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NCAA Basketball: NIT Final Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, picking the order of the Big 12 is a quixotic exercise. Other than Kansas at #1, the margin between a handful of teams in the middle is thin enough Leonardo DiCaprio tries to date it. A few bounces of the ball here or there and the order can get shuffled. Last year was a perfect case in point: if Texas hits the final three against Kansas and secures an offensive rebound against Baylor in Waco in the final minute of regulation, Texas jumps from 6th to 4th in the standings. If Oklahoma closes out a bit faster on an Iowa State shooter at home, they’re 8-10 in conference play and tied for 5th instead of tied for 7th. The middle of the Big 12 is a bunch of lonely dudes fighting in Dani Fernandez’s mentions, but with even more acrimony.

This year I’m going to do something a bit different. Instead of guessing about which teams finish where, I’m going to break the teams into tiers. This way I convey a sense of which teams I believe are coagulating together like Scipio’s immune system after recording an EGAT episode, and which teams I think are maintaining distance from each other like Scipio’s friends avoiding his geodesic home after recording an EGAT episode. Without further ado, I present to you THE TIERS (sponsored by EGAT):

Conference Tiers

Tier Teams (listed alphabetically)
Tier Teams (listed alphabetically)
1 Kansas
2 Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas, Texas Tech, zBaylor
3 Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia

Ahh, look at that; a sense of relative valuation while shedding the responsibility of specificity. I tell you something about how I feel while maintaining independence from repercussions. That’s some high-quality internet lawyering.

Kansas Jayhawks

I know a fair number of people were jumping for joy at the chance to pick someone other than Kansas to win the Big 12 this year, but then Silvio De Sousa was ruled eligible, Kansas picked up a couple more high-level recruits, and Udoka Azubuike showed up to Lawrence trimmed down by 30 lb. This squad looks like a legit Final Four contender and has Bill Self’s hairpiece fully erect because he gets to revert back to a two-big lineup instead of reluctantly embracing small ball as he’s done for the past few years. Other than sending thank you cards to Adidas bag men, there is nothing Bill Self loves more than feeding a big man in the low block. Azubuike, De Sousa, and David McCormack are all potential (or actual) all-conference bigs and Self is going to lean into that harder than Scipio on a pharmacy counter two days after recording an EGAT episode. Both Scipio and Self will be sweating profusely, pupils dilated, apologizing for the priapism to everyone in the vicinity, but they’ll both secretly enjoy the display. Why do you think they both wear track pants *everywhere*? Even with the NCAA serving Kansas a laundry list of allegations, the case is likely going to extend well beyond this season so I don’t see anything realistically stopping this train from rolling towards March Madness with a number one seed in their sights.

Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State has lost a lot this year; Mariyal Shayok and Nick Weiler-Babb graduated, Lindell Wigginton, Cameron Lard, and Talen Horton-Tucker went pro, and last I checked Monte Morris is still playing for the Denver Nuggets. There’s good reason to be pessimistic about this squad, you can make a reasonable case for them dropping into tier 3. I’m not quite there yet as Rasir Bolton was unexpectedly declared eligible for this season and Tyrese Haliburton is primed for a great year, so they have some pieces. If Solomon Young can finally stay healthy for a full season this year - admittedly a big ‘if’ - they have a core of solid players to work with. Will it be enough to get over .500 in the Big 12? Maybe, but it’s far from guaranteed.

Kansas State Wildcats

I’m not sure there’s a Big12 team I waffled over more than this one; the Wildcats lost Dean Wade, Barry Brown, and Kamau Stokes which is a huge hole to fill. On the other hand, they still have Cartier Diarra, Xavier Sneed, and Makol Mawien on the roster so it’s not like they’re barren. Dajuan Gordon is generating buzz from the little apple and Bruce Weber regularly puts together a solid defensive team so they should be able to keep games close if their offense is even just pedestrian. I have them on the lower portion of tier 2 and they could easily fall into tier 3 if the offense struggles like a number of Bruce Weber teams have in the past.

Texas Longhorns

I can make plausible cases for Texas finishing anywhere between 2nd and 6th this year. Anything above or below those spots likely means Texas either took a huge step forward or suffered some sort of catastrophic problem - a ton of injuries, half the team turned pro in Fortnite, the NCAA re-legalized segregation to avoid paying players, etc. - that could very well portend the end of the Shaka Smart era. I don’t expect this to be the case, but where I think Texas finishes in this five-spot range can be boiled down to five questions.

  1. Can Shaka Smart and Luke Yaklich synthesize their differing defensive philosophies to create a top-tier defense, specifically to keep opposing offenses from hitting nearly 39% from three in conference play?
  2. Can Neill Berry maintain offensive efficiency while increasing the pace?
  3. Can Texas’ shooters take the next step and get the team three-point percentage into the top 100 in D-I? (2019 Texas 3P% was 34.8% or 150th out of 353. 100th place was 35.7%.)
  4. Can Texas get their rebounding numbers into the top half of D-I? (2019 Texas OReb was 28.1% or 186th place, DReb was 29.5% or 239th place. 176th place was 28.4% & 28.3%, respectively.)
  5. Can Texas get their team free throw shooting into the top half of D-I? (2019 Texas FT% was 69.9%, 200th out of 353. 176th place was 70.7%.)

I think it’s fair to say each of those questions being answered in the affirmative is worth one spot in the final conference standings; Texas was in a lot of really close games last year - 7 regular season conference games had a final margin of 5 or less points, Texas finished 1-6 in those games - and the ability to hit an extra free throw, grab an extra rebound, and/or stop the opponent once more in a game could be the difference between 8-10 and 12-6 in conference play. Yaklich loves the mantra of “three more stops per game”, so one can imagine he’s pretty focused on this marginal gain. I don’t know if it’s reasonable to expect Texas to hit all these marks this year, some are closer to reality than others. I do know that for the third year in a row Texas feels like they are thisclose to getting over the hump; if they answer even three of these questions in the affirmative, they’re probably a top-25 team this year.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

Hey you remember when I said Texas Tech might spend most of the season on the NCAA bubble? ME NEITHER. A lot of people - myself included - expected them to take a couple of steps back as they lost a ton of people in the offseason. What I think many of us didn’t take into account is that Mark Adams and Chris Beard have a very specific defensive identity that’s fairly unusual in D-I basketball. Jordan Sperber (who you should be following on Twitter if you aren’t already) refers to the defense as the “no middle” defense; basically they will give up a lot of drives towards the corner/outer ⅓ of the floor in the name of keeping teams out of the paint. Now, a lot of programs would like to deny the paint, but Texas Tech takes it to a level rarely seen in basketball; if you watch their guards, often times they’re nearly perpendicular to the baseline regardless of where they are on the floor. They’re actively inviting the guards to drive on the outside ⅓ of the court, and behind the defending guards are wings and bigs who actively help on defense. They would love nothing more than for an opposing guard to drive down to the free throw extended (imagine if the free throw line extended out to the three-point line) and then kept going until they were effectively driving along the baseline. The bigs are watching for this, help aggressively, and spring a trap on the ballhandler with the help of the defender who shepherded them to this spot. It’s a terrible spot to be for an offensive player and usually ends in a turnover or awful shot. This is the crux of the Tech defense, and as long as they are able to reliably produce this outcome they are going to be a defensive menace for any opponent. With this kind of defense, Tech doesn’t have to be a world-beater on offense to win some games; having said that, without Jarrett Culver and with significant turnover on the team (including Deshawn Coprew transferring out for Title IX investigation reasons) the offense is going to need to figure itself out. If Davide Moretti is the only reliable offensive threat, Tech will take a step or two back. If others on the team - Jahmius Ramsey & Chris Clarke most notably - can pick up the slack, Tech can finish in the top 2-3 again this year. I do think they’re going to miss Tariq Owens more than they realize, and that could cause their defense to drop down from other-worldly to, uhh...worldly.

zBaylor Bears

Scott Drew gave out an interview a few weeks back where he took a shot at Kansas for paying players, saying there’s a reason he doesn’t land top-25 players. Never mind Drew landed Perry Jones (a top-10 recruit), hired John Wall’s AAU coach in a failed effort to land Wall, and once threatened to deport a recruit if he didn’t commit to the Bears. Fuck Scott Drew and fuck Baylor. Also they’re probably going to be good this year.

Oklahoma Sooners

Lon Kruger is going into the Hall of Fame when he retires, and he should. He took Oklahoma to the Final Four (where they lost by 44 points I WILL NEVER STOP BRINGING THIS UP) in 2015-2016, and that has earned him a pass for some period of time. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to get a pass though; being at a football-first school has definitely granted him some extra leeway (I’ve definitely never heard of that happening anywhere else, no sir) but outside of that one run he’s won three NCAA Tournament games in seven years at Oklahoma. He had a two-year stretch where he hit a Sweet Sixteen and a Final Four, other than that he has a 1-4 record in the tournament and missed it twice in seven years. Making the NCAA Tournament six times in eight years is solid, but I suspect Sooners fans want more than a one-day appearance in the postseason. (Bob Huggins hasn’t been to the Final Four in 9 years, so maybe Kruger has more time than I think.) Whether Kruger is able to make the tournament at all - much less win a game or two - depends on how De’Vion Harmon performs in the crimson and cream. He’s surrounded by role players who do something well but have other limitations; so unless Kristian Doolittle goes supernova, this year may depend on Harmon going full Trae Young. Somebody alert ESPN.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

I’ve seen a few writers put Oklahoma State as a team to watch this year, and I’m not entirely sure why. Well, let me say this: it’s not that I expect them to be terrible, it’s more that some people are touting how much the team returns and my immediate thought is yes, how much they return...from a 12-win team that dismissed three players halfway through the season. (Mike Boynton has now dismissed five players in two years, which makes me wonder who is getting the axe this season.) It’s reasonable to think Isaac Likekele can improve upon a solid freshman campaign and maybe Yor Anei shores up their issues down low, so maybe Oklahoma State nudges itself into the lower part of tier 2 this year. I’m just not yet buying that they’ll be drastically better than last year; Cade Cunningham isn’t (allegedly) showing up on campus until the season after, so a large leap in the wins column seems optimistic.

West Virginia Mountaineers

This is Bob Huggins’ 13th season at West Virginia and he’s been a head coach nearly every year since 1980; the guy was an assistant coach at West Virginia the year Shaka Smart was born. I bring this up because there’s a non-zero chance Huggins is nearing the end of his career; there are some around the Mountaineers who think he is less than five years away from retiring. I don’t know for sure that this is true, but it’s mentioned enough that I can’t dismiss it as yet another Scott Drew negative recruiting tactic (though both things can be true). If there are only a handful of years left with the Huggy Bear, we should probably enjoy them as much as we can. Every time he stares down Seth Greenberg or stares down a ref or stares down a reporter or stares down a fan, cherish the shit out of it. Those are Hall of Fame stares. The team itself should be a good defensive unit - between Derek Culver & Oscar Tshiebwe, they might block everything within 8 feet of the rim - though where they get their offense is up for debate. Jordan McCabe will have to really step it up if West Virginia is going to score enough points to crack the top half of the conference standings in March.

TCU Horned Frogs

Frankly, TCU is here because I have no idea who they are. The roster turnover there has been astronomical even by college basketball standards, and there are so many new faces that Jamie Dixon probably has them all wearing name tags in nonconference play so he knows who to yell at. Add in that Alex Robinson is gone - and Jaylen Fisher transferred, who was the likely heir apparent at PG - and the offense Jamie Dixon is so well-known for seems to be looking for a competent point guard to run it. They may have the guy they want; RJ Nembhard strikes me as - and I mean this in the most positive way possible - a pest of the highest order, one of those guys like Phil Forte who spends years invoking a very specific kind of pain upon the Big 12. Kendric Davis could be...oh right, he transferred. Kaden Archie has offensive game at...uhh, UTEP now. Desmond Bane is still there and will do very Desmond Bane things, so there’s that. Some of the help is a year away; Jaedon Ledee should be a good player in 2020-2021. I just kinda wonder if Jamie Dixon will be there to utilize him. He publicly played footsie with UCLA, getting to the point of finalizing a contract before the Bruins reportedly got cheap about his buyout (that’s a good look, UCLA) so he’s back for who knows how long. Dixon may be wearing out his welcome in Fort Worth, so maybe he’ll be calling the guy who hired him about another job. You may have heard of him, he’s the Texas AD now. Anyway, I guess a lot of people are picking TCU last because they think they’ll be terrible - and they might be! - but I’m putting them here because I think they’re a cypher. Their best-case scenario doesn’t seem higher than maybe 6th in the conference and I’m not exactly putting my car title on that bet.

The Big 12 is going to be in a pretty significant state of flux this year, so trying to predict an exact finishing order is folly which is why I’m going to do it anyway. Nobody will remember that I’ve overrated Texas’ finish every single year I’ve done this unless I remind them. Which, uhh, forget I said that.

Conference Predictions

Iowa State
Texas Tech
Kansas State
West Virginia
Oklahoma State