In mid-April, when Marcus Smart decided to come back to Oklahoma State — along with Markel Brown and LeBryan Nash — for another year, it looked like the Big 12 had a clear-cut favorite going into the 2013-14 basketball season.
The Cowboys seemed poised to end Kansas' streak of nine consecutive regular-season conference titles.
While no one is counting out OSU, things have gotten considerably tougher at the top of the conference, thanks to the Jayhawks.
After losing its entire frontcourt from last season's team, Kansas picked up the top player in the 2013 class — and probably the most heralded recruit Bill Self has brought in since moving to Lawrence — in power forward Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins already was considered the top player in this year's incoming class before video of him dunking over former Jayhawks star and Thunder reserve Cole Aldrich hit YouTube.
“His ceiling's high,” Self said. “I would hope that he's as talented as any player in the country. From a raw athletic ability standpoint, he can do some things that I've never had a player been able to do physically.
“The bottom line is, he's still just 18 years old; he's still just a freshman. He's going to go through some ups and downs like anybody else, but hopefully by midseason or whatever, he's totally comfortable and is able to really just play and not think.”
Kansas also added 6-foot-9 Tarik Black, who graduated from Memphis and took advantage of the NCAA's rule allowing graduated players immediate eligibility. Black averaged 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game last season for the Tigers.
While OSU associate head coach Butch Pierre downplays the label of favorite for the Cowboys, he likes what he's seen so far this summer in limited time.
“Last year was a long season,” Pierre said. “We kind of thought it was an NBA season for us, going to Spain, then having such a great start in Puerto Rico. We kind of wore down. But these guys are experienced now and they know how to manage themselves and they know how to manage their bodies.”
One player who is getting added wear on his body this offseason is Smart, who is in the Czech Republic preparing for the FIBA U19 World Championships that begin Thursday in Prague.
“He's only going to get better,” Pierre said of the experience.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins isn't ready to call either Oklahoma State or Kansas the favorite, though he was effusive in his praise for Smart.
“I don't know that we've played against somebody who controlled the game from the point guard position like he did, probably since we played against Jason Kidd,” Huggins said. “He totally controls the game. He's got such a great will. I think Oklahoma State is extremely talented.”
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said OSU and Kansas were the two most talented teams in the league, saying Kansas was going to be a top-five team to start the season and that Smart is “as good a player as there is in the country.”
He also included Baylor at the top of the league, citing their length and athleticism.
It's not just the elite teams, though. With the addition of Texas Tech's Tubby Smith into the league this year, six of the conference's coaches have taken teams to the Final Four.
“It makes it hard,” Huggins said. “I don't know that there's ever been another league ever that's had over 60 percent of its coaches coach in the Final Four. That's extremely impressive.”