Kansas State coach Bruce Weber shrugged off the early predictions that the Wildcats, who just a few months ago were still reveling in the glow of a shared Big 12 championship, would be scratching and clawing just to stay out of the cellar.
"Obviously it's not great for your fans and selling tickets," Weber said, "but at the same time, for us, it doesn't matter. Every year here's somebody that's picked eighth or ninth, seventh that ends up being in the top of the league – that ends up like Texas Tech, playing for a national title."
Yet it's been a while since the league appeared this wide open.
As coaches and players convened Wednesday at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where the conference will crown a tournament champion in March, just about all of them had hopes of a title. A big part of it was the talent pool, but another reason is that the impenetrable wall that Kansas had built around the gleaming crystal trophy was finally cracked by the Wildcats and Red Raiders last season.
Their regular-season triumphs ended the Jayhawks' unprecedented run of 14 consecutive Big 12 titles, and gave fresh hope to everyone else that it could be done.
"You have to validate what you're doing," Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. "Along our journey, it's going to be important to find some success. We look for that success in practice. We look for that success in daily workouts and certainly in games. Any coach and player would agree on that, as you build something, you’ve got to have some success to validate what you're doing."
Yet it will be hard for the Red Raiders to follow their incredible postseason run with another; they have 10 new players, including seven freshmen. And it will be just as hard for the Wildcats to climb into the upper echelon of the Big 12 after the foundational trio of Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade were lost to graduation.
TCU coach Jamie Dixon certainly knows the challenge facing him. The Horned Frogs return Desmond Bane and Kevin Samuel and that's about it, leaving them to be picked near the bottom as well.
"We're excited about the new guys – nine new players – which is a lot even in today's game," Dixon said. "But at the same time the league is wide open. So many teams are bringing in about the same amount of players. It's just the way of college basketball."
That includes Kansas, which is picked to return to the top of the league. Gone are the Lawson brothers, Dedric and K.J., and guards Quentin Grimes and Lagerald Vick. In their place are freshmen Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna and Christian Braun along with Iowa transfer Isaiah Moss.
Yes, the Jayhawks have more coming back than most teams in the league, but even they will likely rely on a couple of those newcomers if they want to start another Big 12 title streak.
"There's still a lot of unknowns," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said, "but I like our guys. I think we got big bodies. I think we got a little bit of depth. We got some speed on the perimeter. A big question will be, 'Can we defending the perimeter and can we shoot consistently beyond the arc?'
"If we're able to do those things," he said, "I think it could be a pretty fun season for us."
MUM'S THE WORD: Self mostly deflected questions related to the school's alleged NCAA violations, though he did say that many of those answers will come "at the appropriate time." But he did say the violations, and the charge of lack of institutional control, could provide ammunition for opposing fans.
"To be honest, we deal with hostile environments everywhere we go," Self said. "I will tell you this: Our guys have always enjoyed playing in the toughest atmospheres. Usually that bonds us together, unites us. Hopefully we will put a better performance out because of that."
HUDY DUTY: One of the intriguing moves of the offseason was longtime Kansas strength coach Andrea Hudy's departure for Texas. The Jayhawks have reorganized their strength and training programs, and Longhorns coach Shaka Smart made Hudy an offer financially that made it hard for her to say no.
"She has a very, very different philosophy in terms of strength training and performance than our former strength coach," Smart said. "There's a lot of ways to skin a cat, but obviously she has had phenomenal success over the past 25 years as a strength coach. We're really excited to have her."
LOOK OUT, BIG BOYS: West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is on the NCAA rules committee, and he had some input on the plan to clean up post play. But he scoffed at any notion that the game will return to a bygone era in which guys in the paint were rarely touched and often got easy layups.
"How are you going to clean up post play when you're have 6-foot-10, 270-pound guys leaning on each other? There's going to be contact," he said. "This thing that we're going to have a no-contact sport, those people have never played our game. There's going to be some contact."