- Our Big 12 preview looks at the biggest threats to a 15th straight title by Kansas, as well as conference player and newcomer of the year picks, opposing scout's takes and more.
As part of SI.com's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC, ACC, the Big East and the Big Ten; Next up for our conference previews is the Big 12, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and anonymous scouting takes from coaches or assistants around the league.
The Big Picture
Kansas is a heavy favorite to win the Big 12 once again behind a pair of impact additions, but the race behind the Jayhawks looks to be fierce. West Virginia will have to cope with the departure of its two top guards, while Kansas State looks to build on its 2018 Elite Eight appearance. Don’t sleep on Iowa State with a slew of returning starters, and the same goes for Texas and head coach Shaka Smart. So how will the conference shake out behind Kansas? Here’s our season preview.
Conference Player of the Year: Dedric Lawson, Kansas
The Memphis transfer should pick up right where he left off in 2016–17, when the 6’8” forward averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. Bill Self would be wise to give Lawson the keys to Kansas’s attack as soon as possible, taking advantage of Lawson’s impressive court vision and burst to the hole. Lawson is best used as a point forward, running the break and knifing to the basket on the pick-and-roll. Azubuike will feast on lobs and Lawson will lead Kansas to its 15th straight Big 12 title.
Newcomer of the Year: Quentin Grimes, Kansas
It’s a tad tiresome giving accolades to the Jayhawks, but such is life in the Big 12. Grimes should be a force before Big 12 play even begins, sporting a lanky 6’5” frame and solid jump shot to boot. The McDonald’s All-American is best known for his speed and athleticism, flying above the rim on the fast break. Pair Grimes with Lagerald Vick in the backcourt and Bill Self may not miss Devonte Graham and Malik Newman too much after all.
Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: Iowa State
The Cyclones return five of their top six scorers, have a legit first-team All-Big 12 player in Lindell Wigginton and add a trio of experienced transfers. That’s a recipe for success. Last season's 13–18 finish projects to be more of a blip on the radar than a sign of things to come for Iowa State, and head coach Steve Prohm has been a proven winner both with the Cyclones and at Murray State. And don’t underestimate the difficulty of winning in Ames, Iowa, one of the toughest opposing crowds in the conference. Kansas should cruise to a conference title, but if things go south in Lawrence, Wigginton and Co. could snatch the Big 12 crown.
Predicted Order of Finish
The Skinny: A trio of perimeter departures, including 2017–18 Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham, will hinder the Jayhawks from outside, but a return to pounding the paint will be a welcome sight for head coach Bill Self. And the Jayhawks won’t be aching for talent, either. Kansas brings back interior force Udoka Azubuike for his junior season and add a pair of impressive guards. Five-star shooting guard Quentin Grimes could start on opening night, and Self claimed one of the jewels of the transfer market, bringing in junior point forward Dedric Lawson from Memphis. It’s Kansas’s conference to lose once again.
Scout’s Take: “They lose three big shooters on the perimeter, but I expect Kansas to pick right up where they left off... Bill Self will be happy to get back to inside smashmouth basketball... When you run them off the three-point-line, that’s where Azubuike really hurts you on the lob... Azubuike became a much better passer in the post last season, he may face some double teams this year... Lagerald Vick is the old man but Marcus Garrett is better suited to start... Garrett’s an active and effective defender, he brings them a real energy... Vick’s best value comes as a shooter, doesn’t pose a huge threat breaking you down... Quentin Grimes is the jewel of Kansas’s class. He has size, he can stroke it, and a quality leaper, too... Grimes can get you 30 in a game as a freshman... Devon Dotson is so smooth... Dotson will fill in nicely for the guys Kansas lost, he’s a legit lead ball-handler even with his size... The title still runs through Lawrence, no doubt about that.”
2. Kansas State
The Skinny: Expectations are high in the Little Apple coming off the school’s second Elite Eight appearance of the decade. Head coach Bruce Weber has increased Kansas State’s win total each of the last four seasons, and with leading scorers Dean Wade and Barry Brown returning, the streak should continue. The defensive-minded Wildcats expect an offensive leap from junior Xavier Sneed, who lead Kansas State with 22 points in a three-point victory over Kentucky in the Sweet 16 last season.
Scout’s Take: “They return so many guys from last year’s Elite Eight team, I think they’re the best bet to take down Kansas... Wade can exploit any mismatch, he can score in the post, he can stretch you out, he’s such a tough matchup... Wade is as dynamic a four as we have in the conference... I’d prefer to defend Wade on the block than the perimeter... Barry Brown is a big shot taker, dude is fearless... Sneed isn’t as physical as Wade, but he really stretches you out.... Sneed is a bit of a streaky shooter, don’t let him catch and shoot... They’re a bit undersized, not much shot blocking around the rim... If you can limit the three-point shot, the road to victory becomes much easier.”
3. West Virginia
The Skinny: Press Virginia lost its heartbeat when Jevon Carter graduated, and Carter’s former backcourt mate Daxter Miles is gone, too. In their place will be a diminutive trio that’s strong on shooting but light on defense, led by junior James Bolden, redshirt freshman Brandon Knapper and four-star freshman Jordan McCabe. The Mountaineers' manic defense may be ratcheted back in 2018–19. West Virginia’s biggest strength comes on its front line, spearheaded by Sagaba Konate. The Mountaineers’ sultan of swat averaged 3.2 blocks per game last season, adding a nascent post game in the process. Yet without Carter and Miles, the Mountaineers enter the season fallen from their perch as the Big 12’s second-best team.
Scout’s Take: “Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles were nightmares on defense, we lost plenty of sleep scheming against them... I don’t know if West Virginia will have the same toughness as last year with those two guards, but Huggins will find enough... James Bolden will have a lot riding on him, he’s going to get the keys to the offense... Their front line is the best in our league... Konate completely puts a fence around the rim, nobody affects shots like he does... Konate used to be limited to just dunks, but he’s developed somewhat of an inside game... Esa Ahmad is a great combo forward, can really spread it out, he pairs well with Lamont West... It will be a much smaller backcourt, the strength of their defense will come from the backline... Jordan McCabe will be able to score from the outset, but I’m skeptical he’ll be stable enough on defense to play big minutes as a freshman.”
The Skinny: An NCAA tournament appearance in 2018–19 would be TCU’s first back-to-back trip to March Madness since 1951–53. It won’t be an easy trek for the Horned Frogs after losing leading scorers Vladimir Brodziansky and Kenrich Williams, though head coach Jamie Dixon’s roster is stocked with versatile playmakers in the backcourt. Junior Jaylen Fisher returns after shooting 44% from deep in an injury-abbreviated 2017–18, and junior Desmond Bane projects to carry a large share of ball-handling duties after averaging 12.5 points per game last season. Expect the Horned Frogs to shoot their way to plenty of Big 12 victories despite a depleted front line.
Scout’s Take: “They lost a guy in Brodziansky who dictated a lot of their pick-and-roll action... Brodziansky always made the right play, knew where to go with the ball, I don’t think they have a big who can replicate that this year... Their assists went way way up when Jaylen Fisher went out... Alex Robinson is more effective than Fisher at getting guys involved moving the ball around... I don’t know how well Fisher and Robinson will mesh... Fisher can get his own shot against anybody, he can catch fire like few other guys in this conference... Kouat Noi can really stroke it as a three... Losing Kenrich Williams will kill them on the glass. He could defend like hell and crash the boards so effectively at 6’ 7”... Jamie Dixon has this team ready to play, he’s gotten buy-in from everyone... There’s more talent there than people give them credit for.”
The Skinny: Is this the year Texas capitalizes on its talent? After squandering the Mo Bamba era with a first-round exit last season, head coach Shaka Smart’s roster doesn’t have a traditional headliner in 2018–19, but the Longhorns do boast one of the most talented rotations in the Big 12. Center Jericho Sims is one of the best leapers in the nation, and the backcourt tandem of Matt Coleman and Kerwin Roach should shine if the latter continues his progression as a three-point shooter. The Longhorns bring in a quartet of four-star prospects, led by top-50 guard Courtney Ramey.
Scout’s Take: “The shot-blocking is now gone with Bamba in the NBA... I don’t think I’ve ever seen wingspan like Bamba’s, this defense will be a lot different without him... Jericho Sims has a lot to replace, but I like him as a roll guy and dunker... As an athlete, Sims is unmatched in the country... Can their guards effectively get Sims the ball? They struggled to feed the post last year... Osetkowski’s shot attempts aren’t going to go down, he’s still important to their offense... Texas will go smaller and use three-guard lineups a lot to try and juice their shooting this year... Everybody expects Roach to take off, this is finally his team... Roach should be this team’s leading scorer... Matt Coleman has good length and size at the point, great poise, too... Coleman should look for his own shot more, their offense opens up when he attacks the hoop... Ramey will play a lot, he’s one of the better passing guards to come into the conference... Kamaka Hepa is a good pick-and-pop guy, played USA Basketball, we like him... The talent is there as usual, but Shaka Smart has to start putting it all together... This should be a tournament team.”
6. Texas Tech
The Skinny: A lot will ride on sophomore guard Jarrett Culver as he aims to replace leading scorer Keenan Evans and first-round pick Zhaire Smith. Culver averaged 11.2 points per game while shooting 38.2% from the arc as a freshman, and now, he’ll be the key focal point of head coach Chris Beard’s attack. Beard and Co. will get some reinforcements in the transfer market, adding St. John’s forward Tariq Owens and South Dakota guard Matt Mooney. A return to the NCAA tournament would be Texas Tech’s first back-to-back appearance since 1984–86.
Scout’s Take: “Their motion stuff dictates a lot of what they do... People don’t realize how good they were defensively last year, it was nightmarish... Jarrett Culver can do everything, he’s not the athlete Zhaire Smith is, but Culver can run the offense and score effectively... Culver could be one of the best players in the conference. He’s smart, he’s long, I love his game... Picking up the transfer [Matt] Mooney was huge for them... Mooney can score, he’s a quality three-point shooter, he’s not afraid to take big shots... [Tariq] Owens is a long, slender guy. That s--- might work in the Big East, but you don’t see that work in our conference unless they’re as good as a guy like [Mo] Bamba... Brandone Francis is going to have a big role, he elevated his game when they were shorthanded last season... Francis has gained a lot of confidence in his jumper, that will serve them well.”
7. Iowa State
The Skinny: Expect an improvement on the Cyclones’ 4–14 record in Big 12 play last season. Iowa State returns three of its top four scorers from last season, including leading scorer Lindell Wigginton. The 6’2” sophomore averaged 16.7 per game in his freshman campaign, shooting 40.1% from beyond the arc. Senior Nick-Weiler Babb will pair with Wigginton in the backcourt, while sophomore Cameron Lard beefs up the Cyclones in the paint. Expect Iowa State to return to the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in eight seasons after last year’s absence.
Scout’s Take: “The last two classes for Iowa State have been very good, they’ve built a quality program... Wigginton and Lard were two of the better scorers in our conference last year even as freshmen... Nick Weiler-Babb does a great job distributing the ball... Weiler-Babb is as good as anyone at taking the ball off the glass and pushing it on the break... Lard is a talent inside, he can bang with the best of them... I think they’re most excited about Talen Horton-Tucker, tough kid from Chicago... Horton-Tucker should fit right into what they do, he’s a throwback player, he’s a winner, they’ll love him there... Wigginton is a pure jump shooter, he’s compact, he doesn’t over-dribble... Wigginton can really score off the bounce, he’ll be near the top in the Big 12 in scoring... They do a great job of exploiting matchups, and they have plenty of personnel for that... I’d go small if I were them, I’d experiment with Horton-Tucker at the four... It’s never easy against Iowa State, they make you earn it.”
The Skinny: Baylor will feel the pain of numerous departures in the front court, headlined by 7-foot center Jo Acuil. The Bears lose their leading scorer from 2017–18 as well, Belgian guard Manu Lecomte. Head coach Scott Drew faces an uphill climb with a depleted roster, relying heavily on senior guard King McClure and a slew of transfers, including former Mississippi State guard Mario Kegler. Despite the additions in the transfer market, Baylor is likely to miss its second-straight NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005–07.
Scout’s Take: “They’ve always had a super-long five who can block shots in their zone, but now their biggest player is 6’9”... I think Tristan Clark will be a great scorer for them in the post and on the block... Clark can really score, but I’m skeptical that he can replace Jo [Acuil] on the defensive end... They brought in a lot of transfers, and Mario Kegler will have the biggest impact... Kegler comes over from Mississippi State and he can really score from all areas of the court... Kegler could be the most talented player on the roster... Makai Mason actually torched Baylor with Yale in the tournament, so they’re familiar with him... Mason can stroke it, but he didn’t play last year, will he be ready to fight in the Big 12?... They should play inside out, it’s always been Scott Drew’s best formula to win... Tristan Clark has a great body, great physicality. If he can move outside of 15 feet that would be huge... Mark Vital’s motor is absurd, he never stops going... This is an intriguing group, they’re talented but they’ve never really played together.”
The Skinny: Can the Sooners’ offense tread water without Trae Young? A preseason afterthought rose all the way to No. 4 in the nation at one point last year, eventually losing to Rhode Island in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The expectations remain low heading into 2018–19, but don’t expect the same meteoric rise. The good news for Oklahoma? There is still a quality backcourt in the wake of Young’s departure, with seniors Christian James and Rashard Odomes boasting impressive defensive chops. Forward Brady Manek could also make a leap as an interior threat in his sophomore season
Scout’s Take: “Losing Trae Young is obviously huge, but losing Kameron McGusty may be a bigger loss... They’re going to rely a lot on Christian James, who’s been overshadowed by Young and Buddy Hield in his career... James can carry an offense, he has nice size, he’s effective at getting to his spot... Brady Manek is an athletic face up four... Manek is an elite shooter, if he can put the ball on the deck he’ll be really good... Manek just can’t survive defensively, he really killed them on that end... Rashard Odomes is a point forward kind of guy, he should get more ball-handling duties... Odomes is deadly in transition... If Odomes can hit any threes he’ll be so, so good.”
10. Oklahoma State
The Skinny: The Cowboys haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2005, and that won’t change this year. Oklahoma State is more likely to end the year in the Big 12 cellar than the Big Dance, losing three of its starters from 2017–18. Junior Lindy Waters should be the Cowboys’ leading scorer this season after making 37.3% of threes as a sophomore, but Oklahoma State remains light on scoring and depth under head coach Michael Boynton.
Scout’s Take: “You lose an NBA-level wing in Jeffrey Carroll, he carried the offensive load for them last year... They’re kind of an unknown team in our league, lot of guys have to be replaced and a lot of guys you don’t know what you’re gonna get... I’m high on Cameron McGriff, he’s tough, physical, scores well around the block... Lindy Waters didn’t shoot it as well last year but he was decisive as a playmaker... Waters can take it to the rim and he’s got nice size for a guard... We’ll see what they have from the transfers... Michael Weathers had a great freshman season but now he’s in the Big 12, there will be an adjustment period... This feels like a rebuilding year for them.”