Big 12: Two new coaches get crack at stopping Kansas’ streak
The two Big 12 men’s basketball programs with new coaches have tough acts to follow.
Steve Prohm moves from Murray State to take over at Iowa State, where Fred Hoiberg fulfilled a lifelong dream to coach in the NBA. He took over the Chicago Bulls.
Hoiberg was a favorite son, a former star at Iowa State and Ames High who turned the Cyclones into a consistent winner. Their streak of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances is a school record.
Iowa State is Prohm’s second head coaching job. He went 104-29 at Murray State, winning two Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championships and winning an NCAA Tournament game in his only appearance there.
Ever since leading VCU to the Final Four in 2011, upsetting Kansas in the regional final, Shaka Smart has been at the top of many schools’ wish lists. He stiff-armed all inquiries until Texas called.
The Longhorns parted ways with Rick Barnes, who was getting Texas into the NCAA Tournament regularly but not having much success there with two victories in the last five appearances. Barnes wasn’t going to be unemployed for long. The other orange-coated UT — Tennessee — snapped him up.
Smart brings his havoc style to Austin, and both newcomers inherit talented rosters.
Iowa State returns its big three of Georges Niang, Monte Morris and Jameel McKay. For Texas, three starters are back, including leading scorer Isaiah Taylor, and the Longhorns welcome a top-20 recruiting class.
They’ll pick up where their predecessors left off, chasing Kansas. The Jayhawks have run out of fingers for their championship rings and are now counting toes, gunning for their 12th straight regular-season title.
Oklahoma looms as the Jayhawks’ top challenger. Four starters are back from coach Lon Kruger’s Sweet 16 team, led by reigning Big 12 player of the year Buddy Hield.
If Hield doesn’t become the first player to repeat the honor since Kansas’ Raef LaFrentz in the league’s first two years of existence, 1996 and 1997, Baylor forward Rico Gathers, Kansas forward Perry Ellis, Niang and Taylor are the top candidates.
SEC: Youth will be served
Kentucky should be the class of the Southeastern Conference once again, but new coaches and terrific freshman are the league’s early story lines.
The SEC landed six top-25 recruiting classes, according to one service. That would be a meh effort for football but is outstanding for roundball and lends credibility to the SEC’s targeted efforts to improve the sport.
And although Kentucky signed its share of freshmen expected to make an impact — Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe — the Wildcats didn’t hoard them all. LSU landed the nation’s top prospect in Ben Simmons and Mississippi State signed one of the top-rated players in Malik Newman.
New coaches brought not only Final Four but NBA Finals experience.
Ben Howland takes over at Mississippi State, back in the game two years after he was fired at UCLA, where he went to three Final Fours.
Rick Barnes, who missed the NCAA Tournament once in 17 years at Texas and reached a Final Four, takes over at Tennessee.
The new Alabama coach is Avery Johnson, who led the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals, and Florida introduced one of the game’s brightest stars, Mike White from Louisiana Tech, to take over Oklahoma City Thunder-bound Billy Donovan.
Look for Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia to battle it out behind the Wildcats, who seek their third straight Final Four appearance.
The nation: A familiar name opens the season at the top
North Carolina is the preseason No. 1 team in The Associated Press poll, which was released before senior guard Marcus Paige broke a bone in his right hand in a practice and is expected to miss up to a month of action.
Still, the Tar Heels are loaded with their top four scorers returning and perhaps the nation’s top frontcourt with the likes of Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson and Joel James. Meeks had 25 points and 11 rebounds in North Carolina’s blowout victory over Temple in Friday’s opener.
North Carolina will contend with Virginia and defending national champion Duke for Atlantic Coast Conference supremacy.
A former ACC team, Maryland, starts at or near the top. Guard Melo Trimble is one of the nation’s best, and the Terps are fortified by the addition of Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon.
The ACC powers plus Maryland, Kentucky and Kansas are the early favorites for No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds. The next layer includes Iowa State and Oklahoma from the Big 12, Gonzaga, Wichita State, Villanova and Michigan State. Some of the nation’s top individual talent comes from that group, starting with Zags senior forward Kyle Wiltjer, the former Kentucky transfer who averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds last season.
The Shockers’ duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Iowa State’s Georges Niang show up on several All-America lists.
Don’t be surprised if one or two freshmen battle for top honors. LSU’s Ben Simmons, California’s Jaylen Brown, Mississippi State’s Malik Newman, Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere are expected to become immediate impact players.