College basketball is in full swing, and that means that the conference season is upon us! Big 12 play gets underway this upcoming Saturday, January 4th with a full slate of games, as everyone in the conference plays its conference opener.
Today, I’m going to preview each of the Big 12’s teams and give my projected standings and records for each team (see bottom of article).
Baylor is good enough to contend for the Big 12 title and equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament come March. Baylor is ranked 11th in the nation in the KenPom rankings, which measures a team’s adjusted efficiency per 100 possessions. They score about 109.1 points per 100 possessions, while giving up only 88.0 points per 100 possessions, meaning their adjusted efficiency is +21.07 points. In addition, they boast one of the better non-conference resumes in the nation thus far, as they have defeated Arizona, Butler, and Villanova (all of whom are ranked in the top 25 in the current AP Poll) – something that Kansas failed to do, as many Baylor fans will quickly let you know that they beat Nova and Kansas did not- but also dropped a game to Washington on a neutral floor in Alaska which they led most of the way. Baylor sure would like to have that Washington match up back, but nonetheless, Baylor is top ten in the AP Poll (currently ranked #6) and in excellent position to compete for a conference championship, though they have not won a regular season conference championship since 1950. One of the biggest strengths of this Baylor team is their depth in the back court. Players like Jared Butler, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell, and Devonte Bandoo anchor a loaded Baylor back court, as each one of them brings remarkable athleticism and the ability to shoot the ball from behind the arc, something that Scott Drew-coached Baylor teams are not well-known for. If these guards consistently knock down the 3 ball, Baylor can win the conference for the first time ever since its inception in 1994 and compete for a deep run come March.
3 Key games: @ #22 Texas Tech (January 7th), vs #16 West Virginia (February 15th), vs #3 Kansas (February 22nd)
Key player to watch: Jared Butler
Iowa State is certainly not as good as they have been in years past and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Losing players like Marial Shayok, Lindell Wigginton, and Talen Horton-Tucker hurts big time, as they carried Iowa State to a conference tournament title last season when they beat Kansas in the Sprint Center in Kansas City to capture their fifth Big 12 Tournament championship. Good news is they bring back several guys who played key minutes last season, namely guard Tyrese Haliburton and forward Michael Jacobson. Tyrese Haliburton and Michael Jacobson are their biggest one-two punch returning from last season in my opinion, but I believe Solomon Young is a key player for them. He needs to be able to establish himself as a consistent go to option behind Haliburton, Rasir Bolton, and Jacobson. Young averages 10.2 points/game and 3.9 rebounds/game, which is good production, but I believe Young needs to step it up to average around 12-13 points/game and 5 rebounds/game in order for Iowa State to find more success. This Iowa State team has the potential to be very competitive, as seen when Seton Hall, ranked #13 in the AP Poll at the time, came into Hilton Coliseum and left with ten point loss to the Cyclones, but Iowa State just has not shown the consistency yet. At a current record of 7-4, they are probably on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament heading into conference play, but good thing the Big 12 provides plenty of opportunities to boost the resume. There are no off nights in this conference, so Iowa State will need to bring it every single night if they want to make the NCAA tournament, which is why Solomon Young emerging as a solid go-to fourth option is all the more important for this Iowa State team. If he can do so, this makes Iowa State a much more dangerous team because the defense will have to pay more attention to Young on the block, which could open up more shots on the perimeter for guys like Haliburton and Bolton. They will catch some opposing teams off-guard when opposing teams have to visit Hilton, but Iowa State must show more consistency and be able to win on the road if they are to find success this season.
3 Key games: vs #3 Kansas (January 8th), vs #6 Baylor (January 29th), @Oklahoma State (February 29th)
Key player to watch: Solomon Young
Kansas is Kansas. They have a ton of talent coming back from last year while also introducing several freshmen who could very well end up playing three to four years for Bill Self, and were picked to win the Big 12 again. Anyone surprised? Not really.
Kansas is currently ranked #3 in the AP Poll. They boast a sophomore point guard, Devon Dotson, who is arguably one of the best PGs in America, as well as arguably the best big man in the land in senior seven-foot center Udoka Azubuike. Dotson averages 19.2 points/game and 4.7 assists/game and is the unequivocal leader of this Kansas team while Azubuike averages a solid 14.0 points/game and 8.4 rebounds/game. Kansas also flaunts a strong non-conference schedule and has shown they can hang with just about anyone on any given night, as they have two losses by a combined three points to Duke (neutral floor) and Villanova (road). They also have a road win over the Stanford Cardinal, who are ranked in the top ten of the NCAA’s NET Tool, which helps the NCAA tournament committee evaluate potential NCAA tournament teams based on result of games strength of schedule, game location, scoring margin, etc, as well as a neutral site victory over the Dayton Flyers led by potential lottery pick Obi Toppin. Kansas is also coming off the first season in 15 years in which they DIDN’T win the Big 12. Last year, Texas Tech and Kansas State split the conference crown, so Kansas is out to recapture that title. If Kansas is going to recapture the Big 12 crown, guys like Ochai Agbaji, Marcus Garrett, Isaiah Moss, and David McCormack need to step up and help out Dotson and Azubuike on a consistent basis. It would be easy for me to say Dotson or Azubuike is a key player to watch, however, I believe another is freshman guard Christian Braun. He has played tremendously as of late, knocking down shots, attacking on offense, blocking shots on defense, and providing a spark of energy off the bench, especially in the Villanova game. This Kansas team is already poised to make a deep run in March, but if Braun can consistently be a spark of energy off the bench like he has been of late, I like the Jayhawks chances of reaching Atlanta.
3 Key games: vs #6 Baylor (January 11th), vs #22 Texas Tech (February 1st), @ #16 West Virginia (February 12th)
Key player to watch: Christian Braun
Kansas State has not been getting the treatment of a regular defending conference champion. The Wildcats have been looked down on to start this young season, but their play thus far has not exactly strengthened their case to be a contender in the Big 12 this season. They have been playing better of late, but they will need to kick it into another level if they are to challenge the likes of Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, and Texas Tech for the conference crown. Now that guys like Barry Brown and Dean Wade are gone, a lot of the weight for this team falls on the shoulders of returners Cartier Diarra and Xavier Sneed. Both are very capable scorers and shooters and have plenty of experience at this level of play, but if K-State is going to get back to where they were last year, look for guys like Makol Mawien and Mike McGuirl to play a big role. Mawien leads the team in rebounds and blocks per game, at 5.1 rebounds/game and 1.1 blocks/game while McGuirl averages the third most minutes of all players among everyone who has played in all of the Wildcat’s games thus far. Somewhat similar to Iowa State, Kansas State does not flaunt an impressive non-conference schedule, as the best team they’ve played in Marquette came into Manhattan and had their way with the Wildcats, earning a 73-65 win over K-State. Fortunately, the Big 12 is filled with great opportunities to prove yourself. At this moment, K-State is not in the NCAA tournament, but that could all change with a good start to the conference season. Bruce Weber is more than a capable coach and has proven he can win and win at the highest level, but this year might be one of his toughest coaching jobs yet. One key player to watch is junior forward Levi Stockard III. In the limited minutes he’s gotten this season, he is shooting over 50% from the floor. If he can find more minutes and be a consistent presence on the floor for the Wildcats, this team will become that much better.
3 Key games: @Texas (January 11th), vs Oklahoma State (February 11th), vs #3 Kansas (February 29th)
Key player to watch: Levi Stockard III
Oklahoma is a unique team this year. They don’t have any one dominant player like they have in recent memory (see Blake Griffin, Buddy Hield, and Trae Young for example), but they are a solid team. Head coach Lon Kruger always seems to do a good job of getting his guys ready to go, whether his team is especially talented, like the 2015-2016 Oklahoma team that went to the Final Four on the backs of Wooden Award winner Buddy Hield and his back court mates Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard, or if they are obviously out-manned. Oklahoma has three players currently averaging 14 points/game or more in senior Kristian Doolittle (16.7 points/game) and juniors Austin Reaves (16.6 points/game) and Brady Manek (14.2 points/game). Oklahoma is ranked #51 in the current KenPom rankings with an adjusted efficiency margin of 13.91 points per 100 possessions, which isn’t great but they have beaten teams like Minnesota, who is ranked #42 in KenPom as well as Missouri, who is ranked #53 in KenPom. Oklahoma has also lost to several tough teams like Creighton (road), #24 Wichita State (road), and Stanford (neutral site). Oklahoma has played a pretty good non-conference schedule thus far, it’s just that the results in their bigger games have not been there. Both games against Creighton and Wichita State were 10 point losses in hostile environments, but playing those type of non-conference games get a team ready for Big 12 play. With a three headed trio of Doolittle, Reaves, and Manek, Oklahoma is bound to get a few quality wins in the Big 12, but I don’t know if it will be enough for them to make the Big Dance come March. As far as key players go, watch out for freshman guard De’Vion Harmon out of Denton, Texas. Harmon averages 8.1 points/game, 2.4 rebounds/game, and 2.3 assists/game while shooting approximately 38.3% from the field. Harmon also averages 27.5 minutes/game, meaning the opportunities for him to grow and succeed on the court is present. If he consistently performs at his current production level given the minutes he is averaging, he will grow and become a big part of the offensive attack for this Oklahoma team in the near future, and could be the difference between a couple more wins for this Oklahoma team.
3 Key games: @Iowa State (January 11th), @Oklahoma State (February 22nd), vs Texas (March 3rd).
Key player to watch: De’Vion Harmon
Oklahoma State has shown they are a decent team this year. Projected to finish sixth in the conference, I believe head coach Mike Boynton has his guys heading in the right direction. They have taken care of business against the teams that they are clearly better than, but they have lost to tough teams like Minnesota, Georgetown, and Wichita State who are all better than Oklahoma State, however some of these games the Cowboys have been without sophomore guard Isaac Likekele as he has missed some time with an illness. Some of those results need to start changing and going in favor of OSU if the Cowboys expect to go dancing come March, and the return of Likekele should help swing some of those results in favor of the Cowboys. As it stands right now, they are projected in the “Last Four Byes” part of the NCAA tournament according to ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi. The Cowboys are led by Issac Likekele (13.1 points/game), senior guard Lindy Waters III (12.9 points/game), and senior forward Cameron McGriff (6.6 rebounds/game). All three have played very well throughout this young season and have been supported by senior guard Thomas Dziagwa, six-foot ten-inch sophomore forward Yor Anei, and a cast of freshman in forward Kalib Boone and guards Avery Anderson III and Chris Harris Jr. The Cowboys are a very young team and are in a position to make the NCAA Tournament, but with all young teams going forward, there will be some growing pains. One key player to watch the rest of this season for the Cowboys is Likekele. If he is able to stay healthy, he brings a whole new dynamic to this Cowboys team and makes them a very capable opponent.
3 Key games: @Iowa State (January 21st), vs #3 Kansas (January 27th), vs #22 Texas Tech (February 15th)
Key player to watch: Isaac Likekele
TEXAS CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY
I’ll be honest, this TCU team is not as good as most other teams in the Big 12 this season. Head coach Jamie Dixon has a lot of work in front of him if he wants to get his Frogs to go dancing. TCU has beaten a ton of mediocre opponents but their three losses have come to Clemson, Southern California, and Xavier. TCU is ranked #67 in KenPom and is only ranked above one other Big 12 team in the KenPom rankings (K-State is ranked #89). The Horned Frogs are led by senior guard Desmond Bane (15.9 points/game, 7.1 rebounds/game, and 3.5 assists/game) and sophomore forward Kevin Samuel (11.7 points/game and 8.6 rebounds/game). Desmond Bane is one of the better guards in the conference, as he won player of the week for the conference once last season and was named to the all-conference second team at the end of the regular season. As far as key players go for this TCU squad, it has to be Bane. If he goes down with an injury at any point, I don’t believe TCU has any shot at the NCAA Tournament. Bane will need to keep up his all-conference play if TCU has any shot to make the postseason.
3 Key games: @Oklahoma (January 18th), vs #16 West Virginia (February 22nd), vs #6 Baylor (February 29th)
Key player to watch: Desmond Bane
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS
Texas basketball has been a weird situation when looking from the outside ever since Shaka Smart arrived in town. I feel like Shaka is still hanging his hat on his surprise run to the Final Four in 2011 as the head coach of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) when they beat one-seeded Kansas in the Elite Eight in San Antonio to go to the Final Four. Smart has not been able to produce teams with similar success to the Texas teams of the 2000’s under Rick Barnes. However one thing Smart has been able to do is land high profile recruits, after having players like Myles Turner, Mo Bamba, and Jaxon Hayes come through his program. Its no secret he can send guys to The League, but even with those high-profile players, they have not found much postseason success. This Texas team has shown flashes of potential, as seen when they beat the then ranked #23 Purdue Boilermakers, but have also shown lapses in effort, as seen when getting curb stomped by Providence. The Longhorns are led by guards Matt Coleman (junior, averaging 12.8 points/game and 4.5 assists/game) and Andrew Jones (sophomore, averaging 11.4 points/game). Coleman is also shooting a scorching 47.6% from three point range this season. The Horns were predicted to finish fourth in the conference, but in order to do so they will need consistent play from guys like guard Courtney Ramey and forward Jericho Sims. Sims leads the team in rebounds/game at 6.9 and blocks/game at 1.3. I believe Sims is the key to the Longhorns finishing high in the standings at the end of conference play. If Sims can step up and become a very real post threat on the offensive end (he only averages 8.5 points/game) and become a better rim defender, the floor will open up so much more for the athletic guards that Texas has in Coleman, Ramey, and Jones on the offensive end while also making Texas a much better defensive team. If Sims becomes a better post player, the Horns could surprise some people in conference play.
3 Key games: vs @Oklahoma State (January 15th), #3 Kansas (January 18th), vs Texas Tech (February 8th)
Key player to watch: Jericho Sims
Texas Tech has emerged as one of the premier teams in the Big 12. Reaching the Elite Eight two seasons ago and getting to the National Championship game last season, it’s no secret that Chris Beard can coach. This season is a whole different animal though. His first season in Lubbock, Beard had standout senior point guard Keenan Evans and future NBA First rounder Zhaire Smith. Last season he had Big 12 player of the year Jarrett Culver, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves. This season, it doesn’t appear that Texas Tech has someone who can completely dominate a game like Evans/Smith did two years ago or even like Culver could last year. Freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey is certainly an excellent player, but he isn’t a Jarrett Culver (yet), and nobody should expect him to be, as of right now. Good news is Ramsey is an outstanding player and can score in a variety of ways. Combine him with returning senior guard Chris Clarke, junior guard Davide Moretti, sophomore guard Kyler Edwards, freshman guard Terrence Shannon Jr, and senior transfer forward T.J. Holyfield, Tech has an outstanding array of players that Beard can throw at any opposing defense. This team is a guard-dominated team, which bodes well in the modern version of college basketball. However, I believe if Tech wants to win the Big 12 for the second consecutive season, they need to improve their outside shooting ability. Among players who play significant minutes (15 minutes or more/game in my opinion), only Ramsey (46.3%) and Moretti (38.8%) shoot above 35% from three. If Tech as a team can get more guys to consistently shoot the rock, they will be a very tough out. One of their key players is T.J. Holyfield. We all know Ramsey and Moretti are good, but Holyfield was a highly coveted transfer who chose Chris Beard and Texas Tech over the likes of Kansas, but Holyfield has not lived up to all the hype quite yet. He averages 9.5 points/game, 4.9 rebounds/game, and shoots 57.3% from the field as a whole, He has played in all 12 of Texas Tech’s games, but only averages about 6.25 shots/game while playing about 22.9 minutes/game. If he is going to shoot this well from the field, I think Holyfield has to find a way to get more minutes so that he can get more shots up. If he can become another consistent double digit scorer for this team, look to see Tech fight for a spot in Atlanta for the Final Four at the end of the year.
3 Key games: vs #6 Baylor (January 7th), @ #16 West Virginia (January 11th), @ #3 Kansas (February 1st) (Bonus game: vs #17 Kentucky on January 25th as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge).
Key player to watch: T.J. Holyfield
Death, Taxes, and a Bob Huggins coached-team being good defensively. The three guarantees of life. WVU is ranked #17 in the KenPom rankings and is allowing only 87.5 points/100 possessions, which is good for the seventh best in the country. WVU is an excellent defensive team and always has been. The question is whether their offense can step up to the task. Their leading scorer is freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe at 11.8 points/game. WVU also only has one player averaging more than 25 minutes/game (sophomore forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. who averages 26.5 min/game). What does that tell you? WVU has depth and Huggins isn’t afraid to use it. Ten different players average double digit minutes per game. This allows Huggins to keep up his team’s defensive intensity that WVU basketball has become known for over the last several years. Having fresh bodies late in games is a big luxury and WVU definitely has that. Projected to finish fifth in the conference, the Mountaineers are already exceeding expectations as they are currently ranked #16 in the AP Poll and just beat then ranked #2 Ohio State in Morgantown this past Sunday. One key player for the Mountaineers in my opinion is sophomore forward Derek Culver. Culver averages 11.0 points/game and 9.4 rebounds/game and has experience in beating tough opponents. Culver played significant roles last season on a WVU team that beat Kansas in Morgantown and bested league champion Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament. Culver while only a sophomore, can provide some leadership for an up and coming WVU roster that has lots of freshmen and sophomores. If Culver is able to become the leader for this WVU team and provide consistent scoring and defensive intensity, watch out for the Mountaineers as they could challenge for the Big 12 title.
3 Key games: vs #22 Texas Tech (January 11th), vs #3 Kansas (February 12th), @ #6 Baylor (February 15th)
Key player to watch: Derek Culver
PROJECTED FINAL STANDINGS
1. Kansas (14-4)
2. Baylor (12-6)
3. Texas Tech (12-6)
4. West Virginia (11-7)
5. Oklahoma State (9-9)
6. Texas (9-9)
7. Oklahoma (8-10)
8. Kansas State (7-11)
9. Iowa State (7-11)
10. TCU (5-13)