Kelvin Sampson walked into a meeting of Big 12 coaches not long ago and looked around the room, and the thought that popped into the Houston coach’s head was that it felt like walking into a dog park.
“You’ve got two dogs walk by each other, kind of side-eye, or little one starts yapping at the big one and they start sizing each other up,” Sampson said. “I was sizing them all up. It used to be you could look at a few of those little dogs and go, ‘I can get that one. I can get that one. I can get that one.’ I ain’t seen nobody in this conference like that.”
Indeed, the Cougars — along with UCF, Cincinnati and BYU — are taking a big step up by joining the Big 12 this year. The first three are joining from the American Athletic and BYU from the West Coast conferences. All of them know that their programs are in for some growing pains as they take on what has statistically been the best league in the country.
“They’re all German shepherds, man. Where’s the Shih Tzus? Where’s the Chihuahuas at?” Sampson said. “Oh, that’s a Rottweiler. Oh my God, that’s a pitbull. This is a tough dog park, man.”
The top dog once again is expected to be Kansas, preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll.
The Jayhawks return a talented and experienced core led by Dajuan Harris, Kevin McCullar and K.J. Adams. The landed a highly regarded freshman class headlined by Elmarko Jackson. And they brought in a group of impact transfers that features Hunter Dickinson, the ex-Michigan center widely considered the best player to hit the portal this past offseason.
They also return Bill Self, who missed the postseason after having a heart valve replaced. The Hall of Fame coach was taken to the hospital on the eve of the Big 12 Tournament, and top assistant Norm Roberts led the Jayhawks to a title game — losing there to Texas — and to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, where they were upset by Arkansas.
“I actually looked the other day because I didn’t even know when we had been ranked preseason 1,” Self said, “but in the years that we had, we’ve had good years but they haven’t finished great. I’m certainly hopeful that we can change that trend.”
The Jayhawks certainly will be tested. They have nonconference games against sixth-ranked and defending national champion UConn, No. 17 Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana. They also have a trip to the Maui Invitational, where they could see third-ranked Purdue, No. 5 Marquette, ninth-ranked Tennessee, No. 11 Gonzaga, Syracuse and UCLA.
Then comes the Big 12 slate, which includes seventh-ranked Houston, No. 18 Texas and No. 20 Baylor.
“I don’t think anybody will be afraid of anybody,” Self said. “The league is great. It got better when Houston came in it; there’s no question, a team that could win a national championship. And I’m not saying the other three can’t, but we know Houston can.”
Transferring within a conference was once verboten, but that is no longer the case. Baylor lost LJ Cryer to Houston. West Virginia watched Joe Toussaint head to Texas Tech. Avery Johnson III departed Oklahoma State for TCU, which also picked up Ernest Udeh from Kansas. And Ithiel Horton bounced from UCF to Texas.
Plenty of new coaches in the league have Big 12 roots, beginning with Sampson, who spent a dozen years at Oklahoma and led the Sooners to the Final Four in 2002. Josh Eilert, a former Kansas State graduate assistant, was picked by West Virginia to replace Bob Huggins, who acrimoniously parted ways with the school after his drunken-driving arrest in June. Texas Tech’s Grant McCasland, who played and coached at Baylor, was hired away from North Texas to replace Mark Adams.
Dickinson was the biggest prize of the portal, but several Big 12 schools landed high-profile transfers. Max Abmas departed Oral Roberts for Texas after finishing in the top 10 nationally in scoring each of the past three seasons. Arthur Kaluma left Creighton for Kansas State and Jameer Nelson Jr. took his 20.6 points per game from Delaware to TCU.
With so much attention on the portal, it’s easy to forget several freshmen are talented enough to push their way into starting lineups this season. Omaha Biliew was a top-10 recruit that Iowa State managed to keep in state, just as Oklahoma State did with Brandon Garrison. Ja’Kobe Walker, the latest star produced by Missouri’s Link Academy, signed with Baylor.
Texas enters the season as the defending Big 12 Tournament champ, a crown that earned then-interim coach Rodney Terry the full-time job. Longtime rival Oklahoma is trying to bounce back from a last-place finish in the league. Both will try to leave a lasting impression before the Longhorns and Sooners jump to the SEC next season.
“The thing is there’s going to be a time and an excitement to talk about what we’re going to do,” Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said, “but right now our focus and our feet are planted in Big 12 basketball.”
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