2020-21 Conference Preview: Big Twelve
Fall sports, from college football to the NFL, have been bizarre. Covid outbreaks, schedule adjustments and the need for endless flexibility. There's little doubt, bubbles will be burst far before Greg Gumbel has the chance to announce the bracket - if there is such a selection show this year.
Preseason predictions are less relevant than ever before. The sports landscape is secondary to those of national health and safety. We may see dramatic interruptions, and depending on how or when those interrupt, different teams will rise or fall as a result.
Nonetheless, we push forward. Our conference previews will look at only the six power conferences throughout the NCAA: ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12. Many believe the Big Twelve is the nation's most potent conference, with a perennial national power in Kansas chased by a ton of rugged, athletic, blue collar groups. With star freshman Cade Cunningham at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys will look to play spoiler; they're banned from postseason play due to NCAA sanctions. They're the biggest wild card and unique piece in this puzzle.
In recent years, teams have been hot on the Jayhawks tail, albeit unable to catch them. Texas Tech was national runner-up in 2019. Baylor held the nation's top spot for a large chunk of last season. Could either team catch up this year, or is there a different contender nipping at the Jayhawks heels?
10. Kansas State Wildcats - 3-15 last season. Projection: 2-16
So many people are jumping on the Nijel Pack bandwagon. The star freshman point guard will likely be handed the keys to the car from day one, as the Wildcats really have no returning backcourt. Xavier Sneed is gone, and 6'2" senior Mike McGuirl is the only backcourt returner. He's a shooter and less a playmaker, which puts the onus on Pack to be ready to go. 6'4" freshman Selton Miguel will also need to be solid from the jump. The Wildcats really only return about 23 points a game. Are Pack and UTEP transfer Kaosi Ezeagu enough to get K-State any higher in the rankings? I'm not so sure they are...
9. TCU Horned Frogs - 7-11 last season. Projection: 5-13
No team lost more than TCU when their do-it-all player Desmond Bane graduated and went pro. There's still a lot of talent to like, and transfer Kevin Easley will make a pretty strong impact. He'll establish a solid frontcourt with Kevin Samuel (10.0 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.7 blocks). RJ Nembhard is likely to lead the team in scoring, while sophomores PJ Fuller and Francisco Farabello are crucial to keeping TCU out of becoming league doormats once again. There's a solid amount of young talent here: three sophomore starters (Easley is a redshirt soph) and a strong crop of five freshmen, led by Terren Frank and Eddie Lampkin.
The issue with young teams is inconsistency, which was the consistent story with the Horned Frogs a year ago. Jamie Dixon has done as good of a job as possible in assembling talent through recruitment and transfer markets (transfer Charles O'Bannon is a real X-factor). If they couldn't get to .500 in league play with arguably the greatest player in school history in Bane, I'm not sure this group can get there. There's talent, and they're likely a year away from knocking on some doors.
8. Iowa State Cyclones - 5-13 last season. Projection: 5-13
How does a team that went 5-13 avoid a step back when they lose a lottery talent in Tyrese Haliburton? With the pressure turning up on Steve Prohm in Ames, the answer was simple: crush the transfer market and get the recruiting right. I love the talent here that Prohm amassed -- but have no idea how it all fits together. Jalen Coleman-Lands, a grad transfer from DePaul, will be the team's best player and is really, really good. 5'9" guard Tyler Harris from Memphis will fill it up in a hurry, and returning combo Rasir Bolton (14.7 points) is a legitimate Big Twelve starter. Combine them with 7'0" touted freshman Xavier Foster and the Cyclones have some interesting pieces.
Prohm can't catch a break with injuries. Prized Ole Miss transfer Blake Hinson will reportedly miss the whole year with a health condition, and he figured to be an instant impact guy. Troy transfer Javan Johnson will need to play meaningful minutes and Prohm to go smaller with three guards to compensate. These Cyclone teams have underwhelmed the last few seasons, and there's not a ton of consistency in this group. It's a solid effort of collecting rag-tag guys that have talent, which should win them a few games.
7. Oklahoma Sooners - 9-9 last season. Projection: 7-11
Poor Lon Kruger. He starts four seniors - Austin Reaves (14.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists), Alondes Williams (6.0 points), Kur Kuath (3.4 points, 1.5 blocks) and Brady Manek (14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds) -- but doesn't have a clear path forward into the top-tier of the league. The Sooners don't beat themselves, which will help them stay in big games and possibly steal a few. A lot will be heaped on the shoulders of stud sophomore point guard De'Vion Harmon (7.4 points, 2.0 assists). If he takes a step forward and can efficiently carry the offense, Oklahoma may have enough firepower to jump into the top-five again.
The Sooners have some intriguing pieces. Kuath is a legitimate rim protector, Maken can score at the 4 and if Reaves finds his outside stroke, that's a good starting unit. Depth is the issue, particularly behind Kuath, where only freshmen preside. A solid, yet unspectacular and quiet, campaign may be on the horizon in Norman.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys - 7-11 last season. Projection: 9-9
The basketball world was shook when Cade Cunningham chose to take a one-year trip down to Stillwater. It's a recruiting grand slam for Mike Boynton, who will be handcuffed only by the NCAA sanctions that prevent the Cowboys from showing off their gem in the tournament. Still, an impressive season with the spotlight on Cunningham, and successfully catering to the future top pick in the draft, could generate momentum. The question is: how much will Boynton cater to Cunningham and make this about him when the postseason isn't even possible?
Doing so would be a disservice to talented 6'4" combo Isaac Likekele (10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.9 steals). Likekele is a do-it-all guy who is best-served next to Cunningham as a secondary creator. With those two manning the backcourt, the Cowboys will definitely score. They lack rim protection, though sophomore twins Keylan and Kalib Boone are the closest thing they have to an interior presence. There are other freshmen who are key pieces -- combo guard Rondel Walker and forward Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe -- and shooting transfer Ferron Flavors will be counted on to space the floor. On sheer talent alone, the Cowboys will be a legitimate team to watch. Without an interior presence in the rugged Big Twelve, they may not win as many games as you think.
5. Texas Longhorns - 9-9 last season. Projection: 11-7
Well, Texas went .500 last year and didn't lose a single player. They also brought in yet another one-and-done frontcourt prospect in Greg Brown. The loss of defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich, now head man at UIC, can't be overstated. This team will be an intriguing clash of styles that Shaka Smart both loves and hates. For the good: a three-headed monster in the backcourt with a trio of combo guards that can push tempo. Andrew Jones (college basketball's best story), Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey should all start and average double figures. Building around them would push the Longhorns into high-gear offensively.
Now for the bad: Texas has two post guys in Brown and Jericho Sims who are dominant inside finishers. Both are too talented to leave off the floor, and it seems like Smart will try to find ways to force them to coexist. Offensively, that kills spacing, and the Big Twelve's worth offensive group may not see stellar improvements just because they're a year older (and healthier). Defensively, this team will get caught between the up-tempo dreams Smart has from his VCU days and the need to play around two rim protectors. It's quite the conundrum that I'm anxious to see Shaka sort through.
Smart figured out a good deal last season to guide the Longhorns to the cusp of the NCAA's. They may bulldoze their way to a borderline national ranking, though I'm in wait-and-see mode on how Shaka navigates the frontcourt, particularly if Brown is as good as advertised and merits 25+ minutes a night. It's a good problem to have in Austin.
4. Texas Tech Red Raiders - 9-9 last season. Projection: 11-7
The Jahmi'us Ramsey season was a bit of a disappointment. After a national runner-up performance in 2019, the Red Raiders failed to catapult themselves back in the upper echelon of college hoops. Losing Ramsey and shooter Davide Moretti means the Red Raiders must nail shots this year. Within Chris Beard's motion offense, gravity is paramount. They'll try their hand with 5-star freshman and three-level scorer Nimari Burnett, though he's not the shot creator some might expect. Veteran Kyler Edwards and wing shooter Terrence Shannon round out the backcourt group; a solid bunch of scorers that blend well with Beard's scheme. Add in famed Georgetown transfer Mac McClung and there's a punch of athleticism and shot-making.
Up front is where things get a little less Beard-esque. VCU transfer Marcus Santos-Silva (12.8 points, 8.9 rebounds) was a productive player before coming to Lubbock, though his vision of himself as a stretch-big, NBA-caliber prospect doesn't really jive with the tough, rim protecting, do-your-job persona of typical Texas Tech bigs. He's a talent upgrade, but only 6'7" and not an overly-awesome shot blocker. UNLV transfer Joel Ntambwe will play the 4, and will be competing with freshman Micah Peavy for minutes.
Predicting this team isn't as easy as you think. Was their rise to the NCAA's elite two years ago just capturing lightning in a bottle? Or was last year's step back the aberration? Beard wins wherever he goes, so I'm not betting against them, per se. This seems like a fringe top-20 team nationally that may not resemble the Red Raiders groups Beard has coached to prominence.
3. Baylor Bears - 15-3 last season. Projection: 13-5
Last year's cinderella run towards the top of the country was anchored by a paradigm shift in Scott Drew's defensive teaching. The matchup zone and 1-3-1 zone days were gone, bringing in the no-middle defensive scheme that rose Texas Tech to the National Title game. It delivered similar results for Baylor. What both teams had in common: a hypermobile rim protector to funnel everything towards. Freddie Gillespie is gone from Waco, though. 6'9" senior Tristan Clark and 6'10" junior Flo Thamba need to pick up the slack if this defense is going to remain elite within the same game plan.
My sleeper for Conference Player of the Year is Jared Butler, a crafty combo who is a knock-down shooter, incredibly solid defender and steady hand. Playing alongside point guard Davion Mitchell, another NBA prospect and crazy-good on-ball defender, the two can frustrate any backcourt in the country with their pressure. Throw in MaCio Teague, a 6'3" senior who plays the 3 and can score in bunches, and the Bears will be loaded in the backcourt. It will be tough to score on them, and they all can light it up.
If Clark can return to being a strong interior scorer, the Bears have enough on offense to pair with a perimeter defense that they'll once again be a top team in the nation. Coloring in the gaps of a veteran team with freshmen contributions from 6'8" Dain Dainja and 6'1" LJ Cryer would boost their depth and keep them atop the conference. I want to see how the interior defense fares without Gillespie before anointing them top-ten once again.
2. West Virginia Mountaineers - 9-9 last season. Projection: 13-5
The two most unique, enigmatic players in the conference reside in Morgantown. Oscar Tshiebwe is incomparable as an athlete, a husky tank with elite leaping and surprising dexterity. Miles McBride is a sharp-moving scorer that plays much bigger than his 6'2" listing suggests. Throw in 6'10" center Derek Culver and the Mountaineers have two guys who can grab a double-double on the same night, a potent perimeter scorer and the world's toughest coach in Bob Huggins.
The Mountaineers strike me as a top-ten team in the country thanks to their unorthodox blending of athleticism and toughness. A Huggins-coached team that dominates the glass, bullies teams inside and applies pressure away from the hoop is always in the national conversation. Press Virginia is gone as Huggy caters to Tshiebwe and Culver. Jordan McCabe and Taz Sherman, two upperclassmen guards, still apply perimeter pressure in the half-court, knowing they have stout rim protection always behind them. Juco transfer Kedrian Johnson is expected to provide the same athleticism on the wing.
The key for the Mountaineers will be shooting. 6'7" Emmitt Matthews Jr. has to space the floor. Senior defensive specialist Gabe Osabuohein needs to keep defenses honest. The reason I'm so optimistic on West Virginia this year: Jalen Bridges. The prized recruit who came in with Tshiebwe, Bridges can get hot in a hurry. If he takes the strides he's capable of, Huggins will have found the length, athleticism, shot-making and dynamic spark to propel this team to the stratosphere. West Virginia shot 26.4 percent from 3 last year and still went .500 in-league. If they're up at 30 percent, aided by Bridges, there are no holes in this team.
1. Kansas Jayhawks - 17-1 last season. Projection: 14-4
The Jayhawks winning a few less conference games is more about the added depth of the league 3 thru 6 than what Bill Self's team lacks. For the better part of the last 20 years, my father has picked Kansas to win it all, and it's never a bad bet. This year's team might have the best chance of any. They have continuity in important positions, only lose two key guys (Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, the lifeblood of last year's team) and have their usual crop of talented incomers. The Covid interruptions helped distract from Self's ongoing war with the NCAA. A hungry Self could be on the hunt for redemption and keep this group on course.
6'5" freshman point guard Bryce Thompson is the prized player here, likely their best one-and-done prospect since Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. 6'5" senior Marcus Garrett will be the poised voice of reason in the backcourt, hopefully steadying Bryce's play. Garrett is an elite defender who can put the clamps on Jared Butler, Miles McBride, Nimari Burnett, Andrew Jones or any of the other top perimeter scorers in-league. It's the perfect compliment to the offensive skill of Thompson. Ochai Agbaji, the strong and athletic kid who can play the 3 or the 4, rounds out the toughness and athleticism of this group.
Up front, Self is starting to drift from his traditional two-big lineups. Despite Azubuike leaving, the Jayhawks actually have a ton of depth at the 5. The interesting guy is redshirt Mitch Lightfoot. He's 6'8" and, if able to play the 4 at all, gives Self the best of both worlds. The X-factor which could allow the Jayhawks to play smaller is JuCo transfer Tyon Grant-Foster. He looks the part at 6'7", and if able to go, this Kansas team can swing with anyone in the country.
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.