Big 12 Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and a return to glory for the Kansas Jayhawks




 

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.

It finally happened.

For the first time since President George W. Bush's first term, Kansas did not win the Big 12 regular season title.

It was a remarkable run of 14 years, but it came to an end thanks to a roster that just wasn't up to the task after an injury to Udoka Azubuike when combined with the ascendancy of Texas Tech and Kansas State. Those Red Raiders now look to be potentially a perennial threat to the Jayhawks after Chris Beard got them to within seconds of a national championship last April despite roster losses from the previous year that looked too large to overcome.

Despite last year's results, Kansas is again the heavy favorite heading into this season after retooling the roster. Other 2019 contenders suffered major losses, but there is enough talent and experience across the league to think the Jayhawks will have to truly earn the start of a second streak.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. KANSAS REMAINS KING

The Jayhawks' 14-year streak of winning at least a share of the Big 12 title came to an end last spring, but don't get it twisted. The Jayhawks remain the class of this conference. They struck gold with Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson electing to return alongside Silvio De Sousa, whose impermissible benefits suspension was reduced by the NCAA to make him eligible this season. Other contributors return while Iowa sharpshooter Isaiah Moss grad-transferred in. Kansas is not only the Big 12 favorite, but a leading national title contender.

Of course, the on-court exploits is just half the story this year for Kansas. The NCAA leveled an aggressive notice of allegations on the program stemming from the FBI's investigation into the sport, and the Jayhawks, along with Bill Self, will be facing plenty of questions - and perhaps developments from - the situation all year. There may not be, however, a program more adept at successfully dealing with controversy than Kansas.

Unless it involves Snoop Dogg. Then they're not great at it. So just avoid Snoop for the foreseeable future, fellas.

2. TEXAS TECH ISN'T GOING ANYWHERE

We all came to appreciate just how great Texas Tech was last year, but it's worth revisiting how they got there. Remember back to the spring of 2018. That's when Chris Beard and Keenan Evans being a badass and Zhaire Smith turning into a top-20 NBA draft pick as the Red Raiders made the Elite Eight. Those two then left, along with Zach Smith and Justin Gray. Those are massive losses to endure, and, yet, somehow, Texas Tech got even better. Seconds away from a national title better. Pretty insane.

So despite another spring of heavy losses, including top-10 pick Jarrett Culver, the prevailing wisdom is not only will Beard's team be a Big 12 contender again, they're a preseason top-10 team. Doubt them at your own peril after what they pulled off last year. Graduate transfers Chris Clarke and TJ Holyfield are probably going to be the keys to how far Texas Tech can go in replicating last year's success.

3. BAYLOR IS A TITLE CONTENDER

Scott Drew really has done an amazing job in Waco. It's been fascinating to watch his career progression, from being the butt of national jokes to now being nationally recognized for being a legitimately skilled coach. The Bears used to be a team that would load up on huge talent, but have been a grittier group as of late.

Now it seems like Drew has a nice mixture of both, even if it doesn't feature the NBA draft lottery talent of yesteryear. Tristan Clark returns after a knee injury cost him the second half of last season after he had been on a tear. Much of the nucleus from last year's team also returns while transfers MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell are also going to contribute.

The Bears are going to be good.

4. THE BEST NBA PROSPECT IN THE LEAGUE LIVES IN AMES

Iowa State was the Big 12's most talented team last year, and it saw two players (Talen Horton-Tucker and Marial Shayok) go in the second round of the NBA draft and a third (Lindell Wigginton) land an Exhibit 10 contract. The Cyclones' best NBA prospect, however, returned to school for his sophomore season without so much as even testing the NBA waters.

Tyrese Haliburton is the envy of plenty NBA decision makers as a lengthy 6-foot-5 guard with high shooting percentages and an even higher basketball IQ. He was relegated to a supporting role last year on a loaded Cyclone roster, but he'll take on a huge amount of responsibility this season. If he can show that he can shoulder it - and more of a scoring load - he could find himself in the lottery conversation.

5. TEXAS IS NOTHING IF NOT INTERESTING

I think there's only one of two ways this goes for Texas this season. Either the Longhorns are really good, and Shaka Smart is lauded for finally having his breakthrough season in Austin despite not having the lottery picks he's had in the past, or the Longhorns aren't great and the only discussion anyone wants to have about them is regarding Smart's job security.

If Texas is so-so or even just merely good, that's probably not enough to quell the questions given the level of expectations - and piles of cash - that were heaped on Smart when he arrived from VCU. So, either win big or face a lot of questions. Either way, it'll interesting to track from the outside.

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This will be the fourth season on campus for the 7-foot-1, 270-pound, but we've only seen one healthy season from him. That year was pretty dang impressive, though, as Azubuike averaged 13 points, seven rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 77 percent from the floor (insert eye and flame emoji here). He missed most of last season with a bum wrist, but eschewed going pro to return to Lawrence, where he's likely a preseason All-American. He's a old-school, back-to-the-basket big, which while out of vogue, is incredible difficult to stop when it comes in such a large and skilled package like Azubuike. He's a singular force in the league - and maybe the country.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

BREAKOUT STAR: Lindy Waters, Oklahoma State

At 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds with athleticism and a pure jumper, Lindy Waters is the type of player coaches across the country covet. He's steadily improved all three years he's been in Stillwater, and now looks poised to potentially be the type of star that could propel Oklahoma State into the surprise team in the league. A double-digit scorer with length that shot 45 percent from 3-point range last year, Waters has a lot of tools to be great.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Shaka Smart, Texas

After years of turning down big jobs, Shaka Smart finally left VCU in 2015 to take one of the plummest jobs in the country. Texas has big money and a big brand, but modest expectations. Smart's arrival was supposed to awaken the Longhorns after years of malaise under Rick Barnes. Instead, Barnes has made Tennessee a national contender while Smart and Texas have languished in mediocrity. It, simply, just hasn't worked out very well.

That's not to say it's been a catastrophe - it hasn't been - but two NCAA tournament appearances, zero tournament wins and one last-place finish just doesn't match the expectations of what Texas could and should be. This year's team is probably going to be just fine, but, again, is that the goal? Texas doesn't seem to be in a big hurry to move on from Smart - or his $10 million buyout - but if it's another so-so year, does Smart look for the exit on his own, potentially with a lucrative landing spot that's a better fit?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE'LL BE SAYING …

The Big 12 is again one of the strongest leagues in the country, but probably doesn't have as many Final Four threats as it's had in years past.

I'M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Kansas winning a national title and giving Snoop Dogg - and his acrobatic dancers? - a championship ring.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Last year would have been perfectly acceptable for most programs across the country, but the Jayhawks ain't that, are they? So they're back this season as one of the two or three best teams in the country, and not only will they likely start a new Big 12 streak, but they could get Bill Self that second national title as well.

2. BAYLOR: It's easy to forget that Tristan Clark was one of the most productive players in the Big 12 last year before his injury, but his return to Waco makes the Bears formidable with much of last year's core also back and transfers MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell also in the fold.

3. TEXAS TECH: The Red Raiders are essentially trying to do this year what they did last: Replace a huge amount of talent and production without missing a beat. Given they're projected by most as a top-10 team, there's a lot of confidence they'll be able to pull it off. That's a vote of confidence in Chris Beard that few other coaches - especially with a relatively limited head-coaching track record - are given. Beard, though, is that good.

4. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones lost five of their top seven players from last year's team, but there's optimism in Ames with starters Tyrese Haliburton and Michael Jacobson returning, Solomon Young back from injury and the injury sophomore center George Conditt IV stepping into a bigger role. The reason to be real bullish on Iowa State, though, the newcomers who should bolster the roster in a big way. Prentiss Nixon is eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from Colorado State while Rasir Bolton, who averaged 11 ppg as a freshman at Penn State, is immediately eligible and fills a huge scoring need on the perimeter. The Cyclones lost a ton, but probably won't take a significant step back.

5. OKLAHOMA STATE: Last year was a total and complete train wreck for the Cowboys. Players got kicked off the team, and the team mostly got kicked around the Big 12. Here's guessing that changes this year. All five starters are back, including the aforementioned Lindy Waters. Isaac Likekele was one of the standouts at the FIBA U19s for Team USA. Yor Anei is one of the best shot blockers in the country. Thomas Dziagwa and Cameron McGriff are proven Big 12 players. That's a great foundation.

And on top of that, Mike Boynton welcomes a top-25 recruiting class and UMass grad transfer Jonathan Laurent, who shot 46.7 percent from 3-point range last year. They could easily be the surprise contender in the conference this season.

6. TEXAS: There are a lot of nice pieces in Austin, but probably no lottery pick, which is something Shaka Smart has had the benefit of early in his tenure. You could argue this might be Smart's least-talented team. Again, plenty of solid players, but are there any true gamechangers?

7. OKLAHOMA: Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek return from last year's NCAA tournament team while Long Kruger also gets Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves and top-50 recruit De'Vion Harmon, but the rest of the roster looks thin.

Kruger is one of the country's best coaches, so he could get enough out of this group to get another tourney appearance, but it'll be tough sledding against the rest of the Big 12. Luckily for them, flirting with .500 in this league keeps you in the Selection Sunday discussion.

8. KANSAS STATE: Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade are gone, ending an era in Manhattan that saw an Elite Eight and a Big 12 title. Those three, particularly Wade, were really the face and heart of the program in its recent run of success. Their losses will be hard to overcome.

The Wildcats do, though, return Xavier Sneed, a bona fide NBA prospect along with Makol Mawein, Carter Diarra and Mike McGuirl. That's a solid group, but is there enough scoring there? And can they be as excellent defensively as the last two years?

9. TCU: By many accounts, Jamie Dixon would be the coach at UCLA in his native southern California if the Bruins would have ponied up the $8 million it would have cost to buy him out of Fort Worth. That didn't happen, though, and Dixon remains with his alma mater, albeit with a weaker roster than he's had the past couple seasons.

The Horned Frogs suffered quite a bit of attrition, but still have Desmond Bane, one of the league's best shooters, and Kevin Samuel, one of the conference's promising young big men. RJ Nembhard, who has shown promising flashes, steps into a bigger role and George Mason transfer Jaire Grayer will help, but it's hard to see this TCU team competing near the upper-half of the conference.

10. WEST VIRGINIA: Bob Huggins didn't hide his disdain for his team throughout last year's last-place finish, but the Mountaineers did show some signs of life late in the year after booting a couple players. Still, Huggins called last year's campaign "miserable" as losses mounted.

West Virginia could be in line for a similar season despite bringing in McDonald's All-american Oscar Tsheibwe, a center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan that could remind those in Morgantown of Sagaba Konate. It's usually not a good idea to doubt what Huggins can get out of his teams, but looking at his roster relative to the rest of the Big 12, it looks like another last-place finish is in order.

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