As the countdown continues to the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season on Nov. 25, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is making its predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. After looking at the Big East, American Athletic Conference and the nation’s top mid-majors, we move to the Big 12, where Baylor and Kansas are the teams to watch in a league that’s loaded — particularly at the top.
Big 12 2020-21 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
Big 12 2020-21 writer roundtable
Five members of the Big 12 are in the top 20 of our preseason Top 25. All five of those teams (Baylor, Kansas, Texas, West Virginia, Texas Tech) are on the top four seed lines in our latest Bracketology. Can we just go ahead and say definitively that the Big 12 is the best league in the country? Which of the five teams above do you have the most worries about?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I’ll go with that pound-for-pound ranking. The Big 12 is also No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings. Any time a squad in the bottom half of your league might have the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, you’re probably a strong group. My challenge with the Big Ten is that once you get to that Minnesota-Purdue middle-of-the-pack area, there might be a significant drop-off. But I think Kansas State could be the only bad team in the Big 12. Side note: With all of the regional matchups coming together because of COVID-19, I’d love to see a Big 12-Big Ten challenge since nothing will be normal this season.
Texas is probably the right answer for most concerning team in that group, but what about West Virginia? The Mountaineers will be the same scrappy defensive unit again, and they’ll gobble offensive rebounds. But the lack of an offensive catalyst could present more challenges. During last season’s 1-6 stretch, WVU scored more than 60 points in just one of those losses. WVU shot a league-worst 26.4% from the 3-point line in league play a season ago. I just wonder if that will create more problems if it can’t do much damage from beyond the arc.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Whoa whoa whoa, settle down. I still would take the Big Ten as the best league in the country. It has three top-10 teams in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, a top-15 team in Michigan State and a few more top-20 to top-30 teams in Ohio State, Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan. But the Big 12 does have the best team from either conference in Baylor, and it feels silly to pretend Kansas won’t be a national factor. It’s close, but I’ll take the Big Ten for now.
I picked Texas at the bottom of those five teams, and the Longhorns probably weren’t an NCAA tournament team last season, so I’m certainly concerned about them. But my biggest question revolves around West Virginia’s offense. It was horrendous for long stretches last season, specifically when the Mountaineers went 1-6 to finish the month of February. During those seven games, they failed to score more than 0.95 points per possession or 62 points in six of them. They made 27 of 119 3-pointers (22.7%) in those seven games. That has to improve — but I think sophomore Miles McBride and redshirt freshman Jalen Bridges will provide a boost.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The Big Ten says not so fast. That same preseason top 25 you mention has three Big Ten teams in the top seven nationally, and that doesn’t even include three-time defending regular-season champion Michigan State. Then again, the Big 12 could well produce more than one NCAA tournament No. 1 seed. (The league almost certainly would have done so in 2020.) Add it all up and these two conferences will duke it out for national bragging rights in 2020-21.
I have the most worries about Texas, which poses the age-old basketball riddle: If your team really wasn’t all that great last year but now you have literally everyone back, is that a good thing? The last time we saw the Longhorns, they were losing at home to Oklahoma State by 22. The Big 12 outscored UT with room to spare last season, and Shaka Smart’s guys were absolutely crushed by their conference opponents in terms of shot volume.
Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: Both the Big 12 and Big Ten have five teams each on the top four lines of Bracketology, but the Big 12 is doing it with fewer members. Even so, I’d take the Big Ten for the preseason “best conference” label based on depth. Put it this way: The 10th-best Big Ten team on our board — Minnesota — is probably an NCAA tournament team, while the 10th best in the Big 12 (Kansas State) is almost certainly not.
And count me among those worried — or at least questioning — Texas. The Longhorns have been to just two NCAA tourneys in five years under Shaka Smart, losing both times in the first round, and they haven’t won more than 21 games overall. Until the Longhorns really break through, it’s only fair to give them an asterisk in terms of expectations.
Kansas returned to its traditional position atop the conference last season, and even Baylor’s strength entering this season isn’t going to keep some observers from considering the Jayhawks the team to beat until further notice. But does this KU team have the pieces to win a national title? To which of Bill Self’s previous teams does this squad most easily compare?
Borzello: I think a national title would be a lofty goal for this team. The Jayhawks lost a lot from last season’s national championship favorite, including All-Americans Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. That’s a big hit at both ends of the floor. Marcus Garrett is an elite defender, but now he has to take over more of the facilitating duties. David McCormack was a solid piece down low, but now he has to replace Azubuike. And what about scoring? Bill Self will have to rely heavily on newcomers Bryce Thompson and Tyon Grant-Foster.
In terms of roster composition, I think 2012-13 might be a decent comparison. Self had to replace Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson and needed an immediate offensive impact from freshman Ben McLemore. But that team started 19-1. I think this year’s group could have a few more growing pains.
Lunardi: It’s more than a habit. Under Bill Self, Kansas would have collected its ninth No. 1 seed in 17 years in March. His other eight years produced three No. 2 seeds, two No. 3s and three No. 4s. That’s an average seed of 1.9, which in my view is one of the greatest feats of the 64-team era.
Of course, to the great consternation of Jayhawks faithful, only one of those 17 teams has won a national championship. And the upcoming edition seems a bit too young and inexperienced to become the second. I expect Kansas to improve as the season progresses and challenge for another Big 12 title but advance no further than the Sweet 16.
It’s just a guess, but experience would seem to be a bigger factor than ever in a disjointed type of season.
Gasaway: This current KU team, which has just lost leading scorer Devon Dotson and dominant big man Udoka Azubuike, reminds me of the one Bill Self had in 2014-15. Those Jayhawks had just lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Back then, Kansas fans wondered: Where is the scoring going to come from? What will happen now in the paint? Fortunately for Self, he turned up two pretty fair building blocks in the form of sophomore Frank Mason III and, of course, the ever-present Perry Ellis.
KU that year won still another Big 12 title and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament (though the Jayhawks did bow out against Wichita State in the round of 32). A conference crown this season will be no small feat, but I still expect that Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and 6-foot-10 junior David McCormack will earn yet another very high seed. Kansas does have that habit.
Medcalf: I think we have to start with the national landscape, which lacks a program that seems capable of steamrollering the field. Also, COVID-19. Continuity could be a problem for everyone. If that’s the case, then I think Kansas can play its way into the conversation. They’ll miss Devon Dotson, and you can’t replace Udoka Azubuike, either. But Marcus Garrett is that all-around player who can be the two-way playmaker to position Kansas to win big games. And we can’t keep saying “this is the year” for David McCormack; it’s now or never, it seems. They’ll need young guys such as Bryce Thompson to contribute early. But the great concern in Lawrence should be the potential for limited crowds at Allen Fieldhouse and the possibility KU could lose its true home-court advantage. Still, they won’t be alone in that.
Maybe this is like the 2008-09 season, the year after Bill Self’s national title run? That team reached the Sweet 16 as a 3-seed behind the efforts of Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, as the freshman versions of Tyshawn Taylor and the Morris twins learned the ropes (none of them averaged double figures).
Which team from the bottom half of national league projections are people not discussing enough? Which player from this group not named Cade Cunningham are you most excited to see lace them up in 2020-21?
Lunardi: I’m watching Iowa State, maybe because Rasir Bolton has been in the news lately. I’m also fascinated by the lower half of the Big 12, in general, because there are teams every year that seem to find a way to stay in NCAA contention no matter how many games they lose. Are the Cyclones really that good? Probably not. Are they good enough to inflate the metrics of the top teams in the league? Probably. In other words, my working theory is that the smaller of the power conferences have a certain advantage in that they have a smaller bottom. Unlike most bracketologists.
Gasaway: Oklahoma has almost as much experience coming back as fashionable picks Baylor and West Virginia, and the Sooners were probably on the cusp of making the 2020 NCAA tournament. And in terms of players not projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, Bolton is Iowa State’s first option on offense now that Tyrese Haliburton is gone. Bolton projects to make more of his 3-point attempts and improve his overall efficiency. Keep an eye on the junior.
Medcalf: Oklahoma seems like the right answer here, mostly because of Lon Kruger, one of the most consistent coaches in the country. In the years since Trae Young turned pro, Kruger has won 20 and 19 games, respectively, and positioned his teams to make the NCAA tournament. With the moving pieces at the top of the league and the youth Kansas, Texas and other programs will rely upon this season, a team with veterans Brady Manek, who was a freshman on Young’s squad in 2017-18, and Austin Reaves (the Sooners made 79% of their free throws with the duo on the floor last season) is a definite sleeper. Plus, Oklahoma has a coach who has been to the NCAA tournament with five programs. Only Tubby Smith can match that. In these spots, Kruger usually beats the odds.
I want to see Greg Brown. Shaka Smart has had this pipeline of NBA bigs who’ve come through Austin. Brown, however, might be the most important prospect he has ever recruited, considering the buzz about his future. If Brown matches the hype, Texas and Smart could have an exciting season.
Borzello: I think Oklahoma is getting overlooked entering this season, and obviously part of that is due to Cade Cunningham’s arrival at the Sooners’ in-state rival. But the Sooners were an NCAA tournament team last season, and they bring back a preseason first-team all-league pick in Austin Reaves and a third-team All-Big 12 selection last season in Brady Manek. They also just received news about a waiver for North Texas transfer Umoja Gibson, a talented scoring guard.
Reaves needs more national attention. He finished last season with a 41-point, six-assist performance against TCU in the finale and had 20 or more points seven times over the course of the campaign. Without Kristian Doolittle, Reaves might have to take on a bigger scoring role too.
Anonymous coaches size up the Big 12
Jeff Borzello spoke to Big 12 coaches about their expectations for the league in 2020-21.
“[Udoka Azubuike] was the most unguardable player in maybe the last five years of college basketball. When that guy was on the floor, you really had a hard time beating Kansas. His presence at the rim, to catch and finish the way he did, and he’s smart. Last year, he guarded on the perimeter, big part of why they were the top defensive team in the country. That’s a huge loss for them. They still have McCormack, Mitch Lightfoot is coming back, so they won’t lack for experience, but what Doke brought — they would’ve been favorites [in 2020] to win the whole thing.”
“Baylor changed their style of play last season. They went to switching man-to-man with the four guards, instead of playing the matchup zone. They changed their style based off personnel. I think they can do it again. There’s no substitute for experience, and they definitely have the players. Mark Vital is one of the most underrated players in the country, the way he impacts the game without scoring the ball. He dominates the game at both ends.”
“Jared Butler is a big shot-maker, a big shot-taker. He wasn’t afraid of the moment. In high-pressure situations, you knew the ball would be in his hands, and he still found a way to make a play.”
“I think [Cade Cunningham] is going to do some great things. The way he controls a game, gets his team a high-percentage shot every time down. You can’t speed him up at all. The way he’s able to manage and pick his spots on the court is beyond his years. He’s going to be a tremendous player, a tremendous pro when it’s time. My expectations, I think he’s going to live up to them. [Oklahoma State coach Mike] Boynton will put him into positions to succeed.”
“Cade will have the ball in his hands, so he’ll be high usage, he’ll make plays. He’s big, talented. But he doesn’t shoot it great, so it will come down to how are teams gonna guard other players around him? Is he going to have the supporting cast around him to let him utilize his elite skill set? That’s going to be the biggest thing for him. Are teams just going to pack the paint? [Cameron] McGriff, [Lindy] Waters, [Thomas] Dziagwa — if they ever had a point guard like Cade to match those three the last three years, they would have been really, really good. But those guys are all gone.”
“Texas won five games in a row and was playing their best basketball when they had their roles defined. Royce Hamm had a role and played it well. Brock Cunningham had a role and played it well. They allowed Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman, Courtney Ramey to score. They didn’t have to worry about pleasing everybody. It was the role guys that allowed them to have the success they had toward the end of last year. “
“Shaka is gonna have a hard time being able to manage those mouths to feed. When you get a Greg Brown, it’s hard to not start him. So he’s going to replace somebody in the starting lineup that played a lot last year. Their talent has never been an issue; it’ll be managing those different personalities and finding time for everybody and pleasing them. They have to accept their roles. If they do that, they’ll win a lot of games.”
“West Virginia couldn’t shoot outside the paint, that was obvious. Their offense was second shots, putbacks, whether it was Oscar [Tshiebwe], [Derek] Culver, [Jermaine] Haley. It was just essentially bully ball. Teams that had success against them were teams that could combat that at the other end by making shots. As long as West Virginia puts [Miles] McBride in a healthier and more of a starring role, they’ll be a lot better off. He’s a good talent; he can make shots. And that’s what they need. Consistency from the outside. They have the frontcourt. They just need backcourt guys to make plays.”
“The loss of [Davide] Moretti is going to be huge for [Texas Tech]. [Jahmi’us] Ramsey was a first-round talent, but Moretti was a really good glue guy that made everything fit. And at the end of the game, you want the ball in his hands, because he was gonna make 90% of his free throws. He was another guy that accepted his role. [Coach Chris] Beard and Texas Tech will be in a similar boat to Texas. They have a ton of talent. Are guys going to accept 15 minutes a night versus 25 to 30 somewhere else? Kyler Edwards and [Nimari] Burnett, same with [Terrence] Shannon and Mac McClung. Can all those guys play together? That’s something Beard has to figure out. He’s a very good coach; he’ll sell those guys that if they do it a particular way, they’ll have success. But it’s easier said than done.”
“The league is so good, someone’s gonna fly under the radar. Oklahoma poses mismatch problems. It might be different without [Kristian] Doolittle, but they were one of the toughest matchups we faced all year in terms of personnel.”
“[Umoja] Gibson was a big one for Oklahoma to get eligible. He opens up so many things. The past two years, they weren’t effective shooting the ball from the perimeter. Their advantages were Doolittle and [Brady] Manek, playing both as inside-out guys. Now you add Gibson to Austin Reaves and Brady Manek, you have a pretty potent backcourt to go with a really good frontcourt guy.”