University of Texas Kevin Durant celebrates a play from the bench versus Texas Tech in 2007. [Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman]

Men's Basketball

12 Things about Big 12 basketball: The best Big East Challenge games and conference’s top recruits of all time

Posted May 6th, 2020

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12. Greg Brown headed to Texas

Greg Brown is the cherry on top for the Texas basketball offseason.

With or without Brown, Texas was set to have a strong team next year despite all the baggage that may have come with it.

The first step was avoiding a reset by firing the head coach. Bringing Shaka Smart back to see if he can turn the late season winning streak into a full year of success was the biggest decision anyone made — Brown or otherwise — in regards to Texas basketball. Had Texas fired Smart, it certainly doesn’t get Brown and it would certainly face a possible bevy of transfers.

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Smart’s return probably boosted the return decisions by Matt Coleman, Jericho Sims, Courtney Ramey, Andrew Jones and more. Officially none of those players even made it known they were pondering leaving, but it would be pretty naive to think they wouldn’t had Smart been fired.

Given the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown, it probably would have been hard to sell Texas basketball to another top coach, despite how easy it was to do so with the women’s team.

Brown is the best recruit to land at Texas since Mo Bamba. He’s the best non-post player to come to Texas since Avery Bradley — and that’s assuming he’s not a post.

A big issue — and I think it’s a great issue that only one other program in the league routinely has — is there’s a lot of players who deserve, believe or have earned spots in the rotation, but alas there’s only 40 minutes in a game and the best players need to play the most minutes.

I think depth is an overrated attribute in college basketball. Sure you want it in case of injuries, but the best teams in college basketball rely on eight-man rotations in big games with a ninth guy being used in the first half when foul trouble sparks. Teams round into tournament form when the rotation settles.

That’s not to say having too many options is bad. The greatest college basketball team I’ve ever seen, the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats, played 10 guys. But if you talk to a lot of college basketball gurus, they might have won the championship if Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis play more than 19 and 17 minutes against Wisconsin in the Final Four. Karl Anthony Towns played 31 minutes despite not being in foul trouble. Kentucky used nine guys in that game, but only two played more than eight minutes, so even that example shows that Kentucky trimmed its rotation that year.

This Texas team is not that team — not by any stretch of the imagination.

Texas doesn’t have as many NBA guys as that Kentucky team did, but Texas has more very solid college basketball players than that Kentucky team had. Sims, Brown, Febres, Ramey and Coleman is my gut feeling for Texas’ starting lineup whenever next season starts. Febres because Smart clearly loves him, Ramey because he’s, well, outside of Brown, my favorite player on the Texas roster and Coleman is more of a lock to start than even the projected lottery pick that Brown is.

Here’s the thing: despite Brown’s size, he doesn’t play like a power forward to me and he looks like a guard and he shoots like a guard, so while people will label him a “stretch four” I think he’s a really a very tall guard in what should be a four-guard lineup.

As far as depth is concerned? I think it’ll take 10 minutes and one missed Febres 3-pointer for Texas basketball Twitter to yell for Brock Cunningham. But Brock Cunningham shouldn’t be starting no more than Mitch Lightfoot should be starting for Kansas. His value isn’t in the starting lineup, his value is in his role as a reserve who comes in and provides a spark, makes plays and plays with high-energy bursts, then goes back to the bench.

Texas is so deep and went through so many injuries last season that all 13 players make cases for playing time. Case in point, Royce Hamm. How does Smart get him on the court?

Smart has an amazing roster and Texas should be ranked higher in the AP preseason poll than it has since the start of the last season of Rick Barnes’ tenure.

With great expectations comes great risk for Smart, in that teams who are trying to figure out the rotation take a while to jell, so don’t be surprised if Texas actually starts slow next season — a season in which Smart can’t afford to start slow at all, which is another reason why Smart is probably going to go with possible lineup I laid out above.

There will be hyped teams in Waco, Lubbock, Morgantown and Stillwater. I don’t have to mention Kansas, because it’s always a hyped team. Texas ought to be in that mix and may — may — have a better championship roster than any team, including a preseason No. 2-picked squad in many polls, Baylor.

Texas Tech’s Jahmi’us Ramsey should stay in the NBA draft pool. (AP Photo/Brad Tollefson)

11. Texas Tech loses Ramsey, but roster rounding into shape

In no shock at all, Jahmi’us Ramsey announced he is going pro but he didn’t hire an agent, which means for the next month Texas Tech faithful can cross their fingers that the uncertainty of everything in sports perhaps persuades the youngest player to declare for the draft to return.

I don’t see it because Ramsey has an NBA game and is on many mock drafts. His ability to shoot and his frame make him a great prospect. The Athletic recently pegged him as a first-round pick.

If he returns, it’ll have more of an impact on the Red Raiders than Brown, a McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-10 recruit, on Texas.

I doubt it happens.

Texas Tech is my pick to win the Big 12 next year, as I wrote in March, but Texas and Kansas catching up quickly and if Baylor gets two guards to return, it’ll change my prediction. I assumed Tech would be landing some key graduate transfers, and they have, and the front court took a hit when Russel Tchewa transferred. But that all worked itself out.

After missing on Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms, Tech landed Virginia Commonwealth graduate transfer Marcus Santos-Silva in late April. Technically he’s not a graduate transfer right now, as he won’t graduate until the summer, but he’s expected to be eligible this season. He averaged 12.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. Although he’s 6-foot-7, he’s also 250 pounds, which means he’s exactly the big-bodied forward the Red Raiders really needed this offseason.

He joins Wichita State transfer Jamarius Burton. Whether Burton, a 6-foot-4 guard will be eligible depends on an NCAA rule change that could be adopted, but a recent report said the NCAA is pushing back immediate eligibility. Luckily for Tech, with or without Burton, the backcourt is already strong in Lubbock and Santos-Silva and Joel Ntambwe — who sat out last season —  should be expected to contribute immediately in the front court.

10. The Last Dance and Kansas State connection

The greatest coach in Kansas State basketball history played a big role in “The Last Dance” documentary about Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teams. Tex Winter, who was a longtime assistant coach to Phil Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles, was the Kansas State head coach from 1953 to 1968. He developed the triangle offense, the scheme that helped win 11 NBA championships, during his time in Manhattan.

Winter won 261 games at K-State and went to two Final Fours. That’s when the league was the Big Eight (and even the Big Seven) and Winter won eight conference titles.

While at Kansas State, Winter literally wrote the book on the triangle offense called “The Triple-Post Offense” that Amazon sells for… $499.89.

Winter’s greatest moment at K-State was when his Wildcats stunned the Oscar Robertson-led Cincinnati Bearcats in a 83-80 double-overtime game in 1958 to reach the Final Four.

He left Kansas State and never found the same success in three seasons at Washington and five seasons in the college basketball barren wasteland that is Northwestern. His last five seasons as a college coach came at Long Beach State but he finished his career with a 453-334 record in college basketball.

Bill Self and the Kansas basketball program could face NCAA sanctions. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

9. Kansas is having a better offseason than you think

One CBS article listed Kansas as a “loser” this offseason based on the team last season not getting a chance to win the national title and not being able to bring back Udoka Azubuike, Isaiah Moss and Devon Dotson next year.

Sure.

You can look at it that way. Given the mountain standing in front of the program in the form of possible NCAA infractions committed, the fact that there aren’t more people leaving combined with a top 15 recruiting class remaining intact, the Jayhawks have to feel good about this offseason. Plus there’s no one leaving Lawrence for good that surprised Kansas. In fact, one player who was viewed almost as a lock to leave when the season started is actually returning.

This offseason has been terrific for the Jayhawks. They lost one player who they always knew they would lose to the draft but return every non-senior and have a solid recruiting class with a McDonald’s All-American arriving.

It’s been awhile since Kansas went through an offseason without a player transferring. Charlie Moore from last year is one example. But no one has left yet.

Could that change with impending sanctions? Yes. Does the lockdown and pandemic mess the schedule up for NCAA hearings and investigations to the point where it’s possible Kansas buys another year before facing harsh penalties? I don’t see how it doesn’t. The NCAA has to figure out if it can safely have college football this fall — it probably has bigger fish to fry. Whether they admit it or not, it seems as though the NCAA will avoid at all costs being without a money-making basketball program in the NCAA Tournament next year given the loss of revenue this spring.

It’s all food for thought, but it seems if KU thought it wouldn’t be in the tournament next year Marcus Garrett, David McCormick and Ochai Agbaji would have at least tested the NBA Draft process and not taken a pass on altogether.

8. Big 12 preseason prediction: Newcomer of the Year

This award is always so confusing because there’s also a Freshman of the Year, so shouldn’t, in many cases, the freshman of the year also be a newcomer of the year?

I don’t know? I’m going to go with a transfer here. Had Matt Haarms picked Texas Tech, it would have filled the void the Red Raiders had in the front court, but Haarms, a Purdue graduate transfer, picked BYU.

While Texas Tech’s new addition is the best transfer coming to the Big 12, Iowa State has the most opportunity for any transfer to shine. It’s been aggressive, based on reports and player lists, in pursuing them and frankly they have the track record. No roster is being transformed more than ISU, so the addition of Memphis point guard Tyler Harris, who comes to Ames after making 138 3-pointers in two seasons for Penny Hardaway could be the guy to watch. The 5-foot-9 point guard will have his limitations, but he played in 31 games for the Tigers last season and should start in the backcourt with Rasir Bolton — who may be the league’s leading scorer next year considering he’s the only player on Iowa State who should be considered a “high-volume” scorer right now.

The Cyclones are going to be in massive trouble next year. Their recruiting class is solid, ranking 26th, but it appears to lack a true difference maker. They lost so many players to transfer who should have been slated for major contributions next year. Even though Iowa State has George Conditt and Solomon Young in the front court — and their top recruit, 7-footer Xavier Foster, is a post player, Steve Prohm has not built his teams around post players at ISU. They are shooting and guard oriented, so Harris should have the green light and the opportunity to play a lot.

7. Next big move this offseason

This one is obvious: The Kansas decision.

The second one? There aren’t a ton of players who entered the NBA draft process who we don’t already kind of know what’s going to happen. Ramsey and Dotson seem like locks to stay in the draft. That’s not the case in Waco where MaCio Teague and Jared Butler have their names in.

Most reporters in the know seem to think the Bears are getting them back, which is why Baylor is in the top 3 in many way-too-early polls. If Butler leaves, Baylor isn’t a top 10 team. If Teague leaves, Baylor can manage. If they both leave, it’s a stretch to have Baylor in the top 15.

The backcourt depth was amazing last year for Baylor, but that’s gone if both Teague and Butler leave for professional basketball.

Their decisions will have the Big 12’s attention. I expect both to be back and Baylor to have a real shot at a National Championship come March, but there’s so much uncertainty with basketball’s two major levels that you have to wonder what information both are getting.

I don’t think there’s been nearly enough talk about what “testing the waters” means this year if there’s probably not going to be a combine, probably not going to be a lot of work outs and, hey, do you know when the NBA Draft is going to take place?. Does that help players like Butler, who was an All-American type of player last year? Or does it hurt him because he can’t show off for scouts?

Kansas’ Josh Jackson, left, is one of the highest-ranked recruits singed by a Big 12 basketball program. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

6. History lesson: The best recruits to pick a Big 12 team

Greg Brown is headed to Texas this fall and he’s one of two players ranked in this year’s top 10 list of recruits to join a Big 12 school. Cade Cunningham, who is either the No. 1 or No. 2 recruit in the nation depending on your site of choice, is headed to Stillwater. Cunningham is the second No. 1-ranked recruit to sign with the Cowboys since 2000, but it’s a trick fact because Gerald Green signed with OSU in 2005 but opted for the NBA, the last year the NBA allowed high school players to enter the league directly.

So who are the best recruits to sign with a Big 12 team regardless of what they actually ended up doing during the one-and-done era according to 247 Sports’ Composite rankings?

Josh Jackson, Kansas, Class of 2016, No. 1

The No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft led Kansas to the Elite Eight but was overshadowed that season by his senior teammate, Frank Mason, who was the consensus National Player of the Year. Jackson is a Bill Self favorite. He was a great defender in his one year at KU and often played at the 4-spot. His jump shot is still wanting, but his college game was a more elevated version of what Kansas has now with Marcus Garrett, only Garrett may be a better shooter.

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas, Class of Class of 2013, No. 1

How good was Wiggins as a high school prospect? He averaged 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, consensus second team All-American and first team All-Big 12 campaign his freshman year and it was seen as a disappointing season by a lot of people. A lot of that has to do with Kansas being bounced in the second round, and possibly the emergence of Joel Embiid overshadowed Wiggins, but Wiggins went No. 1 in the NBA Draft, where he’s had a productive but maligned career so far.

Kevin Durant, Texas, Class of 2006, No.2

The only sure-fire Hall of Famer on the list, Durant is clearly the most talented player in this group. The fact Durant did what he did in college — 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 40.4% from 3-point, 47.3 shooting percentage and 1.9 blocks — and Greg Oden was still picked No. 1 says how good Greg Oden was before the knee injuries.

Texas fans don’t have every right to believe that’s wrong, but Oden helped take Ohio State to the Final Four playing with one hand his freshman season. Still, if we’re basing it on what Durant was better than Oden in just about every way when you look at what he did in college and the NBA — Oden averaged 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and shot 61.6% from the field, but did play with a future All-Star NBA point guard. Looking at what Durant did in one year and what he’s done as a superstar NBA player, he’s the greatest player the Big 12 has ever sent to the NBA — and no, I don’t count Wilt Chamberlain as a “Big 12 player.”

Texas forward Mo Bamba, left, was selected third in the 2017 NBA draft. [Joyce Marshall/Fort Worth Star-Telegram]
Mo Bamba, Texas, Class of 2017, No. 3

Bamba didn’t quite achieve what all thought he could in his one year at Texas, but he was incredible, re-writing the Texas blocked-shot single-season record book and I thought should have been National Defensive Player of the Year. His team wasn’t great, though they made the tournament, and Bamba wasn’t nearly as impactful as everyone thought he would be on the offensive side. An injury late in the year didn’t help and his team suffered a second half collapse in the NCAA Tournament loss to Nevada. Bamba was taken third overall in the NBA Draft, but he was supposed to lift Texas and Shaka Smart’s program to another level, but in actuality he proved to be more raw than Jarrett Allen the year before and didn’t have many dominant games at Texas.

Josh Selby, Kansas, Class of 2010, No. 3

By far the most disappointing player on this list. Selby missed nearly half of his lone season due to NCAA eligibility issues. He didn’t do nearly as much as he was expected, which isn’t surprising given other Bill Self Kansas players who missed the start of the season. That 2011 Jayhawk team was one of Self’s best, and an extremely talented bunch loaded in the front court. Give Tyshawn Taylor, Travis Releford, Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reid some credit here as they never let Selby really capture the rotation minutes once the season started. Selby was a second round pick by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Michael Beasley, Kansas State, Class of 2007, No. 3

Technically he is a Frank Martin recruit. But he isn’t at Kansas State for that year if Bob Huggins wasn’t the coach during his senior high school season. Martin came with Huggins, recruited Beasley to Manhattan and Beasley decided to stay with Martin for his lone season. He reminded many of Durant from the year before in his ability to score, but their bodies and style were different. He never lived up to the potential and was never better than his time in Manhattan, but he had a long career in the NBA. However, anyone who saw him play in person, like I did, was left wondering how a big bodied guy like him who could shoot wasn’t a perennial all-star. But then again, it’s clear that Beasley’s career was thwarted by off-the-court issues.

Texas’ Avery Bradley was a member of the Big 12 All-Freshman team his one year in Austin. (AP Photo/Zach Long, File)

Avery Bradley, Texas, Class of 2009, No. 4

Bradley has had a solid NBA career and was the star of a talented Texas recruiting class under Rick Barnes. Bradley’s team had one of the biggest collapses in the history of the league. Texas started 17-0, beat Michigan State and was ranked No. 1 in the nation on Jan. 1. The Longhorns won just seven games the rest of the season, finishing 24-10 and 9-7 in the league before losing to Wake Forest in overtime in the NCAA tournament opener. Bradley and Jordan Hamilton were top-10 recruits but Hamilton had the more notable career at Texas, earning second team All-American honors as a sophomore. Bradley, a McDonald’s All-American, averaged a little more than 11 points per game — underwhelming when you consider what the previous top four recruit to come to Texas did — and left after one fairly ho-hum season where he was a member of the Big 12 All-Freshman team. It was a smart decision, though I doubt many Longhorns agreed at the time, because Bradley was the 19th pick in the NBA Draft and became a terrific contributor to the Boston Celtics teams of the last decade.

Isaiah Austin, Baylor, Class of 2012, No. 4

Austin rivals the 7-foot Bamba as the largest player on this list. The 7-foot-1, 215 pound center drew national headlines when Marfan syndrome ended his basketball career. He never really dominated at Baylor, averaging 12.1 points for his career. Austin is part of the trail end of an era at Baylor where Scott Drew hauled in talented recruiting classes but failed to reach elite program success — at least not the success levels Drew’s more recent teams have reached.

The Big 12-Big East Challenge: The best games ranked.

5. Oklahoma at Xavier

In a perfect world a ranked Georgetown team is playing a ranked West Virginia team in a thrilling matchup. But Georgetown– which is supposed to be entering a “show me what you got” season for Patrick Ewing is now in a complete rebuild with five players definitely gone and one testing his NBA draft status. So it falls on two of the more consistently steady teams in their leagues, Oklahoma and Xavier, as the fifth-best game.

Why? Because Texas Tech shouldn’t have issues with St. John’s and the rest of the games are really between teams who’s outlook next year is too cloudy at this point in the offseason or teams that could be in-line for tough seasons. I think the TCU and Providence game could be fun, or Providence should just blow out TCU. There are four games that will be really good and then there are six games that you need to lean on history to figure out. Xavier and Oklahoma are in similar spots as in both could be tournament teams but both have red flags. I think Oklahoma should be a little better than Xavier next year, but this game is being played in the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

4. Oklahoma State at Marquette

Every high-level non-conference game Cade Cunningham and the Cowboys play in next year will be must-watch. Let’s also not beat around the bush here: Steve Wojciechowski needs to have a good year next season because there’s a sense that all is not well with Wojo and the Golden Eagles after some ho-hum seasons combined with the transfers of the Hauser brothers last year.

If guard MaCio Teague returns to the Bears in 2020, Baylor should be a stout matchup for any team. (AP Photo/Matt Stamey)

3. Baylor at Seton Hall

As mentioned above, Baylor is either going to be a level above most teams in college basketball, or they could be a very talented team merely in the pack of good teams. If Butler and Teague stay in the draft, Baylor won’t be awful. They’ll still be a team worthy of a ranking, but they won’t be expected to be elite. Seton Hall is a rising Big East program who loses Myles Powell but coach Kevin Willard has built a strong program and there’s no reason to think the Pirates will completely collapse next year. This game is in New Jersey, so it should be a fun game.

2. Creighton at Kansas

CBS’ top 25-and-1 poll, the one I like to use right now, has Kansas ranked 7th and Creighton ranked 9th. A matchup between two preseason top 10 teams who are relatively close to each other (Lawrence and Omaha) is such a cool matchup. The only thing that keeps this from being No. 1 is that it’s being being played in Allen Fieldhouse and because of unknown surrounding both of these teams in terms of the NCAA, I don’t know how both teams will look until the season starts. Greg McDermott didn’t have a great time playing Kansas when he was at Iowa State, but the team he could bring to Allen Fieldhouse this upcoming season should be better than any team he had while he was in Ames.

Creighton returns four starters from its Big East championship team from last year, though it loses its top player, Ty-Shon Alexander. Kansas obviously loses even more from the team that was the best in the nation last year, but it should be as stacked as always.

Head coach Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats will play Texas in Austin next year. [Matt Marton/USA TODAY]
1. Villanova at Texas

Villanova could wind up being the preseason No. 1 team in the nation. Texas, meanwhile, will start the season ranked in the AP top 25 and be one of the more hyped teams in the league as it returns every member from last year’s team and adds a McDonald’s All-American. There’s a joke now that whenever Smart wins a game at Texas that the media members claim it’s “the biggest win of Shaka Smart’s Texas career.”

Well, if Texas beats what could be a No.1 team in the nation, it very well could be true this time.

This is the type of national spotlight opportunity that Smart needs to strengthen his cause to be the coach post Greg Brown. Texas doesn’t just need to be good next year, they need to be a team people see making the second weekend, at the very least, heading into Selection Sunday. A win at home against Villanova will set a tone for the rest of the year.

But there’s a flip side. A terrible one for Texas.

If the Wildcats come out and just hand it to Texas at home in a game that will be in late November or sometime in December, it’s very likely that this fan base checks out and basically resumes the “same ole Texas” mindset of “average basketball is what happens on the 40 Acres.”

The fan base won’t do that if Texas loses a close game. But blowing a lead or never really getting within 10 points or just being run off the floor like they have in so many big games at home under Smart would be devastating.

You almost wish this game was on the road because Texas under Smart has played better in big games away from Austin. Its biggest win of last season was in Lubbock. It’s blown out West Virginia in the past in Morgantown (and, to be fair, suffered its biggest loss under Smart in Morgantown as well), nearly beaten talented Kansas teams in Lawrence, won in Norman — heck, remember when Texas took Duke into overtime at the Phil Knight tournament in Portland?

This game is in Austin, where Texas has routinely fallen flat on its face in big moments.

I like to talk about opportunity in terms of matchups and Texas has far more to gain in this game than any other team in the challenge, including its opponent.

If you believe, like I do, that if the roster Texas has was wearing crimson and blue or red and black or neon yellow and green that they would be the overwhelming favorite to win this league but preconceived notions and recent institutional program history makes that premise ridiculous, than Texas-Villanova is the most fascinating game of the non-conference slate in the nation.

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