Sports

Big 12's top newcomers offer contrast in styles

At the midpoint of the men's basketball season, the race for Big 12 Newcomer of the Year is shaping up as a two-player proposition.

And the deciding factor figures to be whether you prefer that your team's primary distributor is regular-sized or jumbo-sized.

Other considerations exist. But the biggest difference between the leading candidates, Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson and Iowa State forward Royce White, is... bigness.

The swift Jackson (5-foot-10, 175 pounds), a junior college transfer, jets across the floor, scores in double figures, leads his team in assists and fits the traditional point-guard prototype. White (6-8, 270) is listed in the program at forward but also leads his team in assists -- as well as scoring and rebounding -- and runs the half-court offense more proficiently than any other Cyclone.

"He's a point forward ...who creates a huge matchup problem," said Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy, who saw plenty from White during the Cyclones' 74-50 victory on Jan. 7 in College Station. "He's the toughest matchup of anyone in this league, for sure."

White, a transfer from Minnesota, has helped the Cyclones (13-5, 3-2 in Big 12) emerge as a realistic contender for an NCAA Tournament berth by ranking among the Big 12 leaders in assists (4.4), scoring (13.6) and rebounding (9.3). Last season, ISU finished 16-16.

But has he done more than Jackson, who has stabilized the Baylor backcourt and helped transform the third-ranked Bears (17-1, 4-1) into a trendy Final Four pick after Baylor fell short of the postseason a year ago?

That's a tough call. Jackson has yet to start a game this season. But he has averaged more minutes per game during conference play (32.2) than any player on the Baylor roster heading into today's showdown against No. 5 Missouri (17-1, 4-1) at 1 p.m. in Waco.

Jackson ranks among the Big 12 leaders in assists (5.4), steals (2.0), scoring (12.2), 3-point shooting percentage (48.4 pct.) and assist-to-turnover ratio (98-64).

"He gives them speed, confidence and a swagger," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who watched Jackson collect 11 points and 11 assists in Monday's 92-74 loss to the Jayhawks that snapped the Bears' 17-game winning streak. "He creates possessions for them they don't have to earn with his steals. Those plays change games."

Regarding point guards in Baylor's recent past, there is no question in the minds of coaches that Jackson brings more to the table than teammate A.J. Walton, the incumbent starter, or predecessor Tweety Carter, a four-year starter who led the Bears to the Elite Eight in the 2009-10 season.

"The point guard play by Pierre Jackson is off the charts," Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. "Tweety Carter was pretty good. But Pierre Jackson is the next level player."

Baylor coach Scott Drew agrees. He also likes the idea of using Jackson as the team's sixth man to energize the offense.

"He gives us a spark off the bench, and I like that," Drew said. "It's like we're playing at 55 mph and when he comes in, he takes it up to 70. Plus, when things are going well, coaches are just reluctant to change what they're doing."

For Baylor, things never have been better through 18 games than they have been this season. Drew is receiving a starter's minutes and a starter's production from Jackson, regardless of when he enters the game.

But the fact that Jackson is the Bears' sixth man, rather than an established starter like White, will plague him at the ballot box when voters select the league's top newcomer at the end of the season. So will White's presence as both a rebounder and a shot blocker (1.2), which allows him to fill out a box score in areas Jackson cannot match.

Ford said White reminds him of former Dallas Mavericks standout Jamal Mashburn, Ford's college teammate at Kentucky, because he is a 6-8 player who handles the ball like a guard and can run the offense.

"White has really good vision. He understands angles and drawing contact. He makes other people around him better," Ford said. "He may be the best passer in our league."

Because of his unique skill set, Ford said White belongs in the mix to be the Big 12 Player of the Year, not just Newcomer of the Year. But the top player in this league, if not the nation, for the first two months of the season has been Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. Hands down.

So that throws White back into the newcomer mix, along with Jackson. Realistically, the honor should go to whichever player finishes strongest over the second half of the season.

But the lingering question remains: Regular? Or jumbo-sized?

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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