Big 12 Midseason Check-in: Baylor Leading a Strong Crop of National Contenders

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We're halfway through the 2020–21 college basketball regular season, and conference play is well underway across the country. As teams jockey for position both in their own league standings and for NCAA tournament seeding, Sports Illustrated is checking in on the seven major conferences in men's college hoops (American, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) this week to see where each stands and how it has shaped up compared with preseason expectations.

We've already done the American and Big East; next up is the Big 12.

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The Big 12 wasn’t exactly relevant to the national championship chase on the gridiron in 2020, but that won’t be the case on the hardwood in 2021. The conference sports eight potential tournament teams, with four of them making a strong case as Final Four–caliber. Baylor may very well be the national title favorite outside of Gonzaga. Texas is seeing a program revival. Kansas and Texas Tech both have their respective flaws, but would it really be a shock to see Bill Self or Chris Beard roaming the sidelines in April? This is a deep conference with true championship contenders. Football is often king in the Big 12, but not this year. There are plenty of quality hoops to be seen across the conference through the final months of the 2020–21 season.

Baylor's Jared Butler celebrates during a win over Kansas

State of the Conference

This may be the best edition of the Big 12 in the last decade, as four teams have a case as Final Four contenders. Baylor still sits undefeated after a home win over Kansas on Monday, while Shaka Smart looks to have broken through with the Longhorns after a frustrating first half-decade in Austin. Both Kansas and Texas Tech should advance to the tournament’s second weekend. Cade Cunningham is a must-watch lottery talent in Stillwater, while West Virginia remains a difficult out despite the departure of Oscar Tshiebwe. In the 21st century, the Big 12 has often been Kansas and a slate of also-rans. That narrative doesn’t apply in the slightest in 2020–21.

Biggest surprise: Texas

We expected Smart and the Longhorns to return to the NCAA tournament in 2021. We didn’t expect Texas to contend for the Final Four. This year’s version of the Longhorns is the best of the Smart era, flush with frontcourt size and veteran guards. Senior Matt Coleman is in the midst of a career year. Andrew Jones is far more than just a heartwarming story. This is a menacing defense that plays with the intensity expected of a Smart squad. After five years of disappointment on the Forty Acres, perhaps 2020–21 will mark a turning point for the program.

Biggest disappointment: West Virginia

It’s hard to peg a true disappointment in the Big 12 with eight potential tournament teams, but it’s not unfair to be underwhelmed by West Virginia’s performance thus far. The Mountaineers are currently 2–3 in Big 12 play, and they’ve failed to beat a top-25 team. This isn’t necessarily a criticism of Bob Huggins’s squad. West Virginia narrowly lost to Texas and Gonzaga, and losing an impact big man like Tshiebwe hasn’t exactly helped matters on the defensive end. The Mountaineers could still sneak into the tournament’s second weekend, but it’s unlikely we see their Final Four hopes realized in 2021.

The current favorite: Baylor

Texas looks quite formidable as February approaches, but I’ll still side with Scott Drew and Baylor at this point. The Bears aren’t afraid to play outside of Waco—as evidenced by last week’s road win over Texas Tech—and their three-headed backcourt headlined by Jared Butler provides an offensive firepower unseen elsewhere in the conference. Mark Feb. 2 down on your calendars: If Drew & Co. can defeat the Longhorns in Austin, they should cruise to the conference crown.

Texas coach Shaka Smart

The top challengers

Texas is the most likely challenger to Baylor at this point, though this isn’t necessarily a two-team race just yet. Kansas could rally to overtake the Bears in the regular-season finale at Allen Fieldhouse, while Texas Tech’s improving offense around Mac McClung could lead to another late-season challenge. Baylor cruising to the conference crown wouldn’t necessarily be an indictment of the conference. Even if the Bears roll to a No. 1 seed, we could still see multiple Big 12 teams mount a run to the Final Four in March.

MORE: How Big 12 Contenders Stack Up With Rest of Nation

Dark horse: Texas Tech

A 4–3 start to conference play isn’t exactly encouraging, but I remain infatuated with Beard’s team in Lubbock. Texas Tech has shown increased scoring punch in recent weeks—including a 79–77 win at Texas on Jan. 13—and Beard’s squads seem to always hit their stride as March approaches. It may take a road win over Baylor on Feb. 13 to win the conference crown, but we shouldn’t count out the Red Raiders just yet. McClung’s development continues to impress, and this roster is beginning to gel after a shaky offensive start. Texas Tech could very well remain in the conference title picture into the final week of February.

NCAA tournament outlook

The Big 12 could very well turn in the best March Madness showing of any conference in America. Baylor is a leading challenger for the championship—one year after COVID-19 ended a potential Final Four run—and the teams in Lawrence, Lubbock and Austin could also contend for the national title.

There are additionally dangerous teams outside the top four. Cunningham could solidify his status as the draft’s top prospect if Oklahoma State makes a brief run, though the Cowboys are still awaiting news on their appeal of their 2021 postseason ban. West Virginia could stymie offenses through the tournament’s first weekend. We should see a few Big 12 teams still standing in the Sweet 16. And if things break right, we could see the conference send multiple teams to the Final Four.