Elijah Johnson should be the next Jayhawk to go from supporting actor to leading man, and he showed that potential by scoring in double figures in all eight post-season games, putting up 15.1 points per contest.
Center Jeff Withey and wing Travis Releford will ensure that the Jayhawks are again the league's best defensive team. Withey's impact was tangible in the Final Four: facing off against lottery picks and All-Americans Anthony Davis and Jared Sullinger, Withey held the duo to a combined 6-of-29 shooting (20.7 percent), aided by 11 blocks. The key here will be whether Kansas can get the rebounding to replace Thomas Robinson, who hauled in nearly one-third of the available defensive rebounds when he was on the court. Releford did a nice job of getting some scrap buckets in the NCAA Tournament, and if he could develop a bit more as a scorer, it would help ease some of the scoring burden.
The Jayhawks will get scoring punch from freshman wings Ben McLemore and Andrew White, and from freshman post Perry Ellis, an inside-out post presence for the Jayhawks. McLemore has a step up, in that he practiced with the team during the spring semester, and there are some people who feel that he could be the Jayhawks' next big thing. White is an excellent athlete with a great shooting touch.
A strong recruiting class loaded with post players like Landen Lucas and Zach Peters will ensure that the Jayhawks are deeper than the group that won the 2012 Big 12 title (Kansas's eighth straight) by two games. And you shouldn't ever bet against Bill Self in conference play.
Baylor must retool up front, after losing the toughness of Quincy Acy and the athleticism of Perry Jones III. While Jones will be taken much higher in the NBA Draft, it's Acy's tenacity that will be more difficult to replace. In landing top recruit Isaiah Austin, the Bears essentially made a clean trade for Jones, and potentially even an upgrade.
Austin is a similar player to Jones in that he's a long, dynamic, skinny athlete who prefers to play facing up than in the post. But Austin is a fantastic shot-blocker, whereas Jones was mediocre on the defensive end. Who he'll be paired with is somewhat of a question. Will it be J'mison Morgan, who sat out this year? What about Cody Jefferson, who showed some shot-blocking potential? Or is it true freshman Ricardo Gathers, a rough-and-tumble 6-7 forward, but another player who isn't necessarily a true post guy? There are certainly bodies there to choose from.
Why so much focus on the post players? Because the Bears should probably have the Big 12's best backcourt in point guard Pierre Jackson and wings Brady Heslip and Quincy Miller. Expect Miller to develop into an All-Big 12 player, while Jackson could also find a spot on the first team as one of the league's top points. Heslip is arguably the top returning shooter in the league as well. And that's just the front line. Baylor also has guards like A.J. Walton and Deuce Bello returning (both of whom played about 10 minutes per game) while adding point guard L.J. Rose, an outstanding true point guard with savvy. And the Bears could decide to go "small" by shifting the 6-foot-9 Miller to the four, opening up an extra spot for either Bello or Walton in the starting lineup.
This is a team that, like this year's group, will have plenty of talent and depth. The key to winning the league will be getting more toughness out of the frontcourt.
Texas was arguably the Big 12's least experienced team in 2011-2012, and the Longhorns return a whopping five freshmen who played at least 15 minutes per game last season.
That includes Myck Kabongo, who could develop into one of the league's top point guards, and wings Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan. Lewis showed potential as a defender and shot-maker, while McClellan was one of the league's top scoring freshmen. Jonathan Holmes is an awfully tough matchup at times as a face-up four, and started 17 games. And Jaylen Bond was an outstanding rebounder, snagging 4.6 boards per game despite playing just 15.4 minutes per contest. He's the Big 12's top returning rebounder in terms of rebound percentage.
But it's the recruiting class that allows Texas to be mentioned this highly. The Longhorns did a great job of going out and not just grabbing top-notch players, but filling needs. Center Cameron Ridley is exactly what Texas needed down low, a burly tough guy who stands as one of the elite rebounders in the class. Prince Ibeh provides a shot-blocking presence, something the Longhorns lacked a year ago. Javan Felix can run the team, shoot and provide general cover for Kabongo. And Ioannis Papapetrou gives the Longhorns a high-IQ wing who can do all the little things right. DeMarcus Holland adds a tough guard who can play point or wing and handle the ball and defend. Essentially, if you drew up a wish list for what the Longhorns needed on their 2011-2012 roster, Rick Barnes went out and landed it.
The influx of talent allows Texas to play big, small, or however they want to, and the normal jump that players see in year two should greatly improve a team that was ranked No. 31 at season's end by Ken Pomeroy.
4) Kansas State
Does Bruce Weber fall into cushy situations, or what? While 2012-2013 Kansas State won't exactly be the Illinois team that Weber inherited from current Kansas coach Bill Self, it is a talented roster with depth and most of its questions already answered.
Eight players played at least 30 games and at least 15 minutes for the Wildcats in 2011-2012, and seven of those players return. Granted, the lone loss from that group — power forward Jamar Samuels, who led the team in rebounding and was second in scoring and blocked shots — was a big one. But the Wildcats should have plenty of cover for the position. While Samuels grabbed 6.6 rebounds per game in 26.5 minutes per contest by using his athleticism, for example, burly Thomas Gipson pulled down 4.7 boards per game in 17.5 minutes per game by using his wide body.
The Wildcats were tough on the glass, out-rebounding opponents by nearly five boards per game, and were brutal defensively. Expect both of those trends to continue under Weber, especially with 6-11 Jordan Henriquez returning. Henriquez blocked 2.4 shots per game and would have gotten more credit had he not shared a state with arguably the country's top shot-blocker.
And wing Rodney McGruder should start the season as the top all-around player in the league. He was named to the All-Defense team and did a great job on opposing wings while scoring 15.8 points and grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game. Add in a backcourt with heady Will Spradling and the occasionally stellar Angel Rodriguez, and the Wildcats have some nice pieces for Weber to build around. And players like Shane Southwell and Martavious Irving ensure that the Wildcats have some depth.
It would help if the Wildcats could add another player or two through recruiting, though the pickings will likely be slim.
It was a difficult choice between the rival Sooners and Cowboys for this spot, but we'll give the nod to Oklahoma. The Sooners return every starter and some key bench players, while the Cowboys have a strong recruiting class hoping to make up for some departed talent.
Oklahoma had a rough season in Lon Kruger's first year on campus, going 5-13 in Big 12 play after a 10-3 start. The Sooners showed flashes, nearly beating Cincinnati and Missouri, while sweeping Kansas State. And they had poor moments, losing by 18 to cellar-dweller Texas Tech and going 1-8 away from Lloyd Noble Center.
But in wing Steven Pledger, the Sooners have one of the most efficient returning perimeter scorers in the league. He scored 16.2 points per game, shooting almost 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from three. Romero Osby chipped in 12.9 points per game and 7.3 boards per game, and could make a leap next year in his second season with the Sooners. And Andrew Fitzgerald can score (12.1 points per game) but needs to become a better rebounder (5.0). Adding 6-9 Wyoming transfer Amath M'Baye will help there.
Cameron Clark is one of the more frustrating players in the league. He's a prodigious athletic talent — witness his 18 points vs. Sacramento State, or his 11 rebounds against Iowa State — but can't quite string things together. Point guards Carl Blair and Sam Grooms are pass-first distributors who shot a combined 33.6 percent form the field. Grooms did have a 2.8-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.
The Sooners didn't add any huge pieces through recruiting, although a couple of wing players could help with depth.