- Matt Cox
Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Dedric Lawson, R Jr., Kansas
Coach of the Year: Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Newcomer of the Year: Dedric Lawson, R Jr., Kansas
Freshman of the Year: Quentin Grimes, Kansas
See full preview here: #2 in our Top-40 countdown
2. Kansas State
See full preview here: #10 in our Top-40 countdown
3. West Virginia
See full preview here: #14 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #19 in our Top-40 countdown
5. Iowa State
See full preview here: #27 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #31 in our Top-40 countdown
7. Texas Tech
Key Returners: Jarrett Culver, Norense Odiase, Davide Moretti
Key Losses: Zhaire Smith, Keenan Evans, Niem Stevenson, Justin Gray
Key Newcomers: Matt Mooney (South Dakota grad transfer), Tariq Owens (St. John’s grad transfer), DeShawn Corprew (JUCO), Khavon Moore, Kyler Edwards, Josh Mballa
*Note: Kevin McCullar, a 4-star recruit, is expected to redshirt and is not currently listed on the official roster.
Outlook: Three years ago Chris Beard was coaching DII basketball at Angelo State in the Lone Star conference. A year later, he became the face of mid-major darling Arkansas Little Rock after an improbable opening round upset over Purdue in Beard's first ever taste of the NCAA tournament.
Hit the fast forward button one more time: just two seasons after a much deserved promotion threw him into the lions' den of the Big-12 conference, Beard led Texas Tech to its deepest postseason run in program history – a program where a guy named Bobby Knight coached not so long ago...
It’s been a magical ride for Beard, who seems to push all the right buttons no matter where he goes. But not even Beard's wizardry can make two new replicas of Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith appear out of thin air. Unless Beard pulls another rabbit out of his hat this season, Texas Tech will likely descend back down to Earth in 2019.
No Evans and no Smith means it's Jarrett Culver's time to shine as the undisputed leader of a revamped Red Raider roster. Every team has a breakout candidate, but few are as safe of a bet as Culver is to burst onto the national scene. Culver won’t turn 20 until next February and he's already widely regarded as one of the stingiest on-ball defenders in college basketball. If his offensive development stays on its current trajectory, NBA draft scouts will be frequent flyers to Lubbock, Texas this year.
Describing Culver's game is a nuanced exercise with how much he brings to the table - he's too versatile to be pigeon-holed into a “point guard” or “shooting guard” on offense and he can guard up to four different positions on defense. Projecting the specific role he'll assume this year is challenging, but examining the strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the backcourt may shed some light as to how Beard plans to use his sophomore stud this season.
Starting with the incumbents back in action, Davide Moretti’s rate of improvement will be a major determinant in how Beard ultimately constructs his backcourt rotations. After entering school as a top-100 recruit, Moretti’s freshman campaign fell far short of expectations. Moretti defenders will point out that a lack of consistent playing time inhibited him from building confidence, since he was the odd man out in a deep backcourt rotation. The window of opportunity will now re-open with the departures of Evans, Smith and Niem Stevenson, so it's up to the Italian native to latch on to that opening in the starting lineup – and based on his play over the summer at the U20 European nationals, it seems the lightbulb is flickering on just in time for a much anticipated sophomore campaign.
But if Beard isn’t sold on Moretti as a full-time starter just yet - defense was a major achilles heel for Moretti as a freshman - he’ll likely turn to one (or both) of two newcomers: Matt Mooney and Deshawn Corprew. From watching the always entertaining Summit League over the past few seasons, tuning into South Dakota basketball was always a delight. It’s hard to find a hole in Mooney’s game when you watch him play - he always plays hard and constantly makes winning plays in a multitude of ways. Like Culver, it’s conceivable to think Mooney could also play some point with his ability to handle and create for others.
Beard went back to his grassroots on the JUCO circuit to secure a sneaky good talent in Corprew, who many thought would be an impact freshman at Texas A&M when he initially committed there a few years back. Corprew is a versatile, talented wing that could be a perfect fit at the 3 if he proves he can defend at the D1 level. Corprew and returning sharpshooter Brandone Francis will bolster what should be yet another ultra-deep backcourt and will love playing alongside such willing facilitators in Culver and Mooney.
Waiting in the wings as the potential point guard of the future is Kevin McCullar, who recently reclassified and is expected to be eligible at the end of the first semester – though, at the time of this release, he is not listed on the official roster.
Moving inside the arc, many thought the frontcourt would be relatively thin behind top-50 stud wing / forward Khavon Moore and the bruising veteran Norense Odiase. That was before Beard added a supreme shot-swatter to the rotation in St. John’s transfer Tariq Owens. Owens is a bouncy, lanky forward who simply overwhelms more grounded bigs with his length and pogo-stick hops. With some of the imposing frontlines found around the Big-12, it’s imperative that this trio rise to the occasion in 2019 to patch up the losses of Justin Gray and Zach Smith up front.
Bottom Line: After leading Texas Tech to the best season in school history (am I wrong Tech fans?), Chris Beard has bought himself a surplus of equity with the Red Raider fan base… but there’s too much talent walking out the door to realistically think the Red Raiders can live up to last season's standards.
That said, the basketball nerds who follow the Summit League and JUCO landscape know that Matt Mooney and DeShawn Corprew are legit and should become recognizable names by the time Big-12 play begins. The frontcourt is the one main area of concern, but the vast depth in the backcourt should help sustain a stout first line of defense on the perimeter and keep Texas Tech among the Big-12's top ranked defensive units.
Key Returners: King McClure, Mark Vital, Tristan Clark
Key Losses: Jo Lual-Acuil, Manu Lecomte, Nuni Omot, Terry Maston
Key Newcomers: Makai Mason (Yale transfer), Mario Kegler (Mississippi State transfer), Matthew Mayer, Jared Butler, Darius Allen (JUCO), Devin Bandoo (JUCO), Freddie Gillespie (JUCO)
Outlook: The ‘Bubbalicious Bears' would be a fair nickname to encapsulate the 2017-18 Baylor Bears season. After an uneventful non-conference showing, the Big-12 portion of the slate featured a single ‘ebb’ (2-7 to start league play) followed by a corresponding ‘flow’ (6-3 finish), which ultimately concluded in an anticlimactic finish in the form of a 1-seed in the NIT. While the advanced metrics depicted the Bears as a superior team to other Big-12 foes who received invitations to the real tournament – see Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma – the Bears’ resume came up a tad bit short of the cut line as Scott Drew and co. missed the Big Dance for the first time in four years.
The attention grabbing headline this offseason – Makai Mason’s long awaited return to college basketball – is every bit as valid as the hype it’s received. Baylor fans need no introduction to Mason or what he can do at the Power-6 level:
Outside of a few duds against elite competition, Manu Lecomte was excellent last season as Drew’s primary floor general. Barring any health setbacks (granted, that’s a MAJOR assumption), Mason should pick up right where Lecomte left off as a cerebral point guard with a keen awareness of when to get others involved, versus when to attack himself on the offensive end. With Lindsey done for the year, King McClure, a big-bodied, athletic 2-guard, may reclaim his spot in the starting rotation after Drew replaced him with Lindsey about halfway through conference play last year. McClure will face some stiff competition from a pair of newcomers in JUCO transfer Devin Bandoo and 4-star Jared Butler, who was a timely pickup for Drew late in the recruiting cycle. Bandoo enters Waco with a reputation as a lights out shooter, while Butler has the inside track to be the Bears’ long-term solution at point guard – though, per some recruiting analysts’ reports, Butler’s ‘high-risk, high-reward’ style of play implies some growing pains should be expected early on.
Scott Drew’s affection for inspector gadget-esque length and size may thrust 1) top-100 freshman Matthew Mayer, 2) returning redshirt sophomore Mark Vital and / or 3) former top-50 recruit and Mississippi State transfer Mario Kegler into the starting lineup. Similar to how Mason is a carbon-copy of Lecomte at the 1, Mayer will replicate much of the same value offensively as Nuni Omot did last season – a lengthy wing who can stretch the floor as an efficient 3-point shooter (though, Mayer is a couple inches shorter than the 6’9 Omot). Kegler presents a more versatile option on the wing who can guard all 5 positions on the floor – per an offseason report from Wacotrib.com, Kegler actually guarded Lecomte on the scout team during practice last season.
Vital was yet another another top-100 recruit coming out of high-school, who returns as an integral part of the Bears' front court as a high-octane athlete on the wing. What Vital lacks in offensive polish, he makes up for with his explosiveness and never-ending motor. Vital's relentless pursuit of the offensive glass – an area Scott Drew coached teams always prioritize – earned him a spot in the starting rotation for 15 of the 18 conference games last season.
Per an offseason feature written by CJ Moore of the Athletic, Mason and his father created their own criteria of potential landing spots when deliberating on where to ultimately transfer:
1. A system that would be able to utilize Mason’s skill set
2. A program that could make an NCAA Tournament run in 2019
3. A team with a dominant frontline
The 3rd and final qualifier defines the standards for which a revamped frontline must live up to in 2019. Though, interestingly enough, this might actually be Drew’s thinnest frontline in recent memory – I purposefully use the word “thinnest” and not “weakest” or "worst” because while the experience and depth of the frontcourt rotation is somewhat scarce, Tristan Clark has a chance to be really, really good. Drew said that Clark “hit a wall” at some point during his freshman campaign, but his season long advanced stat splits are rather encouraging for a guy just scratching the surface of his potential.
Finally, Drew has an established track record of developing “2nd-tier recruits” – prospects that fly under-the-radar – into legit NBA prospects and productive Big-12 players. Thus, it would be silly to discount the impact the newcomers (freshmen Flo Thamba and Jackson Moffatt, along with JUCO addition Darius Allen and Division III import Freddie Gillespie) could have this season. Thamba is reportedly raw, but his 6’11 frame might be too hard to overlook in the primary rotation and Gillespie was a menace defensively at Carleton College two years ago.
Bottom Line: Over the last two years, Drew has leaned on a roster with a surplus of athletic, long forwards that can overwhelm opponents on the offensive boards and shut down routine passing lanes with octopus arms on the other end. The collection of forwards for Baylor this year has a DNA that skews toward hybrid wings as opposed to a traditional bigs. Thus, it will be interesting to see how Drew and his staff adjust, particularly on the defensive end. Looking back at Baylor’s defensive tendencies from the past few seasons leads me to believe Drew will lean more on his patented morphing 2-3 zone.
Baylor’s effective height per kenpom.com (average team height adjusted for player-by-player minutes per game) ranked 13th and 10th in each of the past two seasons. With that figure likely to drop closer to the D1 average this year, I’d wager Scott showcases the zone more frequently to compensate for the lack of elite length in the middle.
The offense should be aided by refreshing jolt of perimeter playmaking and floor spacing across all five positions, but the defense will be a tricky challenge. All things considered, this is still a top-50 team that will be right back in the bubble conversation come next March.
Key Returners: Christian James, Brady Manek, Rashard Odomes, Kristian Doolittle, Jamuni McNeace, Matt Freeman
Key Losses: Trae Young (NBA), Kameron McGusty (transfer), Jordan Shepherd (transfer), Khadeem Lattin
Key Newcomers: Miles Reynolds (Pacific grad transfer), Aaron Calixte (Maine grad transfer), Kur Kuath (JUCO), Jamal Bieniemy
Outlook: The obvious storyline for the Sooners as they transition to 2019 is readjusting to life without Trae Young. The media outbreak caused by Young’s jaw-dropping scoring outbursts early in the season took college basketball by storm and brought an unexpected circus of attention to OU hoops. With that media attention came an unprecedented level of scrutiny, not just for Young, but for the entire OU team. While Young did take the brunt of the criticism when the season started to sour around mid-January, the rest of the supporting cast got, unfairly, dragged into the fire.
The unexpected explosion of Trae Young caused a ripple effect throughout the rest of the roster. Guys like Christian James, Rashard Odomes and Kam McGusty entered the season with a certain set of expectations for what their role would be. Those predefined roles were completely reshuffled when Trae started going bananas at the PK80 over Thanksgiving break and a once balanced offense quickly became a one-man show. To be clear, that was not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the advanced metrics indicate that Young did in-fact make his teammates better – just refer to the uptick in offensive efficiency for both James and Odomes from 2016-17 to last year. But the point here is that the veteran core of James, Odomes, and Kristian Doolitte (who was suspended during the fall semester last season for academic reasons) should not be discomforted as they take on a much larger share of the offensive burden - all three played prominent roles on the Sooners' 2016-17 squad when Jordan Woodard was running the point.
Much like what we saw in that 2016-17 season, the offensive should revert back to being much more ‘democratic’ with multiple guys stuffing the scoring column on a nightly basis. James has ascended to an all-league caliber off-guard with the strides he made last year and he’s the odds on favorite to lead OU in scoring – but Odomes, Doolittle, Brady Manek (deceptively versatile inverse forward), and newcomer Aaron Calixte (Kruger’s one-year rental to fill the point guard gap) will all be threats to post double digit scoring tallies on a nightly basis.
Calixte was a high-usage, score-first point guard at Maine, but he’s not being asked to come in and replicate what Trae Young did last year. Kruger just needs a reliable floor-general at the primary ball handler spot, who can lead the break and get the ball to the right guy at the right time. Kruger also nabbed another undervalued asset and plus perimeter defender off the transfer wire in Miles Reynolds, formerly of Pacific and SLU. For a Sooner bunch that was spotty defensively last season (and that's being generous), Reynolds and Jamuni McNeace, a solid interior presence who’s continuously improved over his first three seasons in Norman, should bring a much needed defensive-first mindset to the mix.
Rounding out bench depth will be Aussie Matt Freeman and two newcomers in Kur Kuath (JUCO) and Jamal Bieniemy (true freshman). Freeman showed some real promise early on last season, but will have to grind for substantial playing time with McNeace, Manek and Doolittle already having a stranglehold on the frontcourt minutes.
Bottom Line: Few people were as high as I was on OU heading into last year, not because I foresaw the Trae Young phenomenon coming, but rather because I was incredibly bullish on the rest of the roster. Perhaps I’m stubbornly optimistic on the James, Odomes and Doolittle trio, but I’m convinced they’re in store for an outstanding 2018-19 campaign. Defensively, replacing Young’s minutes with Calixte / Reynolds should be a major upgrade on the perimeter and McNeace’s improvement trajectory gives me confidence he’ll be able to replace Lattin’s shoes in the middle.
Overall, Boomer Sooner was a fringe top-50 team last season and a tick below average on both sides of the ball in the Big-12, which matched up with an 8-10 league record. Many will be snoozing on OU this year, but I’d bet the Sooners are around the same neighborhood as last season with an outside chance of sneaking into the dance with an at-large berth. Yes, I'm aware I have them slated to finish 9th in the league, but I'm far from bearish on this Sooner bunch - just remember how the Big-12 race shook out last year with a logjam at the bottom of standings:
10. Oklahoma State
Key Returners: Lindy Waters III, Cameron McGriff
Key Losses: Jeffrey Carroll, Kendall Smith, Mitchell Solomon, Brandon Averette, Tavarius Shine
Key Newcomers: Michael Weathers (Miami OH transfer), Mike Cunningham (USC Upstate grad transfer), Curtis Jones (Indiana transfer eligible in December), Isaac Likekele, Yor Anti, Duncan Demuth, Kentrevious Jones, Maurice Calloo
Outlook: In a conference overflowing with marquee coaching names, Mike Boynton feels like somewhat of an outcast amongst his Big-12 peers. But what he lacked in name recognition, he more than made up for on the hardwood when conference action rolled around last winter.
After being placed in a sticky situation replacing his longtime mentor Brad Underwood as the leading man on the sidelines – not to mention that FBI fiasco with former assistant Lamont Evans – his Pokes were just plain pests to their opponents all season long. Despite replacing an All-Everything point guard with an unknown newcomer from the Big West, the Pokes’ tournament resume featured a “Good Wins” section that had some beef: notable victims included Texas Tech, West Virginia (in Morgantown), Florida State (in Florida) and Kansas twice (one of which was at Phog Allen).
Boynton continued to build on many of the same stylistic principles instilled by Underwood in 2016-17, which has proven time and time again to be a giant killer. But at the end of the day, OSU got worn down by the pressure cooker that is the Big-12 and the selection committee showed no sympathy for those aforementioned high profile wins. Despite the disappointment of missing the Big Dance, a top seed in the NIT probably earned Boynton a grade of “Exceeded Expectations” on his year 1 report card.
Looking ahead to 2019, trying to break that invisible barrier of the upper-half of the Big 12 standings will be especially tough with such high roster turnover this summer. Boynton loses five key rotation guys, including his leading scorer and leading rebounder, along with his starting point guard (Kendall Smith) and top candidate to assume that role this year (Brandon Averette).
Projecting how the newcomers will fill in these holes must be done in the context of Boynton’s system who, as a Brad Underwood disciple, prescribes to many of the same pillars as his former teacher. On defense, those teachings are rooted in extended perimeter pressure across all five positions with a pesky set of guards and versatile, athletic forwards. On offense, it’s a combination of organized chaos in transition and a perpetual invasion of the offensive boards (my colleague Ky broke down the intricacies of this offense two years ago).
Depending on whether Boynton prioritizes a traditional lineup (one with a true big in the middle) or a super small-ball lineup with Cameron McGriff at the 5, the perimeter could feature three new faces by December (essentially when Curtis Jones becomes eligible). The latter of those two options will be super risky, especially in a league with some scary frontlines, but it does more closely align with the brand of basketball Boynton and Underwood preferred in their earlier days at Stephen F. Austin – also, Boynton gave it a test run in small doses down the stretch last year (see 5th row in graphic below, which indicates the most commonly used lineup combinations over Oklahoma State's last five games of the season):
The undisputed gem of the newcomers – and there are a lot of them – is Miami OH transfer Michael Weathers. Weathers claimed freshman of the year honors in the MAC two seasons ago and did just about everything you could reasonably ask of a freshman guard, leading the Redhawks in scoring (17 ppg), assists (5 apg), steals (2 spg) and blocks (1.4 bpg).
The hope is that Weathers will mature into an efficient lead ball handler with some more reliable offensive support around him – this will come in the form of undervalued freshman guard Isaac Likekele, Indiana transfer Curtis Jones and rising sophomore swingman Lindy Waters. Likekele is a fringe top-150 prospect per 247sports.com and Jones began his IU career as top-75 recruit per verbalcommitts.com. No one questions Likekele and Jones' talent, but how quickly that will translate into consistent production remains uncertain. Mike Cunningham will also be inserted as a key cog in the backcourt rotation, who offers some much needed experience to a relatively unproven group of guards.
Waters is an ex-teammate of Trae Young in high-school and posted a hyper-efficient freshman season as a low-usage wing shooter and opportunistic scorer. He and McGriff are expected to expedite their roles as leaders both on-and-off the floor as the only two consistent contributors from last season. Waters will have to sustain his offensive efficiency as a much more utilized option offensively, while McGriff may have an ever taller task on the other end having to bang bodies with bigger forwards in the paint.
That brings us to the glaring concern for this roster heading in to 2019 - interior size. With the crushing last second decision of Lucas N'Guessan to transfer, Boynton has a gaping hole in the middle of the floor. The only viable candidates are a pair of freshman in 6’10 Kentrevious Jones and 6’10 Yor Anei. Both are solid, but not elite prospects, while the other two freshman forwards Duncan Demuth and Maurice Calloo are a bit smaller at 6’8.
Bottom Line: Continuing with that relatively gloomy tone, here’s the cold hard truth that Oklahoma State fans must come to grips with: the already bruising Big-12 didn’t get any weaker this offseason and while the Pokes will certainly remain competitive, someone has to finish at the bottom of the conference totem pole. My glass ball tells me the Cowboys will find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble, not because they aren’t one of the best 68 teams, but because they were victims of the Big-12 bloodbath yet again. With the laundry list of question marks in the frontcourt and all the new faces on the perimeter, it will take a Mount Everest-esque climb for Boynton to take the Pokes dancing in his 2nd season in Stillwater.