KU, OSU require time to age

Friday, November 11, 2005

Oklahoma and Texas appear to have moved to the head of the class.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For words of comfort in these uncertain times, Bill Self and Eddie Sutton can turn to their friend Kelvin Sampson.

The way things are now, the Oklahoma coach says, no one's really a freshman by the time conference action begins.

That's good news for Kansas' Self and Oklahoma State's Sutton. Kansas and Oklahoma State have, in a matter of months, gone from the most experienced to the most unproven teams in the Big 12, so young they can't even crack the preseason rankings.

Self's Jayhawks, the most dominant program during the Big 12's first nine seasons, have five freshmen, six sophomores and only two seniors. And both seniors arrived as walk-ons.

At least Sutton does have one outstanding returnee from last year's 26-7 team in JamesOn Curry, who'll probably contend for conference player-of-the-year honors.

But like Kansas, the Cowboys lost some of the finest players in the Big 12 and will be perilously dependent on a freshman class that, while hailed as among the finest in the nation, is still a freshman class.

"The thing about basketball, unlike some other sports, is that you have got October, November, December, you have got three months before you play a conference game," Sampson said. "I am not sure there's such a thing as freshmen anymore."

Of course, that's easy for Sampson to say. Experienced upperclassmen who have already proven themselves in ready-to-rumble Big 12 competition abound at Oklahoma.

Kevin Bookout, 6-8, and Taj Gray, 6-9, are heavily muscled seniors who could form the most forceful inside presence in the league. Gray, the only returner from last year's All-Big 12 team, is the preseason pick as player of the year.

No. 2 Texas, whose highest preseason ranking before now was No. 4, appears to have the Big 12's best starting five, including forward P.J. Tucker, point guard Daniel Gibson and LaMarcus Aldridge, a 6-10 sophomore.

"I'm happy to be back," said Tucker, who missed 14 games last season after he was declared academically ineligible. "We want to be that team that, at the end of the year, can really make some noise."

The Longhorns' proven, experienced talent explains why league coaches tabbed Texas as the Big 12 favorite and named No. 6 Oklahoma runner-up.

"I don't think that anyone can put expectations on us more than what we put on ourselves," said Texas coach Rick Barnes.

"Our goals are lofty, and they always will be, and we expect to have a great basketball team."

Nobody is taking Kansas lightly. Self's third Kansas team, and the first that is almost exclusively his own, was picked third, followed by Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Iowa State.

"There's about four or five teams in this league that are good enough to win it," said Sampson.

Everyone agrees the Big 12, a conference that was inaugurated in 1996-97 and formed primarily for football, is getting increasingly better from the bottom up in basketball.

The power this year resides in Texas and Oklahoma, and most of the best players, as in football, seem to play south of the Mason-Dixon line. But this also appears to be a year of hope for the perennial also-rans.

Colorado finished 14-16 overall last year and 4-12 in the league, good only for 11th place. But the Buffaloes return 10 seniors and shooting guard Richard Roby, who averaged 16 points.

Kansas State lost top scorer Jeremiah Massy and was only 10th a year ago. But the Wildcats have discarded their complicated triangle offense and stocked up with some promising newcomers.

"The key ingredient we have is a lot more experience than we had last year, a lot of new guys coming in," said Colorado coach Ricardo Patton. "And I think we have a lot more confidence coming in this year. That's important when you are playing in such a tough league."

The best backcourt in the Big 12 probably belongs to Iowa State, where Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson hold forth.

Self and Iowa State's Wayne Morgan are the only coaches in the North who aren't under some degree of fire. Patton, Missouri's Quin Snyder, Kansas State's Jim Wooldridge and Nebraska's Barry Collier all would do well to show significant improvement.

The Huskers return two regular starters in guards Jason Dourisseau and Joe McCray and experienced players in the front court. There is also a group of good newcomers.

"I use an old adage when it comes to preseason rankings," Collier said. "Our cow died last night, so we don't need that bull anymore."

For one Big 12 school, there won't be a preseason.

The Baylor Bears, still suffering for the ills of former coach Dave Bliss, have been forbidden by the NCAA to play even one non-conference game. The season for the poor Bears starts Jan. 11 at Texas Tech.

"I don't see it as a great negative," said guard Aaron Bruce, who averaged 18.2 points for the 9-19 Bears last year. "I think that's something to work through and something to deal with."

The Big 12 has long been proud to boast of two kings of college coaching, Sutton and Texas Tech's Bob Knight, and this year will also have two of the sport's young princes. Sean Sutton and Pat Knight have already been anointed head-coach designate to replace their famous dads someday.

For young Knight, that figures to be at least another year, unless the Red Raiders manage 25 wins. That's how many the elder Knight needs to tie Dean Smith's major college record of 879 wins.

But it'll probably take more than this one year, because the Raiders have joined the Jayhawks and Cowboys in a massive youth movement.

Knight, 65, says he still enjoys the craft he's practiced for 39 years with such verve.

"If you really like coaching, then you really like the first day of practice," said Knight. "And if you really like winning, you might not like the second day of practice. Then it goes on from there."

Having the two young princes designated as heir apparent brings a smile to Barnes.

"I think it's great," he said. "You're talking about two guys that have grown up at the feet of two of the greatest coaches ever. It's just a natural progression.

"Even though my son has never shown any desire whatsoever to coach ... in about four years if he doesn't have a job, I am going to hire him."

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