Brian Rauf | @brauf33 | 06/18/20
The Big 12 has consistently been among the very best conferences – if not the best conference – across the college basketball landscape over the past decade, and last season was no different.
Kansas returned to the top of the standings after having their record-setting streak of 14 consecutive conference titles snapped in 2018-19, yet it was Baylor that spent a majority of the 2019-20 season at the top of the national polls.
Those two will headline the Big 12 race again, but the conference is expected to be the country’s most competitive. Five teams, or half the conference, made an appearance in my way-too-early top 25 rankings and all of them have legitimate hopes of winning a Big 12 title. That doesn’t even include Oklahoma State, who (for now) landed the nation’s top recruit in Cade Cunningham, or an Oklahoma team that returns many key pieces from last season’s third place team.
How is the Big 12 race projected to shake out in 2020-21? Here are our way-too-early Big 12 power rankings:
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— FAVORITES TIER —
1. Baylor Bears (2019-20 Finish: 2nd | 26-4, 15-3 Big 12)
Baylor stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their last five games, but it’s important to remember just how dominant this group was for a majority of the season. We saw as many teams hold the #1 ranking as we ever had in the sport’s history, yet the Bears managed to hold onto that for a solid month and a half.
We’ll never know if they would’ve been able to return to form in time for an NCAA Tournament run, but they have a very good chance to repeat their domination as everyone except for big man Freddie Gillespie is expected to be back (Jared Butler and MaCio Teague are testing NBA Draft waters but are expected to return). Baylor high hopes for what Tristan Clark and Flo Thamba can do to replace Gillespie in the middle in 2020-21, and High Point transfer Adam Flagler should give Baylor even more depth. This could be Scott Drew’s best team yet.
2. Kansas Jayhawks (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 28-3, 17-1 Big 12)
Despite all the Baylor love, it is important to remember that it was Kansas – not the Bears – that won the Big 12 regular season title and was ranked #1 nationally when the season came to an abrupt end. The combination of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike had a ton to do with that, though, and both are gone.
However, KU’s returning core should keep the Jayhawks at the forefront of the conference race Everyone will be expected to take on larger roles, but Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, and David McCormack have each shown flashes are star potential (Garrett is already that defensively). With five-star guard Bryce Thompson entering the fold, the Jayhawks will be excellent once again.
—Rauf’s way-too-early Top 25 rankings for ’20-21
— CONTENDERS TIER —
3. West Virginia Mountaineers (2019-20 Finish: 6th | 21-10, 9-9 Big 12)
I really though about putting West Virginia in the tier above because, through early February this past season, they were as dominant as anyone in the conference. Then they fell apart by losing 6 of their last 9 games and, well, the buzz around this young group completely went away.
The Mountaineers do return virtually everyone, including star big men Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe, and they did finish in the KenPom top 10. But which WVU team will we be getting – the one that was excellent for three months, or the one that fell apart over the final month?
I’m expecting the former, especially if guard Miles McBride can become a superstar in his sophomore season as I suspect. If that happens, WVU will be right there with Baylor and Kansas.
4. Texas Tech Red Raiders (2019-20 Finish: 5th | 18-13, 9-9 Big 12)
Texas Tech took a step back last season and are losing two key starters in Jahmi’us Ramsey (expected to stay in the NBA Draft) and Davide Moretti (Italy). But at this point, we’ve learned not to doubt Chris Beard – especially considering what he does have returning.
Kyler Edwards is another breakout candidate and will move over to his more natural position of point guard following Moretti’s departure and five-star wing Nimari Burnett – the highest-ranked commit in Texas Tech history – will have a big role. They’re probably a shade behind the top three for now but, if Georgetown transfer Mac McClung is given a waiver to play this coming season, the Red Raiders will be right there with them.
—Way-too-early bracketology includes 6 Big 12 teams
— HIGH HOPES TIER —
5. Texas Longhorns (2019-20 Finish: 4th | 19-12, 9-9 Big 12)
On paper, Texas should be awesome and belongs in the conversation with West Virginia and Texas Tech. They did beat both last year and are bringing literally everyone back from their rotation.
But, as we’ve learned throughout Shaka Smart’s tenure at Texas, what we see on paper and what we see on the court are usually two different things – with the on-court product typically being disappointing. I do like Matt Coleman and Andrew Jones in the backcourt, and I think Kai Jones could have a breakout year up front. Their experience could give them a high floor, but I’m not fully believing in their upside yet until I see it.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys (2019-20 Finish: 8th | 18-14, 7-11 Big 12)
This coming year is supposed to be the year for Oklahoma State to make their breakthrough under head coach Mike Boynton. Most of the rotation is set to return and they have a wealth of incoming talent headlined by Cunningham.
Then the NCAA announced a one-year postseason ban for the Cowboys stemming from the FBI investigation, creating a whole lot of uncertainty about what the roster will actually look like.
Since that news came down, starting big man and shot-blocker Yor Anei announced his intent to transfer, but everyone else appears to be staying put for now – though that could change if Cunningham opts to pursue other opportunities. Oklahoma State is appealing the ban and things could change drastically from a roster standpoint but, right now, they’re still in a decent spot from a Big 12 perspective.
—2020 NBA Mock Draft: Complete 1st Round Projections
— BUBBLE TIER —
7. Oklahoma Sooners (2019-20 Finish: 3rd | 19-12, 9-9 Big 12)
I, admittedly, am not very high on Oklahoma headed into the new year. I think they’re worthy of NCAA Tournament consideration but replacing Kristian Doolittle – who led them in points, rebounds, and steals – is no small task. That’s especially true considering OU’s lack of depth, which also took a hit when Jamal Bieniemy opted to transfer to UTEP.
Austin Reaves, Brady Manek, and De’Vion Harmon are a solid trio, but they don’t have the ceiling the carry the Sooners in the way I think they’re going to have to if Oklahoma is going to make any noise in the Big 12 race.
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— LET’S NOT FINISH LAST TIER —
8. TCU Horned Frogs (2019-20 Finish: 7th | 16-16, 7-11 Big 12)
Now we get to the group of teams that are clearly a step below everyone else.
Jamie Dixon has done a good job of establishing a culture at his alma mater and there are some good, young pieces in place. RJ Nembhard, PJ Fuller, and Kevin Samuel have all shown flashes of excellence, but they’re probably a year away from consistently competing given the overall strength of the conference.
9. Iowa State Cyclones (2019-20 Finish: 9th | 12-20, 5-13 Big 12)
Tyrese Haliburton led Iowa State in points, rebounds, assists, and steals before suffering a season-ending wrist injury, and that production is why he’s expected to be a top 10 pick in the NBA Draft. That’s not good for the Cyclones, as they really struggled – as expected – without their star.
Rasir Bolton and Solomon Young are solid pieces, Tre Jackson showed flashes of promise as a freshman, and incoming top 70 recruit Xavier Foster should be an impact player. But the roster depth still isn’t there for this group, and I don’t know how much they’ll be able to improve defensively (147th in KenPom AdjD last year).
10. Kansas State Wildcats (2019-20 Finish: 10th | 11-21, 3-15 Big 12)
K-State was dreadful last year and has to replace their three best players. Head coach Bruce Weber has brought in a good amount of talent over the last two years, but those underclassmen will be thrown into the fire in 2020-21 before they’re ready. The Wildcats may see that pay off in 2021-22, but this coming season will be all about growing pains.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.