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: Udoka Azubuike, Sr., Kansas
Coach of the Year: Chris Beard, Texas Tech
Newcomer of the Year: Chris Clarke, R Sr., Texas Tech
Freshman of the Year: Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech
See full preview here: #28 in our Top-40 countdown
5. West Virginia
See full preview here: #39 in our Top-40 countdown
6. Iowa St.
Key Returners: Tyrese Haliburton, Michael Jacobson, Solomon Young (injury)
Key Losses: Marial Shayok, Lindell Wigginton (pro), Cameron Lard (pro), Talen Horton-Tucker (pro), Nick Weiler-Babb
Key Newcomers: Prentiss Nixon (Colorado St.), Caleb Grill, Luke Anderson, Tre Jackson, Marcedus Leech, Rasir Bolton (Penn St.)***
Outlook: Iowa State ended the season with one of the most erratic stretches in recent memory, leaving the Weave completely baffled as to what the Cyclones would do next. That included losing five of their final six (and six of eight) regular season games, including thrice at Hilton Coliseum, and whispers we heard from the program were that the players’ chemistry had experienced some major fissures due to infighting and unhappiness with roles. So naturally, the ‘Clones went to Kansas City and ripped off three straight wins, capped by a thorough strangling of Kansas in the title game in which Iowa State led by nine or more for the entirety of the second half. They had figured it out, right? Of course not! Instead, they fell to a less talented Ohio State team in Round 1, frustrated by a well-coached defensive unit.
So, where does that leave them this year?
Unclear. The professional defections of Lindell Wigginton and Talen Horton-Tucker, along with the graduation of Marial Shayok, leaves Iowa State without its three leading scorers, and the resulting fallout of shot distribution will be worth keeping an eye on. Last year’s Cyclones team had an air of “tug of war” between its three high-usage stars, while this year’s squad, at least at this stage, looks like more of a “hot potato” kind of game for buckets. Steve Prohm ensured one of those three was on the floor at all times last season because the offense would have grinded to a halt otherwise; per Hoop Lens data, the three sat simultaneously for just 64 total possessions last year (out of over 2300). This year, no such obvious threats exist.
The team’s best player may be sophomore guard Tyrese Haliburton, but he was deathly allergic to shooting last year, and it remains to be seen whether he can handle a significant bump in offensive responsibility. He signed up for the Monte Morris School of Assist-to-Turnover Mastery (second in the country at 4.46:1), and his unorthodox jumper was deadly (43% from deep), but it’s telling that he qualified in the “Nearly Invisible” section of KenPom’s roster page. He can slide off the ball at times, and with the arrival of freshman point guards Tre Jackson and Caleb Grill, he’ll have the chance to do so.
That means the scoring punch in up-tempo spread offense will probably need to come from elsewhere. The most likely candidates are Michael Jacobson, who actually managed to average double figures alongside the aforementioned shot-happy trio, Colorado St. transfer Prentiss Nixon, and Penn St. transfer Rasir Bolton. Jacobson is a skilled big with touch out to the three-point line and a sneaky mean streak, while Nixon was the leading scorer at his last stop, but he did so inefficiently for an outright bad Mountain West team. Bolton is the wild card – he needs a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately (many think he’ll get it), and he wasn’t particularly effective for a disappointing Nittany Lions team last year. Still, though, he showed an innate confidence as a freshman in a power conference, and slotting into a friendlier offensive system could do wonders (just ask Shayok). If Bolton is not eligible, Terrence Lewis, a former top 100 recruit himself, could be due for a much bigger role, and Marcedus Leech will battle for playing time on the wing, as well.
Iowa State has long been a favorite of the Weave due to its propensity to launch threes, and even more importantly avoid fouls on both ends. This trend has carried over from Fred Hoiberg to Prohm, and while there’s probably an argument that the lack of physicality has limited the ‘Clones’ defensive ceiling, I’m all for the aesthetic pleasure of it. Prohm will look to George Conditt as a replacement for Cam Lard’s interior presence and shot-blocking, and if Solomon Young is healthy, he provides a more defensive, “two-big” alternative at the power forward spot after Iowa State went small almost exclusively last year. Freshman forward Luke Anderson continues the Wisconsin-to-Ames pipeline that brought Matt Thomas and Haliburton, among others, and his shooting could pair with Jacobson to form an extremely stretchy frontcourt duo. I doubt that this is the year the defense is finally better than the offense (it’s now been ten straight seasons without that being the case!), but with a stouter front line and a lanky ball-hawk in Haliburton patrolling the perimeter, there’s at least a chance.
Bottom Line: Offense has never been the question in Ames, but this year, there’s definitely some uncertainty around who will do most of the scoring. The candidates are there, though, leaving Prohm to sort out how to distribute the multitude of newly-available shots. The battle over who the alpha was hindered the Cyclones last year, both on and off the court, and establishing a stricter pecking order may help matters this time around. As it stands, Iowa State looks primed to be a bubble team, with thin margins pushing them to either the right or the wrong side come March.
Key Returners: Kristian Doolittle, Brady Manek, Jamal Bieniemy
Key Losses: Christian James, Jamuni McNeace, Rashard Odomes, Aaron Calixte, Miles Reynolds
Key Newcomers: Austin Reaves (Wichita St.), De’Vion Harmon, Corbin Merritt (JUCO), Victor Iwuakor, Alondes Williams (JUCO), Jalen Hill, Anyang Garang
Outlook: Two years, one with Trae Young, one without – and very little difference in result for the hoops squad in Norman. Last year’s squad without the freshman phenom actually won two more games than the Trae team, but a similar disastrous February ruined a terrific non-conference performance once again. Both teams finished below .500 in league play and limped into the tournament, and although last year’s squad did thump Mississippi in the Round of 64, the season still felt a bit underwhelming after an 11-1 start.
The process to getting there, though, was vastly different. The Trae Young team featured a one-year aberration of completely featuring one dynamite talent, while last year’s edition was far more representative of what Kruger is looking to do on a yearly basis. Kruger emphasizes a stout man-to-man defense that focuses (to an almost maniacal extent) on taking away driving lanes into the paint. That means keeping opponents stretched out on the perimeter, and his shakier defenses can be exploited by strong three-point shooters. This year’s backcourt likely features two point guards in sophomore Jamal Bieniemy and freshman De’Vion Harmon, but Bieniemy’s size allows him to effectively switch between guards and wings without much problem, and Harmon reportedly has a 6’6” wingspan himself. Both also have tremendous hands defensively, and though Oklahoma’s defense won’t rely on turnovers, they will help create some easy run-out chances going the other way. The two lockdown guards should set the tone for an Oklahoma defense that may not be quite as stout inside.
The returning starting forward pairing of Kristian Doolittle and Brady Manek complement each other well, skill-wise: Manek is a stretch big, comfortable beyond the three-point line while looking like a frumpy Larry Bird, and Doolittle is more of a paint bully who attacked mismatches with his strength and quickness. Their harmonious games led to a major boost for the offense when they played together (especially without another big):
Other lineups either lacked the interior scoring without Doolittle or became cramped without Manek’s shooting. However, neither has the size or bounce to consistently bother opponents at the rim, so walling off the paint within Kruger’s scheme is paramount. Plus, Kruger wants to play Doolittle as more of a big wing this year, which opens up a spot in the lineup for a bigger body inside.
JUCO transfer Corbin Merritt is limited offensively, but he can provide some shot-blocking relief, and freshman Victor Iwuakor looks like Doolittle’s protégé as a burly, active producer inside who can dabble on the perimeter as well. Kur Kuath and Rick Issanza are players in the same vein as Merritt, though more raw (Issanza may redshirt). Of course, as the Hoop Lens screenshot shows, the defense was just fine with Doolittle and Manek occupying the frontcourt, so Kruger can always go back that pairing, as well.
Bieniemy and Harmon will likely share the point guard duties offensively (though Bieniemy may shift back to the wing, where he’s reportedly more comfortable), but they’ll be aided by two wings who also make smart decisions and find scorers. Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves was one of our favorites while a part of Shocker Nation, a savvy defender and knockdown shooter who makes the extra pass, and JUCO transfer Alondes Williams racked up over five assists per game at Triton College. The issue will be who converts all of those passes, though. Harmon is more of a defender/passer combination at this stage of his development, and Bieniemy much prefers setting the table to gobbling up the steak.
That creates a bit of an issue for Kruger’s offenses, which have ranked in the top 40 nationally in isolation possessions the last two years. Doolittle will get plenty of chances to attack thinner or slower big men, but the rest of the roster doesn’t have a stand out iso scorer unless one of the point guards emerges. Manek’s shooting is a weapon to help open up driving lanes, and he and Doolittle will probably lead the team in scoring, but the Sooners need one of Reaves, Williams, or freshman Jalen Hill to provide wing scoring punch.
Bottom Line: The Sooner roster is a little backwards compared to the roster construction I usually prefer – the guards are known as superb defenders, while the big men will carry a lot of the scoring load – but Kruger is an excellent coach who should adapt to that personnel and find the best style to make it work. After the top three in the Big 12 (and maybe just the top two), the conference is fairly wide open, meaning a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance is certainly attainable. With lower expectations, a third straight “middle of the Big 12, NCAA at-large bid, early exit” kind of campaign would have to be seen as a success before the young roster (one senior in the primary rotation) really contends atop the league in 2020-21.
8. Oklahoma St.
Key Returners: Cam McGriff, Lindy Waters, Isaac Likekele, Thomas Dziagwa, Yor Anei
Key Losses: Michael Weathers (booted mid-year), Curtis Jones (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Jonathan Laurent (UMass), Marcus Watson, Chris Harris, Avery Anderson, Kalib Boone, Keylan Boone, Hidde Roessink
Outlook: Let’s give the 2018-19 Cowboys a mulligan, shall we? Staring down the barrel of perhaps the thinnest roster in all of power conference basketball thanks to Mike Boynton’s strict “Absolutely None of That Bullshit” policy re: breaking team rules, the Cowboys consistently wore down against stiff competition last year. Despite some extremely game efforts (won at Baylor, took Texas Tech to overtime in Lubbock), there simply weren’t enough Big 12 caliber players remaining in Stillwater. This marked the second straight season in which Boynton dismissed multiple players mid-year for off-court transgressions, and the Cowboys went 4-11 to close the year as the thin roster took its toll.
That makes for a peculiar roster this year: a natural returning starting five of veterans, plus six incoming freshmen and one grad transfer hoping to inject the depth that Oklahoma State so sorely lacked. The emergence of several of the newcomers is mandatory to alleviate many of the ills that plagued the 2018-19 team: soft defense (to avoid foul trouble), a significantly slower tempo than Boynton prefers (to conserve energy), and tired legs towards the end of games, a death knell for a team so reliant on perimeter shooting. Oklahoma State ranked 338th nationally in bench minutes, and the defense in Big 12 play was especially crushed by that impact (red = bad):
The feisty attitude shown by the players they did have, though, was commendable. Isaac Likekele displayed tremendous passing instincts in his role as point guard/strong safety, and like most freshman-to-sophomore point guard progressions, his efficiency should improve. Cameron McGriff is a terrifying individual, too, throwing down vicious dunks and demonstrating an inside-out game as a versatile power forward. And the wings were manned by two snipers in Lindy Waters and Thomas Dziagwa, two guys who combined to shoot 401 threes compared to just 206 twos and 109 free throws. Waters actually showed an expanded game last year, and he should benefit from being forced to into a larger role at times.
Perhaps the most surprising of the bunch, though, was Yor Anei, who immediately announced himself as one of the country’s best shot-blockers with six swats against Memphis in November at the Advocare Invitational (aka the Pyramid Scheme Classic). He’s capable of anchoring a strong defense, he just needs to stay on the court (he had a case of the Freshman Foulsies) and have a little more help around him – both things that should come this year.
Boynton, like his mentor Brad Underwood, wants to get out and pressure some on the defensive end. Not being able to do so last year probably killed him inside, but that should change this year. UMass grad transfer Jonathan Laurent is a long, active forward, and freshman guards Chris Harris (played with Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey at South Garland in Texas), Avery Anderson, and Marcus Watson all appear ready to play early minutes. Plus, extending on the perimeter is much more palatable with a human eraser like Anei waiting inside.
Offensively, the Cowboys run a lot of triangle action, shown tremendously by this Jordan Sperber video tweet thread (see the continuation of the thread for more):
That’s Underwood’s offense, but Boynton will use a lot of similar principles, particularly the pinch post action to get Likekele going downhill. Instilling – not just installing – more than just the basic action to a group with so many newcomers will be difficult, as so much of offenses like that is predicated on feel and making the right read which comes with experience. The returning five should run some crisp sets, though, and the attack should develop as the year goes along. Harris, originally a Texas A&M commit, was a welcome addition to the class after Buzz Williams took over in College Station, and he and Watson should provide a nice boost offensively with their individual talents.
Bottom Line: Some are jumping all aboard the Oklahoma State hype train, but I’m a little more apprehensive. The pieces may take a little while to mesh, and although Boynton has collected some significant wins in his tenure, he still has plenty to prove against a collection of outstanding Big 12 coaches. Like all teams in the Big 12’s bottom seven, the Cowboys have a shot at the NCAA Tournament, but only if Likekele and Anei blossom into stars as sophomores and the freshmen class has multiple impact guys. As it stands, I’ll mark them down for a nice step up in power rating thanks to the added depth, but I’m also adopting more of a “wait and see” approach before predicting even bigger things.
9. Kansas St.
Key Returners: Xavier Sneed, Makol Mawien, Cartier Diarra, Mike McGuirl
Key Losses: Dean Wade, Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes
Key Newcomers: DaJuan Gordon, David Sloan (JUCO), Montavius Murphy, Antonio Gordon
Outlook: Coming off a season of highs and lows, Kansas State has a tall task ahead in replacing one of the most storied senior classes in the history of the program. Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, and Dean Wade led the Wildcats to 88 wins over their four years, including finally ending big brother KU’s 14-year conference title streak, and although their careers ended on a sour note (particularly Wade’s foot injury), they’re still program pillars who won’t soon be forgotten. Bruce Weber (somehow third in program history in wins already?) now turns to a younger cast of characters to maintain the Wildcats’ momentum, bolstered by potential star Xavier Sneed’s decision to withdraw from the NBA Draft process.
Weber’s teams thrive on old-fashioned, hard-nosed man-to-man pressure in the half court, getting into the shorts of opposing ball-handlers and making it extremely difficult to run any kind of offensive continuity. Brown and Stokes were a huge part of that, but Mike McGuirl and Cartier Diarra look ready to take over the mantle, rising juniors who spent two seasons battling their veteran counterparts in practice and learning the ins and outs of the system. Sneed is more of a longer wing, but he fits the style perfectly, and his ability to flex between guarding wings and power forwards gives Weber multiple lineup options. JUCO transfer David Sloan is known more for his passing prowess – he led the NJCAA in assists last year – but he’ll need to embrace the defensive tenets to earn playing time. That would help keep Shaun Williams off the floor, which would definitely be a positive after the team completely collapsed on both ends when he played:
He was only a freshman, so he could certainly improve, but that split (-26 per 100 with him, +17 without him) is barely short of intentionally sabotaging the team. Still, though, K-State needs one of him or Sloan to provide some depth.
Offensively, Weber’s greatest challenge will be replacing Wade’s impact as a big man that can stretch the floor or score one-on-one in the post (94th percentile, per Synergy). Makol Mawien is a bruiser and useful offensive rebounder, but his skill set is limited, and Levi Stockard is purely a banger himself. If one of the freshmen - either Montavious Murphy, a lanky 6’8 forward with some bounce, or Antonio Gordon, an athletic Oklahoman- shows some offensive pop, he’ll play right away.
That means a heavy offensive burden will fall on the perimeter group, none of whom have had to shoulder that kind of load before at this level. Sloan is a quick driver and crafty passer, and his creation would fit in well for a team that loses a ton of it in Brown, Stokes, and Wade. Sneed has thrived as a complementary scorer, but he’ll also be asked to handle more of a workload, and his experience in Weber’s four-out motion system (along with McGuirl and Diarra) should allow the off-ball action of screens and cuts to function well. The offense doesn’t rely solely on one individual to set the table, but it does require crisp ball movement from four positions, meaning Sneed likely plays a ton of nominal power forward (which will help spacing as well). The wild card is freshman guard DaJuan Gordon, the team’s highest-rated recruit and a skilled scorer, who is capable of providing another option for a team that might severely lack punch on this end.
Bottom Line: Weber’s teams traditionally play slowly, but last year was a new “low,” as the Wildcats checked in at 339th in tempo. Weber has talked about reversing that trend, and playing more in transition may help prop up the concerning offense. The lockdown perimeter defense should keep a relatively stable floor and could even get K State into the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year, but I’d put the odds against it. Weber’s offenses just don’t have enough juice (the common complaint from his dissenters), and for a team without individual weapons to compensate for that, that means Manhattan won’t be celebrating another Big 12 title this season.
Key Returners: Desmond Bane, Kevin Samuel, RJ Nembhard
Key Losses: Alex Robinson, JD Miller, Kouat Noi (pro), Kendric Davis (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Edric Dennis (UT Arlington), PJ Fuller, Jaire Grayer (George Mason), Francisco Farabello, Diante Smith, Mickey Pearson Jr.
Outlook: Jamie Dixon’s “will he or won’t he” drama this offseason ended with a resounding “he won’t,” as his flirtation with the UCLA job ultimately amounted to nothing other than an awkward return to his alma mater. Horned Frog fans should be relieved, though: Dixon led the program to its first NCAA Tournament in 20 years and second since he graduated in 1987, boosting the once-moribund program into a competitive tier it has not seen in quite some time.
The TCU offseason was eventful not only for Dixon’s possible departure, though: five players transferred and another went pro, robbing a roster that was already losing crucial pieces to graduation of any prospective depth. There’s also no clear answer at point guard after Kendric Davis became one of the transfer casualties; to add insult to injury, he moved across the DFW metro area to SMU. That leaves incoming Argentinian freshman Francisco Farabello as the only true lead guard on the roster, and while he’s skilled, he may struggle with the physicality of the Big 12 in his first campaign. That means Dixon likely slides one of his combo scoring guards over to the point, and I’d love to see Desmond Bane get more time on the ball. Bane is a specimen of a wing who also sports a silky shooting touch, and if he’s able to show some real creation juice in Dixon’s spread offense, pro scouts will warm up to him quickly. For a team that loses its five highest-usage players, Bane could be a breakout star as a senior with significantly increased offensive responsibility. UT Arlington grad transfer Edric Dennis and top 100 freshman PJ Fuller are similar styles of players – combo guards that lean more towards the “shooting” side of things than the “passing.”
Having one specific playmaker at point guard is not a necessity for Dixon’s offense to run smoothly, though. His teams always rank among the nation’s best in assist percentage, as the open floor action encourages a lot of slash-and-kick against rotating defenders. Continuing that ball movement is a team task, and possessions like this will be crucial without having an Alex Robinson or Jaylen Fisher to break down the defense late in the shot clock:
That’s where the offense will be strong – constantly probing the defense, having multiple perimeter threats who will punish defenders that pinch down on drives from Bane, Dennis, and Fuller (all of whom can shoot themselves, too). RJ Nembhard and George Mason transfer Jaire Grayer can both get hot from the outside, although neither showed it last year: Nembhard converted a bricky 30% of his 77 attempts, while Grayer managed only eight games for the Patriots while dealing with injury. TCU needs bounce-back years from both to reach its full potential (whatever that may be).
The depth questions become extremely pressing when focus turns to the paint. Kevin Samuel is going to be a rock inside for the next three years as a finisher, shot-swatter, and rebounder, but only raw big man Russell Barlow and ‘tweener forwards Diante Smith and Mickey Pearson can provide any type of backup or complement to the big redshirt sophomore. That means a ton of small ball for the Froggies, and in a league with several colossal front courts (Kansas, West Virginia, and Baylor come to mind), TCU’s wings will all need to rebound by committee. Dixon’s Pitt teams were vicious on the offensive glass, but that trend fell off a bit last year, and other than Samuel, the team just doesn’t have the bangers to feast in that manner, meaning they’ll be even more reliant on perimeter shot-making.
Bottom Line: To be crystal clear, this is not a bad basketball team. Placing them in last is more of a “by default” necessity than an indictment on Dixon and the roster, because it’s entirely plausible that Bane and Samuel drag the Horned Frogs up a few slots in the standings. The NCAA Tournament is probably a tough ask in a brutal league like the Big 12, but if the pieces come together quickly in the non-conference, they’re certainly not doomed to being a cellar dweller. They’ll be tough to beat at home thanks to Dixon’s sharp basketball mind, and they may have a say in who wins the league if they can pull a surprise upset or two.