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West Virginia ready to challenge Kansas in Big 12

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

1. West Virginia is the Big 12’s top challenger to Kansas

How can a team that lost three of its top six scorers from last season be the second-best team in a league that sent 70.0 percent of its teams to the NCAA Tournament last March?

Culture. Culture. Culture.

After taking in a West Virginia practice last week in Morgantown, it’s safe to say that the Mountaineers’ daily habits are built more in the form of hand-to-hand combat than attributes like skill or finesse.

That alone will push West Virginia above most of the rest in the Big 12, which looks closer than it’s ever been 2-through-10.

Bob Huggins’ squad may have lost several key pieces from last year’s team that earned a three seed in the NCAA Tournament, but it also returns eight of its top 11 players, highlighted by three veteran guards — Jevon Carter, Tarik Phillip, and Daxter Miles — who all played better than 22.3 minutes in 15-16.

Huggins also adds two freshmen big men — Sagaba Konate and Maciej Bender — who will be in this team’s rotation along with combo guard James Bolden, who redshirted last season due to injury.

“Our depth isn’t as good as it was the last two years, but it will get there,” Huggins told FanRag Sports. “We’re going to be deep again.”

And so will the conference.

The Big 12 won’t be nearly as top heavy as it was last season following the heavy personnel losses at Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Texas, but programs that were at the bottom like TCU, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State should all be better than they were a year ago.

After Kansas, this league is as balanced as its ever been with West Virginia standing atop the next tier of teams.

Florida Gators Head Coach Mike White gives Florida Gators Guard Kasey Hill (0) instructions as the Purdue Boilermakers take on the Florida Gators at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. (Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Williams Paul/Icon Sportswire)

2. The only way the SEC can change its perception is on the floor

Media Days are a platform for optimism, but it’s hard to not to question some of the things that were thrown around by SEC supporters last week when the league convened in Nashville.

Some suggested this league was in position to earn five-or-six bids to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.

Others insisted that the conference was ready to turn a corner.

We’ve all seen this movie before.

The facts are the facts; the SEC is a bad basketball league right now.

Following Billy Donovan’s departure from Florida, the conference lost its top sparring partner for Kentucky and the league has struggled to find a new one.

Texas A&M shared the SEC regular season title with the Wildcats last season and advanced to the Sweet 16, but the Aggies lost four starters and only return one guard — sophomore Admon Gilder — from last year.

Georgia, Florida, and Arkansas all have a chance to be better than they were a season ago, but all three of those teams need to prove that they’re going to be legitimate contenders for NCAA bids in March. None of the three was close to earning an at-large bid last year.

With both Auburn and Mississippi State both a year away from being mentioned in “contender” status, it seems that the only thing that’s consistent right now with the SEC after Kentucky is uncertainty.

The conference only had three teams advance to the field of 68 last March and one of those teams — Vanderbilt — was beaten by 20 when it played Wichita State in the First Four.

Another thing to remember about the SEC?

South Carolina won 24 games and finished with an 11-7 mark in conference play last season, yet failed to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in a year where Louisville and SMU — two teams that would have been in the field of 68 — were ineligible to participate in the bracket.

The SEC is in a position similar to what the Big East was in following the 2013-14 season when it only had four teams in the NCAA Tournament in its first season since realignment.

The conference then gained momentum the next season by winning key games in November and December, which ultimately increased the Big East’s RPI and led to better representation in the NCAA Tournament.

The SEC needs to do the same thing this season during the first two months of the year.

There’s only one place for this league to change its perception — on the court.

March 11, 2016: Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo during the men's Big Ten Tournament basketball game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

3. It will be trial by fire early for Michigan State

The Spartans’ schedule was going to be exceptionally brutal out of the gate regardless, but now Tom Izzo will have to lead his team into battle without its two top big men.

Just weeks after UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter went down with a knee injury, veteran big man Gavin Schilling also suffered a knee injury and will undergo surgery. This now means that Michigan State will likely be in a position where it won’t have either of its top two projected front court players for the first two months of the season.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for any program, but the Spartans’ early gauntlet makes the injuries to both Carter and Schilling that much harder to deal with.

Michigan State begins the season against Arizona in Hawaii on Nov. 11th and then travels cross country to face Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 15th.

The Spartans then return home to East Lansing to play two buy games before heading to the Bahamas to play three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Michigan State then travels to Durham to face Duke on Nov. 29th as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

That means six of this program’s first eight games will be against teams from power conferences and none of those games will feature the two front court players — Carter and Schilling — that the Spartans were forecasting to be on the floor in crunch time when the preseason began.

Trial by fire indeed.

Penn State's Shep Garner (33) takes a shot during the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Penn State Nittany Lions hosted at the United Center in Chicago, IL.

Icon Sportswire

This and That:

– Theo Pinson’s foot injury is a major blow for North Carolina. After the watching the Tar Heels’ practice a few weeks ago in Chapel Hill, the 6-6 junior looked like he was set to have a breakout season and now there’s no timetable for his return. Pinson’s intangibles were going to be a big key for Roy Williams’ team in 16-17, who will now need more mileage out of sophomore guard Kenny Williams.

– One consistent theme out of Xavier this preseason: Freshmen Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones will both have immediate roles in the Musketeers’ rotation.

– Pitt isn’t just experimenting with Jamel Artis at point guard; it’s planning on using the 6-7 senior as a starter at the most important position on the floor. The Panthers’ first unit during practice last week in the Steel City was Artis, Chris Jones, Cameron Johnson, Sheldon Jeter, and Mike Young. That’s five players on the floor between 6-4 and 6-7.

– Looking for a breakout guy in the Pac-12? Try Washington’s Matisse Thybulle. The 6-5 wing averaged 6.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in 24.1 minutes last year as a freshman all while gaining quality experience as a starter. The Huskies were picked sixth in last week’s Pac-12 Preseason Poll.

– We’re over three weeks into the preseason and I’m hearing only two players — KeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu — look like cemented starters for Florida. It’s going to be interesting to see who’s left standing in the other three spots when the dust settles in Gainesville.

– Penn State’s Pat Chambers repeatedly compared junior Shep Garner to former Villanova guard Allan Ray during last Wednesday’s practice in State College. The 6-2 Garner averaged 14.8 points last year as a sophomore and should be able to slide off the ball more this season thanks to the additions of UConn transfer Terrence Samuel and freshman Tony Carr at point guard. Chambers coached Ray as an assistant at Villanova from 04-09.

– Seven of VCU’s 13 scholarship players are either in their junior or senior season. The Rams are deceptively old, but will they shoot the ball well enough without Melvin Johnson and Korey Billbury? That’s the million dollar question surrounding Will Wade’s squad right now.

– Illinois sophomore guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (hand) has been cleared for all basketball related activities, John Groce told FanRag Sports. The 6-3 guard averaged 10.3 points last season as a freshman and should be a starter for the Illini in 16-17.

– Kudos to Notre Dame’s Mike Brey. Per a source, the veteran head coach has agreed to start a home-and-home series at Delaware during the early portion of the 17-18 season with a return game in South Bend set for 18-19. Brey’s former assistant — Martin Ingelsby — is about to begin his first year as head coach of the Blue Hens and this is the type of home game that can really get a mid-major fan base excited. Prior to Notre Dame, Brey was the head coach at Delaware from 95-00.

– A word to the wise: DO NOT overreact to results of team scrimmages or exhibition games over the next few weeks. Things don’t get real until Nov. 11th.

Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.

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