I have to admit that due to everything that has gone on in 2020, and with the uncertainty around rosters and schedules for 2020-21, I came into this fall knowing less about the state of college basketball than I probably ever have since becoming a fan back in the late 90s. But after some cramming and with the usual help from KenPom and the like, I am ready for a Big 12 preseason poll. I’m actually not sure whether the official polls are a selection of who is best now or a prediction of who will eventually top the league, but I want to be explicit that this is a standings prediction.
Of course, Covid could and probably will wipe out multiple games, which will probably throw the standings into tumult, but oh well.
Like last year, I’ll split these into tiers, but first, the annual scatterplot of teams’ 2020 ending KenPom adjusted efficiency margin plotted against returning percentage of minutes remaining:
Last year Baylor and Kansas were neck and neck until Baylor lost 3 of their final 5 games, but the Bears still managed to finish third in KenPom and bring the majority of their roster back for another season.
In some ways, Baylor is a more experienced version of Kansas. A really good point guard, a lot of versatile wings, and some question marks down low. Jared Butler looks like the early odds on favorite for Big 12 player of the year (although Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham certainly is the most talented player in the league), and with Davion Mitchell, Macio Teague, and Mark Vital on the wings, Baylor will have the best perimeter defense in the league. And they’ll need to be the best defense, as the Bears were quietly not that great on offense last year, relying on grabbing a ton of offensive rebounds to score (they ranked 188th in effective field goal percentage and 228th at getting to the line).
Baylor’s biggest key might be which Tristan Clark we see. He was so good as a sophomore that I put him in my preseason all Big 12 team last year, but due partially to injuries he absolutely collapsed last season, shooting under 50 percent from two and committing over 7 fouls per 40 minutes. If he isn’t back to normal, Baylor might be giving a ton of minutes to freshman Dain Dainja, who was on the back end of the top 100 in the most recent class.
Still, no one else has a backcourt group like the Bears, no one else has the experience of the Bears, and that gives them the tiebreaker in a league where 4 or maybe even 5 teams can win the title.
The Longhorns are actually ranked #1 nationally in the Torvik rankings, but that doesn’t take into account having Shaka Smart as their head coach. They may finally have too much talent for even him to screw it up though. Matt Coleman challenges Jared Butler for best point guard in the Big 12, and probably is the most underrated player overall in the conference. They also have a full year of fully healthy Andrew Jones, who posted nice numbers despite having just recovered from leukemia.
Torvik is a little more bullish on Jese Febres and Courtney Ramey than I am, but nonetheless it’s nice to have some experience off the bench, and outside of West Virginia, Texas may have the best big man in the conference in Jericho Sims.
My big question mark for Texas is whether their defense will be the same without assist Luke Yaklich, who left over the summer as head coach for Illinois-Chicago. The Horns allowed the 6th fewest 3-point attempts in the country last season, and if that number goes up it could be worrying times in Austin.
The Jayhawks lose the best point guard and best player in the country from last year’s team, but definitely return and bring in some talent. Like Baylor, Kansas has a deep group on the wings with a ton of switchability on defense, but they lack the familiarity with each other that the Bears have been able to cultivate. The Jayhawks also have some question marks in the areas of perimeter shooting and post play, which could cause some major problems offensively.
Christian Braun shot 45 percent from three last season, although only on 68 attempts, but even if he is almost as good this coming season, the Jayhawks still have a lot of question marks in terms of shooting the ball. Marcus Garrett is a career 28 percent shooter from three, Tyon Grant-Foster shot under 30 percent from three in junior college, Ochai Agbaji is a career 32 percent shooter from three, and the jury is still out on Jalen Wilson and Bryce Thompson (although Thompson’s scouting report sure seems to indicate he can shoot the 3 ball well).
Down low Kansas will likely lean on David McCormack, but his results have been mixed to say the least. He’s already established himself as one of the best offensive rebounders ever under Bill Self, and he can get out and defend well at times, but he’s been foul prone over his career and is far from automatic on offense, which will be a big change from last season’s effort from Udoka Azubuike.
Kansas will instead have to lean on its defense, and while they lose a very good on ball defender in Dotson and maybe the best defender period in Azubuike, they bring back Marcus Garrett, the nation’s best perimeter defender, and Ochai Agbaji who is a very good on ball defender in his own right. After that there are some question marks, but Jalen Wilson, Grant-Foster, Tristan Enaruna, and even Braun to an extent are all versatile and able to guard multiple positions, which should help clear up KU’s only real weakness last year, which was allowing too many 3-point attempts.
But I have too many questions about their offense at this time. I assume McDonald’s All-American Bryce Thompson will be able to carry some of the load on offense, but I’m always wary of depending too much on freshmen. And while Marcus Garrett showed major improvement as a creator last year, he’ll now be a main focus of the defense for the first time in his career.
I also wonder about the lack of fans in Allen Fieldhouse and how that impacts home court advantage. It’s likely every building in the Big 12 will either have no or a reduced number of fans, but given KU’s homecourt advantage I think it impacts Kansas more than any other school in the league. Said homecourt advantage is also due to Kansas usually being the best team in the league, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Kansas has gotten worse against the spread since they removed some of the student section and gave it to donors/season ticket holders.
But at the same time, the Jayhawks have one thing no one else does and that is Bill Self. He’s dragged teams with much less talent to the top of the Big 12, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do so again.
4. West Virginia
The Mountaineers have the best front court in the conference and possibly the country in Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, but I’m much more bearish on the rest of their lineup than national outlets seem to be.
The Torvik preseason rankings have WVU projected 2nd nationally in offense (and overall) but I’m not sure I see where the points really come from. The Mountaineers finished 308th nationally in effective field goal percentage and 297th in turnover rate last season, and seem to be counting on a big year from Miles McBride, who shot 30 percent from three and about 45 percent from two, and Juco transfers Taz Sherman and Kedrian Johnson.
There’s also the personnel issue. No one else really plays two big guys together, so does West Virginia do that and continue to pile up offensive rebounds like they did last season, but live with the mismatches on the other end that creates? Or do they try to go with just one big man, which makes the team worse talent wise but probably makes them matchup better?
The lack of a backcourt (until we see differently from those Juco transfers) is why I have them at four, but certainly could see them win the conference.
5. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders were one of the most confusing teams in the country last year, finishing 21st in KenPom but with just a 18-13 record.
They also get dinged a bit in the preseason formula by returning basically nobody off last year’s team, but with some of the talent they have added that may be a good thing. The big loss is Davide Moretti, who left early to turn pro in his native Italy. Without Moretti, Texas Tech is looking for a replacement primary ballhandler (although Moretti’s assist rate was low, he certainly initiated a lot of the offense). It may fall to Kyler Edwards, who was 2nd on the team in assist rate last season and was a pretty good scorer inside the arc.
The team’s best newcomer is probably Nimari Burnett, a top 50 recruit who chose the Red Raiders over Michigan, Alabama, and Oregon among others. Burnett reportedly isn’t a great athlete, but his size is a big help in terms of getting into the lane and the ability to find shooters on the outside, so he could be a better passing, worse shooting of Jahmi’us Ramsey, who was a good volume scorer for the Red Raiders but maybe didn’t blend terribly well into the offense.
Red Raider fans are incredibly excited about the team this year, but I just don’t love a lot of their returners. Terrence Shannon played just over 20 minutes per game and was just OK. Georgetown transfer Mac McClung was more of an inefficient volume scorer, and I don’t know that I see him being content to be the third option in Lubbock, and the team will definitely suffer if he’s the first or second option. It’s also true that a lot of this is built on how hard it is to replace a lot of guys from a good team (see: Texas Tech going from the national title game to the middle of the pack in the Big 12 last year), and more needs to go right for them to win the league than for the other four teams they’re competing against.
The Sooners bring back both Austin Reaves, one of the biggest surprises in the league last year, and Brady Manek, one of the most underrated shooters in the country. But that’s about it, and without Kristian Doolittle to take pressure off those two, I’m worried neither has the ability to survive the attention they’ll be getting from opposing defenses this season. Their offense was bad enough (58th in KenPom) last season with Doolittle and Jamal Bieniemy, and without those two it looks like it will get worse.
7. Oklahoma State
I really got fooled by the Cowboys last year, but not again. Granted, among the top players off last year’s team the only returner is Isaac Likekele, but the addition of top freshman and 2022 #1 pick favorite Cade Cunningham would normally rocket Oklahoma State up the list. This year, though, there just isn’t a lot of talent around him and I have some major questions as to whether Mike Boynton is the answer in Stillwater. This may be a make or break season for him.
The Froggies return almost 60 percent of their minutes from last year’s team, including both RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel, both of whom had nice seasons last year. The big question obviously is what happens with the loss of possible first round pick Desmond Bane. They only won three of their final twelve Big 12 games last year and somehow two of them were against West Virginia and Baylor. They may have as much talent as Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, but I trust the Frogs less than the other two programs.
9. Kansas State
10. Iowa State
I don’t know. They’re both bad. Who cares.