By Kevin Sweeney
To me, the Big 12 is perhaps the best top-to-bottom conference in college basketball. All 10 teams are consistently in NCAA Tournament contention, with 8 of 10 having made the NCAA Tournament in 2 of the last 3 seasons and all 10 having danced in at least one of the past two seasons. Balancing that incredible parity with Kansas’ absurd dominance of the league’s regular season crown (14 consecutive regular season titles) is hard to wrap one’s head around, but speaks to just how good Bill Self’s program has been.
As for this season, the league looks to be in good shape again. 8 NCAA Tournament bids seems realistic once again. It even seems possible all 10 teams finish over .500 for the season, which would be an incredible statistic in its own right. Here’s how I see things shaking out:
Make that 15 in a row.
The Jayhawks seem like the only team with legit national title chances in the conference this season. KU has a clear claim to be considered the nation’s best heading into the 2018-19 season with a mix of college experience and NBA talent unmatched throughout the country. They add 3 elite transfers and the nation’s #5 recruiting class to a returning group that features bruising center Udoka Azubuike and athletic wing LaGerald Vick. Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson is the top prize on the newcomers, a legit national player of the year talent whose versatility to play the 3, 4, or 5 makes him a matchup nightmare. A pair of game-ready freshmen in PG Devon Dotson and wing Quentin Grimes should produce right away, with Cal transfer Charlie Moore providing additional support in the backcourt.
#2. West Virginia
It’s hard for me to put into words just how much Jevon Carter meant to this West Virginia program, and his graduation (along with the departure of running mate Daxter Miles) leaves a crater-sized hole in the backcourt for West Virginia. Despite those losses, WVU should still be a top-25 team and contend at the top of the Big 12. Few frontcourts have as much talent as this one, featuring elite rim protector and potential All-American Sagaba Konate as well as versatile combo forwards Lamont West and Esa Ahmad. And while James “Beetle” Bolden and Brandon Knapper can’t capture the defensive energy and leadership that Carter provided, that pairing along with newcomers Trey Doomes and Jermaine Haley should provide plenty of offense at guard.
#3. Kansas State
Most preseason prognostications will have KSU and WVU flipped, though I’m wary of overrating the Wildcats just because of their deep NCAA Tournament run. This wasn’t a top 25 team last year, but KSU found themselves in the Elite 8 thanks to UMBC’s upset over Virginia and one excellent performance against Kentucky. The run cooled Bruce Weber’s seat and cemented him as the long-term coach in Manhattan, but I’m not buying the top-10 team buzz. The Wildcats were pounded on the glass in Big 12 play last season, though Weber hopes JUCO big Austin Trice can help out in that regard. Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, and Cartier Diarra is a strong backcourt to work with, and it’s hard to find a bigger Dean Wade fan than this writer. This is a top-25 team. I’m just not sure running it back from an 8-seed is a recipe for a top-15 team when Trice is the only impact newcomer.
Shaka Smart’s tenure at Texas has underwhelmed thus far, but he finally keeps the majority of his roster intact through an offseason and has a chance to get the Longhorns back into the top 25. Much of this team’s upside lies in whether or not Andrew Jones is able to play– Jones is a true warrior who has inspired many as he fought cancer but his status is unclear. Even without him, the Longhorns have an excellent backcourt, with Matt Coleman having established himself as the team’s long-term floor general, Kerwin Roach back for his senior year, and Courtney Ramey, Elijah Long, Eric Davis, and Jase Febres all capable of contributing. Especially if Jones is healthy, that unit will be much better shooting the ball than Texas was the last 2 seasons, something that has really held their offense back. Meanwhile, Jericho Sims seems poised to be a breakout star at center, a monster athlete who is efficient around the rim.
#5. Iowa State
If you are looking for a team to bet on making the NCAA Tournament that missed the cut last season, bet on Iowa State. Simply put, I love the way Steve Prohm has assembled this team for modern basketball, with lots of wings with good size who can handle the ball & distribute to pair with a scoring point guard in Lindell Wigginton. The Cyclones have the flexibility to go with 4-guard looks thanks to Talen Horton-Tucker, Marial Shayok, and Nick Weiler-Babb’s size and strength, or they can trot out a pair of bigs in Cameron Lard and Solomon Young. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a 10-win improvement from this ISU team.
Not enough can be said about how good a job Jamie Dixon has done with this TCU program, turning a perennial loser not ready for Big 12 play into an NCAA Tournament team in just his second year with the program. Dixon’s teams are incredibly well-coached and run tremendous offense, and now he’s getting 4-star talent into the program in droves. Jaylen Fisher’s lingering knee injuries are a concern in betting on the Horned Frogs, especially with an outstanding passer in Kenrich Williams graduated and in a league where margins are so tight between teams. This team is also very young, with 8 of 13 players having never played a D1 game. Still, the talent level on this team is very high, with Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi both poised to take major steps forward and top JUCO recruit Yuat Alok a plug-and-play starter at the 5. Top 25 should be the goal for the Horned Frogs, with an even greater jump possible if Fisher can stay healthy.
#7. Texas Tech
You’d be hard-pressed to find a coach with a more sterling reputation after just 3 years as a collegiate head coach than Chris Beard, whose meteoric rise to the top of the profession has relied on a knack for finding hidden gems and doing an excellent job with player development. Beard couldn’t have planned for freshman sensation Zhaire Smith to be a one-and-done, which put the Red Raiders in a bit of a pinch this offseason, but Beard brought in a pair of elite grad transfers in Tariq Owens (St. John’s) and Matt Mooney (South Dakota) to soften the blow. Meanwhile, the buzz about Jarrett Culver’s sophomore season continues to build, and a big season from the athletic wing should be expected. The x-factor is Khavon Moore, a highly rated combo forward from Georgia who could be a stud if he lives up to his recruiting ranking. The Red Raiders’ NCAA Tournament hopes may depend on Moore’s play.
Just 3 players who have ever suited up for the Bears return, but Scott Drew’s ability to land high-level talents from unconventional sources gives Baylor a fighting shot to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The lynchpin to those plans is grad transfer Makai Mason, who starred at Yale in 2015-16 before losing most of the last 2 seasons with a severe foot injury. If healthy, Mason can slot in as the team’s starting point guard, capable of creating shots for himself and distributing in a way similar to how Manu Lecomte did for the Bears. Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler’s versatility and scoring ability makes him an intriguing fit, allowing the Bears to go big or small depending on how JUCO guards Darius Allen and Devonte Bandoo pan out.
With 2 outstanding guards in MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville) and Davion Mitchell (Auburn) sitting out this season and only Mason and King McClure set to graduate, this feels like a transition season to what could be a massive 2019-20 campaign.
Evaluating what the Sooners have in the post-Trae Young era is difficult. After Young’s early explosion, Lon Kruger pidgeonholed the rest of the roster into extremely specific roles to accentuate his star point guard’s strengths. That strategy backfired, as the Sooners seemed lost whenever Young was unable to carry the load. Christian James, Kam McGusty (who left the program in the offseason) and Kristian Doolittle all took steps back from promising 2016-17 seasons, leaving most thinking that the Sooners’ roster was simply horrible beyond its lottery pick.
Things will look much different this year. Kruger solidified the point guard spot with a pair of grad transfers in Aaron Calixte (Maine) and Miles Reynolds (Pacific). James and Rashard Odomes will be freed up to create a lot more, and we could see a larger offensive role created for center Jamuni McNeace, a defensive difference-maker still raw on the other side of the ball. Brady Manek should also take a step forward in year two as he looks to prove he’s more than a spot-up shooter. Still, without a top-20 player in the conference, it will be tough to consistently win. I don’t think the Sooners have one of those, and while incremental jumps from several will keep OU relevant, I don’t see enough top-end talent to give them much hope of an NCAA Tournament bid.
#10. Oklahoma State
Mike Boynton deserves significant credit for a surprisingly-strong 2017-18 in Stillwater, getting the most out of a rag-tag bunch in his first year as head coach. But for the second consecutive season, Boynton dealt with significant offseason attrition, losing 5 of his top 7 scorers. To make matters worse, likely starting point guard Michael Weathers was just suspended indefinitely after being charged with grand larceny. That leaves sturdy freshman Isaac Likelele and USC Upstate grad transfer Mike Cunningham as the only options at point guard, with Indiana transfer Curtis Jones providing some midseason backcourt support to Lindy Waters once eligible. OSU also has virtually no size– with a pair of underrecruited freshmen the only options for a traditional center. Going small with Cameron McGriff (who is poised for a huge year) at the 5 and blitzing teams with athleticism and pressure is probably the Cowboys’ best bet, but losing your best option at point guard who coincidentally was also likely their best point-of-attack defender takes something away from those plans.
It could be a rough one in Stillwater. That said, we thought that last year as well, and look how that turned out!
All-Conference First Team:
- Lindell Wigginton– Iowa State (16.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, .414/.401/.660)
- Quentin Grimes– Kansas (FRESHMAN)
- Dedric Lawson– Kansas (2016-17 at Memphis: 19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 3.3 apg, .461/.270/.741)
- Dean Wade– Kansas State (16.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.7 apg, .550/.440/.752)
- Sagaba Konate– West Virginia (10.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 0.7 apg, .510/.000/.790)
Player of the Year: Dedric Lawson (Kansas)
Perhaps no player in college basketball can do more on the floor than Lawson, who surprised most by electing to sit a year at Kansas rather than turn pro after a terrific sophomore season at Memphis. The one hole in his game was a 3-point shot, a necessity for the modern NBA combo forward. Reports out of Lawrence have Lawson improving that outside shot, making him an absolutely unstoppable force. His bruising 6-9 frame allows him to play up to the 5 in smaller lineups, and he can handle and distribute like a lead guard.
Breakout Player: Sagaba Konate (West Virginia)
In reality, Konate has already broken out– he was the nation’s best rim protector and nearly left for the NBA last season. Still, I wanted to highlight him because I expect massive improvement from him offensively. Since the combine, where Konate flashed a functional jumper, folks have been clamboring to see Konate’s offensive improvements in live action. As he develops that jumper and his ability to handle the ball, he becomes one of the most unique talents in all of college basketball.