In a move that shocked the college basketball world last Tuesday, reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, opted not to make himself eligible for the 2013 NBA Draft so he could return to Stillwater for another season. Smart was considered a Top 5 pick by most experts, even a Top 3 pick by some, but chose to give up millions in guaranteed money to play his sophomore year.
Smart averaged 15.4 points per game last season while grabbing 5.8 boards and dishing out 4.2 assists per game. He helped lead the Cowboys to a 24-9 record, including a 13-5 mark in Big 12 play. But the year ended in disappointing fashion when Oklahoma State was upset by Oregon in the NCAA Tournament Round of 64.
Returning alongside Smart are his backcourt teammates Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash, who averaged 15.3 and 14.0 points per game last season, respectively. The only starter the Cowboys lose is Philip Jurrick, but fellow bigs Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy split starts last season and will be ready to take his place. So the Cowboys will return the equivalent of four starters and their sixth man (Phil Forte) to a team that wants redemption after its apathetic effort against Oregon.
The other contender for the Big 12 is quite obvious — the Kansas Jayhawks. The Jayhawks have won nine straight Big 12 titles, winning it outright four of the past five seasons. The team almost won it outright last year but was blown out by Baylor in its regular season finale. The top-seeded Jayhawks went to the Sweet 16 this year, but blew a 14-point lead in the last seven minutes to Michigan in an 87-85 overtime loss.
Now the Jayhawks will be tasked with reloading yet again, after losing all five starters from last season to either the NBA Draft or graduation. This includes Ben McLemore, who is a consensus Top 5 draft pick, and is almost certain to go in the Top 3 now that Smart's coming back to Oklahoma State. Kansas' returners have combined for a total of four starts, three from sophomore Perry Ellis and one from sophomore Jamari Taylor.
Bill Self has had to rebuild before, losing Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor in 2012, the Morris twins in 2011 and Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins in 2010. Kansas missed out on Class of 2013 five-star prospect Julius Randle, who could have instantly helped the Jayhawks remain Big 12 favorites but committed to Kentucky instead. The Jayhawks still landed Wayne Selden, the No.12 overall recruit according to ESPN, and Joel Embiid (No. 28 overall), who should both make an immediate impact for Kansas. But neither is good enough to make up for the Cowboys’ returning talent. Self will keep the Jayhawks in contention, but reloading again will be too much for Kansas.
It is because of all of this that Kansas’ reign in the Big 12 will end this season. The Jayhawks will not beat the Cowboys at Gallagher-Iba Arena two seasons in a row, and the Cowboys will start the year a vastly more experienced team. The Cowboys knocked off the Jayhawks in Lawrence last season, and may be poised to do it again.
Oklahoma State is the "Smart" pick to win the Big 12. It made tremendous strides last year and with Smart continuing to develop it will be even better next season. I bet the team finishes 16-2 in Big 12 play and should be favorites in every matchup, with the possible exception of the showdown in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will be good, and probably the second-best team in the conference, but I see them losing four or five games in Big 12 play next season and, more importantly, failing to win a 10th consecutive Big 12 regular season title.