With the start of the 2012-13 college basketball season fast approaching, ESPN Insider is looking at the five burning questions facing each of the major conferences. In this edition, Fran Fraschilla takes on the Big 12.
1. Will anyone catch Kansas?
The Kansas Jayhawks have won 84 percent of their Big 12 games under coach Bill Self and are nearly impossible to beat at Allen Field House. Go ahead and give them nine wins at home and two more on the road against rebuilding Texas Tech and TCU, and they are already well on their way to a ninth straight regular-season Big 12 title.
The Jayhawks don't have a pure point guard, but their backcourt of Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and freshman Ben McLemore is the biggest and most athletic in the league. 7-footer Jeff Withey has finally come into his own, and he will anchor another stout Kansas defense.
If there's a team that could give the Jayhawks a run for their money, it may be Self's alma mater, Oklahoma State. While there's a lot of pressure on freshman guard Marcus Smart to perform, Billy Donovan (who coached Smart this summer) told me that Smart is the best leader he's ever been around. If Smart can get the Cowboys to play to their potential, the talent is there (including Le'Bryan Nash) for Oklahoma State to have a great season.
Both the Baylor Bears and Texas Longhorns are loaded with very good young players. While the Bears have the experienced backcourt of Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip to rely upon, Rick Barnes' Longhorns have the deepest pool of talent outside of Kansas.
2. Who will win Big 12 Player of the Year?
If Kansas wins the Big 12, I'd expect senior guard Elijah Johnson to have the inside track at the league POY award. He came into his own during the Jayhawks' Final Four run as a great complement to Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.
There will be more burden on Johnson's shoulders this season, as he will be asked to not only score points but also run the team. While he was Self's best post-feeder and most efficient passer in 2011-12, he will have to work on attacking the paint in order to A) improve upon an anemic 13 percent free throw rate and B) create scoring chances for his talented teammates.
Jackson, Baylor's electric point guard, is the league's preseason POY, and as he goes, so goes coach Scott Drew's team. Kansas State guard Rodney McGruder is my dark horse for the award because he will be the Wildcats' one proven returning scorer in coach Bruce Weber's motion offense.
3. Which team will surprise?
I'll give you two: the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Oklahoma Sooners. After coach Bob Huggins' West Virginia team was picked to finish sixth in the Big 12 preseason coaches' poll, he said, "If we are the sixth-best team in that league, then it's a hell of a league."
I think the Mountaineers will finish higher than sixth. In addition to returning a group of sophomores who gained valuable experience last season, Huggins is adding three transfers who were key starters at their former schools.
Coach Lon Kruger's Oklahoma team returns five starters and adds three quality freshman guards as well as 6-foot-8 Wyoming transfer Amath M'baye, who was voted the league's preseason newcomer of the year. Rebuilding a program is one of Kruger's specialties, and his Sooners are right on schedule.
4. Who will be the Big 12's top newcomer?
I'm going with Kansas' McLemore for this one. This season, the Jayhawks will need exactly what the 6-6 McLemore can provide: scoring punch. And, remember, the former high school All-American is not a true freshman, as he had the benefit of a half-season of practice while sitting out for academic reasons in 2011-12. He also got some playing time on a foreign tour to Europe this summer.
Another newcomer to keep an eye on is Iowa State's Will Clyburn. The 6-7 former Utah transfer averaged 17 points per game as a junior before leaving for Ames, and he will have the opportunity to replace the offensive weaponry lost from last season's NCAA tournament team. He is up to the task.
5. How many tourney bids will the Big 12 get?
Five for sure, and maybe six. The conference's overall stability and the addition of Huggins' Mountaineers will offset the loss of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC.