College Basketball: Can Anyone Take Down Kansas in the Big 12?
If history is any indicator of the future, we should just send the Big 12 conference championship trophy to Lawrence, Kansas now, but what fun would that be?
Under Bill Self, the Kansas Jayhawks have claimed the Big 12 title in 12 straight seasons and have every reason to believe they will extend that streak to 13.
While the conference has lost some of its signature players, the Big 12 as a whole looks pretty similar to last year. The conference received seven bids to the NCAA Tournament, including Final Four participant Oklahoma, but did not fare well as a whole.
Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas, and West Virginia all got knocked out in the First Round, the last three by double-digit seeds. If anyone is going to have a chance of taking down Kansas, it will certainly take a better effort than that.
Team to Beat: Kansas Jayhawks
Taking into consideration the streak mentioned above and the preseason top 10 ranking, it would be considered a scorching hot take to have anybody here except for Kansas.
While the Jayhawks lost their two leading scorers from last season, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden, Kansas has managed to retool and are one of the favorites to cut down the nets in April. Kansas is returning three starters from last season, including seniors Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas.
When paired with the nation's sixth-ranked recruiting class, according to ESPN, the Jayhawks are going to be tough to stop. Kansas is already gearing up for a deep run through March with their non-conference scheduling, having split early season matchups with Indiana and a banged up Duke squad, while still having a date with Kentucky in Lexington.
The experience and character that will be built during those games should be valuable for the Jayhawks as they look to improve on last year's trip to the Elite Eight.
Team on the Rise: Texas Longhorns
Last time we saw Texas last year, they got upset in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament by an unlikely Northern Iowa half court heave.
In Shaka Smart's second season in Austin, the Longhorns are looking to power through key losses by building up their stockpile of young talent. Texas has improved once again in ESPN's recruiting class ranks, ranking 11th in 2016 after finishing 15th in 2015. This should be beneficial for the Longhorns, as Smart builds towards recreating his defensive juggernauts from his time at VCU.
The prize of this year's class is top-ranked center prospect, Jarrett Allen, who is already getting big minutes as a freshman. Texas is also giving a solid chunk of playing time early on to a trio of sophomores, guards Eric Davis Jr. and Kerwin Roach Jr., along with swingman Tevin Mack.
The Longhorns' youth movement could lead to some volatility early on but should absolutely pay dividends later in the season.
Team on the Decline: Oklahoma Sooners
Any team that loses the Naismith Player of the Year to the NBA is going to have a tough time the next season, and that is the chore Lon Kruger's Sooners will have to endure this year. Buddy Hield and his 25 points per game are gone, along with two of their other four leading scorers from last season's Final Four team, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler.
Their two returning starters, junior forward Khadeem Lattin and senior guard Jordan Woodard, are going to have to lead the way for a young Oklahoma squad.
The Sooners look to be on the fringe of NCAA Tournament discussion, but it would be a miraculous job to get them anywhere near their finish from last season.
Player to Watch: Josh Jackson
Josh Jackson enters Kansas as another one-and-done candidate but could make a huge impact for the Jayhawks. ESPN's number-two college prospect has the potential to be a star at Kansas, but his transition to the college game will be something to keep an eye on.
Jackson is an explosive player who can score at the hoop, pass, and rebound, making him a threat to take over games. There may be some growing pains early on, as with most freshmen, but if the five-star recruit plays up to his potential, Jackson and Kansas alike can be looking at some big rewards by season's end.