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November 1, 2007
Big 12 Preview
Teams, Part One

by John Gasaway

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BAYLOR

What Baylor did well: Improve. (Albeit sneakily.)

Don't be fooled by Baylor's second consecutive 4-12 record in the Big 12. The unchanged record masked the fact that the 2007 team was in fact a little better than its predecessor, thanks to a significantly improved offense.

Specifically, the Bears' offensive rebounding went from pretty bad to excellent in just one season. In 2006, BU got to just 28 percent of their own misses in conference games. Last year, by contrast, Kevin Rogers and Mamadou Diene led an attack that allowed Scott Drew's men to gather in almost 37 percent of their misses in Big 12 play. That number included a rather surreal January night in Waco, when Baylor hosted perennial defensive-glass hegemon Kansas and hauled in 21 offensive boards.

OK, so they lost that game by 26. When you're 4-12 two years in a row you take your good news where you can find it. The fact remains: Baylor scored just 0.94 points per possession against the Big 12 in 2006. That number jumped up to 1.03 last year, despite the fact that their accuracy from beyond the arc fell off (and even though they shot a lot of threes; see below). More offensive boards, fewer turnovers and much better shooting on their twos translated into a vastly improved offense.

What we learned in 2007: Defense really does matter. Particularly the lack of it.

Baylor's improvement on offense was largely, though not wholly, negated by a simultaneous decline in their defense, a defense that wasn't exactly UCLA to start with. Indeed, only Penn State, Miami, and South Carolina allowed their respective conference foes to score more points than did the Bears last year, who gave up 1.14 points per possession against Big 12 opponents.

If there are grounds for optimism here, it's that much of the damage against Baylor was done from beyond the arc, where conference opponents made fully 40 percent of their attempts. Most of that is bad perimeter D, sure, but part of it is just bad luck. Simple regression to the mean should work in Drew's favor this season where opponents' threes are concerned.

Still, Baylor will have to do more than close their eyes and hope for better fortune. For one thing, they've forced next to no turnovers for two seasons running. In fact, the Bears' defense is weak across the board and will have to improve if this team is to continue its ascent toward respectability.

What's in store for 2008: The good news for BU fans is that this is a veteran team. Everyone is back in Waco this season: all five starters and, indeed, all eight players who appeared in the Bears' season-ending five-point loss to Texas in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals. Will another year of age and another season of experience help this defense?

Maybe, but how many years this defense has under its collective belt will be less important than simply how many fouls are called on Diene. The seven-foot junior from Senegal underwent ankle surgery in late October and is expected to return sometime in December. When healthy, Diene is both a capable defensive rebounder (though not as good as Rogers) and an excellent shot-blocker (first among Big 12 starters last year). Diene gives the Bears' defense a lift, but he needs to stay on the floor. Incredibly, he didn't play a single game last year after Valentine's Day in which he was whistled for fewer than four fouls. More minutes for Diene should mean fewer points for the other team.

The only problem there is that minutes for Diene also means fewer points for Baylor; his shots are limited accordingly. But while Diene's attempts are rare, the other four starters (Rogers, Curtis Jerrells, Aaron Bruce and Tweety Carter) all take about the same number of shots. Drew's players really share the ball. Consider the diverse points of origin: the Bears fairly put the "combo" in combo guard. Bruce is Australian and submitted his name for this year's NBA draft before returning to Waco for his senior year. Backcourt mate Carter is from Louisiana; Jerrells and former starter Henry Dugat are in-state products. No matter where they're from, they all pull the trigger from outside and they're all about the same in terms of finding the open man. So don't worry about who's the "point guard" or who's a "shooting guard." Regardless of who happens to bring the ball up, these four share a lot in common.

What would really be helpful for Coach Drew this year would be if some of these very well-distributed shots actually went in the basket. Baylor devoted 39 percent of their attempts to threes in Big 12 play (only Nebraska was fonder of shooting threes) but made just 35 percent of those. That's not terrible, of course, but it was bad enough to be the weak link in the Bears' offensive attack. Merely average three-point shooting would have elevated Baylor's offense overall from below- to above-average. It will be up to Jerrells, Bruce, Carter and Dugat to hit their threes. All of the above had respectable 3FG percentages for the season (ranging from Carter's 34.3 to Dugat's 40.6) but for the most part those percentages started off even higher before dropping in-conference. If these four can hit their threes in calendar 2008, get ready for a lot of feel-good coverage of this team.

In fact the good feelings have started already, for Drew has landed one of the most highly-sought recruits in the program's history in LaceDarius Dunn, a 6'4" shooting guard out of Monroe, La. Dunn is joined in this recruiting class by Fred Ellis, a 6'6" wing from Sacramento, and by junior college transfer Delbert Simpson, a 6'8" forward. Also available off the bench is seven-foot sophomore Josh Lomers, who's every bit as good as Diene on the offensive glass, though not quite as good on the defensive boards or as a shot-blocker. (In the entire Big 12 Diene and Lomers are the two players least likely to record an assist. Meaning if you sense it's about to happen, it's worth taking a picture with your cell.)

One last thing: if you're watching a Baylor game this season and it's going into overtime, the Bears might have a better shot at winning than you think. Diene went into the center circle for the opening tip 15 times against Big 12 competition last year (13 regular-season games and two conference tournament games) and Baylor won all 15 jump balls. Meaning Diene (or maybe whoever he's tipping to every time) is to college basketball tip-offs roughly what DiMaggio was to hitting in '41. Not a big deal, maybe, in a 40-minute game, but definitely an advantage in a five-minute OT. You heard it here first.

COLORADO

What Colorado did well: Live to fight another day.

In October 2006, Colorado coach Ricardo Patton announced he wouldn't seek a contract extension and that 2007 would be his final season. Of course, his decision appeared to many to be forced: he didn't have a contract extension and recruiting had suffered accordingly. It turns out that it was a very inopportune moment for recruiting to suffer. In 2006, the Buffaloes had 10 players who averaged double-digit minutes for a team that went 9-7 in the Big 12. When last year came around, seven of those ten players were gone and the wheels came off, as CU went 3-13 in-conference.

Now just Richard Roby, Marcus King-Stockton and Marcus Hall remain from that 2006 team. Enter new coach Jeff Bzdelik.

What we learned in 2007: Sometimes what looks like a "fast pace" is merely a lot of turnovers.

At first glance it would be hard to imagine a greater stylistic collision than the one between Bzdelik-era Air Force teams (slow, careful with the ball, uncannily accurate from the field, shooting more threes than fully 325 other D-I teams) and Patton-era Colorado teams (fast, careless with the ball, below-average from the field, shooting more threes than just 121 D-I teams).

Then again, Bzdelik once presided over some famously fast-paced teams as head coach of the Denver Nuggets. So, who knows, maybe the new coach will tell his new players to just keep running. On paper the Buffaloes were the fastest team in the Big 12 last year and, indeed, one of the fastest major-conference teams in the country, averaging 73 possessions per 40 minutes in conference games.

That picture changes considerably, however, when we simply subtract Colorado's turnovers from their total number of possessions. If we label each possession that does not end with a CU turnover as an "effective possession," we find the Buffaloes ranked just fourth in the conference in effective possessions, behind Missouri (genuinely fast but also OK at taking care of the ball), Kansas (ditto) and Texas (less fast but better than all of the above at holding on to the rock). Colorado ranked dead last in the Big 12 in taking care of the ball, giving it away on 24 percent of their possessions in-conference. Every player in Boulder last year (every single one) gave the ball away at a rate above the average for Big 12 players.

What's in store for 2008: There will be pain before there is progress. CU's new coach figures to be heard from in the Big 12 before too long, but even John Wooden couldn't do much with the hand Bzdelik's been dealt this year. To take one mundane but telling example: Colorado made just 65 percent of their free throws last year. There are no marksmen in this group. Not to mention they have virtually no depth. They turn the ball over. Patience should be the watchword with fans in Boulder for the foreseeable future.

Roby had a nice season in 2006, and indeed the 6'6" shooting guard was named preseason All-Big 12 last year. But, oh, the price he paid in 2007 for the inexperience of his new teammates. Roby's offensive efficiency plunged, as his shooting became slightly more frequent but far less accurate (the man shot 138 threes and missed 101 of them), all while his turnover rate increased.

The question for Bzdelik, then, is determining what Roby is capable of giving this team in his senior year. While the supporting cast doesn't appear to have received any dramatic infusions of new personnel, at least they're a year older. If Roby's teammates can provide a minimal level of support, the good news is the senior guard is indeed a better perimeter shooter than what he showed last year. It would be hard not to be. (Roby's 3FG percentage has gone down every year in his college career. After posting a 26.8 last year, however, simple probability says that trend will cease in 2008.) Back in the salad days of 2006, he even showed some defensive ability, posting a steal rate that was good enough for fourth in the Big 12. So if Roby has help, and if last year didn't leave him too shell-shocked, he can indeed give his first-year coach a much-needed building block in 2008.

What's less clear, however, is whether Bzdelik will have anything else to build with. At 6'5", sophomore wing Xavier Silas was his team's best three-point option last year, hitting 38 percent of his shots from outside the arc. Bzdelik will also be able to call upon 6'2" combo guard Marcus Hall, who returns for his senior season after redshirting last year. Roby, Silas and Hall will be joined on the perimeter this year by Cory Higgins, a 6'5" shooting guard from Danville, Calif., and Levi Knutson, a 6'4" shooting guard from Littleton, Colo.

In the frontcourt, starters King-Stockton and Jermyl Jackson-Wilson return. They're not real big, 6'9" and 6'6" respectively, but Jackson-Wilson (who spent his freshman season at Ohio State in 2005) showed some ability on the boards, where his offensive rebound percentage was fourth-best in the Big 12 last year. Still, while King-Stockton's a fair shot-blocker, these two will need help, particularly on offense. That help won't come from sophomore Jeremy Williams, at least not right away: the 6'7" forward's been ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester. And though 6'9" forward Casey Crawford has decided to transfer in from Wake Forest, he won't be available until next season. The only new arrival down low this year will thus be Caleb Patterson, a 6'11" big man from Ringwood, Okla.

That's it, that's the whole cupboard. Colorado therefore figures to be overmatched in the Big 12 this season. Fans in Boulder may want to let their imagination stray toward the future: a future in which the Buffs play a deliberate perimeter-oriented game; a future in which they shoot a ton of threes, yet reap even better success from their twos; a future in which Colorado turnovers are rare and assists are plentiful. Or, then again, maybe it's a future in which they keep running but to better effect. Either way, said future is likely to be more successful than the recent past. Be patient. It will come.

IOWA STATE

What Iowa State did well: Improve defensively.

Under first-year coach Greg McDermott, Iowa State's interior defense improved dramatically: what had been a weakness became the strength not only of this defense but indeed of this entire team. The Cyclones' conference opponents made less than 45 percent of their twos in 2007. Among Big 12 teams, just Kansas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma allowed fewer points per possession during the conference season. Pretty amazing given how McDermott's tenure in Ames began….

What we learned in 2007: Mike Taylor was synonymous with this oxymoron: "Iowa State offense."

When McDermott took the Iowa State job in March of 2006 in the wake of the sudden and calamitous Wayne Morgan imbroglio, he found he'd be losing no fewer than eight players who'd previously been allotted scholarships for 2006-07. He needed bodies and he needed them fast: junior college transfer Mike Taylor was the first player he signed. (McDermott signed three starters in just four days that April: Taylor, Wes Johnson and Corey McIntosh.) Taylor took the lion's share of the Cyclones' shots last year and, as it happens, recorded a lot of misses. That's not unusual, of course. Often a middling team's leading scorer isn't terribly efficient. What's interesting is that when Taylor wasn't jacking up another miss he was recording an assist. He didn't just split time between the two-guard and point-guard positions. It would be more accurate to say he actually played both positions all the time. No other major-conference player in the nation last year played a larger role in his team's offense than did Taylor.

As would be expected, that didn't work out real well. Iowa State's offense was easily the worst in the Big 12, scoring just 0.91 points per possession in-conference. That was a dramatic fall-off from 2006 (1.05) and thus ISU's improvement on defense was, in effect, wiped away by the collapse of its offense.

Then, over the summer, Taylor was kicked off the team by McDermott for unspecified transgressions. So here's the easiest prediction you'll find anywhere in tens of thousands of words on college hoops in the coming year: Taylor's departure isn't nearly as damaging to this team as everyone says it is. When a team unexpectedly loses its leading scorer it is the reflexive custom to panic. Sometimes the reflex is correct. Losing your leading scorer can be a big deal. Losing Taylor, as it happens, is not. It's exceedingly likely that ISU's guards this year will, in fact, be better both offensively and defensively than they were last year. They'll shoot more accurately, they'll turn the ball over less, and they'll get more turnovers from opponents. Yes, Taylor's exile means first-year players will be thrust into major minutes this season. So what? (Taylor was a first-year D-I player last year.) The flock of new guards arriving in Ames will do better at all of the above than did the single overwhelmed 11th-hour signee that McDermott had to play for big minutes last year. Be of good cheer, Cyclone fans.

Whether the Iowa State guards will be better this year than they would have been had Taylor returned is, granted, a more interesting question. Taylor's numbers were catastrophic, but that's not necessarily to be laid exclusively at his feet. He missed a lot of shots and coughed up a lot of turnovers, but it's not like there was an abundance of options in Ames last year. Among starters only Johnson posted a higher effective FG percentage than Taylor. Starting guard McIntosh, now departed, actually turned the ball over at an even higher rate, per individual possession used, than Taylor.

What's in store for 2008: We've seen that Iowa State's defense last year was above average in the Big 12 despite the fact that this was a thin team that was, in large part, thrown together at the last minute by their first-year coach. Now, with everyone back that McDermott wanted back and a quality recruiting class coming in, this defense figures to be good again in 2008, maybe even very good. Forcing opponents into more turnovers would be nice. More backcourt depth should help that along.

As for the offense, it won't be confused for Texas-with-Durant anytime soon but, truth be known, it can look a lot better in a hurry if the Cyclones simply hit their threes. McDermott-coached teams (or at least Northern Iowa in 2006 and Iowa State in 2007) shoot more threes than most teams. Last year, that merely translated into bounteous defensive rebounds for opponents, as ISU was the worst three-point shooting team in Big 12 play. (Note that the Cyclones' inability to make threes was even more pronounced than their inability to hold on to the ball.) This year there's a raft of new arrivals vying to replace the one-man Taylor backcourt, including multiple candidates for both starting point guard and starting shooting guard. The latter group includes the younger brothers of both Carlos Boozer and Adam Haluska. If they can hit their threes and take care of the rock, the new guys can help their team. If they can do all of the above and record an occasional steal, they should start.

McDermott will have three returning starters: 6'11" senior big man Jiri Hubalek, 6'7" sophomore wing Wes Johnson, and 6'6" senior wing Rahshon Clark. Hubalek suffered a foot injury in late October and is expected to miss two weeks. When healthy he is ISU's best defensive rebounder, and he had a couple nice games late last year, including 26 points on 11-of-16 shooting against Oklahoma. Alas, those impressive outings alternated with less memorable moments, such as nine points on 4-of-11 shooting against diminutive Colorado. Better shooting from Hubalek (and/or from freshman Craig Brackins, a highly-touted 6'10" power forward from Palmdale, Calif.) would give this offense a lift it badly needs.

Johnson was one of McDermott's 11th-hour signings last year. He panned out surprisingly well for a relatively unheralded freshman forced into big minutes from day one. True, he missed a ton of threes, but the fact that he's the best free-throw shooter among returning starters suggests he may yet find the range from out there. In any event, being ISU's best two-point shooter and not turning the ball over made Johnson his team's most efficient offensive option. Plus, he's strong on the defensive glass. McDermott was fortunate to find this kind of freshman still available for the taking in late April.

As the only senior on the roster who arrived in Ames as a freshman, Clark is a relic from a previous Cyclone epoch. Still, he appears to have accepted his role as the designated defender of the opposing team's best scorer. Clark and Hubalek will have quality support in the frontcourt this season, and not just from Brackins and last year's back-up, 6'7" forward Cory Johnson. McDermott will also welcome 6'10" Iowa transfer Alex Thompson (an Ames product) and 6'9" freshman forward Clayton Vette, last year's Mr. Basketball in Iowa. This team should have the bodies they need to survive in the Big 12 trenches.

KANSAS

What Kansas did well: Everything. No, really, every single thing.

Despite winning the Big 12 conference race by a mere one game over Texas A&M, the fact is few teams in recent college basketball history have dominated their conference opponents the way Kansas did in 2007. The Jayhawks' relative "weakness" was that they were only slightly better than average at holding on to the ball. That single exception aside, Bill Self's team was more than one standard deviation better than average during conference play in every major offensive and defensive category: offense, defense, shooting (inside and out), FG defense (inside and out), rebounding (offensive and defensive), opponents' turnovers, the whole menu. At first glance it was an astonishing performance.

This domination was produced not only by KU's undeniable strength, however, but also by an undeniably weak conference schedule. As a member of the Big 12 North, the Jayhawks played ten of their 16 games against Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State, Missouri, and Nebraska. None of those teams got to the NCAA tournament and only one of them (K-State) even made it as far as the NIT. Someday soon a few of those teams will improve and life in the Big 12 North won't be so cushy for KU. Last year, though, it was a sweet gig: Kansas went 10-0 against the North.

What we learned in 2007: Total domination in January and February raises expectations for March.

KU doesn't have to answer for their conference opponents, certainly, but for those who follow college basketball it did raise an interesting question in February: is Kansas really as good as they look?

Last year the answer was "of course not," but that was no reflection on the Jayhawks. Any team would've looked better than they were fattening up on the likes of Colorado and Nebraska. Kansas was indeed an outstanding team; beyond doubt one of the nation's best. However, it fell to them to play a conference schedule that was weaker than that played by any of their peers: Florida, Ohio State, Georgetown, UCLA or North Carolina.

Speaking of Carolina, you could make a case that Roy Williams' current and former teams are uncannily similar, though in markedly different conferences. Both teams' stars stay for just a season or two on their way to the NBA, both play at a very fast pace, both have proven (Big Ten, please note) that outstanding defense can thrive at high rates of speed, and neither likes to shoot threes. What was interesting last year, though, was that while both teams went as fast as ever, they both, at long last, brought their turnovers under control, giving the ball away on less than one in every five possessions in their respective conferences. In both Lawrence and Chapel Hill, the results were impressive.

So Kansas looked superhuman in January and February before becoming human in late March, losing by 13 to UCLA in the regional final. (Hundreds of teams would of course love to be as "human" as making the Elite Eight.) The prior universal perception of KU as special wasn't wrong, exactly, but it needed two important qualifications. First, as we've seen, their conference schedule was aberrantly weak. Second, superhuman Kansas was actually half-human all along, specifically the offensive half. Yes, there were future NBA players everywhere you looked in Allen Fieldhouse and, sure, KU's offense was very good. Still, in Big 12 play that very good NBA-prospect-populated offense was only as good as the Texas A&M offense and clearly not as good as the precociously young but outstanding Texas offense. In the end, UCLA shut that offense down, allowing the Jayhawks just 55 points in a 68-possession game.

What's in store for 2008: Everyone is back except Julian Wright, who is now a member of the New Orleans Hornets. And if ever there were a case where losing a sophomore to "the next level" doesn't figure to hurt a team, this is it. With the huge exception of defensive rebounding, sophomore Darrell Arthur is virtually indistinguishable from Wright on paper. Actually the similarities run even deeper: Arthur, like Wright, is slated to be a first-round pick in the draft following his sophomore season. So KU will again be one of the favorites to win the national championship. They should be.

Arthur didn't get as many minutes as Wright did last year, of course, but when the freshman was on the floor he was no mere supporting player. In fact, Arthur took a higher share of KU's shots during his minutes than did any other Jayhawk and gave Self the same level of offensive efficiency as Wright. It's true Arthur hasn't, as yet, shown that he's anywhere near the defensive rebounder that Wright was but he's a much better shot-blocker and will be playing some portion of his minutes alongside defensive-glass monster Darnell Jackson. (Note that an Arthur/Sasha Kaun combination, conversely, is excellent at blocking shots but surprisingly weak on the defensive boards.) Further depth in the frontcourt, as if any were needed, will be supplied by freshman Cole Aldrich, a 6'10" McDonald's All-American from Bloomington, Minn.

Brandon Rush will, in all likelihood, be accompanying Arthur in the first round next summer. Rush had a busy spring: he declared for the draft in April, tore his ACL in May, and has now returned for another season. He's expected back for his junior year on or around December 1 and, if healthy, will again force opposing defenses to cope with a 6'6" wing who can both penetrate and hit threes. Granted, it's an open question whether a 68 percent FT shooter like Rush can continue to make 43 percent of his threes. Then again, who cares: Rush's team shoots threes next to never and suffocates opposing offenses.

Rush will again be joined on the perimeter by fellow junior Mario Chalmers and senior Russell Robinson. Chalmers is known for his defense, for good reason. He recorded steals last year at a rate surpassed by just eight other D-I players nationally. Also note, however, that in 2007 Chalmers was the best shooter on a very good shooting team, hitting 40 percent of his threes and, even more impressively, 56 percent of his twos. Like Chalmers, Robinson records a ton of steals; unlike Chalmers, he gets fouled and goes to the line with extreme frequency (though he's just a 65 percent FT shooter). Robinson's defense and an additional two inches of height have thus far given him an edge over sophomore Sherron Collins, who's proven quite capable as the QB of this offense and is in fact a better shooter than his elder. Rush, Chalmers and Collins all made at least 40 percent of their threes in 2007.

With these players and with this team's recent history, no coach in the country will have more at stake come March, in terms of how he's to be perceived henceforth, than Bill Self. Fair? No. But true.

KANSAS STATE

What Kansas State did well: Hold press conferences at which new coaches are introduced.

On April 6, Frank Martin became the Wildcats' third coach in 400 days. For anyone who hasn't been closely monitoring events in Manhattan, Kansas, over the past year or so, the sequence went like this….

It started on March 9, 2006, when Jim Wooldridge was shown the door after six seasons, 83 wins and 90 losses. Two weeks later, former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins was introduced as the new coach. Huggins had been forced out as the Bearcats' coach shortly before the beginning of the 2005-06 season, due in part to a DUI conviction in 2004. Last year, he led the Wildcats to a 23-12 record that included an NIT berth, K-State's first postseason appearance since 1999. He then promptly left to take the job at West Virginia. Enter Huggins' assistant, Martin.

What we learned in 2007: Simply holding on to the ball can land your coach a new gig.

Martin was introduced as a natural choice to succeed Huggins, one who will follow through on the ex-coach's resuscitation of the program. Resuscitation indeed: K-State went from 6-10 in-conference in 2006 to 10-6 last year, a turnaround impressive enough to land Huggins in Morgantown.

Might the patient have been recovering even before Huggins came on board? For the most part, K-State's vital signs remained surprisingly steady from year to year. The defense gave up a hair over a point per possession in Big 12 play under both Wooldridge and Huggins. If anything, the D was a tiny bit better under Wooldridge. On offense, Cartier Martin and David Hoskins were possession-eating workhorses in both 2006 and 2007. The Wildcats' shooting and offensive rebounding stayed pretty much the same over the two conference seasons. In the brief Huggins era, Kansas State shot a normal number of threes, where previously they'd shied away from launching those same shots. Still, their 3FG percentage was exactly the same in Big 12 play both years. So how did K-State get those four additional conference wins and make it to the NIT?

Fewer turnovers and better luck, in that order, accounted for the dramatic turnaround under Huggins. The Wildcats went from turning the ball over on 23 percent of their possessions to giving it away just 19 percent of the time in-conference. Not only did workhorses Martin and Hoskins both cut down on their turnovers, Clent Stewart's giveaways went from impossibly frequent to merely way too frequent. As a result Kansas State got more shots at the basket and the offense improved markedly, scoring 1.05 points per possession in the Big 12 (versus just 0.98 in 2006).

As for luck, it's safe to say K-State was better than their record in 2006. Conference opponents outscored them by just 18 points over 16 games that year and all the Wildcats had to show for it at the end was a 6-10 mark (including 4-7 in conference games decided by four points or less). Last year, conversely, the breaks evened out as Kansas State outscored 16 opponents by 35 points and went 10-6 (including 2-1 in conference games decided by four points or less). It makes one wonder if Wooldridge could have hung on to his job had he just been given one more season.

Note that the now departed Cartier Martin was a highly efficient source of points: he never turned the ball over and his shots went in. For a team's leading scorer to be this efficient is rare; in a normal year, one in which no one in the conference was named Kevin Durant, it might have attracted more notice. Yes, the new breed in Manhattan is something special, no doubt. Still, new coach Martin may find that replacing former player Martin is no small task.

What's in store for 2008: It's a novel state of affairs, surely, that finds Kansas State boasting the Big 12's top-ranked recruiting class and, indeed, one of the top classes in the entire nation. Yet it is so: McDonald's All-American Michael Beasley, a left-handed 6'10" power forward from the Washington D.C. area, headlines a class that's attracting unprecedented notice in Manhattan.

Beasley is projected as a lottery pick in 2008. Can he do for the Wildcats this year what Kevin Durant did for Texas last year? Not likely, but the very fact that the question is being asked, and asked widely, with regard to a Kansas State player surely represents an upswing in this program's fortunes that few could have foreseen just a year ago. Beasley spent part of his summer representing the U.S. at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Serbia, where he played alongside the likes of North Carolina's Deon Thompson, Ohio State's David Lighty and incoming Texas A&M freshman DeAndre Jordan.

Bill Walker is expected to ride shotgun for Beasley in Manhattan this year. A 6'6" wing with a big reputation for that proverbial "athleticism," Walker played in just six games as a freshman last year before tearing his ACL against Texas A&M five minutes into the Big 12 season. Now he's slated to team with Beasley and give the 'Cats a healthy jolt of speed and hops. Six games aren't much to go on, naturally, but one thing we think we know already: Walker, while good around the basket, should think twice before shooting any more threes. In fact, defenders will give him all kinds of room to shoot as many jumpers as he wants until he proves he can knock them down.

Also arriving in Manhattan this season is 6'8" forward Ron Anderson, who played AAU ball with Beasley. Add in three more well-regarded new arrivals for the backcourt and wings (Jacob Pullen, 6'1" point guard from greater Chicago; Fred Brown, 6'3" shooting guard from West Palm Beach; and Andre Gilbert, 6'7" wing from the Twin Cities by way of San Jacinto College) and you have your nationally-ranked recruiting class.

The new blood will find at least three seniors still in residence and available to give oral histories on the bad old days. At 6'5", David Hoskins had a disastrous year shooting threes in 2007 but, a little like Penn State's Geary Claxton, he leavened his substandard shooting with strong offensive rebounding. (Actually Hoskins' best offensive weapon is that he gets fouled quite often and is adequate at the line.) Fellow senior Clent Stewart, mentioned above, turns the ball over more frequently than any other Wildcat but also ranks as the team's best returning three-point shooter. Six-foot-two guard Blake Young is the only K-State player who picks off an occasional steal. Coach Martin will be relying on this blend of experience and youth to continue the noteworthy improvements seen of late in Manhattan.

MISSOURI

What Missouri did well: Start to turn the corner.

After limping to a 5-11 conference record in Quin Snyder's final season in 2006, Missouri made encouraging progress last year. Not only did the young Tigers go 7-9 under first-year coach Mike Anderson, they improved significantly on both sides of the ball, especially on offense. True, Mizzou missed a lot of threes last year, but holding on to the ball and making their twos made a big difference, as the Tigers scored 1.05 points per possession in-conference, up from just 0.95 in 2006. It was an auspicious Columbia debut for Anderson.

What we learned in 2007: Some corners take a while to turn.

Unfortunately for Anderson, the close of the 2007 season brought with it the end of the good news and the beginning of the bad news, all of it off the court. First, 6'8" Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll suffered a gunshot wound outside a downtown Columbia nightspot early on the morning of July 5. Fortunately for Carroll the shot only grazed his ankle and he was up and around in no time. Still, the incident, in which Carroll (Anderson's nephew) was reportedly a mere innocent bystander, spurred Anderson to issue a "zero-tolerance" edict for his team, the upshot being that Missouri players should take extra care to stay out of harm's way in the wee hours.

That decree lasted about 36 hours before it was violated, and rather flagrantly at that. Kalen Grimes was charged with second-degree felony assault after allegedly hitting a man in the face with the butt of a shotgun in the parking lot of a St. Louis-area Dairy Queen at three in the morning on July 7. Grimes, a 6'9" forward with one season of eligibility remaining, was dismissed from the team by Anderson on July 17.

This sequence of events represents merely the latest drama for a program that's seen an astonishing amount of turmoil and, to be honest, sheer farce since the departure of longtime coach Norm Stewart in 1999. Just to touch a few bases here: Ricky Clemons crashing an ATV at the president's house; tapes of jailhouse phone calls; Snyder's soulful YouTube-worthy locker room cover of "Eye of the Tiger"; and a new $75 million arena initially named after someone who not only didn't attend Missouri, but who didn't even write her own term papers at USC. It's been an eventful few years in previously bucolic Columbia, and it would appear that Anderson's fated to ride out the aftershocks as best he can.

What's in store for 2008: Losing Grimes will, of course, hurt a team that's not exactly blessed with either height or heft. Grimes was an outstanding defensive rebounder (better even than Kevin Durant, second only to Aleks Maric in the Big 12) who, as it happened, played for the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference. That's a big loss. On the other hand, this particular outstanding defensive rebounder played just about 40 percent of the available minutes. So we've already seen Missouri without Grimes. It happened about 24 minutes a game every game last season.

Then there's the larger point: if there's one coach in the country whp can adapt to losing his best defensive rebounder, it's Anderson. His 2006 UAB squad (in effect, the team that landed him his job in Columbia) virtually defined how to achieve proficiency on both sides of the ball without the benefit of rebounds. That year UAB led the nation in forcing turnovers, as opponents gave the ball to the Blazers on an astonishing 29 percent of their possessions. While we may never see the likes of that unbelievable figure again, it's instructive that Anderson already had Missouri at the top of the Big 12 on this metric in his first season, as the Tigers forced their conference opponents to cough up the ball 23 percent of the time.

The profile for Mizzou for the foreseeable future, then, figures to be that of a quick undersized team that forces turnovers. They'll get beat on their defensive glass most nights so they'll do everything they can (accelerating the pace, for one thing) to see that their opponent's possessions end not with a shot but with a turnover. In other words, Missouri will need to score some points this season. Better three-point shooting would help: the Tigers devoted more of their shots in-conference to threes than all Big 12 teams save Nebraska and Baylor. If they improve on last season's 34 percent shooting from beyond the arc in conference play, they can offset some defensive boards they don't get.

Even with Grimes' unscheduled departure, Anderson still has a veteran group, led by 6'1" senior point guard Stefhon Hannah. Arriving last year as a junior college transfer, Hannah was a great find. Not only did he record steals with Mike Conley-level frequency (the kind of thievery this defense badly needs), he also kept opposing defenses honest with decent (39 percent) three-point shooting.

Junior guard Matt Lawrence is a statistical dead ringer for former Florida shooting guard Lee Humphrey: a pure three-point specialist who doesn't shoot very often but, when he does, wow. With this kind of scary-good accuracy (44 percent on his threes, 63 percent on his infrequent twos) the 6'7" Lawrence really should have been playing for Air Force or the Gators in 2007. (Among major-conference players, only Roy Hibbert and Humphrey posted higher effective FG percentages last year.) Sophomore guard Keon Lawrence poses yet another low-turnover perimeter threat (like Hannah, he was a 39 percent three-point shooter last year), though he missed a lot of twos as a freshman. Beyond Hannah and the two Lawrences, Jason Horton, a 6'2" senior, records steals, assists and turnovers, but not shots. J.T. Tiller, a 6'3" sophomore, needs to cut down on his turnovers if he wants more minutes.

Leo Lyons may win a starting spot down low, as the 6'9" junior makes 61 percent of his twos and is now Anderson's best bet for some defensive boards. He actually logged more minutes than Grimes last year. (Note, however, that Lyons, a 19 percent three-point shooter, should probably stay at home in the paint.) The aforementioned Carroll posted pretty fair numbers in 2006 for Vanderbilt, where he took good care of the ball and hit the offensive glass while logging big minutes. Frontcourt depth will be furnished by 6'6" senior Marshall Brown and 6'8" freshman Justin Safford. Note there's no one here over 6'9". This team is built to play an entertaining style: fast, with lots of points, both for and against.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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