To say his decision was unexpected would be an understatement. Smart was more or less assured of being a lottery pick had he turned pro. Instead, he is staying in school for what is sure to be the most anticipated Oklahoma State basketball season in recent memory.
Smart’s return will make such an impact that many now consider Oklahoma State the favorite to win the Big 12 next season.
With that in mind, here is a look at how I would vote if my preseason Big 12 basketball poll was due today:
1. Oklahoma State
Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown were three of the most talented players in the Big 12 last season. Just think what they could accomplish together next season. The Cowboys return the Big 12′s Player of the Year in Smart, a talented forward in Nash and one of the conference’s most underrated scorers in Brown. And the only key contributor they lose is Philip Jurick. Some will doubt Oklahoma State because of underachieving coach Travis Ford, but the Cowboys have to be considered the preseason favorites with so much returning talent.
If the Jayhawks want to extend their Big 12 championship streak to 10, they will have to do it with a new starting five. Though talented reserves Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe return, Kansas will lose the bulk of players who helped it reach the Sweet 16 last season. It won’t be an easy rebuild, but there is a reason the Jayhawks were projected by most as the preseason league favorite before Smart announced he was coming back. They are bringing in an impressive five-man recruiting class, which is ranked second nationally. Five-star recruits Wayne Selden and center Joel Embiid will join Brannen Greene, Conner Frankamp and Frank Mason. Kansas is also still in the hunt for Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 rated recruit in the country. Bill Self has guided young teams to conference titles before, but there is no way to tell how so much new talent will jell until the season starts.
3. Kansas State
Angel Rodriguez, Shane Southwell, Will Spradling and Thomas Gipson provide a nucleus. If incoming guard Marcus Foster is as good as advertised and Wesley Iwundu can play meaningful minutes as a freshman K-State will finish near the top of the Big 12 standings.
It’s hard to predict how good Baylor will be without knowing whether Cory Jefferson and Isiah Austin are coming back. If both big men return, the Bears will have one of the most formidable front courts in the nation and should be able to compete for a higher finish than fourth. If one or both turn pro, Baylor will have to learn to play without them and point guard Pierre Jackson. A strong recruiting class will join Rico Gathers and Brady Heslip, regardless. So the Bears will be talented. But they were talented last season, too, and had to settle for the NIT.
5. West Virginia
The Mountaineers were downright bad in their first Big 12 season, but with Bob Huggins in charge I expect that to change. West Virginia is losing three transfers, but is replacing them with three top 150 recruits.
6. Iowa State
The Cyclones lose as much as Oklahoma State returns. Fred Hoiberg will have his hands full trying to rebuild next season. A top 30 recruiting class will have to complement Melvin Ejim if Iowa State hopes to make another run at the NCAA Tournament.
The Sooners won’t be anywhere near as good as they were last season. Oklahoma loses Steven Pledger, Andrew Fitzgerald, Romero Osby, Sam Grooms and Amath M’Baye. Lon Kruger should be able to keep the team competitive, though.
It could be another long year for Rick Barnes. The Longhorns have lost several transfers, and Myck Kabongo has turned pro.
Trent Johnson has a decent recruiting class, featuring Karviar Shepherd, on the way. I like the Horned Frogs to pass Texas Tech in the Big 12 standings.
10. Texas Tech
Keith Frazier ended up at SMU and Josh Gray is transferring. Tubby Smith might guide Texas Tech to long-term success, but the Red Raiders would have been better in the short term had they hired Chris Walker.