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Will anyone challenge KU hoops for Big 12 title in 2011-12?

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It doesn't require much of a memory to recall the last seven regular season Big 12 men's basketball champions.

Kansas, Kansas, Kansas, Kansas, Kansas, Kansas, Kansas.

(Note: Three of those years, KU shared the regular-season title with Oklahoma [2005] and Texas [2006, 2008], but you get the point. It's a heck of an accomplishment).

With Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Josh Selby seeking NBA riches, the success of next year's team will be largely connected to the on-court maturation of Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson.

Bill Self, who's won an absurd 83.7 percent of his games in eight years in Lawrence, will be gunning for an eighth straight Big 12 title in 2011-2012. Will anyone from the recently-trimmed Big 12 legitimately challenge KU? The Jayhawks have never finished worse than 12-4 in the league during their seven-year reign as conference champs.

The NBA Draft early eligibility deadline passed on April 24, so we have a better idea of how Big 12 rosters will be constructed next season. Note that players who have not signed with agents can withdraw from the draft up until June 13, so this is not an exact analysis.

Here's how I'd rank the 10 Big 12 teams (still have to get used to that) right now, looking ahead to next season:

1. Kansas (35-3 overall, 14-2 Big 12)

With the Morris twins declaring for the draft, Kansas will lose its top two scorers and rebounders from a year ago, when the Jayhawks went 35-3 and lost to VCU in the Elite Eight. KU's third-leading scorer, Tyrel Reed, is also gone, along with Brady Morningstar and Mario Little.

That said ... Not picking KU to win the Big 12 next season would be a bigger mistake than a pitcher grooving Jose Bautista a fastball in the middle of the strike zone (only shameless plug of my fantasy baseball team in this entry, I promise).

We've seen this episode before. KU was supposed to take a step back in the league standings last year after the departures of Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry. How did that turn out?

Until the Jayhawks are knocked off their throne, they deserve the top spot on everyone's preseason ballot. And there's a good chance KU will live up to the expectations. Taylor and Robinson return, along with Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford.

Ben McLemore, an incoming freshman from St. Louis and Rivals.com's No. 34-rated player nationally, should challenge for a starting spot immediately (especially if he throws down like this in Allen Fieldhouse).

Furthermore, KU fans are hitting the refresh button 50-100 times per minute awaiting the decisions of recruits DeAndre Daniels (No. 10 nationally) and Trevor Lacey (No. 24 nationally). (Side note: I've fielded two calls after midnight at the Journal-World recently inquiring about Daniels. To quote Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean: "You need to find yourself a girl, mate.")

You'd have to think the Jayhawks lure at least one of the prized recruits to Lawrence with playing time readily available. Kansas is probably a top 15-20 team without Daniels and Lacey, and a top 5-10 team with one or both of them.

2. Baylor (18-13, 7-9)

The Bears, after a disastrous 18-13 season (considering the talent), and a seventh-place finish in the league standings, will be loaded next season.

Perry Jones surprisingly turned down millions of dollars and a potential top-five spot in the NBA Draft to return to Baylor for his sophomore season. He'll be joined by incoming 6-8, 193-pound freshman Quincy Miller, ranked No. 7 overall by Rivals.com. Another Quincy (Acy) also will return, giving the Bears one of the most feared front lines in the country.

If Baylor receives production from its backcourt (incoming freshman Deuce Bello and a slew of transfers should help), the Bears could make a run at the league title.

3. Missouri (23-11, 8-8)

New coach Frank Haith will inherit an immensely talented group. The Tigers only lose Justin Safford from last year, and he only started 12 of 34 games. MU's top six scorers return, including Marcus Denmon (16.9 ppg), one of the best guards in the league. Mizzou is deep at guard with the Pressey brothers (Phil, Matt) back, along with Michael Dixon.

Laurence Bowers and Ricardo Ratliffe will form a solid frontcourt. Expecting Haith to win the league in his first year is unrealistic, but a top-three finish is not far-fetched.

4. Texas A&M (24-9, 10-6)

Murray State coach Billy Kennedy accepted the Texas A&M head coaching job on Sunday night, taking over for Mark Turgeon, who left for Maryland. Kennedy will take over a solid group, led by Khris Middleton and David Loubeau, A&M's top two scorers last season. Add incoming freshman point guard Jamal Branch (No. 65 nationally), and the Aggies have some nice pieces.

5. Texas (28-8, 13-3)

Texas was the lone threat to Kansas last season in the league race, but the Longhorns should take a step back next year with the losses of Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph to the NBA. Add seniors Gary Johnson, Dogus Balbay and Jai Lucas to the departure list, and that's six of UT's seven leading scorers from last season who will be gone.

Say what you want about coach Rick Barnes, but he remains one of the best recruiters in the country. Five-star incoming freshman point guard Myck Kabongo (No. 26 overall) will run the show for UT next season, and J'Covan Brown will join him in what should be a solid backcourt.

Depth issues and an unproven frontcourt will raise questions on whether the Longhorns can challenge for the Big 12 title.

6. Oklahoma State (20-14, 6-10)

The Cowboys will be somewhat of a wild card, with their success likely tied to the effectiveness of incoming five-star freshman recruit LeBryan Nash (6-7, 230 pounds, No. 6 nationally). Coach Travis Ford also will bring in point guard Cezar Guerrero (four stars, No. 71 nationally) to go along with returners Keiton Page and J.P. Olukemi. OSU will be a scary team loaded with sleeper potential and a high ceiling.

7. Kansas State (23-11, 10-6)

The Wildcats return Rodney McGruder, Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, but I don't see them contending for the league crown without Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly.

8. Iowa State (16-16, 3-13)

The Cyclones were competitive last season, despite finishing last in the league standings. Coach Fred Hoiberg will enter his second season with quite a few transfers (mainly Chris Allen from Michigan State, and Royce White from Minnesota) looking to make up for the loss of seniors Diante Garrett and Jamie Vanderbeken.

9. Oklahoma (14-18, 5-11)

New coach Lon Kruger signed a seven-year, $16.6 million contract to leave UNLV and head to Norman. He has quite the rebuilding project ahead of him.

10. Texas Tech (13-19, 5-11)

Billy Gillispie will receive another chance to prove himself in the Big 12. The former Texas A&M coach will have to deal with the departures of TTU's best players: John Roberson, Mike Singletary, David Tairu, D'walyn Roberts and Brad Reese.

That should be all for now, friends. As always, discuss.

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