2020-21 32×32: Big 12 Preview

Of all the reasons to be excited about college basketball returning this November, more Baylor/Kansas showdowns should be near the top of the list. The two games featuring those two squads last season were epic, and the showdowns at the top of the conference should be epic once again. As always, this is a deep league full of talent, with five teams capable of being top 10 teams this season for my money.

If you’d prefer my Big 12 thoughts in podcast form, you can find that HERE.

  1. Baylor – Given all the uncertainty that shrouded the college basketball season this summer, it would have been easy for Jared Butler and MaCio Teague to pack their bags and head for the NBA. They didn’t, and the Bears now have a very legit case to be the nation’s best team in the preseason. Butler’s emergence into one of the nation’s best players helped lead Scott Drew’s best Bears team yet – and he has a chance to top even that incredible team in 2020-21. It all starts for BU on the defensive end: their no-middle defense is somewhat different from the one that Chris Beard and Texas Tech deploys, but it’s incredibly successful. Part of that is personnel that would make any defensive system look good: Davion Mitchell is arguably the best point-of-attack defender in the nation, and Mark Vital can guard all over the floor thanks to his physicality and ability to move his feet. What the defense is missing from last year is its rim-protecting anchor, Freddie Gillespie. Gillespie’s mobility allowed him to switch on the perimeter (something that backup Tristan Clark struggles to do) in addition to his interior prowess, and his presence will be missed on both ends. Figuring out what the Bears plan to do at the 5 is without a doubt the biggest question: Clark is experienced, but wasn’t the same last year as he recovered from the knee injury that cost him the latter half of 2018-19. Flo Thamba and UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua are energy guys: nowhere near as skilled offensively as Clark, but defensive upside that Clark lacks. Top-100 freshman Dain Dainja should factor in as well. This deep, talented roster deserves to be considered the slight betting favorite in the Big 12 in 2020-21.

  2. Kansas – The Jayhawks were the clear favorites entering March Madness last season for a reason: for all the talk about there being no elite team in college basketball last season, KU looked pretty darn elite in January and February.  Things will look different without Udoka Azubuike manning the middle, but this is still one of the most talented and complete rosters in the country. Whenever ‘Doke’ was on the floor, Kansas simply wrecked teams on the interior on both ends: he was simply too big and skilled to deal with on the block, and his improved mobility and conditioning allowed him to make a greater impact on defense than in previous years. And while the duo of David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot (who is somehow still in college) all are capable rotation players, none are capable of making the overall impact on the game that Azubuike did. The departure of ‘Doke’ and star point guard Devon Dotson raise questions about where offense will come from:Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji have starred in their roles the last two seasons, but neither is wired to carry an offense. But with incremental improvements in their offensive games and the additions of Tyon Grant-Foster and Bryce Thompson, the Jayhawk offense rounds into form. Thompson’s scoring prowess makes him an ideal fit next to Garrett in the backcourt, and Grant-Foster’s versatility allows him to plug into pretty much any role necessary: he’s a winner from one of the best JUCO programs in the country. Dajuan Harris is also worth watching, a crafty ballhandler and passer who blew up last summer at Peach Jam and spent last year learning the system. There may be some early bumps in the road as the Jayhawks re-establish their identity, but the pieces are without a doubt there for another Final Four-caliber team.

  3. West Virginia – If Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the ‘Splash Brothers’, perhaps Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver have earned the moniker ‘Smash Brothers’. Both guys are, quite simply, very large human beings, and they form what could be the best frontcourt in college basketball this season. As teams across America find ways to put more and more shooters on the floor, Bob Huggins is doubling down on size – using Culver and Tshiebwe to crash the glass every change they get and simply pounding the opposition into submission. That style created an elite defense, but an up-and-down offense held the Mountaineers back down the stretch. Per T-Rank, WVU was a top-50 offense pre-February 1. In the season’s final month, WVU ranked 147th nationally on that end of the floor. That’s not good enough to win games in a league this good. How can that improve? Reliable three-point shooting from the likes of Deuce McBride and Emmitt Matthews would help, as would Culver in particular cleaning up his game around the rim. But the x-factor for growth on the offensive end comes in the form of elite JUCO guard Kedrian Johnson, who averaged 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game at Temple JC. Johnson is an unabashed shooter and shot creator with a ballhawking mentality on the defensive end that should earn him early minutes from Huggins. It’s also certainly possible that Tshiebwe takes significant steps forward as a sophomore – his numbers were incredible on a per-minute basis last season, and his strong free throw touch (71% as a freshman) is a good indicator for his ability to not only be efficient, but also to expand his game to the perimeter.

  4. Texas Tech – On the basis of talent and talent alone, I think there’s a reasonable case that this is Chris Beard’s best roster yet at Texas Tech. There may not be a Zhaire Smith or Jarrett Culver-type prospect in this mix (5-star freshman Nimari Burnett is closest to that type of guy) but the Red Raiders have competitive depth at every position and athletes all over the floor. The big looming roster question is whether a waiver comes for Mac McClung, the dynamic scoring guard whose eligibility could have down-wind effects on whether Wichita State import Jamarius Burton elects to play or sit this year. McClung has a scoring mindset and confidence matched by few in the nation, and Chris Beard doesn’t have another guy quite like him on the roster. Burton is similar to Burnett in that he’s an elite glue guy – both are capable of scoring 15-20 points, but impact the game in a multitude of ways thanks to passing, defense, and competitiveness. In an ideal world (ie: McClung gets his waiver), I think you’d sit Burton with the assumption that Burnett goes one-and-done and trust the rest of the backcourt talent to hold their own, but I could understand pushing the chips in and wanting all your guys available. And by the way, I haven’t even mentioned the three excellent returning guards for the Red Raiders: shooting guard Kyler Edwards, slashing wing Terrence Shannon, and glue guy Kevin McCullar. A pair of transfers in Marcus Santos-Silva (VCU) and Joel Ntambwe (UNLV) should hold down the frontcourt. Santos-Silva’s late addition was critical given that TTU struggled on the glass last season – MSS should help fix that thanks to the blue collar mentality and nose for the ball he brings to the table. It’s a LOT of moving parts, but there’s tons of intrigue here if they can all be put together.

  5. Texas – On February 15, Texas lost 81-52 to an Iowa State team playing without Tyrese Haliburton. Even with his massive buyout, it seemed hard for Shaka Smart to come back from. But in peak college basketball fashion, the Longhorns turned around and won five straight games to play its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble before the pandemic ruined, well, everything. That stretch, combined with roster continuity and the addition of 5-star wing Greg Brown, has raised expectations significantly for UT in 2020-21 in a year where it feels like Smart has no excuses not to win. So what changed in those five great wins? Guard play, for one. Longhorn guard play has been uneven in the last two years, but Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey balled out in that stretch, combining to average over 32 points and shoot close to 45% from three. That type of play is needed more consistently for the Longhorns to take the next step. Brown should help as well: he’s a dynamic above-the-rim athlete who plays aggressively on both ends and had essentially his pick of any program (or the pros) when he made his decision this spring. Brown is the perfect piece to slot in at the 4 – big and physical enough to deal with bigger guys, but quick and skilled enough to create mismatches. The x-factor here is high-upside center Kai Jones, the lengthy Bahamanian big man with ‘unicorn’ written all over him: he can stretch the floor and protect the rim. Jericho Sims and Royce Hamm are capable of eating minutes if Jones doesn’t take the leap, but Jones has near-limitless potential if he puts it all together. All in all, the Longhorns are definitely a tier below the top 4 clubs, but if this team isn’t comfortably in the NCAA Tournament, there are problems.

  6. Oklahoma State – Ineligible for the postseason at time of writing, OSU will still be one of college basketball’s biggest must-watch teams thanks to the presence of Cade Cunningham. Cunningham has a legitimate case as the nation’s best player: a 6-7 point guard with elite pick-and-roll skills and as polished a game as you’ll find in a high school player. He’s perhaps not the scorer Luka Doncic is, but Cunningham could make Luka-like impact on his team. Cade is also just a flat-out winner – he was the best player on a Montverde team that went 25-0 last season and is considered by some to be the best high school team of all time, won gold last summer at the FIBA U19 World Cup, then came home and led Texas Titans to a 16-2 EYBL mark. I have a rule against overhyping mediocre teams that add a 5-star out of nowhere, but Cade and OSU will be my exception – it’s hard to see them NOT being competitive this season. Losing center Yor Anei in the aftermath of the postseason ban hurts: Anei brought high-level rim protection to the table and would have shined catching lobs from Cunningham. Keeping bulldog Isaac Likekele certainly helps – less distribution responsibilities and more spacing will allow him to do what he does best: attack. Mike Boynton did a nice job this summer adding floor-spacers in Ferron Flavors (44% 3PT% at Cal Baptist) and Bryce Williams (44% 3PT% at Ole Miss), and we could see smaller lineups with Cunningham and Likekele guarding 3’s and 4’s with the two sharp-shooters around them. Also watch out for highly-touted combo forward Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe, a skilled forward who should bring versatility at the 4 spot. I would like nothing more than to see the NCAA change its mind and let OSU have a chance to dance, but even if not, 25+ games of the Cade show will be fun enough.

  7. Oklahoma – The talent didn’t jump off the page, but Oklahoma positioned itself well for the NCAA Tournament last season by playing smart – OU sent teams to the free throw line at the lowest rate in the country and had one of the lowest turnover rates nationally. When you do those things well and have three very good players, you’re usually pretty well-positioned to win games. But the margins were without a doubt thin, and figuring out how to replace a monster up front in Kristian Doolittle certainly presents challenges for Kruger in a league that is unforgiving. A formidable backcourt duo in De’Vion Harmon and Austin Reaves is a good place to start – Harmon played huge minutes as a freshman and seems likely an easy breakout candidate in year two, while Reaves’ tough-minded shot-making ability was huge for the Sooners and his shooting should bounce back from an uncharacteristic 26% mark in 2019-20. Both guys have the luxury of playing with a great floor spacer in Brady Manek up front, who puts pressure on the defense thanks to his shooting stroke. But the responsibility of replacing Doolittle’s minutes at the 5 seems likely to fall on the shoulders of Kur Kuath, an intriguing piece who was productive in limited minutes last season. He’s not the offensive weapon Doolittle is: he can’t stretch the floor or handle the ball. But he posted a massive 15.4% block rate when on the floor and shot 77% at the rim last season per T-Rank. He could bring value as a rim protector and dive man in ball screens. Again, this won’t be a team that wows you with its talent or its athleticism – there aren’t any lottery picks or even likely draft picks on the roster. But the core is solid enough and the coaching is good enough to get the Sooners back to the NCAA Tournament.
     
  8. Iowa State – There was a point this offseason where it appeared Steve Prohm was in loads of trouble: coming off a 12-20 campaign, losing his star in Tyrese Haliburton, and having no true instant-impact newcomers to help turn things in the right direction, things looked pretty bleak. But Prohm finished strong on the transfer market to keep the Cyclones relevant, and had built a roster that with a few breaks could have made the NCAA Tournament had Blake Hinson not recently been ruled out for the season due to a medical condition. Hinson was the crown jewel of a late-signing group of transfers, joining the Cyclones from Ole Miss after 10 points and 5 boards for the Rebels last season. But even in his absence, the additions of Tyler Harris (Memphis) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (DePaul) were key. Harris may be undersized, but he’s creative with the ball and unafraid of taking and making tough shots. Coleman-Lands is a veteran whose shooting stroke has been up and down but who has played major minutes at the high-major level. His experience was needed. That duo will help ease the load on Rasir Bolton, whose usage skyrocketed once Haliburton went down. There’s a nice mix of frontcourt options to choose from too: I’ve long been a fan of rim-running forward George Conditt, Solomon Young is a versatile offensive weapon with plenty of experience, and 4-star big man Xavier Foster oozes upside. What concerns me is the defense? Can Prohm and the Cyclones fix a unit that was by far the league’s worst? I’m not sure the new personnel helps a ton in that department. If not, it may be tough sledding to win consistently.
     
  9. TCU – Outside of the stars at Kansas and Baylor, I’m not sure there was a better player in the conference a season ago than Desmond Bane. Bane put the Horned Frogs on his back, torching the nets from deep even as he added more distribution responsibilities to keep an undermanned TCU squad relevant a season ago. With Bane graduated and off to the NBA, Jamie Dixon has big shoes to fill and a young roster with no seniors to do it with. RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel is a solid pick-and-roll duo to start with, but neither profile to me as star-caliber guys. Young guards like PJ Fuller, Francisco Farabello, and Taryn Todd have to take steps forward in 2021 for this team to stay out of the cellar. Kevin Easley joins the fray from Chattanooga and presents plenty of wing intrigue as a bigger guy who can stroke it from deep, and I enjoyed watching bruising freshman big man Terren Frank at Sierra Canyon (see: Bronny James). But this has all the makings of a transition year, with Dixon determining exactly what he has to move forward with and then augmenting that core with transfers for a run at the Big Dance in 2021-22.

  10. Kansas State – Bruce Weber’s club REALLY struggled to put the ball in the basket last season. The Wildcats topped 70 points just twice in Big 12 play and finished an ugly 270th in effective field goal percentage and 312th in turnover rate last season per KenPom. Now, the team loses its two best offensive options in Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra. Things might get worse before they get better in Manhattan. The biggest reason for optimism is without a doubt the recruiting class: seven newcomers join the fray, including 3 fringe top-150 recruits and one of the best JUCO players in America. I’m most excited about the two point guards: Nijel Pack was one of my favorite guards to watch on the EYBL circuit last spring: he’s shifty, tough, competitive, and hits huge shots. He was one of the more underrated guards in the class, and I expect he’ll be an awesome 4-year guy for Weber and company. JUCO product Rudi Williams also has the potential to give the offense a jolt: his statline at Northeastern Oklahoma is eye-popping. 21 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists, and 36% from 3 is certainly enough to get my attention, and if this offense gets going he’ll be a big reason why.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Jared Butler (Baylor)
  • MaCio Teague (Baylor)
  • Marcus Garrett (Kansas)
  • Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State)
  • Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia)

Player of the Year: Cade Cunningham – Butler likely will be the frontrunner here, but I’m not betting against Cade. Like I wrote above, if you haven’t watched this kid yet, you’re in a for a treat. His impact on the game is just a step above anyone else in the country, and he would have made any blue blood the preseason favorite to win the national championship. Instead, he is blazing his own trail with his brother at OSU, despite the postseason ban. I can’t wait for the show to begin.

Breakout Player: Kai Jones – There aren’t many players in the conference with the upside of Jones, whose incredible physical tools and emerging feel for the game make him such an intriguing piece moving forward. Even if the shooting doesn’t take a big step forward, Jones has the ability to change the game with his shot-affecting length and skill around the rim.

Newcomer of the Year: Cade Cunningham

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