Thu Sep 22 04:37am EDT
Each Wednesday until the season starts, a former player will help The Dagger preview his former conference. Ex-Oklahoma guard Michael Neal spoke to me this week about his thoughts on next season's Big 12.
JE: Kansas has won at least a share of seven straight Big 12 championships. The Jayhawks lost four starters, but are they still the favorite in your eyes?
MN: It's wide open, but I still think Kansas will be up there. They lost a lot of guys, but they've never had a problem overcoming that in the past. They have a rich tradition of winning. Players coming out of high school look at Kansas and say I want to be a part of that and Bill Self always does a good job of finding guys who fit what they want to do. It seems like even when they have guys leaving, there are always a few guys who stick around and teach the newcomers what winning is all about. You've got to tip your hat to Bill Self and his coaching staff because he does a good job every year.
JE: Is there a dark horse in the Big 12 who you think will be better than most people think?
MN: People aren't looking at Oklahoma as a team that can make noise, but I think they could finish as high fourth, fifth or sixth. Last year was tough. We had guys leave early to pursue their dreams and it hurt the program. But the experience these guys went through the last two years, it's helped them a lot. Andrew Fitzgerald and Steven Pledger are doing a good job being leaders and (Mississippi State transfer) Romero Osby, he's their best player in practice. Lon Kruger has these guys working hard. I'm around these guys a lot and I see it changing. I wouldn't be surprised to see Oklahoma in the mix.
JE: Who do you think is the front runner for Big 12 player of the year?
MN: I look at Perry Jones and you've got a guy who's capable of doing a lot of things. When you play Baylor the first thing you think about is who's going to guard him because it's hard to match up with him. He's 6-9, 6-10, he can run the floor and he can shoot. He's my choice for player of the year. I don't see anybody else playing well enough to take that away from him.
JE: Which player do you think is most underrated from the Big 12?
MN: Phil Pressey from Missouri. When they played Kansas or they played Texas, he was always under control. Nothing seemed to rattle him. After what I saw from him last year, I think that guy has the potential to be first team all-Big 12. I like him a lot. He runs his team, he's hard to handle, he draws fouls and he gets his team situated in its offense. And you've got to account for his scoring too. He doesn't put up huge numbers, but he's a threat to score every time he has the ball.
MN: When I played you'd spend more time scouting the teams in your half of the conference. Now you've got to scout everyone more evenly. Everybody plays everyone twice, so you'll really get a chance to see who the best team in the league is. I think it will make for good basketball and it will definitely be harder to win the league. And the fact that the two teams who left weren't two of the stronger teams historically, that's going to make it even tougher.
JE: Which building is the toughest on opposing teams?
MN: You always think about Kansas. That gym, it surrounds you and it's loud. One minute you're in the game, up by two, but once they hit a big shot and you hear that roar, it might be a tie game but it feels like you're down by 10. That's the way it snowballs. That's why their arena is so hard to play in. It snowballs fast. My junior year at Oklahoma we were up by 16 with eight minutes to go in the game and I promise I thought I was going to walk out of there with a win. Then they scored, they steal the ball and they scored again. The crowd's into it and next thing you know the horn's blowing and we lost by four points.
JE: If you could go back in time and play for one current Big 12 coach, who would it be?
MN: I would still pick Kelvin Sampson. I wouldn't play for anyone besides that man, but if I had to I really like Bill Self and Billy Gillipsie. I think they got the most out of their players night in and night out. When they had Acie Law and Joseph Jones and all those guys, they played unbelievably hard, especially on the defensive end. He got the most out of everybody every night. So those two guys, outside of coach Sampson, would be my pick. You knew you had a battle on your hands every time you played one of their teams.
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer
Atlantic 10: Temple's Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, Q&A with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell
Big Ten: How Zack Novak became Michigan's emotional leader; Big Ten projections and storylines to watch ; Ex-Ohio State star Jim Jackson scouts the league; Ranking the 15 best non-league Big Ten games; Q&A with Michigan State forward Delvon Roe