Last year saw upheaval in the Big 12 for the first time in nearly 15 years as Texas Tech and Kansas State both wrestled the regular season crown away from Kansas. The league’s coaches have picked the Jayhawks to return to their perch atop the league in 2020, but once again the league looks like the nation’s deepest, and no doubt a lot of teams will be in the running to take out the Jayhawks once again, if KU is even the favorite...
This year instead of just listing a strict 1-10 I am going to try to separate them into tiers as best I can and try to give a bit of a range in terms of where I could see teams finishing (note: I am assuming full health for all teams), but obviously I will offer my official prediction.
We start, as always, with a chart. This chart is a scatter plot of a team’s KenPom rank from 2019 (the x axis) with the percentage of minutes returning from last year’s team (the y). So naturally, being in the top left is best, and bottom right is worst. But, as you’ll see, my predictions don’t exactly line up with the chart.
Tier 1 - The favorite
- Kansas (ceiling: 1, basement: 3)
The Jayhawks return fewer than 50 percent of their minutes from last year, although some of it (Quentin Grimes, Charlie Moore) could accurately be called addition by subtraction. There’s no doubt, though, they’ll have some work to do to replace Dedric Lawson, who had one of the best seasons of Bill Self’s coaching career.
I think there is a scenario where Kansas finishes lower than 3rd, but that is basically only if Devon Dotson suffers a major injury, but if everyone is healthy 3rd seems like the absolute basement. Kansas borderline quit on the season last year and still had (slim) conference title hopes with a week left.
The biggest questions are at backup point guard and perimeter shooting. Does Marcus Garrett, a point guard in high school, handle the ball with Dotson on the bench? Does Bill Self trust it to either Christian Braun or Dajuan Harris? Elsewhere, Kansas shot just 35 percent from three last year and ranked 275th nationally in 3-point rate. Even with Udoka Azubuike back, they’ll have to take more threes to have the offense they’re capable of having. Isaiah Moss (career 39.1 percent) will be able to make them, but who else can?
I do think the Jayhawks are underrated defensively after a couple of down years. They have two of the best in the league if not the country at their position in Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett, and Udoka Azubuike is a legitimate rim protector, especially when he doesn’t have to worry about fouls.
Tier 2 - The contenders
2. Texas (ceiling: 2, basement 5)
Maybe a surprise pick for number 2, Texas has a lot going for it. First, they added assistant Luke Yaklich, who turned Michigan into a defensive powerhouse with the Wolverines posting back to back top 5 defenses. Texas was already middle of the pack defensively, but now they could be truly elite on that side of the ball.
Secondly, Texas brings back an experienced back court. Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey, and Jase Febres will all handle the ball, and while Coleman hasn’t lived up to his recruiting hype, he’s still good at taking care of the ball, and Ramey and Febres are legit threats from behind the arc.
Lastly, Texas returns Andrew Jones, who was a first team All Big 12 caliber player before missing time with cancer. I don’t know that he can get back to that level (not sure if you have heard, but cancer is tough to deal with), but early returns indicate he will be a contributor.
I’m not as high on their big men offensively, but if they can defend even remotely close to how Yaklich got his big men in Ann Arbor to defend, the Longhorns look like the best bet to finish 2nd.
3. Oklahoma State (ceiling 2, basement 7)
What’s the fun in doing this if I can’t go out on a limb. Normally I don’t join in the love fest over bad teams who return everyone because, well, the team sucked in the first place. This year though, I am going above and beyond any other preseason Big 12 ranking, and frankly I don’t see why everyone isn't this high on the Cowboys.
While OSU finished 9th in the league last year, they went through an upheaval right at the start of the season, kicking 3 guys off the team. They also held tryouts for walkons in the middle of the season. The Cowboys also had five losses of six points or less in Big 12 play, so a little more luck will go a long way.
But frankly I like Oklahoma State because they have so many players I like. Sophomore guard Isaac Likekele shot almost 50 percent on twos and posted an assist rate near 30 as a freshman. This past summer he averaged 8 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and almost 2 steals per game for the U-19 team as they won a gold medal at the U-19 worlds.
Next, Yor Anei led the Big 12 in block percentage last year while ranking 10th in eFG and 7th in free throw rate. He didn’t take many shots last year but an expanded role on offense could improve Oklahoma State’s 2-point shooting.
The Cowboys may have a bit of an issue with outside shooting. Outside of Lindy Waters and Cameron McGriff, no rotation player shot even 33 percent from deep. Fortunately, those two are back which will provide plenty of spacing for Likekele and freshman Avery Anderson.
The Cowboys have by far the most returning rotation minutes, and unlike most bad teams who are comprised of mostly bad players, Oklahoma State was a bad team comprised of a lot of good players. Add in some experience, and a coach that his players clearly like to play for, and I like the Cowboys to make a huge leap up the standings.
4. Baylor (ceiling 2, basement 6)
Baylor has a lower floor because they have to replace their starting point guard in Makai Mason. I think Jared Butler, who posted an assist rate north of 20 percent as a freshman, can be a good replacement, but it may take some time and thus Baylor may take an extra loss or two early in the Big 12 season.
The big news for them of course is the return of first team all league guy Tristan Clark, who shot 75 percent on twos last year before losing the rest of his season due to injury. Their contending abilities took a big hit when Mario Kegler was suspended and then turned pro just a month ago. Kegler came on hot for the Bears, scoring in double figures in 6 of the team’s final 8 games, but now it will be on Clark and Butler to carry the load. Baylor actually led the league in offense last season, but I am not sure they have the depth to do so this year.
Tier 3 - middle of the pack
5. Texas Tech (ceiling 2, basement 6)
I am not as doom and gloom on the Red Raiders as CJ Moore, who ranked them 8th, but a loss to UTEP in a secret scrimmage is certainly worrying.
Also worrying is the fact the Red Raiders have to replace Jarrett Culver, who not only won the Big 12 player of the year, but led the league in usage and shots taken. No returning Tech player had a usage rate over 20 percent last year, which is a problem when trying to find offense. The Red Raiders also lose everyone from last year’s team who shot over 55 percent from two other than Davide Moretti, and Moretti only took 43 twos in Big 12 play.
That’s not to say the Red Raiders don’t have talent. They bring in grad transfers TJ Holyfield and Chris Clarke, and freshman Jahmius Ramsey was ranked just outside the top 30 in the 247 composite. But questions abound for all of them. Holyfield didn’t play last year and was more of a complimentary piece on offense for Stephen F. Austin. Clarke meanwhile was a third option at Virginia Tech last year, and will have to be more of a go to guy this season.
I’m not sure the Red Raiders can keep up the offensive explosion they had last season. They scored more than a point per possession in 13 of their last 14 games of the season, and that corresponded with a pretty big jump in 3-point rate and 3-point percentage. No doubt the Red Raiders will find shooting somewhere, but Moretti and Kyler Edwards are the only players who shot over 40 percent on more than 50 attempts last year.
Lastly, I can’t help but think Tech’s defense gets a little boost from luck in terms of opponents’ 3-point percentages. Tech ranked 240th in the nation in allowing 3-pointers, but 13th in opponents’ 3-point percentage, as teams shot under 30 percent from three against them last season. Tech fans and some analysts have explained this away by saying the Red Raiders simply challenge everything on the perimeter which drives the percentage down but 1. no college defense can suppress a percentage like that and 2. it frankly isn’t true. In the sweet 16, Michigan took 19 threes and over half were wide open. The Wolverines made just 1 of them. Gonzaga followed that up with a 7-26 effort which also featured plenty of open ones. And then Michigan State shot 7-24. Tech should still rank at worst 2nd in the Big 12 defensively, but even if their 3-point luck regresses just a bit, they won’t be able to count on holding teams to under .95 points per possession, which will put more pressure on the offense. I could certainly regret this ranking, but I don’t think they’re a major contender.
6. Oklahoma (ceiling 4, basement 8)
The Sooners had to reload after their all grad transfer backcourt left, but what they have remaining and what they added looks pretty good.
We’ll start with Kristian Doolittle, who quietly had a nice all around season last year on both ends of the floor. I also like Brady Manek to return to closer to 38 or so percent from three rather than the 35 percent he was at last year.
The season hinges, though, on whether one or both of sophomore Jamal Bieniemy or freshman De’Vion Harmon can grab ahold of that back court and provide some perimeter scoring. Bieniemy got some late plaudits, but really struggled down the stretch last year and while Harmon is a top 50 recruit, I don’t like depending on those guys to lead teams to the promised land.
The want to be middle of the pack
7. West Virginia (ceiling 4, basement 8)
The Mountaineers add possible Big 12 freshman of the year Oscar Tshiebwe to what could be the best front court in the league, as Derek Culver returns to campus. I like Culver to have more of an impact this year as well, as he led the league in free throw rate and was also the league’s best rebounder as a freshman.
While those two are great, I don’t think West Virginia will be able to play them together often, which negates some impact. I’m also not a big fan of their backcourt. Jordan McCabe finished with 8 double digit scoring efforts in his final 9 games, but overall shot 29 percent from two and 34 percent from three while struggling on defense, despite a nice steal rate.
What could majorly help is the addition of Juco transfer Tajzmel Sherman. Sherman averaged almost 26-5-5 at Collin College last season, which should greatly help last year’s 10th ranked offense.
8. Iowa State (ceiling 4, basement 8)
The Cyclones actually finished with a better KenPom rating than conference favorite Kansas, but somehow that only translated into a 23-12 record and a 6 seed. Also, virtually everyone important is gone other than Tyrese Haliburton. Haliburton was great at the U-19 World Championship, averaging almost 7 assists, but he also had a usage rate of just 10.1 percent last season and seems more like an ultra efficient 2nd or 3rd option rather than a go to guy. Cyclone fans should be happy that Penn State transfer Rasir Bolton is immediately eligible, but he had an offensive rating under 100 and shot only 40 percent on twos while having a similar workload to what he’ll see this year. The Cyclones youth and lack of talent on defense probably doom them to 7th or 8th.
9. Kansas State (ceiling 7, basement 10)
The last time Kansas State won the Big 12, they managed to finish 5th so perhaps this is underrating the Wildcats and Bruce Weber’s ability to find unheralded contributors.
Still, they lose Dean Wade and Barry Brown, not to mention Kamau Stokes, which is enough for me to rank them down here. Their defense should be good, as it usually is, but they’re expecting a lot of steps up from a lot of depth players from 2019. A big key will be point guard David Sloan, who led all of junior college in assists in back to back years.
10. TCU (ceiling 8, basement 10)
Desmond Bane is a definite first team all conference type player, but he’s more of a jump shooter than a do everything offensive player. The rest of the team is bad. I think they’ll struggle to top last year’s basement dweller’s 4 conference wins.