By Kevin Sweeney
The strength of the Big 12 has long been in its depth, and the same projects to be the case in 2019-20. The Big 12 was the only conference that saw all its teams ranked in my preseason top 100 in August, and that has played out yearly on the court with tons of parity throughout the conference season. How will the league shake out this season? Here’s my preview:
#1. Kansas– The Jayhawks’ 2019-20 roster remained in flux longer than most fans in Lawrence would have liked, but eventually, Bill Self was able to secure three key pieces that make this team a legitimate national title contender in 2019-20. The biggest fish was Devon Dotson, and getting the team’s all-Big-12 freshman back for his sophomore year was absolutely massive. Self also added much-needed with depth with the additions of Iowa grad transfer Isaiah Moss and top-50 freshman Jalen Wilson. With breakout star Ochai Agbaji and monstrous big man Udoka Azubuike already in tow, this roster looks loaded once again. A big question: how the offense will look with more two-big looks.
#2. Texas Tech– I’m not sure there are 10 coaches I’d be more afraid of on the recruiting trail right now than Chris Beard, who continues to bring in top talent that fits his system in Lubbock. Top-30 freshman Jahmius Ramsey and a pair of elite grad transfers in TJ Holyfield (Stephen F. Austin) and Chris Clarke (Virginia Tech) should buoy a Red Raider roster that faced significant turnover this offseason. Shot-making guard Kyler Edwards looks like a potential breakout star, and TTU looks like a potential top-10 team.
#3. Baylor– Pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Baylor in the season’s first two months, dropping a pair of buy games against Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin before losing star big man Tristan Clark for the season with a knee injury. Yet Scott Drew still found a way to turn things around come conference play, leading the Bears to their fourth top-5 Big 12 finish in the past five seasons. Now, Drew gets Clark (who shot 74% from the field) back, adds two high-level transfers in MaCio Teague (UNC-Asheville) and Davion Mitchell (Auburn), and returns several other key rotation cogs. It will be important to monitor the point guard position with the graduation of Makai Mason, but this roster is in great shape.
#4. Oklahoma– This is where things get especially hard to crack. I’m probably a little higher than most on the Sooners entering the season, but I think Lon Kruger has several interesting options in terms of lineups that could bear fruit in Big 12 play. The straw that will stir the drink is freshman point guard De’Vion Harmon, a top-50 recruit who is impressive on tape with his ability to operate in ball screens and compete on the defensive end. Beyond Harmon, the Sooners have multiple intriguing backcourt options– Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves, JUCO transfer Alondes Williams, and returning combo guard Jamal Bienemy all have the ability to get their own shot. I’m interested to monitor how often Kruger elects to go small with Kristian Doolittle at the 5– an option that allows for more spacing and switchability.
#5. Texas– At some point, Shaka Smart has to make something happen at Texas. A 71-66 record through four years after Rick Barnes went 80-57 in the four years leading up to his departure doesn’t sit well in Austin, and talent hasn’t been the problem. Smart has several nice pieces at guard even if Andrew Jones can’t get back into playing shape in his recovery from cancer, with Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, Jase Febres, and Donovan Williams all strong options to create offense for the Longhorns. Coleman and Ramey will have to be better in ball screens, a staple of Smart’s halfcourt offense that both struggled with last season.
#6. Iowa State– It will be fascinating to watch Tyrese Haliburton’s development into his sophomore season with so much more offensive responsibilities heaped on his plate. Haliburton is an elite role player by trade– a great passer and defender who always makes the right play. For this team, he’ll have to expand his game into more of a dynamic shot-creator role. That said, he won’t have to do everything, especially with Rasir Bolton (Penn State) receiving a waiver to play right away. A Haliburton/Bolton/Prentiss Nixon backcourt should be very good, and Michael Jacobson should be solid down low. But make no mistake: this team will go as far as Haliburton takes it.
#7. Oklahoma State– The young Cowboys were in over their heads in 2018-19, lacking depth and size necessary to consistently win in the Big 12. Still, they showed plenty of fight despite being undermanned, losing six games by 6 or fewer points in conference play. Now, with a young core a year older and a strong incoming group that features grad transfer Jon Laurent (UMass) and three top-150 recruits, OSU has the pieces needed to contend for a bid. Steps forward in the shot creation department from sophomore point guard Isaac Likelele will be necessary, as will continued improvement from promising big man Yor Anei, but the future looks bright in Stillwater with Mike Boynton at the helm.
#8. West Virginia— Bob Huggins lost 20 games for the first time in his 34-year career last season, dealing with the growing pains that come with losing your entire starting backcourt from the previous season and commitment issues with some of his returning players. However, Huggins is optimistic that he has the right group in place to succeed in the long term. That success this season will likely come by punching teams in the mouth up front, with 2-big lineups featuring double-double machine Derek Culver and top-30 freshman Oscar Tshiebwe likely to dominate the glass all season long. If Jordan McCabe can pick up where he left off down the stretch at point guard, the Mountaineers could get back to the Big Dance.
#9. Kansas State– We know K-State will defend. We’ll see whether they can score enough to consistently win Big 12 games with the graduations of their top three shot-makers from last season. JUCO point guard David Sloan, who led the nation in assists at the JUCO level, could give the offense a jolt, as could a leap from 3&D wing Xavier Sneed.
#10. TCU– It’s an oddly-constructed roster for Jamie Dixon this season, but having one of the conference’s best players in Desmond Bane should keep them afloat. However, with no size on the roster beyond breakout candidate Kevin Samuel and questions at the point guard position, the upside with this group seems limited.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State)
- Devon Dotson (Kansas)
- Desmond Bane (TCU)
- Tristan Clark (Baylor)
- Udoka Azubuike (Kansas)
Player of the Year: Udoka Azubuike (Kansas)
Few players dominate a game more than Azubuike, a truly unstoppable paint force that even most double-teams can’t handle. He has reportedly slimmed down, which should allow him to stay on the floor for more extended stretches and hopefully keep him healthy for a full season. The entire offense just looks different with Azubuike controlling the paint.
Breakout Player: Jordan McCabe (West Virginia)
The former mixtape sensation, McCabe struggled with the adjustment to college basketball early before flourishing late in the 2018-19 season, averaging more than 13 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and close to 2 steals per game over his final 10 games while shooting 38% from 3. Putting together that type of performance on a full-season basis would make him one of the better guards in the Big 12.
Newcomer of the Year: Jahmius Ramsey (Texas Tech)
It’s a pretty good bet to project the league’s best newcomer being on Texas Tech, if nothing else based on the number of new faces for Chris Beard’s bunch. I’ll roll the dice with Ramsey, a physical guard who is wired to score and has a mature all-around game that should translate nicely from day one. Early returns are very good: Ramsey put up 44 points and 12 rebounds in an international trip game against European pro team Mega Bemax this summer.