KenPom released its 2020-21 Preseason rankings. There are five conferences represented in the top 10, but the Big 12 represents half of those teams. Baylor is ranked first and is joined by Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Texas in the top 10. Does that mean the Big 12 will have five of the best teams in college basketball this season? No, probably not, but it does speak to the number of quality basketball teams in this conference.
Like every season, Big 12 teams will play 18 conference games, a home-and-home against every team in the conference and all 18 will require quality basketball to win. There are no off nights in the Big 12 most seasons and that remains the case in 2020-21.
Starting with a perennial Big 12 powerhouse that I think will win the conference despite most metrics predicting something different, let’s break down my predictions for the Big 12 in 2020-21.
Death, taxes and Kansas wins the Big Ten, and I won’t apologize for it. Does Baylor bring back more of their top 5 team from last year? Yes. But what Bill Self and the Jayhawks do better than everybody else in this conference is not compound losses and never lose to the teams they aren’t supposed to lose to. Last season was historic for the Bears, but at the end of the campaign they lost three of their last five games and almost lost a fourth at home to Texas Tech. The Jayhawks won 16 straight Big 12 games to end the regular season. The talent is still comparable to typical Kansas teams and those teams have dominated the Big 12 in the last 15 years.
Let’s talk about that talent. Yes, Self will have to figure out how to replace the production of all-americans Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, but Self still has a pair of preseason all-americans and first team All-Big 12 members on his team in Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji. The pair of guards averaged just under 20 points, eight rebounds and 6.5 assists combined last season and both should see improvements in all three categories due to the increased usage rate they should see this season. Garrett was the best facilitator for the Jayhawks last season and will be asked to handle a lot of those responsibilities again this year.
They also add the 21st player in the class of 2020, according to 247 Sports, Bryce Thompson. Thompson is a combo guard that should contribute right away in the scoring department. He can score at all three levels, can make difficult shots and is versatile defensively at 6’5. He absolutely lessens the loss of Dotson on the offensive end.
Even without Azubuike and Silvio de Sousa, I still feel good about Kansas’ interior. David McCormack is a 6’10 former top 30 player who has experience and size. They also add Tyon Grant-Foster, the No. 2 JUCO prospect in this class, who will also make an immediate impact. Kansas has the talent, they have the coaching and until they have those two things and don’t win the conference, I will continue to ride with the Jayhawks.
Now that I’ve made my case for Kansas to win this conference, Baylor is going to be awesome. They return their three-headed guard trio of Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell who were at the forefront of Baylor’s best season in school history. Led by Butler, these guards were responsible for nearly 40 points per game, setting the tone defensively and running the offense.
However, it is not those guards that will dictate Baylor’s ceiling this season, in my opinion. It will be how they replace Freddie Gillespie, who wasn’t supposed to be the dominant interior force that he ended up being. The 6’9 forward averaged 9.6 points, nine rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game last season as the last line of defense for Scott Drew’s team. He was named to both the All-Big 12 team and the Big 12 All-Defense team and how Drew replaces that impact is paramount.
The obvious answer to that question is once dominant forward Tristan Clark. Clark played in just 14 games in 2018-19 before suffering a knee injury that ended his season. When he returned in 2019-20, he just wasn’t the same. He appeared in just 22 games averaging 12 minutes per contest and not coming close to touching even his freshman year averages. Clark is talented, there is no doubt about it, but if he doesn’t return to the 2018-19 player (at least to a certain extent) that he was then there might be questions about Baylor’s interior presence.
Mark Vital will also return as well as freshman Dain Dainja and UNLV transfer Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua. Not to mention 7’0 freshman Zach Loveday. But the best version of the Bears involves Clark being the most important big man on the roster.
These two teams will be in lockstep at the top of the conference. I’ll go with the team that has a history of winning this conference over the team that stumbled down the stretch with almost the exact same core.
3. Texas Tech
Texas Tech is an intriguing study because very few teams in this conference lost as many bodies as head coach Chris Beard did. On the other hand, few teams find ways to replace production the way Beard has. The Red Raiders said goodbye to Jahmi’us Ramsey and Davide Moretti, most notably, but said hello to a large contingent of newcomers and freshmen for the 2020-21 season.
Starting with the transfers, Beard’s performance in the transfer portal continues to be strong, adding UNLV’s Joel Ntambwe, VCU’s Marcus Santos-Silva and Georgetown’s Mac McClung. All three players averaged 11.8 points or more per game the last time they played a full season. As a result, this team is older than last year’s squad, which Beard will like. But it doesn’t exactly have more players that have spent a lot of time in the culture of this program which is just as important. But if you have to choose, getting those players with high level college basketball experience is the way to go.
Leading the best recruiting class in the Big 12, according to 247 Sports, is Nimari Burnett, the 34th ranked player in the class. The best way to describe Burnett’s role this season might be as a combination of Ramsey and Moretti from a season ago. He’s very good both on and off the ball and has respectable court vision and an ability to score at the rim and beyond the arc. Following Burnet is a collection of good size in this year’s recruiting class. Micah Peavy is the other top 50 recruit in the class. He should contribute on the defensive end early and his offensive game should expand as his shooting range improves.
Kyler Edwards and Terrance Shannon Jr. both return as around 10 points per game scorers and will continue to be important offensive weapons for Beard.
The success of the Red Raiders will depend on how well this very new to each other group meshes together and how quickly they do it. But the talent — returning players, transfers and recruits — is undoubtedly there and they should blow last year’s 18-13 record out of the water.
The Longhorns are the team that excites me unlike any other team in this conference for two reasons. First, Shaka Smart is out of time. He’s either going to succeed this season or Texas will be looking for a new commander-in-chief for the 2021-22 season. Smart’s future in Austin is riding on this season. Second, Texas brings back every important piece from last year’s team. The only difference is they add Greg Brown, the No. 9 player in the class of 2020 as the lone recruit in this year’s class.
The backcourt trio of Matt Coleman, Andrew Jones and Courtney Ramey returns as the three leading scorers and Brown joins Jericho Sims in the frontcourt. Jase Febres, Kai Jones, Donovan Williams the list goes on and on, they are all coming back. Yes, this is basically the same team that went just 19-12 last season and once again under achieved in relation to their talent but they had some injuries with only two players playing in all 31 contests.
There are, however, places that the Longhorns need to improve as a team. They completely lived and died by the 3-pointer. In Big 12 play, Texas went 8-0 in the eight games they shot better than 40% from beyond the arc. They were just 1-9 otherwise. A five-star interior presence like Brown suggests that could change but Texas’ offensive efficiency was not good last season as a result of their dependence on the long ball. If they can establish a more balanced attack, that will go a long way towards putting Texas in the top four of the Big 12.
Depending on where you look, Texas is often predicted to finish fifth in the conference at the expense of West Virginia. I have concerns about their ability to score the basketball enough in Big 12 play, but the race for fourth and fifth in the conference will be very close. So, let’s talk about Bob Huggins’ team.
5. West Virginia
The Mountaineers, per usual, are going to be a handful on the defensive end. Led by Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, Bob Huggins will have one of the more terrifying frontcourts in college basketball this season. Those two bigs will lead the charge on defensive intensity and overwhelming rebounding, but the Mountaineers had those things last season. They were fifth in the country in average rebounding margin and top 10 in total rebounds per game and were the 7th best defense, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency last season.
What this team needs to overcome is the following two numbers: 26.4% from beyond the arc and 62.9% from the free throw line. Both of those ranked last in the conference and must improve for the Mountaineers to make a significant jump forward.
With that being said, there is reason to believe that West Virginia could see improvements despite saying goodbye to Jermain Haley, the team’s fourth leading scorer. Miles McBride returns as the most important perimeter scorer who averaged 9.5 points per game last season. He should (and needs) to take another step forward as a scorer. They also added the No. 3 JUCO transfer Kedrian Johnson. Johnson averaged 26 points, five rebounds and five assists per game for Temple College but the stats are inflated due to the number of shots that team took per game (80).
Johnson will undoubtedly help on offense, but he’ll need to improve on his 27% 3-point shooting for his impact to be as great as it could be. As we previously discussed, the Mountaineers were downright bad from deep last season and must improve in that category.
The Mountaineers will almost certainly be better this season and KenPom projects them to finish ahead of the Longhorns in the Big 12. I won’t be surprised if that’s the case, but I want to see the offensive improvements in Morgantown first.
6. Oklahoma State
That’s it. That’s the biggest story in Stillwater this season. Cunningham is the No. 1 player in the Class of 2020, a generational talent and a consensus first team all-american as a freshman. Despite the current postseason ban that will keep the Pokes out of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Cunningham still enrolled at OSU and joined head coach Mike Boynton’s team. He’ll be one of the most interesting players in college basketball for a team that is one of the most unique positions in college basketball.
The Cowboys welcome back junior guard Isaac Likekele who averaged 10.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game last season. He and Cunningham will make up a very solid backcourt and they’ll be joined by Cal Baptist transfer Ferron Flavors Jr. who averaged 13.5 points last season.
After that, the Cowboys start to thin out. The interior for Boynton is a question mark at best. The likely starters will be Keylan Boone and Kalib Boone who don’t jump off the page in terms of impact. Neither rebounded or scored particularly well last season but should see increases in usage rate and impact with Cameron McGriff, OSU’s leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago, graduating after last season.
Along with Cunningham, Boynton also brings in top 100 prospect Rondel Walker who is another guard along with Bryce Williams who recently had a waiver approved after transferring from Ole Miss. Both add to the extensive group of guards on the roster.
This team is incredibly intriguing and their ceiling isn’t clear for multiple reasons. However, Boynton has a roster that is loyal to him led by the best player in the class of 2020. That gives people enough reason to perk up and pay attention to what’s happening in Stillwater this season.
Nothing exciting is going to happen in Norman this season, but the Sooners will have a really solid basketball team. Apart from losing Kristian Doolittle (which is not unimportant, he led the team in scoring and rebounding), Lon Kruger brings back his top five scorers from a season ago and his starting five will likely consist of five players that produced for the Sooners last season led by Austin Reaves and Brady Manek who combined for almost 30 points per game a season ago.
Manek is a dynamite shooter that is fun to play with in the pick-and-roll and he will once again play a massive role in the Sooner offense. He shot 38% from deep last season and there’s no reason to suggest he’s going to take a step backwards. The most obvious step forward for these two players is for Reaves to take a step forward in efficiency. His offensive role will be even bigger than it was a season ago and some of his shooting percentages need to improve, especially his 3-point percentage.
Last year, he shot just 25.9% from beyond the arc. Now, it’s clear he can shoot the ball (see his 50% and 42% from deep at Wichita State), what changed was his role in the offense. He took six more shots per game last season than he did in 2017-18 as a Shocker. Reaves could take a substantial step forward if he finds a happy medium between those two numbers if not better.
Oklahoma isn’t sexy and the contrast between this team and Trae Young’s team is laugh out loud funny. But this is a solid basketball team through and through and they are a testament to just how good this conference is.
These final three teams are clearly the bottom three teams in the conference. Someone has to lose in this conference for the top seven teams to be good. Those teams will be good at the expense of TCU, Iowa State and Kansas State.
Notes on the Horned Frogs:
- Lose Desmond Bane and his 16.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists
- RJ Nembhard (12.1 points per game) and Kevin Samuel (10 points per game) will take the keys to the offense
- Frankly, the Horned Frogs weren’t great on either side of the ball last season: 8th in offensive efficiency in the conference, 9th in defensive efficiency
- Chattanooga transfer Kevin Easley averaged 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in 2018-19, he should step into the starting lineup
- The Horned Frogs weren’t great last year with projected first round pick Bane and they haven’t, at least on paper, found a way to make up for that production
9. Iowa State
Notes on the Cyclones:
- They also lose a projected lottery pick, Tyrese Haliburton, who averaged 15.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game
- Second leading scorer Rasir Bolton returns after averaging 14.7 points per game a year ago
- They have a list of transfer guards that you will recognize, but who will be the lead guard is still up in the air
- Memphis transfer Tyler harris
- DePaul transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands
- Troy transfer Javan Johnson and Ole Miss transfer Blake Hinson (he still needs a waiver)
- There is a long list of transfers that are going to dictate the success of the Cyclones this season
- Solomon Young and George Conditt IV return as the starting frontcourt
10. Kansas State
Notes on the Wildcats:
- Both Xavier Sneed (graduation) and Cartier Diarra (transfer) are gone. They were the only Wildcats averaging more than 7.4 points per game last season
- Nijel Pack is the highest rated recruit in the Kansas State recruiting class – good shooter, great ball-handler and should step in to run the team right away.
- The rest of the starting lineup will likely consist of senior Mike McGuirl and sophomores DaJuan Gordon, Montavious Murphy and Antonio Gordon.
- There is a lot of turnover for this team with seven incoming recruits. This team is already young with just one upperclassman in the starting lineup
- This is a new era of talent for Bruce Weber. It will take time, it won’t be this year, but once again there is a foundation for Kansas State to be a good team again in the next few years.
Photo by: Ryan Schreiber / Wikimedia Commons