The Big 12 and Big Ten are neck and neck as the best conference in college basketball this season. Ordinarily, the road to the Big 12 title goes through Lawrence, Kan. It ended up being that way last season and has been in 15 of the last 16 years, as the Jayhawks have won or shared the conference title each year in that span except 2018-19. Kansas has won more league titles, 15, than it has home losses, 14, since Bill Self arrived in 2003, so it is never a bad pick to select the Jayhawks as the Big 12 favorites. However, Baylor has a case that’s as good if not better to be the preseason chalk. Baylor won 23 games in a row last season, the longest streak in Big 12 history, including its first win at Allen Fieldhouse. Professional bettors kept looking for spots to fade Baylor and kept getting stymied. Baylor and Kansas would have likely been No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Texas Tech looks like a top-10 team despite returning only two starters because it brings in three impact transfers and the first McDonald’s All-American, Nimari Burnett, in program history. West Virginia was young last season but returns four starters from a 21-win team that should fare better on the road than its 2-7 conference mark last year. It is probably good that Shaka Smart had not grown out his hair until this year because his teams over his first five years at Texas (90-78) have made him want to pull it out with their inconsistency. But all five starters are back. Oklahoma was picked near the bottom of the Big 12 last season and ended up going .500 in the second-best conference in the country and would have likely made the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma State is banned from the 2021 NCAA tournament but might have next year’s No. 1 NBA draft pick with freshman Cade Cunningham. Iowa State regressed last season, mustering only 12 wins after 23 the season before. TCU had 10 newcomers last season and it showed with just a 16-16 record. Kansas State finished in the cellar last season and more than likely will stay there.
Top 10 Players
Jared Butler, Junior, PG, Baylor
Oscar Tshiebwe, Sophomore, C, West Virginia
Marcus Garrett, Senior, PG, Kansas
Cade Cunningham, Freshman, G, Oklahoma State
Brady Manek, Senior, PF, Oklahoma
Ochai Agbaji, Junior, SG, Kansas
MaCio Teague, Senior, SG, Baylor
Nimari Burnett, Freshman, SG, Texas Tech
Mark Vital, Senior, PF, Baylor
Matt Coleman, Senior, PG, Texas
The Bears bring back their top three scorers in Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, and stellar defender Mark Vital returns to a team whose matchup zone made it one of the nation's best. Baylor won 23 games in a row at one point last season and has to wonder what might have been if the season had not been halted. Fortunately for the Bears, they get one more chance to run it back.
The Jayhawks topped the conference in offensive and defensive efficiency last season but have to try to do it again without Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson. Still, Kansas should have one of the nation’s top backcourts with Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award winner Marcus Garrett, potential breakout star Ochai Agbaji and five-star freshman Bryce Thompson. Nevertheless, an NCAA investigation looms over the program.
Chris Beard loses his top two scorers but returns three starters. Beard has always been adept at working the transfer market and brings in two, Joel Ntambwe from UNLV and Marcus Santos-Silva from VCU, who should slot right into the starting lineup. He also adds Mac McClung from Georgetown and Jamarius Burton from Wichita State after both received NCAA waivers to play this season. Beard also nabbed the Red Raiders’ first McDonald's All-American recruit out of high school with Nimari Burnett.
The Mountaineers will always cause problems for opponents by pestering them defensively for all 94 feet. Bob Huggins has hinted at bringing back Press Virginia since he returns four starters, including the talented frontcourt of Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, and eight of his top 10 players. But if West Virginia wants to contend in the conference, it needs to shoot better than its 42.2% last year. And its 28.6% 3-point mark was 13th worst in the country.
Texas had no seniors last year, so the entire roster is back. Those players will be joined by five-star freshman Greg Brown III, whom Shaka Smart found at Vandegrift High School right in Austin. Smart’s time at Texas has been underwhelming, but he may finally have the group he needs to make a move in the Big 12.
The Sooners will have to replace leading scorer and rebounder Kristian Doolittle, but Lon Kruger brings back two of the Big 12’s top eight scorers in Austin Reaves (14.7 ppg) and Brady Manek (14.4). Oklahoma overachieved last season. Picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, the Sooners were likely on the right side of the bubble had Selection Sunday come. But the outside shooting, which ranked 262nd in the nation, must improve.
The program is in the appeals process to overturn its 2021 postseason ban. But 11 of the 13 scholarship players elected to stick it out despite the ban. Cade Cunningham, whose brother is on the Oklahoma State staff, has known coach Mike Boynton since he was 14. That relationship paid dividends as Cunningham, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit and potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, chose to play his one-and-done season in Stillwater. Cunningham and Isaac Likekele should form one of the league’s best backcourts.
The Cyclones must replace lottery pick Tyrese Haliburton but return four players with starting experience, including guard Rasir Bolton. Iowa State is used to relying heavily on the transfer market. Steve Prohm has to try to mix transfers Javan Johnson (Troy), Jalen Coleman-Lands (DePaul) and Tyler Harris (Memphis) with his returners.
The Horned Frogs lost 11 of their final 14 games last season. They also lost the program’s third all-time leading scorer, Desmond Bane. Double-figure scorers RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel should see opportunities to expand their roles. Jamie Dixon will also need immediate contributions from transfers Kevin Easley Jr. of Chattanooga and Chuck O’Bannon Jr. of USC.
The Wildcats lost 10 of their last 12 en route to finishing 11-21 and dead last in the Big 12. Kansas State also loses its three leading scorers. The top returning scorer, Mike McGuirl, averaged only 6.9 points in 24.7 minutes last season. Three years ago, Kansas State made a run to the Elite Eight, then won a share of the Big 12 title the next year. The Wildcats are a long way from matching those accomplishments.