Kansas has dominated the Big 12 so thoroughly over the last decade that it gives the impression everyone else is playing for second place. The Jayhawks have won the conference 10 years in a row, and start the new season ranked in the top five of the AP Poll. Bill Self's team lost two of the first three players chosen in the 2014 NBA Draft in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but replaced them with two of the best recruits in the country in Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre.
Kansas is going to be very good once again, but their reign at the top of the conference is far from guaranteed this year. The Big 12 placed five teams in our preseason top 25, more than any other conference. That includes a dangerous Iowa State team led by Player of the Year candidate Georges Niang and a supersized Texas squad that added top freshman Myles Turner.
Another serious challenger emerged in the Big 12 on Friday night when the NCAA announced power forward TaShawn Thomas would be eligible to play immediately for Oklahoma.
It's a big deal. The Sooners were our preseason No. 22 team on the strength of back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances by Lon Kruger and a balanced returning roster. Thomas gives them a go-to option in the front court and enough talent in the lineup to conceivably matchup with any team in the conference.
With Thomas, every projected starter for Oklahoma averaged over 9.5 points per game last season. Most teams are fortunate to have two or three scoring options this early in the season. The Sooners are going to be able to beat teams from the outside, in the paint and in transition. Before the season tips off on Sunday against Southeast Louisiana, it looks like this could be the most talented Oklahoma team since Blake Griffin led the Sooners to the Elite Eight in 2009.
Thomas comes over from Houston after a long and ugly stalemate over his right to transfer. When the Cougars fired James Dickey and replaced him with Kelvin Sampson, Houston's two best players (Thomas and wing Danuel House) asked for their release. One problem: Houston didn't want to give it to them. The story drew national headlines, with House telling one local outlet:
"I want (his decision) to go viral," House said. "I want people to know that they're holding us hostage, that they just don't want to give us our release. They give one of my teammates his release and let him talk to (other) schools and they're not giving me my release.
"I think it's unfair. It's not right."
Houston finally relented, but their decision came with stipulations. Thomas and House couldn't transfer to a school in Texas. They couldn't transfer to a team that was on the Cougars' schedule this season or next season. They couldn't transfer to a school that would be in Houston's conference -- the AAC -- in the next two years.
House would eventually chose Texas A&M -- the start of a huge recruiting binge for Billy Kennedy -- and Thomas would pick Oklahoma. The NCAA, as it is prone to do, didn't make a decision on Thomas' eligibility until Friday, leaving Oklahoma uncertain of what its team would look like on the brink of the season.
The decision brings clarity to Norman and gives Kruger a team that many will now pick to make it to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Thomas will join former Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler in the front court. While Spangler lacks ideal size for a center, both he and Thomas are tenacious rebounders and each shot over 58 percent from the floor last season.
The Sooners already boasted one of the best guards in the country in Buddy Hield. The 6'4 shooting guard is the rare senior NBA prospect after turning himself into a dynamic scorer with range that extends beyond the three-point line last season. Hield averaged 16.5 points per game as a junior while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor and 38.6 percent from deep on 7.1 three-point attempts per game. It's even more impressive when you consider Hield shot just 23 percent from deep in his first season with the Sooners as a sophomore.
The threat of Hield's shooting paired with Thomas' penchant for scoring inside is a great combination for the Sooners. At 6'8, 240 pounds, Thomas has the size to match up with any power forward in the country. He led Houston in scoring and rebounding last season, averaging 15.4 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on 59.1 percent shooting from the field. His defense will be another key for the Sooners, who desperately need his shot blocking next to Spangler. Last season Thomas was one of the top shot blockers in the AAC by averaging 2.7 blocks per game.
Whether Oklahoma (or another Big 12 contender) can finally end Kansas' streak atop the conference remains to be seen, but the Sooners will unquestionably to a threat to go deep in March either way. With Thomas eligible, Oklahoma basketball just became a lot more compelling.