College football’s early season is underway and I’m excited to report that the first “Midnight Madness” Big 12 basketball practice is a few weeks away.
Here are 12 early things you need to know about this year’s Big 12 basketball.
12. The league will no doubt be near the top of “best conferences” lists
Now that Texas Tech was an overtime away from winning the league’s second national title this April — and has made back-to-back deep runs — the league’s perception of “Kansas and everyone else” is toned down.
It helps the Jayhawks didn’t win the league for the first time in the iPhone era, but Tech’s emergence, along with steady program building at Kansas State and Baylor, has the league in a place it hasn’t been since Roy Williams, Kelvin Sampson, Eddie Sutton, Rick Barnes and Larry Eustachy all had programs playing for titles.
There will likely be some bad teams in the league, though. TCU and Iowa State could have long years as they bounce back from graduations and other roster attrition.
But that leaves eight teams who have realistic tournament chances that we know about entering the season.
11. What’s the new storyline?
Kansas’ Big 12 streak has consumed so much oxygen during the basketball season for the last few years that it’s refreshing to enter the season with some possible new, broader league storylines.
Here are five:
Sink or swim time at Texas. This is the year the Longhorns break through for coach Shaka Smart because if he doesn’t, who knows if he’ll get another shot in Austin?
Can Texas Tech stay on its new pedestal of high-level basketball programs this year as it reloads? Or will they have a rebuild year?
Can nine teams make the NCAA Tournament this year? If that happens, it might mean the top teams in the league — Kansas, Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech — lost games they shouldn’t lose, thus the league could be without a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Is this the year of the Baylor Bears?
Well, duh: Revenge Season: The 2019-2020 Kansas Basketball story. Also duh: Is this Bill Self’s last season at Kansas? Is this the last season of Kansas basketball ever?
Here is a quick look at each team entering the season and where I think their preseason ranking should be:
10. Iowa State
Lucky for Steve Prohm: He got a contract extension from ISU this offseason after an up-and-down season, but one that ended in the NCAA Tournament. It was a nice carrot to give him just as his alma mater, Alabama, became available.
Unlucky for Prohm: This team lost a lot from last year and are hoping the return of starters Tyrese Haliburton, a sophomore, and senior Michael Jacobson can mesh with new faces.
By the end of the calendar year, I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa State is trending upward, but to do that, it needs Haliburton to go up another level and go from fringe NBA draftable talent to legit star. He has all the physical tools to do so and could be this year’s version of Jarrett Culver. But is he a fulltime/natural point guard?
Jacobson and the returning from injury forward Solomon Young, a redshirt junior, gives Iowa State a good front line — and a tough one at that. The fourth player we assume Iowa State can count on to play well is Colorado State transfer Prentiss Nixon, a senior 6-foot-2 guard who averaged 16.1 points for the Rams in 2018.
The rest of the group is a mix of players who contributed a bit last year or not at all.
Iowa State had chemistry issues — there was a fight in practice last season — maybe Prohm has learned from whatever happened last season and knows how to avoid it.
Five years ago you wouldn’t have found many, if any, Big 12 teams who had as many players transfer mid-season like TCU did. I’m all for player movement, and kids should be able to move on if they want just like any other student can, especially if another school will offer a scholarship.
But that doesn’t mask the fact that those transfers completely tanked TCU’s season last year and threaten this season. If it weren’t for Desmond Bane and Kevin Samuel returning to campus, I’d have TCU on the bottom of the league.
The player movement continued to hurt TCU this offseason. Maybe players knew head coach Jamie Dixon was possibly leaving for the UCLA job. Maybe it’s just Dixon’s style in general and the honeymoon is over for Dixon in Fort Worth.
TCU continued to suffer roster losses this offseason and went from a league contender to a team who will be lucky to make the NIT after Kouat Noi and Kendric Davis left the program for a professional career or, in Davis’ cases, for rival Metroplex school, SMU.
Like Iowa State, TCU could be trending up as the league moves from non-conference to conference. Bane is extremely talented and Samuel will rival anyone in the league for the title of “second best big man in the Big 12” (Udoka Azubuike has it as long as he’s healthy).
Throw in some transfers like Jaire Grayer and Edric Davis, Jr. and some potentially impact freshmen like P.J. Fuller and Francisco Farabello, and perhaps TCU gets through this weird stretch.
But hey, some team has to finish last, TCU and Iowa State have the most questions about them.
7B. Oklahoma State
Eight and seven are the Oklahoma teams because both have things I like and things I don’t but both have coaches I trust and kind of trust.
I don’t see Mike Boynton surviving after this season if OSU doesn’t have a winning season, let alone miss the tournament. Boynton, I think, has shown to be one of the best young head coaches in the country who had been absolutely hindered since he took over. He lost an assistant coach to the FBI before he even coached a game, had key players leave when they probably shouldn’t have and swung and missed on transfers.
But he has three seniors, Thomas Dziagwa, Cameron McGriff and Lindy Waters that every team in the country would take. With those big three, there are sophomores Isaac Likekele and 6-foot-10, 235 pound Yor Anei back to round out the starting five. The starting lineup wasn’t the issue for OSU last year, it was the bench, and the additions of several freshmen and graduate transfer Jonathan Laurent from UMass help with the depth.
Oklahoma has a team that could win the league or a team that could resemble the last two it’s had — a ho-hum NCAA Tournament squad.
Junior Brady Manek, sophomore Jamal Bieniemy and senior Kristian Doolittle almost guarantees OU will be a tough team to play every night. One reason it could go south? Well, as of Sept. 3, there were nine spots on the team’s digital roster who didn’t even have headshots yet, a perfect example of how many new faces are in Norman.
As long as one of the soon-to-have a photo players pans out, OU should feel pretty good. That player is incoming freshman guard De’Vion Harmon, a former 4-star recruit and ESPN top 50 player from Denton Guyer High School in Texas.
Teams with bad point guard play usually do terrible in the Big 12, so if Harmon steps in as a freshman and performs well, the big three of OU will team with him for a lot of wins. At the same time, Harmon is still a freshman.
6. West Virginia
Give me all of the West Virginia basketball stock. Make them my league dark horse. Whatever you want to call it .
Coach Bob Huggins seemed to have more fun coaching at the end of last season and now he gets a full season with a group that played well down the stretch in 2019.
Derek Culver should be a preseason All-Big 12 player, and the roster doesn’t have a lot of question marks, based on what we saw at the end of last season, in the backcourt. In September they added a late recruit in Jalen Bridges, an in-state player, who is a unanimous top 100 recruit.
5. Kansas State
They could just as easily be ranked with Iowa State and TCU, but I’m giving the consistent coaching of Bruce Weber the benefit of the doubt and the return of proven big-time players in seniors Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien and junior Cartier Diarra.
True: replacing Barry Brown is, outside of Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, the toughest player any team has to replace. Brown may go down as one of the five best players in program history. Dean Wade didn’t play all that much the last 1.5 seasons and point guard Kamau Stokes is also a big loss.
Kansas State managed to get big minutes from Mike McGuirl last season to give them another perimeter shooter.
Despite losing three great players, Kansas State returns quite few contributors and should be the same tough team to play as they have been the last three years.
These are the four teams who not only have Big 12 aspirations, but “big picture” aspirations:
4. Texas Tech
I’ve seen Tech in the top 5 and I’ve seen them mostly in the top 15 in various preseason polls.
They’ve earned it.
I’m not sure if this group will earn that lofty spot by the time March comes. There are so many qualifiers around this team. It’s hard to gauge what it’ll be when so many pieces that took them to the Elite Eight and Final Four the last two years are gone.
The reason to believe is the biggest piece, head coach Chris Beard, is back and with a massive contract.
When I say qualifiers, here’s what I mean:
If Kyler Edwards can be a steady point guard, Tech will be as good as they have been.
If freshman Jahmi’Us Ramsey, a top 30 recruit, develops like past freshmen Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver, Tech will be a national title contender.
If Davide Moretti can be more then just a shooter and more of a scorer, Tech can win it all.
If graduate transfers Chris Clarke and T.J. Holyfield do all the grunt work Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase did last year, then who is stopping this team?
Finally: If this team plays the same hellacious defense Beard coached up the last few years, a No. 1 seed and tournament favorite is a lock.
That’s a lot of “ifs” for a team that lost great players this spring.
Beard is now considered by the national writers as one of the best coaches in the sport and he’s being paid like it. This is the first year of his coaching career he’s ever had any real national expectations entering the season. If he’s on the same level as his contract, then accomplishing some or all of those qualifiers could definitely happen.
I just think there will be some growing pains.
Sink or swim time for Smart. The university went all in on its coach when they poached away Kansas’ famed strength and conditioning coach, Aundrea Hudy. They added one of the top assistant coaches in the country in Luke Yaklich, who was reportedly the runner-up to the Michigan head coaching job. If Yaklich is the new defensive coordinator for Smart, and Neil Berry was brought in last season to help with the offense after working at Iowa State, the coaching staff under Smart at Texas has probably never been better.
And so is the roster.
While the team lacks a sure-fire one-and-done player or even a no-brainer NBA draft pick, its loaded with experience and players who should contribute following a run that ended with the NIT championship.
Matt Coleman and Courtney Ramey are under the radar Big 12 Player of the Year candidates and Ramey is perhaps the best prospect on the team. While some may bank on Jericho Sims being the X-factor, I’m heading toward Alaskan native Kamaka Hepa (not just because I love Alaska) because he should be able to be the optimal, more athletic than Dylan Osetkowski, stretch-four. One of the freshmen, a class that ranked in the top 15 nationally, is bound to play well and the members of the 2017 recruiting class will have a chance to make an impact this season.
There’s also sophomore Gerald Liddell who played his most minutes in the NIT and was one of Hookem.com’s Texas 10 picks.
All that and there’s still Jase Febres, who returns as one of the best shooters in the league.
In a vacuum — if you didn’t know about the baggage this program has accumulated the last few years — this team would be a lock for the preseason top 25.
This is the best, deepest and possibly most fun team Baylor coach Scott Drew will have had entering the season.
Most of the team is back from last year. Two high-profile transfers are eligible. This team is deep and talented and yet doesn’t have to rely on freshmen to accomplish both of those registrations.
Junior forward Mark Vital could be the first preseason All-Big 12 player who averaged less than eight points the previous season. Hell, even if he doesn’t score and Baylor wins the league, he’ll probably be in the running for conference POY because he’s elite at everything else.
Baylor is the only team that can go toe-to-toe with Kansas in the paint with Tristan Clark returning from injury up front and potentially has more shooters than on the outside than any team, starting with sophomore Jared Butler.
Kansas’ “down season” was a round of 32 exit in the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed, Big 12 second-place finisher and an undefeated season at home. The “down season” is as good as some of the most heralded seasons Texas, Baylor and other teams in the league have had.
And now the league has gone and poked the bear.
Kansas got wiped off opposing teams’ floors so many times last season and in tournament play that you have to imagine a loaded roster who won’t rely on many freshmen — the most successful Bill Self teams are like that — will have plenty of motivation.
Kansas has two of the best returning players in the league in sophomore guard Devon Dotson and senior center Udoka Azubuike. If Azubuike can avoid a third season-ending injury, we’re talking about the biggest player in the league, even after losing 32 pounds, who as a sophomore led the nation in shooting percentage.
In Dotson, Kansas has a guard who is more athletic than former National Player of the Year Frank Mason and former Big 12 Player of the Year Devonté Graham and has all the tools to eventually be the player those two KU legends were.
The addition of graduate transfer Isaiah Moss and his 42 percent 3-point shooting solves the biggest KU had last year.
Kansas has a top 15 recruiting class, but yet they don’t have to rely on any freshmen to win this year, which could lead to potential transfers, knowing these days, but it’ll give KU the best depth they’ve had in a while.
But there is the Notice of Allegations that arrived on Sept. 23 that creates a monster distraction. While Kansas is clearly prepared to go to war with the NCAA over what it sees as unfair accusations, it creates a massive cloud that will hover in every opponent’s gym, every recruiting trip and more. No sanctions or penalties are likely to impact this season, but it’d be foolish not to think this might be Kansas and Self’s last great team for a few years and perhaps ever under Self. The Hall of Fame coach is officially perceived as a cheater and will be the rest of his college career whether he’s cleared on technicalities or not, so who knows if Self wants to continue coaching at the college level after next summer’s likely NCAA decision.