Big 12 Primer: Questions aside, Kansas looks to be class of league
Oklahoma State's LeBryan Nash could emerge as one of nation's top freshman
Despite many questions, Kansas is still likely to come out on top in the Big 12
Without Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph Texas' squad is young and relatively small
In preparation for the 2011-12 college hoops season, SI.com breaks down the best of the best in each of the six major conferences. Andy Glockner serves up his picks for Player of the Year, breakout candidate and more for the Big 12.
Thomas Robinson, Kansas
If the Jayhawks are going to claim their eighth straight league title, Robinson is going to have to be a huge force in an overhauled frontcourt. Given the luxury of coming off the bench last season, Robinson wasn't shy, especially on the glass, where he posted dominant rebounding rates on both ends -- 18.8 percent offensive and 31.1 percent defensive. (For reference, glasseater Kenneth Faried led Division I in both categories, at 19.9 and 31.6, per kenpom.com.) He also carried a heavy possession usage burden and scored efficiently when he was on the floor. His rebounding rates probably won't hold up with his minutes doubling, but Robinson should be a nightly double-double machine and the Jayhawks' most dangerous player this season.
LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State
Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello will be large parts of an extremely talented Baylor core, but they should get significant help from returnees Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy. Nash won't have nearly that luxury as he slots in immediately as the Cowboys' primary offensive threat. The Cowboys will be able to surround Nash with a decent supporting cast, so he may be in better position than other candidates like Texas' Myck Kabongo, but he won't have to share the spoils nearly as much as the Baylor duo, which should lead to big numbers and big impact.
Kourtney Roberson, Texas A&M
With the departure of sturdy forward Nathan Walkup (9.4 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game), there should be an ample increase in minutes available for Roberson, who made an impact on the glass last season while trying to find his offensive footing. A&M will need more initiative from him at that end this season, as the Aggies also lost B.J. Holmes. Khris Middleton and David Loubeau have proved to be capable front-line scorers, but this isn't a team where you expect a guy to regularly pop off for 25 points, so what scoring contributions A&M gets beyond those two will help determine whether the preseason hype was warranted.
That's the number of league games the Big 12 will play this season in its new 10-team setup, with the league now being the only high-major conference that will play a full double round-robin. For once, there will be no need for schedule strength adjustments and debates about uneven divisions. The winner will have earned a conference championship with true meaning. That's a refreshing throwback -- that may be very temporary if conference realignment juggles things up again.
If you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ, and very few have done that over the years in this league. These Jayhawks do not have the talent level of recent KU clubs, but with the rest of the challengers having questions of their own, the Jayhawks are the prudent default choice. Thomas Robinson steps into the frontcourt limelight and will try to make up for the loss of Markieff and Marcus Morris. The backcourt still has senior lead guard Tyshawn Taylor and junior Elijah Johnson. Can a three-man core win a league as deep as the Big 12? Depends on the contributions of players like Travis Releford and Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young, as well as what they can wean from a lower-profile freshman class that lost Ben McLemore and Jamari Taylor to eligibility issues. The Jayhawks could go 15-3 or 10-8 and neither would be a complete surprise. With Bill Self and Allen Fieldhouse as the guides, something closer to the former seems more likely.
2. Texas A&M
New coach Billy Kennedy inherited a very nice roster for his first season in College Station. The Aggies shared first place with Kansas in the preseason media poll and could very well win the league. Kennedy, the former Murray State coach, is used to rosters that share the limelight, so having a team built around guys like Khris Middleton and David Loubeau -- very good players, but not Wooden Award finalist types -- should suit him just fine. Losing forward Nathan Walkup means more will be expected from frontcourt contributors like Kourtney Roberson and Ray Turner. Dash Harris provides stability at the point. Washington transfer Elston Turner will help make up for the shooting lost with the departure of B.J. Holmes. Last year, the Aggies struggled against more athletic teams (see: Texas). Outside of maybe Baylor this season, upgrades in athleticism in the rotation should make that less of a concern.
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