Rick Barnes knows all too well the gauntlet Big 12 teams face while playing the conference schedule. His Longhorns went into last season as the consensus No. 2 team in the nation behind conference foe Kansas but wound being a major disappointment as they went just 9-7 inside the Big 12, then lost to Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Starting in the 2011-12 season, the Big 12 schedule could get even tougher. Colorado and Nebraska, two of the conference's weakest links will exit the Big 12 after this season, with the Buffaloes bolting to the Pac-10 and the Cornhuskers heading to the Big Ten. With the Big 12 shrinking to 10 teams, conference officials are leaning towards a double round-robin 18-game schedule instead of the current 16-game set-up in which not every school plays each other twice in a season.
Yet if it were up to Barnes, he wouldn't think twice about going to the round-robin schedule. Playing a meat grinder of a conference schedule does not bother him.
“I’ve always liked the round-robin schedule where you play everybody twice, home and home, you determine a true champion,” Barnes said on a recent Big 12 coaches' conference call. “I think it will make the Big 12 even more competitive. If we continue to have the success and growth as a conference, we can have the best basketball league in the country.”
Kansas has won the last two regular-season Big 12 titles, going 15-1 and 14-2 in conference play. However, Jayhawks coach Bill Self knows playing a round-robin schedule will make finishing in first place an even more difficult task.
“With two more conference games, I think 14-4 will be a championship season," Self said. "If you play everybody twice, the league is going to be tougher.”
In the 14 seasons of Big 12 play, the regular-season champion has had as many as four losses only once. That occurred in 2005 when Kansas and Oklahoma tied with 12-4 records. However, Self isn't the only coach who figures four losses would likely be good enough to win the conference in a round-robin setup.
"It's really going to be a tough league if we start playing 18 conference games," Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. "The home court will be very important. I know our kids will look forward to it. It will be a tougher challenge. Players want to play the best to be the best. From a coaching standpoint, you want the challenge.”
Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, though, believes that the 16-game schedule already provides a stiff enough challenge. He isn't keen on adding two more games and thinks Big 12 teams will need to compensate by playing less-challenging non-conference schedules.
“As a coach, 18 games is really tough,” he said. “In the Big 12 now, 16 is really a grind. Now if you’re adding two tougher games, it makes it really tough on a team.”
While the departure of lightweights Colorado and Nebraska would seemingly help the Big 12's RPI, Self wonders if adding two games inside the conference at the expense of a pair of non-conference games might not harm the conference's rating.
“The veteran coaches I’ve talked to in conferences that play 18 games, you’re adding two potential losses versus buying two non-conference games you’ll probably win,” Self said. “Everybody says the league’s RPI will improve but so much of your RPI gets determined in non-conference play. In conference, you beat each other up. It will still be important to have a great non-league RPI.”
Positive Loss for Lowe
Sidney Lowe might not be down to his weight from his days as a guard on North Carolina's 1983 national championship team. However, the Wolfpack coach has slimmed down noticeably since the end of last season. Lowe said he has not weighed in for a couple of months but estimates he has dropped 25 pounds.
"I feel much better," the 50-year-old Lowe said during his annual summer news conference. "I may not be able to run up and down (the court) any longer, but I wanted to look like I could."
Lowe hopes to fatten up with few more victories next season after North Carolina State went 20-16 in 2009-10 but only 5-11 in the ACC. The Wolfpack got to the second round of the NIT before losing to UAB. They have had only five winning records inside the ACC in the last 22 seasons.
North Carolina State has not made the NCAA Tournament in four years and there is a sense that Lowe is on the hot seat now that the school has a new athletic director in Debbie Yow. Compounding matters is the Wolfpack return only one double-digit scorer in senior forward Tracy Smith, who averaged 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 32.3 minutes a game last season. However, North Carolina State will welcome its best recruiting class in years as freshmen C.J. Leslie, a 6-8 forward from Holly Spring, N.C.; Ryan Harrow, a 5-11 guard from Marietta, Ga.; and Lorenzo Brown, a 6-4 guard from Roswell, Ga., are expected to make an immediate impact.
"I don't want them to feel like they're coming in to be saviors but I do want them to come in and play the way they're capable of," Lowe said. "They're excited about the challenge. They're going to see that it's a different ballgame, but I'm confident they can handle it. They're going to take some bumps, but they're going to do more good things than bad. They're going to do great things for this program for years to come."
Artino Impressing at Creighton
Another freshman to watch next season is Creighton's Will Artino. The 6'11" center from Waukee, Iowa has been impressive during summer league play in Omaha and has certainly caught the attention of Bluejays senior center Kenny Lawson.
“He’s making big progress,” Lawson told the Omaha World-Herald. “It’s harder for big men to adjust to Division I, and I told him that. He’s had a couple days where his confidence was down, but I keep reminding him that’s how it is. I went through the same thing, but I kind of try to take responsibility of keeping his head up. He’s going to be a really great player in the future.”
Creighton went 18-16 last season and Lawson is the top returnee after averaging a 13.2/6.8/0.6/24.2 line while ranking 69th in the nation with a 23.2 defensive rebounding percentage. However, Artino could team with Lawson to give the Bluejays one of the best frontcourt duos in the Missouri Valley Conference in 2010-11.
“There’s no limit to what he can do,” Lawson said of Artino. “I’ve seen a lot of big men come through here, and we all have a lot of potential. He’s another one of those guys. He’s working pretty hard now, and I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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