Heartland College Sports was on site for the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Media Day in Kansas City. Below are some of the top notes and storylines to come out of the session.
Makai Mason is the first graduate transfer in Baylor program history. He’s also a Bear killer of recent vintage.
You may remember Mason as being a part of that 2015-16 Yale team that upset Baylor in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Mason scored 31 points in that game, a Yale record for single-game scoring in the NCAA Tournament, and went 11-of-11 at the free throw line. Mason has missed the last two seasons due to injury and has one year of eligibility remaining.
“Makai is one of those guys that when we recruited him the Yale coaching staff told us he went to a dance and he was on a scooter and he left the dance early and got 500 shots in,” Drew said. “He is a guy who lives in the gym.”
Meanwhile, the Bears have just three returning letterwinners, the fewest of any Power 5 team, so Drew knows this could be a “teaching year” for the Bears.
“The good news is when you have this many guys you see a lot of improvement and other days you come home and thank goodness for Advil,” Drew said.
Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm has to be happy that guard Lindell Wigginton is coming back after flirting with the NBA last season.
Wigginton averaged 16.7 points and 2.8 assists per game last year as a freshman and might have been the league’s top freshman story had some guy named Trae Young not been lighting up the game at Oklahoma. But Wigginton, Prohm and Wigginton’s family went through the pre-draft process, one that allowed Wigginton to work out for NBA teams without burning his college eligibility. The new process gave both player and coach key areas where the sophomore needs to improve — both for his NBA prospects and Iowa State’s chances for improvement this season.
“I think he understands, ‘Hey, here are the three things you have to get better in — decision-making, can you make others better and can you defend multiple positions?” Prohm said. “If you can do that, sky is the limit for you.”
The best think, Prohm said, is that Wigginton is already watching more film than he ever has and is looking for the best play as opposed to his best shot.
Meanwhile, Iowa State forward Cameron Lard will likely face some sort of discipline from the program after missing most of the summer while he was in a Massachusetts wellness center. Lard was cited this spring for speeding and possession of drug paraphernalia. Plus, he was cited for being underage in an Ames, Iowa, bar.
Lard did not participate in a scrimmage against Nebraska on Sunday. Prohm said he would comment further at a later date, likely closer to when Lard is ready to return to the team.
“Cameron has got some situations he has to get better in, with his daily habits and in a lot of areas,” Prohm said.
It was enough to make you do a double-take. No, not the FBI investigation.
It was because Kansas head coach Bill Self called forward Dedric Lawson, a Memphis transfer who sat out all of last season, “the best passer we’ve had since I’ve been the coach at Kansas.”
Well, the 6-foot-9 forward did average 17.5 points and had 189 total assists in two seasons at Memphis. Plus, Self said that Lawson’s basketball IQ is “ridiculously high.”
“The thing that separates him from most (other players) is his ability to see the game differently than the way most people see it,” Self said. “He doesn’t see one pass ahead, he sees two.”
Kansas was, for the eighth straight year, No. 1 in the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll. But it wasn’t unanimous. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton Jr. admitted during the breakout session that he picked Kansas State — the Wildcats’ lone first-place vote — to win the conference’s regular season crown.
Bruce Weber knows that he hasn’t always been Mr. Popularity in Manhattan. But he received some sage advice on that from one of his mentors, former Michigan State head coach Jud Heathcote.
“Jud told me many times when you get a job 99 percent of the people like you and 1 percent don’t and each year it’s going to go down and it’s going to get tougher and tougher,” Weber said. “I always think of Jud when negative things happen.”
Weber also said it’s not like people are coming up to him in the grocery story and saying, “God, you suck as a coach.”
Weber would rather focus on getting his players more attention. Dean Wade and Barry Brown, he says, deserve more national recognition after their Elite Eight run a year ago.
“Dean was the only underclassmen on the All-Big 12 First Team a year ago and Barry Brown was Second Team,” Weber said. “So two underclassmen in an unbelievable league, probably the toughest league I’ve been a part of. To me I don’t think they’ve gotten as much national recognition as they should.”
Kansas State is No. 12 in the AP preseason poll.
If not for Trae Young, Brady Manek might have been the big freshman on campus for the Sooners last season.
The sophomore is one of three returning starters from last season and is coming off a season in which he scored 10.2 points and snagged 5.2 rebounds per game. The Harrah, Okla., native is done with the buzz cut and is sporting a longer haircut, if his photo in the OU media guide is any indication.
Kruger is hoping that Manek can take another step forward and perhaps become that player that sets the tone for the entire program in the post-Young era.
“He’s gotten 15, 20 pounds heavier since he arrived on campus, and he’s bigger and stronger because of the greater bulk,” Kruger said. “Last year he was thought of as a stand-still shooter, starting to put the ball on the floor, starting to post up, always been a good rebounder, blocked shots more than expected. So he’s got a bright future.”
Head coach Mike Boynton Jr. made it clear he didn’t necessarily want to be in Kansas City on Tuesday.
“I should be back in Stillwater focusing on our team considering that the votes we got probably qualify us for 11th or 12th (in the conference), but there are only 10 teams,” he said.
Boynton is referring to the fact that Oklahoma State was No. 10 in the Big 12 preseason poll (with 10 last-place votes, no less), a nod to the loss of four key seniors and two other contributors to transfer. So it feels like a rebuilding year in Stillwater led by Cameron McGriff and Lindy Waters III. Because of the transfers, the Cowboys have three transfers from other programs on the roster, too, one of which was with the program all of last season.
But that seems to be fine by Boynton, even though it could be a rough season.
“We feel like we have good enough talent that as long as those kids keep working hard, which they have since June, they will continue to get better,” Boynton said. “I don’t know what that looks like as far as wins and losses, but we feel good about the direction we’re headed.”
Horned Frogs guard Jaylen Fisher could be ready to play at the start of the regular season, said head coach Jamie Dixon. Fisher suffered a season-ending right knee injury in January, one of a litany of injuries Fisher has suffered in high school and college. The good news, Dixon said, is that the injury was a season-ending injury and the Horned Frogs don’t have to rush Fisher back into the lineup. Fisher did have a setback this summer, but Dixon is confident he’ll be ready soon.
That doesn’t mean Fisher isn’t working his butt off, though.
“If somebody walked into our practice and we’re doing 5-on-5, somebody would say this kid (Fisher) plays 100 percent and played injury free for the whole year,” Dixon said. “But I’ve never seen a guy work so hard as everybody has seen him play so hard during games.”
What has Dixon concerned is the lack of experience on his team. He has eight players that have never played college basketball before. They’re either freshmen or were redshirts a year ago and didn’t get any live game action.
“It’s an interesting make-up of a team,” Dixon said, referring to the newcomers along with the five players that have extensive experience in games and in his system.
Longhorns guard Andrew Jones is one of the best stories in college basketball this season, something akin to the return of former Pitt running back James Conner after his own fight against Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015-16. While Jones has been cleared to play and has recovered health-wise, a toe injury during workouts means he’ll need a little more time to hit the floor.
Texas head coach Shaka Smart told reporters that Jones could return to the floor as early as this weekend to continue workouts, though those workouts won’t be in full. Jones’ return to form would be key for the Longhorns, as despite missing half of the season Jones the program’s leading scorer in 2017-18.
Smart can’t say enough about how Jones has handled this journey.
“He’s a fighter,” Smart said. “He’s got a great level of toughness about him. He’s been through a lot of challenging days, challenging times as has his family and they’re as strong as anyone I’ve been around.”
Can we expect the Jones we saw before he left the team last year? Well, perhaps. But Smart is putting no pressure on Jones to hurry along.
“He’ll be the first to tell you he’s not all the way where he was physically as a player yet,” Smart said. “But the guy’s worth ethic is phenomenal and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to be able to work his way back to where he was as a player.”
Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard believes that Jarrett Culver can be one of the best players in college basketball. But at least the Red Raiders sophomore is a known quantity to Red Raiders fans.
Matt Mooney is not. The graduate transfer from South Dakota may sound like he’s coming from a smaller school, but he was a big-time player for the Coyotes and could play a major role in making the Red Raiders a consistent program this year. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 18 points per game for the Coyotes the past two seasons and was a two-time All-Summit League First-Team selection.
“Simply stated, he’s a Big 12 player,” Beard said of Mooney. “He did about all he could at the mid-major level, played in a lot of high-quality games against high-major schools, had some good games against Big 12 schools.”
Beard said the Wauconda, Ill., native has all the intangibles to be a success in the Big 12 and has a future in pro basketball.
Sagaba Konate may be the best big man in the Big 12 and James Bolden may be the leader at point guard for this year’s Mountaineers. But it’s forward Esa Ahmad — who missed half of last season due to eligibility issues — that head coach Bob Huggins believes can be a real asset to his team in 2018-19.
It’s because Ahmad, who averaged 10.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last year, is one of the Mountaineers’ craftiest players.
“His best games are really when he plays without the ball because he understands how to use screens,” Huggins said. “He understands how to take advantage of defensive people breaking down. He’s got those huge, huge hands. So he doesn’t fumble balls. He can rebound the ball out of his area because he’s got huge hands.”
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers have not had their entire team on the floor for any of its first 16 practices, and probably won’t until the regular season begins. Konate and Bolden are two of those players who have missed time, but both are nursing minor injuries and Huggins expects both to be ready next month. He called Konate’s floor absence “precautionary.”
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