State in the first round of the Maui Invitational. KU has since responded with eight straight victories, including impressive back-to-back wins at Arizona and versus Wake Forest. Look for them to be at or near the top of the conference standings all season long, but a trip to Missouri on the final Sunday of the regular season will make it three straight seasons that the Jayhawks come up a bit short in fulfilling Big 12 coaches’ preseason expectations.
3. Missouri Tigers: The excitement and expectations in Columbia are at their highest levels in over a decade. So far, outside of its loss at home to Iowa (who MU defeated earlier in the season at a neutral site), the Tigers have not disappointed. But forgive me for some lingering skepticism held over from the late eighties and early nineties when on more than one occasion I was ripping up my brackets only days into the NCAA tourney courtesy of upset losses by Mizzou (first round losses in ’87 and ’88 as a #4 and a #6 seed, respectively, were merely precursors to 1990 when the #3-seeded Tigers were sent packing by mighty Northern Iowa quicker than you can wonder whatever happened to Doug Smith). Granted, none of the current players – or the coach for that matter – were around to experience those defeats, but don’t think it won’t be planted in the back of their minds as March rolls around in 2002.
In order for the fate of this Missouri squad to be different, they cannot rely solely on the exceptional talent of Kareem Rush. A game-winning buzzer beater by point guard Wesley Stokes to knock off the pesky St. Louis Billikens on the road was a good sign, as was a 10-3 run to finish the game in a win against Alabama after Rush had been forced to leave the contest when he took an inadvertent elbow to the face. In fact, an injury to Rush that forced him to miss seven games last season may have been the best thing to happen to this team. During his absence, other players were forced to step up their roles. In particular, three freshmen – Arthur Johnson, Rickey Paulding, and Stokes – all gained valuable experience that has carried over into their sophomore seasons. Johnson and Paulding are both scoring in double figures, and Stokes handles distributing the ball from the point. While defenses key on stopping Rush, 6-2 senior guard Clarence Gilbert is averaging nearly twenty points per contest.
4. Oklahoma Sooners: December 15th was a date that many Oklahoma hoops fans had marked on their calendars. After transferring mid-semester from Florida International a season ago, that’s the day 6-10, 210-pound center Jabahri Brown became eligible to make his highly anticipated Sooners debut. In Brown, head coach Kelvin Sampson now has a weapon that he hasn’t previously had in his arsenal in Norman – an athletic big man at both ends of the court who can also run the floor. Sampson has to hope that will translate into greater postseason success, because the Sooners have been bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round in five of his seven seasons.
Besides Brown, the player to watch for the Sooners is 6-1 guard Hollis Price, the team’s leading scorer at over 18 points per outing. JuCo transfer and Big 12 Preseason Newcomer of the Year Ebi Ere has been a key addition, sparking an impressive 69-54 win at Arkansas with a 29-point performance. Senior forward Aaron McGhee is also scoring in double figures while pulling down more than six boards per contest.
Some other dates worth circling on the calendar is a key two-week stretch at the end of January. Over the course of twelve days, OU will play road games against Kansas and Texas Tech along with home contests versus Missouri and Oklahoma State. Those four games will determine whether Oklahoma will be a contender or a pretender for the conference crown.
5. Texas Longhorns: Despite guiding the Longhorns to their first-ever appearance in a Big 12 Tournament title game last season, fourth-year coach Rick Barnes still faces the daunting challenge of creating the same kind of excitement in the Frank Erwin Center that permeates the Ausin campus on autumn football Saturdays. This year’s squad is once again capable of making some noise in the Big 12. Don’t be fooled by its three early season losses – all were to ranked opponents (Arizona, Gonzaga, and Indiana) – and the Longhorns knocked off eleventh-ranked Stanford in a neutral site affair in Chicago.
A large chunk of the responsibility for determining how well Texas does will fall on the broad shoulders of senior All-American candidate Chris Owens. The 6-8, 245-pound power forward leads the team in scoring, rebounding, and blocks. He spearheaded the victory over Stanford with a 26 point, 11 rebound, 6 block performance. An assist should go to sophomore guard Royal Ivey, who ended Cardinal All-American Casey Jacobsen’s streak of consecutive double-figure scoring games at 32. In addition to being one of the conference’s top defenders, Ivey has also developed a scoring touch this season, raising his per game average from his freshman year by more than 10 points. Fellow sophomore Brandon Mouton has made similar progress and is contributing over 13 points per contest. Meanwhile, freshman point guard T. J. Ford is displaying why the league’s media tabbed him its Preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Despite the stiff early competition, Ford leads the conference in assists with over 10 per game.
6. Colorado Buffaloes: Balance. That one word sums up the theme for head coach Ricardo Patton’s Buffaloes squad thus far. The 2001-02 attack features six players averaging more than 10 points per game and no less than nine who have had a single-game high of at least 13 points already. Both distinctions include 7-0, 240-pound freshman center David Harrison, the school’s most highly prized recruit since Chauncey Billups. The team’s leading scorer a year ago, senior small forward D. J. Harrison, is also among those putting up double digits this season. Sophomore swingman Blair Wilson leads the way with just under twelve points per game and is a threat from beyond the three-point arc. The others putting up more than 10 points per contest include junior forward Stephane Pelle (who also leads the team in rebounding), junior guard James Wright, and sophomore guard/forward Michel Morandais.
Colorado is off to a 6-2 start with both losses coming on the road at the hands of St. Joseph’s and Georgia. Despite coming up on the short end of both contests, the Buffaloes should be encouraged by the fact that they played competitely against good teams in hostile environments, losing by six and eight points, respectively. With their balanced attack, look for CU to spring a few upsets in conference play.
7. Texas Tech Red Raiders: How much of an impact will Bobby Knight have in his first season in Lubbock? In terms of excitement and sound bytes, there certainly will not be a shortage. But will that translate into victories? Knight’s newest pals, the Big 12 media, are pretty skeptical: they picked the Red Raiders to finish ninth in their Preseason Poll. Conference coaches have even greater doubts; their prediction was tenth place. Well, don’t look now, but guess who has his team off to a 7-1 start? I know what you’re thinking: they havn’t played anybody, and that one loss was to little Sam Houston State … at home, no less. But you have to think that Big 12 opponents coming into Lubbock these days will do so a little more tentatively when they look down at the other bench and see a man with three national championships and eleven Big 10 championships on his resume.
Plus, how could the media and other Big 12 coaches have predicted the significant impact made by the junior college transfers that Knight brought in? Forward Kasib Powell and guard Will Chavis are each scoring in double figures in their first seasons as Red Raiders. Powell is also second on the team in rebounding and assists. Another JuCo player, forward Pawel Storozynski, has just returned to the starting lineup after missing seven games due to eligibility problems associated with overseas playing experience in his home country of France while in high school. These three additions are a nice compliment to the skills of 6-11 senior center Andy Ellis, acknowledged as the pivotal player on the team as its leading scorer and rebounder. Sophomore guard Andre Emmett makes this group a solid starting five. The biggest question and concern for Knight will be how much he can expect to get from his bench.
8. Baylor Bears: After guiding the Bears to a 19-12 record and their first postseason appearance in 11 years with last season’s trip to the NIT, head coach Dave Bliss has raised the expectations in just his third season in Waco. Yes, there is even some talk among Baylor faithful of making a run at the NCAA tournament. It’s hard to believe that this is the same program that didn’t win a single Big 12 conference game only three seasons ago. The remarkable turnaround is a tribute to Bliss’ proven ability in amassing over 500 victories in his 27-year coaching career that has included stints at Oklahoma, SMU, and most recently New Mexico.
This year’s Bears squad is a blend of youth and experience. Junior shooting guard Wendell Greenleaf will be looked upon to provide more consistency as the team’s leading returning scorer. Senior forward/center Greg Davis, one of three current BU players that followed Bliss to Waco from New Mexico, provides rebounding and defensive ability. Meanwhile, two true freshmen are already having a significant impact. Forward Lawrence Roberts leads the team in scoring, rebounding, and blocks. Point guard John Lucas III, son of the former NBA standout and current Cleveland Cavaliers head coach, has tallied more than 14 points per outing and leads the team in assists. Another relatively weak non-conference schedule is allowing the newcomers time to gain experience, but it will make it tough to gauge the team’s true ability before the conference season gets underway.
9. Iowa State Cyclones: Larry Eustachy’s fourth season in Ames will undoubtedly be his most challenging. After losing Marcus Fizer a year ago, gone from this past season’s squad are four players who averaged scoring in double figures. None was more important than point guard Jamaal Tinsley, not only the team’s best player but its leader on the court. Last season’s Big 12 Freshman of the Year, 6-1 guard Jake Sullivan, will be counted upon to play an even larger role this season. Fellow sophomore, 6-5 forward Shane Power, will also need to build on his solid play off the bench a year ago.
Both players have been solid contributors thus far, though Sullivan missed three games due to a MCL injury. The most pleasant surprise has been the play of Tyray Pearson. The 6-7 senior forward struggled last season when he arrived as a junior college transfer, but he poured in 20 or more points in a five consecutive game stretch already this year.
Still, the two-time defending conference champs are struggling. They entered the season with the nation’s second-longest home court winning streak at 36 games, but that run couldn’t even survive a visit from San Jose State. Add in a 25-point home loss to Iowa and defeats at the hands of Southern Illinois, Penn, Boston College, and Drake, and the Cyclones may be fighting just to get into the NIT by the time they make their way through the grueling conference schedule.
10. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Not a single player who averaged scoring in double figures returns from last year’s 14-16 Cornhuskers team, but second-year head coach Barry Collier feels that this year’s version will be capable of attacking opponents from the perimeter. Senior guard Cary Cochran is the most dangerous shooter, firing up 165 of his 200 shots a year ago from beyond the three-point line. Even 6-11 center Brian Conklin gets in on the act, attempting more three-point field goals than two-point baskets last season.
Eight games into the season, the Cornhuskers have had success with their long-range attack to get off to a 6-2 start. They are shooting at over a 36 percent clip from three-point territory. Cochran and Conklin are both averaging scoring in double digits, as is 6-4 freshman guard Jake Muhleisen. The key question is whether this formula will continue to work as the schedule gets tougher. One area in particular to watch is rebounding – does NU have enough bulk inside to be competitive on the boards?
11. Texas A+M Aggies: Now in his fourth season as head coach of the Aggies, Melvin Watson still has his work cut out for him in trying to build a winning program in College Station. This year’s squad is a young one with only one senior on the roster (guard Andy Leatherman), and he comes off the bench. However, junior guard Bernard King is well on his way to becoming the school’s all-time scoring leader by the time his four seasons as an Aggie have been completed. He currently is averaging over 18 points per game and also leads the team in assists. The problem will be getting enough help from the supporting cast. Sophomore forward Nick Anderson is the only other player scoring in double digits.
12. Kansas State Wildcats: After turning around programs at Southwest Texas and Louisiana Tech, head coach Jim Wooldridge is in his second season of trying to do the same in Manhattan. Three starters return from a team that only won 11 games a year ago, including Larry Reid. The 6-0 senior guard is the go-to guy and leads the Wildcats in both scoring and assists. After experiencing success with Reid as a junior college transfer, Wooldridge will look for contributions this season from three more highly regarded JuCo players – guard Gilson DeJesus and forwards Janerio Spurlock and Pervis Pasco. Spurlock, however, is already out for the season with a knee injury. Pasco is the only Wildcat besides Reid to be scoring in double figures. The prospects of improving upon last season’s win total appear to be bleak.