KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Basketball media days are the perfect time for optimism. It's not just a team that's unbeaten, but an entire league.No one is in a position to complain."Everyone thinks their league is great,'' Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said at the Big 12's annual event Tuesday at the Sprint Center. "And ours is no different.''It's hard, though, not to see the Big 12 this season for what it seems to be, whether that's reality or not.Kansas and Oklahoma State tied for first place in the preseason coaches' poll. They split the 10 first-place votes. Baylor is generally recognized as the best of the rest.But that "rest" could be pretty average."I think after that there will be great balance,'' Kruger said.The question remains, however, whether this really is a top-heavy league. Kansas, for one, has to prove itself with an almost entirely new cast of characters led by uber-recruit Andrew Wiggins. Oklahoma State has the consensus best returner in the league in Marcus Smart, but the Cowboys crashed and burned at the end of last season. Even Baylor, which returns almost everyone, is without perhaps its most integral part, point guard Pierre Jackson.So if you ask Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford how it feels to be up in that projected rarified air, he just dismisses it. Let's not forget, he says without actually saying, Kansas has won or shared the last nine Big 12 titles and all but four in the league's 17-year history. So start there."Winning a Big 12 championship is something that we strive to do. It's something we talk about,'' Ford said. "But we fully grasp that Kansas is still the team to beat.''nn
If Kansas does emerge as a national contender again, Wiggins is likely to have a lot to do with it. Don't be surprised, though, if he's not the highest-scoring freshman in his own league.For starters, Kansas would seem to have so much talent that no one will pile up points. Ben McLemore was essentially in Wiggins' position a year ago and averaged 15.9 points - good, but not exactly high octane.And then there's the pressure of expectations. KU coach Bill Self pointed to the Sports Illustrated cover a few weeks ago with Wiggins on the cover along with images of past Kansas freshman stars Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning."In Chamberlain's first game he went for 52 [points] and 31 [rebounds],'' Self said. "That's not going to happen. [Wiggins] could go for 20 and 10 and disappoint everybody.''
OK, then, so if you're looking for a high-scoring freshman, who else might be out there? Well, try Kansas State guard Marcus Foster. The Wildcats lost their only two double-digit scorers from last season and Foster averaged 27.1 points and was the Texas 3A player of the year as a high school senior.
"The all-star games in Texas, he was the leading scorer in both of them,'' Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. "And we had a scrimmage before the last football game. Right away, first shot of the game, boom, Marcus 3. So he doesn't seem to hesitate.''nn
Just as there is at the top of the league with Kansas and Oklahoma State, the worst teams in the league are also pretty clear cut judging by that preseason coaches' poll. Texas Tech and TCU seem to have been the last two on everyone's ballot.TCU coach Trent Johnson, though, marches on optimistically, almost defiantly."If we can get healthy and remain healthy, we'll be a good basketball team,'' said Johnson, in his second year at TCU after stints at Nevada, Stanford and LSU. "It seems like last year I was up here saying if we can just find a way to be competitive and stay in games, that would be fortunate from our standpoint.
"But we should shoot the ball better and play at a faster tempo. At our scrimmage last year at this time it was something like 41-36 with six minutes to go. This year it was 65-59 at the same point.''nn
Tubby Smith has the kind of hall-of-fame-neighborhood resume that will never leave him unemployed for very long.He's won 511 games. He's taken four different programs to at least the NCAA's Sweet 16. He won a national championship at Kentucky. And only once since his first two seasons as a head coach has he failed to win 20 games and make the postseason.
So naturally, when Smith became available he was grabbed up. Minnesota fired him after the Gophers lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It must have been five minutes later that Texas Tech called him because within a week he was the Red Raiders' coach."It's just good to be wanted,'' Smith said.Actually Smith, 62, hadn't planned to land anywhere that quickly. He knew he would have opportunities and he wanted to weigh them. Tech, though, just seemed too good to pass up."They have a need there and they want some stability and some continuity,'' Smith said. "I was impressed with the facilities. The United Spirit Arena is a beautiful facility. Certainly they've had a tough time at Texas Tech. They've had some lean years over the last few years, so we felt like coming in there we could restore some pride and prestige to the program.''Tech was a combined 19-43 the last two years under Billy Gillespie and Chris Walker.nn
And finally, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins arrived for media day wearing a dark sweater with a large WV sewn on it, very much the classic-style letterman's sweater."Really good looking, isn't it?'' Huggins cracked. "I figured I'd be the Max Good of the Big 12. I was in the [Ohio Valley Conference] with Max and every year he'd come in with an entirely different look. So I just figured I'd do it.''Good is the coach at Loyola Marymount now. He coached at Eastern Kentucky in the OVC when Huggins was at Akron.As much as anything, though, the sweater, Huggins said, "will be something for you to write about.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.Big 12 men's basketball preseason coaches poll
(First-place votes in parentheses)Rank, school Points1. Kansas (5) 771. Oklahoma State (5) 773. Baylor 634. Iowa State 565. Kansas State 435. Oklahoma 437. West Virginia 358. Texas 309. Texas Tech 1410. TCU 12