MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

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October 17, 2012

Kansas at the top in new-look Big 12

— KANSAS CITY, Mo.  — Bob Huggins is back in the Big 12, this time with West Virginia. TCU has joined the fold, too, and everyone else converged on the Sprint Center on Wednesday for the league’s annual media day.

Which happened to be down the road from Missouri, a school no longer part of the league.

Yes, there’s plenty of change in the conference this year. The Tigers and their high-octane offense are gone to the SEC along with Texas A&M, and in their place come the rough-and-tumble Mountaineers from the Big East and a Horned Frogs program rebuilding under Trent Johnson.

Billy Gillispie is gone after one messy season at Texas Tech, done in by an offseason of controversy that left untested and largely unknown Chris Walker to take over a program that appears to be in shambles.

Also gone is Frank Martin, the fiery former coach of Kansas State. Martin left for South Carolina — maybe he couldn’t get enough of Missouri and Texas A&M — and in his place is Bruce Weber, who was unceremoniously dumped by Illinois as that program slid into mediocrity.

There is one thing that hasn’t change, though: Kansas is still picked to win the league.

The Jayhawks will be reloading after losing bruising forward Thomas Robinson and senior guard Tyshawn Taylor to the NBA, but three returning starters and a crowded class of freshman were enough to make them the unanimous preseason pick to win the Big 12 for the ninth straight time.

“It’s a great sense of pride, or source of pride for us,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who agreed to a new contract in the offseason that should keep him in Lawrence for the next decade.

“Our players don’t want to be the team that doesn’t win it. They put that pressure on themselves,” Self said. “There isn’t a jubilation of winning the league that you might anticipate with our guys because they take the approach that this is their job. They’re supposed to win.”

Until they lose, they’ll keep getting picked first.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of programs, including the two newcomers, salivating at the opportunity to knock the Jayhawks from their comfy perch.

“We’d like to be the first team that doesn’t have ‘Kansas’ on its uniform to win this thing in a long, long time,” Huggins said.

The Mountaineers gave Baylor everything it could handle in an overtime defeat early last season, and wound up winning 19 games and reaching the NCAA tournament, where they were ousted by Gonzaga. West Virginia lost leading scorers Kevin Jones and Darryl Bryant, but return sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds and Deniz Kilicli, the senior who shaved his sensational beard this offseason.

Huggins is no stranger to the Big 12, either. He returned from exile after a rough ending to his tenure at Cincinnati by taking over Kansas State, which he placed squarely on the path toward success that Martin continued to walk even after “Huggy Bear” left to coach his alma mater.

“We’re a lot like the other schools in the Big 12,” Huggins said. “We’re a state university. We’re a land-grant institution. We have great facilities. I think they did a great job of getting people who are like the schools already in the Big 12.”

With the exception of location.

“Someone asked who our biggest rival will be. I said, ‘Iowa State.’ They’re the closest,” Huggins said. “They’re only 800-and-some air miles.”

Johnson won’t have the same such trouble with TCU, smack in the middle of the Dallas metro area.

His biggest problem will be trying to make the Horned Frogs relevant.

The former coach of Stanford and LSU has taken over a program that joined the Big 12 largely because of the strength of its football team, even though TCU won 18 games last year. Johnson will certainly have a fertile recruiting base, and now has the cache of the Big 12 to lean on.

“It’s an exciting time for TCU basketball,” Johnson said. “I’ve inherited a group of young men that have done an exceptional job of buying into everything that we’ve asked them to do.”

Walker said the same thing of the Red Raiders, who’ve had perhaps the roughest offseason.

Gillispie resigned under intense scrutiny on Sept. 20, citing health concerns and with the university investigating allegations that he mistreated some of his players. The former Kentucky and Texas A&M coach led the Red Raiders to an 8-23 record in his only season in Lubbock.

Walker is working under a six-month contract to serve as interim coach.

Martin walked away from Kansas State amid some controversy, too. Rumors persist that there was a significant rift with the administration, something both sides have denied. Weber was an unpopular hire among the fanbase after struggling his last couple seasons at Illinois, but he takes over a senior-laden Wildcats team led by Rodney McGruder that should push Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State and the Longhorns for the regular-season title.

“You want to deal with the best,” Weber said. “You want that challenge, and that’s the exciting part of it.”

For his team to get there, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said the big key was rebounding. He’s already in a predicament with the status of injured 6-foot-5 returnee Brian Williams. The Cowboys were picked third by the conference’s coaches, trailing Kansas and Baylor.

“Any rebounding category we were last. From offensive, to defensive, any category, we were last in the league in rebounding. We’ve got to make a drastic improvement in that area.”

In tow are Le’Bryan Nash and the versatile Marcus Smart, who gives Ford an option at all but center.

“But if you ask him to play the five, he woudl do that too...Marcus probably more than any palyer I’ve ever coached, affects a practice, effects games  more than any player I’ve seen.”

Oklahoma has Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Amath M’Baye and a year under coach Lon Kruger. He’s been impressed with the leadership of seniors Andrew Fitzgerland and Romero Osby, and M’Baye, a transfer from Wyoming.

“We have a lot of guys who are genuinely invested in and enjoy the preparation part of it, which is a good first step to having as good a team as possible,” Kruger said.

 

Coaches’ poll

Voting points; first-place votes in parenthesis:

1. Kansas (9)     81

2. Baylor (1)     63

3. Oklahoma State     60

4. Texas     58

5. Kansas State     54

6. West Virginia     45

7. Oklahoma     34

8. Iowa State     28

9. Texas Tech     18

10.TCU     9

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