After 120 games, the first step to March is happening for Big 12 teams.
For the football fans, welcome to the basketball season!
The ACC and the Big Ten have already played a handful of conference games and now it’s time for the Big 12 to end a fairly poor non-conference slate and enter the Thunderdome that is the Big 12 season.
Let’s put these 10 teams in five tiers, then we’ll breakdown the first in-week games and preview the first set of Saturday games.
Ten teams enter. Who will win?
12. They’re probably bad teams: Iowa State (7-5) and Kansas State (7-5)
One is half of the reigning Big 12 champions and the other has the best NBA prospect — and maybe the best player in the league. But these teams are not good and actually had bad non-conference slates.
So many of the Big 12 teams actually have impressive records if you don’t look at the schedule and advanced metrics. But Iowa State and Kansas State don’t have great records. Kansas State is 7-5 against against a non-conference schedule ranked No. 231 in the country at Kenpom. The Wildcats needed everything it could muster to beat Tulsa 69-67 at home.
Iowa State, also 7-5, just lost to Florida A&M — who had never beaten a Power 5 program ever — at home and has a non-conference strength of schedule of No. 120.
That’s actually the fifth strongest non-conference schedule among Big 12 teams, and weirdly enough the four teams who played more difficult schedules are a combined 39-9 overall.
Iowa State has a great win over Seton Hall, but a Seton Hall team who lost its second best player a few minutes into the game on the road. Kansas State has losses to Saint Louis, Pittsburgh and Bradley and also lost to Marquette at home and fell to Mississippi State on the road.
It needs to be noted that ISU didn’t have Tyrese Haliburton for the Florida A&M game, which makes his case for the All-American team that much stronger. With him, they can beat Seton Hall. Without him they’re losing to the 300th-ranked team at Kenpom that was 1-9.
The Wildcats are the worst team in the Big 12 entering the conference season. They’re the lowest ranked team in the conference at Kenpom at No. 89. They also are a team I could see having a strong Big 12 campaign. They’re still coached by Bruce Weber, they still have experienced players — players who aren’t playing that well, by the way — and they still are a tough place to play once students get on campus and ranked teams come to town.
Still, they aren’t the team I thought they would because their trio of potential college stars — Xavier Sneed, Cartier Diarra and Makol Mawien — haven’t been able to take the steps they needed to in order to make up the losses of 2019 stars Dean Wade, Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes.
Iowa State isn’t good enough around its All-American guard to win many games. I predicted Iowa State would be bad at the start of the season, but I also thought they would make me look dumb.
Kenpom ranks them at No. 56. The Cyclones’ offense is good — ranked 29th — but the defense is not, ranked 97th. That isn’t new for ISU.
Iowa State will be a tough place to play in conference because it always is, even when the Cyclones are bad. You can look at the recent loss to Florida A&M and disagree, but once students are back on campus and ranked teams from Lawrence, Lubbock, Waco and maybe even Austin come to Ames, Hilton Magic will look the same.
But like Kansas State, Iowa State couldn’t replace all of its firepower from last season. Unlike Kansas Stat—e, I think some of the issues could be the team still figuring out its rotation. The second most impressive player at ISU has been forward George Conditt, and yet he’s playing just 18.5 minutes a game.
11. Bill Self voice: It’s fools gold: Oklahoma (9-3) and TCU (9-3)
Make your Sooner and TCU postseason predictions with some caution. While these teams are a combined 18-6, the losses are to Creighton, Wichita State and Stanford (actually not that terrible for OU, but there’s a catch!) and USC, Xavier and Clemson (again, actually not that bad for TCU).
This is the catch: Oklahoma has a two-point win over North Texas, a one-point win over Central Florida and a five-point win over William & Mary. They’ve pulled away in a handful of other double-digit wins and do have some decent wins on the resume — like Minnesota, who beat Ohio State a few weeks ago. Kenpom wise, OU is No. 52 and the offense is ranked No. 52 and the defense is ranked 55th, so this team is actually kind of favorable for advanced metrics and a balanced. The non-conference slate is ranked 39th, so OU has played good teams.
But watch OU play and you come away unimpressed. Watch OU play and look at the close games against bad teams and you lose faith in its ability to win nine games in the Big 12. OU is balanced, but the Sooners don’t really do anything elite. They play small ball and so much of their success falls on the shoulders of Kristian Doolittle. Austin Reeves is playing a ton of minutes, but he’s playing them inefficiently.
I actually like Iowa State and Kansas State’s chances to do a little better in conference play because OU’s front court — well, do they have a front court? — is basically Brady Manek, who is the best stretch-four in the league. Probably? And no offense to Norman, but OU has one of the weakest home court advantages in the league.
I think Lon Kruger is what puts them over Kansas State and Iowa State in the long run, however. If he doesn’t, will fans in Norman get restless with the best coach in program history?
As for TCU, the three losses its suffered are against the three best teams its played. The Horned Frogs rank No. 54 at Kenpom, play top-50 defense at No. 36, but, predictably, struggle on offense, ranking 90th.
TCU has two go-to options on offense in Desmond Bane, one of the best players and seniors in the league, and Kevin Samuel, who is second only to Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike in field goal percentage. The rest of the group isn’t pulling its collective weight on offense and I think it may be difficult for TCU to score in Big 12 play.
I edge them over OU because I love Bane and Samuel anchoring them and Jamie Dixon is a good coach — just ask UCLA.
But will TCU make the tournament? I have no idea. It’s tough to gauge what this team really is when their best win is somewhere between Air Force, Winthrop and George Mason. It’s why the Iowa State game on Saturday is more important than you would think.
10. Bill Simmons voice: Are we sure they’re good?: Texas (10-2), Oklahoma State (9-3)
The only other question I seem to ask more on a yearly basis when it comes to the University of Texas is if the football team is back.
Texas basketball should be good, but then it lets bad teams hang around for long periods or it gets thumped by 22 points to a below average Providence team.
There always seems to be some excuse with Texas’ bad performances — and I’ve written that before. The Georgetown loss was because it was Patrick Ewing returning to Madison Square Garden and the Providence loss was on the road. It’s a change of pace to the normal excuses of injuries or a tough crowd or that the Erwin Center was empty because it was a Tuesday night game against a directional school.
But Texas is 10-2.
It has a great win at Purdue that may be the product of early season weirdness, but the Longhorns still won. Its numbers say Texas is worse than a 10-2 team, ranked No. 60 at Kenpom, with the 105th ranked offense with a good defense ranking 42nd overall.
The non-conference slate is No. 242, though. And then, like Oklahoma, you look at the actual games the Longhorns won.
You don’t apologize for winning and you certainly need to win some games that you don’t play well in to make the tournament, but do you really feel this program can do anything outside of what its done in the past based on what you’ve seen in the games against Central Michigan, Cal Baptist, and the win at home against McNeese State?
I like Texas. I like its roster, I like its point guard and I like its lineups that it can produce, but this team seems too much like the previous Shaka Smart Texas teams to make me get too excited about them at least at this point.
As for Oklahoma State, the impressive wins (Syracuse, Ole Miss) are mitigated by three losses against teams it should of beaten — Georgetown and Wichita State at home and Minnesota on a neutral court about an hour away from Stillwater.
The Cowboys have an excuse in that guard Issac Likekele missed time. But does he reverse a 20-point loss to Minnesota? A 19-point loss to WSU — at home? I don’t know. I do know that similar to Texas, I like OSU this season, and hopefully the bad losses were just a result of not being able to make up for missing Likekele.
9. Near tournament lock: No. 22 Texas Tech (9-3), No. 16 West Virginia (11-1)
The Red Raiders will make the tournament. They can thank the win over Louisville for making them a near tournament lock if they just go .500 in conference play. They’re ranked 22nd in the AP poll and Kenpom has them at 34 with the 15th best defense, but their offense is 86th. That’s pretty much how they have been under coach Chris Beard, though a tad better on offense. They’ve missed Jahmi’us Ramsey most of the season and when the freshman is healthy, they’re tough to beat.
I worry about the weak, weak schedule that I’ve written about before not preparing them, but they’ve never had a collective tough schedule in non-conference under Beard, so maybe it won’t matter.
Texas Tech is one four teams in the league I trust to finish .500 or better in conference play.
Another is West Virginia. Back in the rankings at 16, the Mountaineers beat No. 5 Ohio State — then No. 2 at the time — in Cleveland on Dec. 29 and we went into detail about their rebounding a few weeks ago.
Like many, I didn’t think WVU was headed for a prolonged downturn based on last season and now the Mountaineers look as strong as ever under coach Bob Huggins. Morgantown was even difficult to play at when WVU was bad last year, now they’re back like they never left and will be as big of a threat to win the league as Kansas and Baylor.
8. The national title contenders: No. 3 Kansas (10-2), No. 6 Baylor (9-1)
The Jayhawks, who went through a scary trip home from California this past weekend, are No. 2 at Kenpom with the 13th ranked offense and second ranked defense. What’s been fun to watch is KU returning to the pre-handcheck rule Bill Self style defensive presence. When the NCAA started calling more fouls for physical defense, Kansas’ numbers took a step back, but now this looks like the 2007-2013 seasons of Kansas basketball.
Shooting is going to prevent KU from winning the National Championship, unless the one offensive bright spot during the dreadful Stanford game — Isaiah Moss — is the new normal. KU is too good upfront and at the point not to be elite if Moss and Ochai Agbaji start hitting from outside.
Baylor meanwhile is the most complete and deep team in the league. I worry that it doesn’t have “a guy.” Kansas has two guys it can lean on in big games — we saw in Maui against Dayton when Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike went off when Kansas needed them.
Does Baylor have that, because you need that to win a championship. The big question is: Is Jared Butler that?
I’ve been high on Butler since last season and he’s been one of the best in the league so far, but he’s still more of a shooter and not a guy who attacks the basket. Baylor, though, has plenty of options for that and maybe “the guy” or “alpha dog” or whatever you want to label it, is a revolving door, which makes Baylor even more dangerous.
Kansas and Baylor are a combined 19-3 and KU’s two losses are by three points to Duke and Villanova. Baylor beat Villanova and its only loss is to Washington in Anchorage, Alaska.
7. Tweet of the week
Thanks PJ & understand, as member of Big 12 Conf we have entered an agreement to play games on ESPN+/B12Now & @KUHoops drives subscribers, so while it’s new for our fans, I’m excited our Team is good & they want us on. Media/TV is changing & we are on the cutting edge. RCJH! https://t.co/aDgebC2lIq
— Jeff Long (@jefflongKU) January 1, 2020
Kansas athletic director Jeff Long tried to explain why the league’s most prominent program will be on ESPN+ more than maybe any other team in the league. It’s the way things are these days, but it seems strange to be putting games against two ranked teams on the streaming service when there are a bunch of networks in the ESPN family that games can go on.
Kansas will play its first two games on ESPN+.
In a way it’s no different than Texas basketball games being on Longhorn Network, and in fact for many it’s easier to get ESPN+ than Longhorn Network, especially if you cut the cord, though Longhorn Network is now on Roku.
6. Here are the first five in-week games
Monday: West Virginia at Oklahoma State, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Tuesday: Baylor at Texas Tech, 8 p.m., ESPN2
Tuesday: TCU at Kansas State, 8 p.m., ESPNU
Wednesday: Kansas at Iowa State, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Wednesday: Oklahoma at Texas, 8 p.m., ESPN2
The Baylor-TexasTech game will be the biggest game of the week and could have huge league consequences. One of the rowdiest and best made-for-television games every year in the Big 12, Kansas at Iowa State, is being streamed. Oklahoma at Texas will always be fun, but West Virginia-OSU should be a better game.
READ MORE: OSU football journal: Fans find ways to watch ESPN+ at tailgates
The first five Big 12 games on Saturday:
5. Iowa State at TCU, 5 p.m. ESPN networks
In a way, Iowa State losing to Florida A&M didn’t help TCU. The Horned Frogs now have to play an embarrassed Cyclones team that was favored by 27.5 points against Florida A&M and lost. Iowa State is too talented for that to happen. TCU has played better this season but against worse teams, so I expect a good game. The Desmond Bane-Tyrese Haliburton matchup could be really fun, but I don’t think those two will actually defend each other.
Matchup to watch: Kevin Samuels is the most under the radar player in the league. He’s shooting 69.7% from the field. Somehow TCU isn’t force feeding him the ball, because he only averages 11.3 points per game — that’s not unusual this season, as Udoka Azubuike shoots nearly 10 percentage points higher and is only averaging 13 points. His matchup against either Solomon Young or Michael Jacobson or George Conditt will be the difference in the game. Perhaps Young gets the defensive assignment to save Jacobson for offense? You know Bane and Haliburton are going to do their thing, so you have to look at the second most consistent players, and for TCU that’s Samuel and for Iowa State its the big guys.
Who wins: TCU is at home.
4. Kansas State at Oklahoma, noon, ESPN+
Oklahoma needs to win this one for me to think it can make the NCAA Tournament and not the NIT. I’d say losing to Iowa State or Kansas State at home this season — unless one of those teams take a drastic turn this month — is a big pothole on the road to the March.
Matchup to watch: Xavier Sneed and Kristian Doolittle. The two best players for both teams need to take over and not let two guards (Reigning Big 12 Player of the Week Cartier Diarra and Austin Reeves) shoot them out of the game. Just look at the shooting numbers and you know that’s just the truth.
Who wins: Oklahoma.
3. Oklahoma State at No. 22 Texas Tech, 11 a.m. ESPN networks
My favorite game of the day and it’s the first one. More than any other game, this one has the biggest chance to shake up the rankings.
If Texas beats Baylor, Texas probably gets ranked, but Baylor doesn’t drop out. No one is losing their ranking after the KU-WVU game. But if OSU goes to Lubbock and wins — it has the talent to do that — then the Cowboys will return to the top 25. If Tech loses at home to OSU, then Tech is out of the rankings on Monday.
Coach Mike Boynton has won in Allen Fieldhouse — beating a Final Four team no less — so this wouldn’t be the biggest win of his career, but it would be close. Let’s not say this will mean something only to OSU, Texas Tech taking care of business at home, where it hasn’t lost but not played anyone, will be the first step in forgetting about a weak schedule.
Matchup to watch: David Moretti vs. Lindy Waters. For me, these two are the best shooters in the league, even if the numbers don’t show it. Waters is shooting 44% from the field and 37.8 from the 3-point line. Moretti is shooting 39.8% from the field and 38.8% from the 3-point line. Someone is going to bounce back to their career form. This game could be it.
Who wins: I think Oklahoma State goes to Lubbock and pulls this one out. Likekle returning to the lineup means OSU is full strength — so is Texas Tech with Ramsey back — and I’ll be curious to see what the environment is like in Lubbock for an 11 a.m. game while students are still on break. Remember when Tech lost to Iowa State at home last season?
2. Texas at No. 6 Baylor, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Texas started Kamaka Hepa against High Point and he finished with just seven points. He had barely played up until that point. I’m not sure what the deal was there. Courtney Ramey moved to the bench along with Gerald Liddell and Andrew Jones also started. Jones makes some sense. Hepa was a curious move.
He’s one of the highest-rated recruits on the team when arrived last season, and he’s not had a memorable Texas career. His defense isn’t very good, but he could make the poor offense better if he plays to his pre-college career scouting report.
It’ll be interesting to see if that was just a message to Liddell and Ramey or a new thing Smart is trying out. With a trip up I-35 to Waco, maybe seeing some different looks is a good thing.
This is, obviously, a tough game for the Longhorns. Baylor is by far the best team Texas has played all season and given the last road trip ended rather poorly, Texas could be in trouble.
Baylor is No. 6 in the nation for a reason and played a tough enough schedule where it was tested and an easy enough schedule where a lot of guys played and coach Scott Drew was able to see different lineups.
Matchup to watch: This one is pretty obvious: Jared Butler vs. Matt Coleman will likely determine who wins the game.
Who wins? I think Baylor opens Big 12 play with a big win.
1. No. 16 West Virginia at No. 3 Kansas, 3 p.m., ESPN+
The only game between two ranked Big 12 teams on the day gives us the matchup of the two most established coaches in the league — and I still think the two best, sorry Chris Beard — in Bill Self and Bob Huggins. It’ll feature the two best low-post teams in the conference.
How much will this game matter in the long-term, win-the-conference sense? I’m not so sure. If Kansas loses it will.
KU didn’t lose at home last season and hardly ever does lose at home, which is why it’s won 14 of the last 15 conference championships. A win on Saturday for KU is expected for many who cover the sport and a loss opens the door for someone to really compete for a championship in the league.
A West Virginia loss doesn’t have nearly the impact. WVU isn’t crippled with a loss in a gym no one thinks they — as in every team in the league — can win at. WVU can lose this game, win all its home games, watch KU go 5-3 or 4-4 on the road in conference play still have a chance to win the league.
The most important games of the season won’t be the home games for Kansas, Baylor, WVU and Texas Tech — the four best teams in the league — it’ll be the road games against the six other teams they play.
Best matchup: David McCormick vs. Oscar Tshiebwe. For the first time it seems like teams going small against Kansas won’t be a thing. WVU plays two very good posts together and so does KU. While Derek Culver-Udoka Azubuike is intriguing, I think the way McCormick plays on both ends of the court will be the difference.
Who wins? Kansas beats WVU, Devon Dotson scores nearly 30 points.