For the sixth straight season, the Big 12 is KenPom’s top rated conference. Add in the double round robin format, and this figures to be another tough conference season.
We’ll start with a projected finish, offer an awards section and project where each team finishes the season.
1) Kansas (11-1)- They win the league every season. This year shouldn’t be any different. Kansas has the league’s best player, Dedric Lawson, and the best all-around team. Lawson also made one of the coolest shots of the season:
The Jayhawks rank in the top 15 in both offense and defense on KenPom. They’ve played a few games without starting center Udoka Azubuike, a possible top five player in the league.
Kansas has one giant issue: they struggle from the perimeter. The Jayhawks are 104th in 3-point percentage and 313th in percentage of shots from three.
Quentin Grimes, a McDonald’s All-American guard, has been the team’s most disappointing player. He was the MVP of the FIBA America’s U18 Championship—a squad coached by Bill Self—and figured to slot in well. But he’s hitting 31% from deep and has an offensive rating of 92.
This team should easily win the league. This is a good conference—perhaps not as good as it has been in recent years—but still top notch. Still, the Jayhawks ceiling is higher than in recent seasons. They can play Self’s usual high-low offense, and if Grimes figures things out, they’ll be a class better than they’ve been.
Big wins: Michigan State, Marquette, Tennessee and Villanova.
Losses: Arizona State.
2) Texas Tech (11-1) Chris Beard’s squad didn’t figure to be this good. They lost Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith and Zach Smith. For an offense that often relied on the first two guys making something happen, the Red Raiders figured to drop-off some from last season’s Elite Eight squad.
Texas Tech might be even better this season. Jarrett Culver is the league’s second best player. He’s good at just about everything offensively and defensively.
The Red Raiders are defensive monsters, again. They rank 1st in defensive efficiency. They’re 1st in effective field goal defense and 5th in turnovers. They held Duke’s nation’s best offense to .84 points per possession (PPP), which is worse than America’s worst offense normally scores. Beard’s men lead the nation in offensive fouls drawn per possession:
Texas Tech’s offense has held them back. They’re not bad in that category—ranking 66th in adjusted efficiency. The Red Raiders take a ton of 2s, as they rank just 333rd in percentage of shots from deep. Beard likes to call a lot of horns (two big men at the elbow, with two wings in the corner) and man does he shout it loudly:
This season seems to come down to their offense. Some of their motion sets don’t flow quite as well as they did last year. But they can really defend, and Nori Odiase is still around and can probably get worked into the offense better. Plus transfer Matt Mooney, a former South Dakota star, is making 41% of his triples. It won’t take much for this offense to be pretty good.
I’d be shocked if they don’t finish second. Their defense is going to stay top 10. They have the league’s second best player, and Chris Beard is awesome.
Big wins: Nebraska and USC.
3) TCU (11-1)- The Horned Frogs have jumped 74 spots in adjusted defensive efficiency and now rank 24th in that stat. They moved up over 200 in spots in effective field goal defense and forcing turnovers.
Jamie Dixon showed his team is a legitimate Sweet 16 contender by eviscerating USC’s offense. The Trojans scored just .76 PPP. TCU does a nice job reading and reacting. They’ve pressured pick-and-rolls well and double in the past intelligently. The Horned Frogs time stunts well to make it tough, and they’ve been impressive in moving when team’s get dribble penetration:
TCU’s offense is led by two exceptional guards—Jaylen Fisher and Alex Robinson. Fisher is coming back from knee surgery. In his nine games this season, he’s shooting 44% from three and ranks in the top 100 nationally in offensive rating. Robinson is a phenomenal passer—ranking 3rd in assist rate. He’s also hit 42% of his threes. But Robinson has only attempted 26 threes. Robinson is ridiculously good and the best passing guard in the conference:
The Horned Frogs have two real issues. First, can they stay healthy? Fisher had a major knee surgery and a set back over the summer. Kouat Noi missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury too. Second, TCU may be a good team that can’t quite beat the best squads in the country. With a very weak non-conference, it’s fair to wonder if this is a team that can’t quite crack the top 15.
Don’t get too down on this squad. They have outstanding guards and play intelligent defense. Maybe they won’t be a top 15 team, but they’ll be a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Big wins: Fresno State, USC and SMU.
4. Iowa State (10-2)- The Cyclones are a popular No. 2 pick in the league. Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State’s best player, missed their two losses. And even without him, they rank 18th on KenPom.
Iowa State ranks 17th on offense. That’s incredibly impressive with Wigginton missing so many games. Marial Shayok, a Virginia transfer, has stepped up offensively. He ranks 75th nationally in usage rate and has scored at least 14 points in every game. The Wigginton- Shayok duo will be a problem for others:
Steve Prohm’s defense is now 41st, which is a 102 spot jump from last season. Per hoop-math, opponents are shooting nearly 10% worse at the rim this season. After ranking 219th in 2-point defense last season, the Cyclones are now 85th. Iowa State has done a nice job defending one-on-one, which has prevented some of the easy baskets they gave up last season.
There’s an optimistic case that this team could make a Final Four run. Not many teams could rank 18th on KenPom with their best player missing all but two games. Prohm’s offense puts his guy in nice spots and Shayok is just a force running the pick-and-roll.
The big concern with Iowa State is that their offense can stymie when they’re not hitting shots. That fear seems overblown because everyone in modern college basketball is pretty bad when they miss threes. But this team went 4-of-24 from deep in a loss to a mediocre Arizona team.
Big wins: Missouri.
Losses: Arizona and Iowa.
5) Oklahoma (11-1)- After losing Trae Young, Oklahoma is even better this year.
The Sooners have improved thanks to their defense. They’re 8th in defensive efficiency, after ranking 85th last year. They’ve improved 137 spots in 2-point defense. Opponents are making just 48.5% of their shots at the rim, per hoop-math. They held Wichita State to just .66 PPP, Florida to .87 and Creighton to .9 PPP.
Oklahoma creates out of pick-and-roll and in isolation settings. Their offense is 62nd—a good mark, especially considering the loss of Young, and Brady Manek’s cold start from deep. Lon Kruger’s team is 25th in average offensive possession length. Christian James has scored in double figures in every game but one, and Aaron Calixte has flashed big potential:
Oklahoma’s issue might be their top end talent. If a Sooner’s opponent starts raining shots, can Oklahoma win a high scoring game? They were also blown out by Wisconsin.
The Sooners are well ahead of schedule though. This figured to be a very bad team; they were picked 8th in the preseason. But this team ranks 24th on KenPom and should go dancing with an 8-10 Big 12 season.
Big wins: Florida, Dayton, Norte Dame, WSU, USC, Creighton and Northwestern.
6) Texas (8-4)- The league takes a giant drop-off after the top five.
This has been a pretty consistent long-standing complaint, and I'm not even sure it's accurate. One of most fascinating things to me is that they've landed guys who *can* shoot, but — tonight aside, obviously — they get there and don't. https://t.co/VlRBlarUzs— Kevin Flaherty (@KFlaherty247) December 16, 2018
The Longhorns are ranked 36th on KenPom. They have wins over North Carolina, Purdue and Arkansas. They rank 10th on defense. And with Jaxson Hayes possibly the Big 12’s best freshman, this team has a lot of reasons to believe:
There are plenty of reasons to doubt Texas too. They lost to Radford, VCU and Providence at home. Those teams are either missing the NCAA Tournament or losing immediately. The offense ranks 100th—another terrible mark for Shaka Smart. Jericho Sims has been incredibly disappointing, and Matt Coleman hasn’t gotten any better.
Texas remains the toughest team to project. Beyond the reasons mentioned above, maybe Dylan Osetkowski can get going from three. The team is just 250th in 3-point percentage. Kerwin Roach is still ridiculously talented too.
This team could finish anywhere from second to ninth in the league. While both of those numbers seem pretty unlikely, this squad has been all over the place. That generally makes a pick like sixth the safest bet.
Big wins: North Carolina, Arkansas and Purdue.
Losses: Michigan State, Radford, VCU and Providence.
7. Kansas State (10-2)- Bruce Weber’s team had a bad non-conference slate. Coming off an Elite Eight appearance, the team played a terrible schedule and lost at Marquette and Tulsa.
The Wildcats can’t shoot. They’re 270th in 3-point percentage and 321st in free throw percentage. Nobody is making even two triples per game. Cartier Diarra and Barry Brown are worse from distance this year. Xavier Sneed—while pretty solid from everywhere—hasn’t made the leap Kansas State needed.
All their offensive problems are made worse by Dean Wade’s injuries. The preseason conference player of the year has missed the last three games with a tendon injury in his foot. He played just a few minutes in last year’s NCAA Tournament with a foot injury, so it’s particularly concerning. Kansas State said in mid-December that he figured to miss three to eight weeks.
Despite their offensive problems, this team is playing spectacular defense. They rank second in defensive efficiency. They lead the country in defensive rebounding. They’re top 50 in effective field goal defense and forcing turnovers. And they’ve limited opponent’s 3-point attempts (310th in opponent shots from deep).
The one concern I always have with Kansas State’s defense is how aggressively they help in pick-and-roll defense. Weber usually likes to tag the roller, where a wing player will drop down and bump the big man rolling to the hoop. And he also has guys help out heavily. That scrambling lead to some problems against Marquette, and it can lead to issues against anyone:
Maybe we’re all overreacting to some non-conference stumbles by Kansas State. This team has a phenomenal defense. Eventually one of Kansas State’s players should hit some threes. And Wade could return before too long.
But maybe we all overrated the Wildcats in the preseason. This squad didn’t beat any of the Big 12’s top four teams last regular season. They made the Elite Eight by beating Creighton, UMBC and Kentucky, before Loyola handled them.
Nothing would shock me about the Wildcats. This team could get hot and challenge Kansas. They could also miss the NCAA Tournament.
Big wins: Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Losses: Marquette and Tulsa.
8. Baylor- (8-4)- The Bears started the season with a home loss to Texas Southern and have also lost at home to Stephen F. Austin. The lows have been very low for the Bears.
Baylor’s offense has not been good. The team has two overwhelming problems. First, the Bears turn it over constantly. The team is 292nd in turnover percentage. That’s given opponents, like Stephen F. Austin easy opportunities and it keyed some big buckets for South Dakota in a near upset.
Second, they can’t shoot. The Bears are 322nd in 3-point percentage and 307th in free throw percentage. Mark Vital is one of the league’s best defenders, but he gets to the line a lot (4th nationally in free throw rate) and is shooting just 39% there. Those shooting woes allow teams to double Tristan Clark—likely the league’s third best player—and prevent him from attempting anywhere near the shots he should have. When he’s not doubled, he scores:
The Bears have stayed relevant by being good defensively. They’re 22nd in effective field goal defense and 33rd in turnover rate—by far the best mark of a Scott Drew team. With Baylor 20th in defensive efficiency, it wouldn’t take much shooting to get going.
The problem for Baylor is that the team seems to not be able to hit threes. King McClure and Makai Mason have shot well. But Mason is playing on an injured ankle. He’s been very good—keying big possession in Baylor’s win in Tuscon and stopping a late Oregon charge in Waco. But he missed nearly every game the last two seasons. He could go down too.
Baylor needs Mario Kegler, Devonte Bandoo and Matt Mayer to start shooting much better. But for both Baylor and Kansas State, it’s getting late into the season to expect to be something different.
Big wins: Oregon and Arizona.
Losses: Texas Southern, Ole Miss, Wichita State and Stephen F. Austin.
9. West Virginia (8-4)- Per Garry Parrish of CBS, Bob Huggins is one of just nine coaches to make three of the last five Sweet 16s. That’s why it’s okay to have a down season.
West Virginia’s offense has dropped 40 spots from last season. Without Jevon Carter leading the offense, the Mountaineers have gone from 37th to 296th in offensive turnover rate. James Bolden has been good at many things, but his 21.9% turnover rate has hampered their offense.
The Sagaba Konate saga has also been weird. He was a defensive monster last season, blocking every hope near the hoop. But he missed the last three games. Bob Huggins told the media, “It’s up to him and his brother when he plays and when he doesn’t play.” He’s a monster, when he’s available:
The Mountaineers could be a lot better when healthy. They haven’t been able to play Press Virginia much with injuries. The easy buckets of the Carter days are gone without the press. When healthy, Huggins might unleash the press, and the Big 12 could find things aren’t so different in Morgantown.
This feels like a down year for the Mountaineers though. And that’s okay. West Virginia has been the second best program in the conference since 2014. Everyone but Kansas has down seasons in this league.
Big wins: Pittsburgh.
Losses: Buffalo, Western Kentucky, Florida and Rhode Island.
10. Oklahoma State (6-6)- Even with six losses, this team is 89th on KenPom. Every other major conference has a team ranked 113th or worse.
The Cowboys lost so many players from last season. Lindy Water and Cameron McGriff are back, but nearly everyone else is gone.
Oklahoma State has the propensity to win some big games again. The Cowboys beat Kansas twice last season. They did it with great 3-point shooting, and the Cowboys are 17th in 3-point percentage. Someone might have their tournament hopes dashed when Oklahoma State goes 15-of-25 on the road.
They rank a respectable 72nd on defense. There’s not anything they’re great at, but they don’t struggle at anything. The worst thing this defense does is allow quite a few 3-point attempts. But with so many bad Big 12 shooting teams, they can survive that.
Oklahoma State’s six non-conference losses will be tough to overcome for an NIT bid, but the Cowboys will play good basketball. This team isn’t an automatic win.
Big wins: LSU and Memphis.
Losses: Charlotte, Villanova, Minnesota, Tulsa, Houston and Nebraska.
All-Big 12 Team:
Dedric Lawson, Kansas- (Player of the Year)- He’ll be the best player on the league’s best team. He’s a double-double machine and has been KenPom’s game MVP a nation’s best eight times. The Jayhawks will have some abysmal shooting days, and between Allen Fieldhouse and his skill, they’ll pull off a few major wins.
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech- The league’s most improved player and the biggest threat to steal this award from Kansas. He’s good at just about every aspect of basketball.
Tristan Clark, Baylor- Baylor’s place in the league could hurt him, but he’s going to finish in the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage. Every coach will scheme to limit his touches, which will draw attention to his talent. He joins Culver as one of the league’s most improved players.
Alex Robinson, TCU- He kept their offense going without Fisher, and he’s a threat from anywhere. He could lead the league in 3-point shooting and assists. He might be the most underrated player nationally.
Lindell Wigginton, ISU- He should be healthy for conference play. The supporting cast is much better this season, and Hilton Magic should return. I’d expect him to appear on some All-America teams.
Defensive Player of the Year:
1) Barry Brown, Kansas State- He made the team last season and figures to be huge again. His pressure will keep Kansas State in games and likely key an upset on a terrible shooting night. His instincts are superb.
2) Sagaba Konate, West Virginia- I’m assuming he plays nearly every conference game. The country’s best shot blocker could win this award. But West Virginia’s team stats will keep him lower on this list.
3) Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech- Maybe he’s not their best defensive player. But Texas Tech will finish top 10 in defensive efficiency, and if he loses a close player of the year race, giving him defensive player of the year would be a nice consolation.
Newcomer of the Year:
1) Dedric Lawson- The only thing that would stop him from winning this is if voters don’t want to give him another award.
2) Marial Shayok, Iowa State- He’d be the newcomer in just about every other conference. He might be the best mid-range scorer in the conference.
Coach of the Year:
Chris Beard- My pick for national coach of the year. With three of his best players gone, he’s back and ready to return to the second weekend. UCLA should offer him the job.
Final Four: Kansas, Nevada, Duke and Michigan. Nevada over Duke in the title game.
Elite Eight: Texas Tech
Sweet 16: Iowa State and Oklahoma
Round of 32: TCU
NCAA Tournament: Texas and Kansas State
NIT: Baylor and West Virginia