Posted January 2nd, 2019
The New Year starts with a new season of Big 12 men’s basketball on Jan. 2 as the league drops five games on the world.
The fun is about to begin as the nation’s deepest — probably not the best — league is going to begin.
It comes one day after the final Big 12 football team plays. Naturally, it comes when most students aren’t back from winter break, but make no mistake, as soon as Texas finishes its Tuesday night Sugar Bowl, the Big 12 is officially in basketball mode.
While no major league has been more predictable since John Wooden’s UCLA teams in what is now the Pac-12, part of the fun of the Big 12 is finding out which team can actually beat Kansas on the court and in the standings — Bill Self was actually swept last season for the first team ever in Big 12 play. The last couple of the seasons have also included added intrigue as Kansas dropped in the standings and then worked itself back to win the league.
The number is 15, by the way. Kansas’ Big 12 championship streak is learning to drive this year.
So what’s the outlook for the league? Here’s a quick rundown of where each team is at, where I think they’ll finish and the best and worst case scenarios:
Oklahoma State (6-6)
Best win: No. 19 LSU (90-77)
Worst loss: Charlotte (66-64)
The Cowboys are 86th at Kenpom. They rank 126 offensively and 72 defensively. Their non-conference schedule ranks 46th. Their strength of schedule is 44. That’s actually the third toughest slate in the league, but they haven’t been close in a lot of those games, which is the biggest difference between this team and last year’s team. OSU lost by 19 to Villanova, 13 to Nebraska and lost at home by 10 to a really good Houston team. Forward Cameron McGriff is the team’s best player, as expected, averaging 13.3 points and shooting 38.6 percent from 3-point.
Worst case scenario: They get bulldozed in Big 12 play and finish with a 3-15 record.
Best case scenario: They do what they did last year and become one of the toughest teams in the league to play.
Best guess finish: 10th. They don’t have the pieces they had last year and good teams are beating them handily.
West Virginia (8-4)
Best win: Pitt (69-59)
Worst loss: Rhode Island (83-70)
Bob Huggins is going to figure this out, right? West Virginia is in the discussion as one of the biggest disappointments of the college basketball season. WVU is neither great on defense (67 at Kenpom) nor great on offense (48th at Kenpom). What’s worse is the non-conference schedule is 151 at Kenpom. So all metrics say WVU is not great. Average, perhaps. But that’s still Huggins on the sideline, so they have a shot to figure this out, right?
Worst case scenario: They are living their worst case scenario. A Huggins team that is below average on defense is not great, especially when the program is not known for its offense.
Best case scenario: West Virginia beats Texas Tech at home on Wednesday and everything that happened the last three months doesn’t matter. WVU wins 10-plus games in the league and Press Virginia is back.
Best guess finish: 8th. They’re better than Baylor and OSU, but, uh, nothing suggest they’re better than anyone else in the league.
Best win: North Carolina (92-89)
Worst loss: Radford (62-59)
They’ve played up and down in wins and the offense is bad most of the time. But Texas has talent, and Jaxson Hayes looks as good as any freshman in the league. Advance metrics rank Texas No. 36 overall. The Longhorns are 10th defensively but 98th offensively– or in other words, nearly the same exact team they were last year. And the schedule will get tougher. They played the 94th non-conference slate in the country.
Worst case scenario: Losing at K-State on Wednesday won’t be earth-shattering, but the way WVU is playing, if Texas can’t win the Big 12 home opener — that is a bad sign. Texas has lost three times at home. If a team in the Big 12 can’t count on at least seven wins at home in league play, they usually don’t make the tournament. Not making the tournament is the worst case scenario.
Best case: Everything comes together. Texas steals a win at Manhattan, starts league play 3-0 heading into back-to-back games against Texas Tech and Kansas. Split those game, they’ll be 4-1, they get ranked and we’re talking about Texas as a top four seed in the tournament, Shaka Smart wins Big 12 COY.
Best guess finish: 6th. The home losses would bug me if I was a Texas fan.
Best win: Arizona (58-49)
Worst loss: Texas Southern (72-69)
Baylor has played the 301st ranked non-conference schedule and has lost four times. That’s not good. It’s embarrassing that a program from the Big 12 would play a schedule like that– and surprisingly it’s not as weak as Texas Tech’s schedule. Kenpom says Baylor is elite defensively, coming in at 21 and below average on offense at 152. Overall the Bears are ranked 58th at Kenpom. Makai Mason has been a solid graduate transfer. He and Tristan Clark combine for 28.3 points per game, the two leading scorers.
Best case scenario: Baylor’s defense continues to play well and the team continues to hold steady at home (they’re 7-2 in Waco). Baylor makes the tournament and Scott Drew moves closer to having the court named after him.
Worst case scenario: The weak schedule and the eyebrow-raising loses speak to bigger issues and the offense just can’t score enough against the tough defenses at Tech (1 at Kenpom), K-State (2), Kansas (7), OU (8), Texas (10). Baylor misses the tournament, UCLA hires Scott Drew.
Best guess finish: 9th.
Kansas State (10-2)
Best win: ?
Worst loss: Tulsa (47-46)
What’s amazing to me is that K-State’s non-conference strength of schedule isn’t the worst in the league. Not even close at 171. That’s probably in large part to Marquette being on the slate. Kansas State entered the year with legit Final Four aspirations and the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, Dean Wade. But they’ve looked anything but impressive for most of their games. They lack a head-turning win in the non-conference, but that’s not their fault really. Missouri and Vanderbilt were supposed to be great teams with NBA prospects but both lost players before playing K-State. And now Wade is out with a foot injury and it makes it ever harder to grade the Wildcats. They have the second-best defense in the nation according to Kenpom while their offense is bad at 181. Still, Barry Brown is very good (14.5 ppg) and four guys on the team shoot 37 percent or better from 3-point range.
Worst case scenario: Wade is never 100 percent, K-State can’t win on the road and the Wildcats are sub .500 in Big 12 play, misses the tournament and Bruce Weber is no longer the coach in April.
Best case scenario: They become the team so many people thought they were. They finally slay Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse and win at home and K-State ends the streak clean before the FBI can do it for the league.
Best guess prediction: 4th. I think K-State is better than they were last year but I never bought into the Final Four hype just because UMBC upset Virginia and K-State upset Kentucky last season.
Iowa State (10-2)
Best win: ?
Worst loss: ?
Iowa State hasn’t beaten a team from a power league that is going to make the tournament. And while things look bleak for Arizona, the Wildcats, who beat ISU in Maui, are my pick to put it together and win the Pac-12, so they haven’t lost to any team that is going to miss the tournament either. The Cyclones haven’t played a challenging schedule in the non-conference (266 at Kenpom). Lindell Wigginton, has played just 42 minutes this season. He returned from an injury just before Christmas as did Soloman Young. So a team that is 18th at Kenpom and 17th offensively and 42nd defensively is getting its two best pro prospects back.
Best case scenario: They win the Big 12 as Wigginton is outstanding and wins conference POY and ISU is in the conversation as a top-2 seed.
Worst case scenario: They never really jell in Big 12 play after the injuries and the weak schedule doesn’t prepare them and they fail to beat Kansas, Tech, TCU and Kansas State at home. Steve Prohm takes one of the open jobs in the Pac-12.
Best guess prediction: 3rd. Think of the additions of Wigginton and Young like an NBA team getting two All-Stars at the trade deadline. I would have voted for Wigginton as Big 12 preseason POY and he becomes the best offensive guard in the league — If he’s 100 percent.
Best win: USC (96-61)
Worst loss: Lipscomb (73-64)
A common theme is that not many teams in the Big 12 challenged themselves in the non-conference and TCU’s non-conference schedule is ranked 193 at Kenpom. But TCU is a solid team according to the metrics, ranking 32nd on offense and 26th on defense. Alex Robinson is one of the best point guards in the nation and is averaging 8.5 assists per game. TCU is deep and has a lot of shooters. It’s clear that Jaylen Fisher isn’t playing at 100 percent this season, but Robinson has unlocked a different level, shooting 42.3 percent from 3-point.
Best case scenario: They win the league with two point guards in the lineup and a deep bench with bigs and steal the Bill Self formula for winning the league. They get a No. 1 overall seed. Jamie Dixon wins all the COY awards. Pittsburgh issues an apology to fans for letting him go.
Worst case scenario: TCU gets upset at Baylor and can’t win at Kansas and Oklahoma and is 0-3 to start the league. They never really recover, Texas and OU sweeps them TCU finished 7th in the league. UCLA throws money at Dixon.
Best guess prediction: 5th. TCU has it all to win the league and make a deep run in March, but I don’t know if they have the one player that can win them a close game when nothing is going right, like KU, Tech, ISU and K-State have.
Texas Tech (11-1)
Best win: Nebraska 70-52
Worst loss: None
The Red Raiders had Duke on the ropes for much of their 69-58 loss but the NBA talent on the No.1 team in the nation lifted the eventual tournament favorite to the win in New York. No shame in losing that one. Tech has the No.1 defense in the nation and is ranked No. 10 at Kenpom. The offense isn’t great at No. 66, but Jarrett Culver sure is. The sophomore has backed up his freshman season by becoming the man in Lubbock. He might be the best non-Kansas player in the league. However, outside of games against Duke, Nebraska and USC, Tech has played the 342nd ranked non-conference schedule. That’s 342 out of 353.
Best case scenario: Win the league, finally beat Kansas in Lubbock, return to the Elite Eight and head to the Final Four, give Chris Beard a 10-year contract extension with the most ridiculous buyout price in basketball.
Worst case scenario: They blow games they should win like last year that causes them to lose ground in the league race. The offense fails to score in this league and the defense gets exposed as they go from playing home games against UTRGV, UTEP and Mississippi Valley State to road games against Texas, TCU, etc.
Best guess prediction: 2nd. Culver is good and Matt Moody is best guard in the league no one talks about. Last year Tech won at Kansas and lost to Kansas at home. I think that flips this year. I think Tech is bound to have a puzzling loss and I think a bad offensive night combined with the defense playing better teams will mean Tech loses games early in the Big 12 schedule. But if this team stays healthy, which didn’t happen last year, it can beat Kansas for the league, get a No. 1 seed and make the Final Four.
Best win: Northwestern (76-69, OT)
Worst loss: Wisconsin (78-58)
The best thing about OU’s schedule, which ranks 10th at Kenpom– the toughest of the Big 12 teams– is the road games. UTRGV, UTSA and Northwestern are teams that probably aren’t making the tournament, but who else in the league scheduled that many road games in the non-conference? A lot people didn’t believe in the Sooners this year because of the loss of Trae Young, but they forgot the most important thing about college basketball: Seniors usually win. Christian James, Rashard Odomes and Jamuni McNeace along graduate transfers Miles Reynolds and Aaron Calixte make them old in a great way. James has quietly put together an All-American type of season with 18.5 ppg on 39.1 percent shooting from 3-point with 7 rpg. The surprise is the defense is No. 8 at Kenpom. The offense, with a lot of scoring options is No. 66. OU is No. 24 overall at Kenpom.
Best case scenario: OU is this year’s version of 2017-2018 Texas Tech: A team that no one thought would be great but they are and everyone except for Fran Fraschilla only realizes after they upset Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse.
Worst case scenario: Reynolds and James fall back to Earth as they start playing loaded backcourts in the Big 12 and OU can’t defend the home court, which is (look at Kansas) the No. 1 factor for conference success.
Best guess prediction: 7th. At the end of the day, I like Texas’ roster better and Shaka Smart has been very good at beating OU. However, if Christian James is this year’s Frank Mason or Keenan Evans, OU has a good chance to win the league, and it can make huge waves in the first game against Kansas.
Best win: Tennessee (87-81, OT)
Worst loss: Arizona State (80-76)
Don’t let a road loss to Arizona State overshadow the fact that Kansas owns the best wins in the conference. KU beat Tennessee, Michigan State and Marquette away from Allen Fieldhouse. Those three teams are at least considered a top-two teams in their league. What’s interesting about KU is advanced metrics say Kansas is elite. They are No. 6 at Kenpom, 14th offensively, 7th on defense and have played the 15th toughest non-conference schedule in America. But the eye-test doesn’t do the Jayhawks any favors. At times Kansas looks terrible on both offense and defense, which is why they have faced multiple double-digit deficits. The scariest thing is that the Jayhawks are 11-1 despite playing some of the best teams in the nation and yet the numbers say they have yet to play well for a full 40 minutes.
Best case scenario: They do what they do every year: Figure out their issues, win all or most of their home games, beat the best teams in the conference on the road (see Texas Tech and West Virginia road games the last two years), enter the tournament as a No. 1 seed, reach the Final Four and beat Duke in the national title game.
Worst case scenario: The FBI drops another nugget in January, Kansas’ on-court issues never get figured out, the Jayhawks lose three games at home, the athletic department announces a self-imposed postseason ban this year in February following a road loss to Kansas State and Bill Self resigns.
Best guess prediction: 1st. Kansas has the best coach, best player (Lawson), most talent and it’s far more likely that the NCAA clears Silvio DeSouza to play this season than it is for them, or the administration, to rule a postseason ban no matter what else comes out from the FBI. Kansas has a point guard, Devon Dotson, who may be the conference’s best freshman (it’s him and Hayes right now) and it’s easy to imagine freshman McDonald’s All-American Quentin Grimes having a late season coming-out stretch like Malik Newman, and before him Kelly Oubre, did for KU in the past. Also: no team truly prepared themselves for league play like KU has since November.