2018-19 Big 12 expert picks: Predicted order of finish, most overrated and underrated teams at mid-term
Who will battle Kansas for the Big 12 crown? Our experts weigh in
Kansas basketball is synonymous with conference championships. Under the direction of coach Bill Self, the Jayhawks have won 14 consecutive Big 12 titles. So betting against them to sustain that run of excellence, put simply, would be unwise.
As you can see from our expert pool below, we're buying stock in KU to keep it rolling. Self and Co. again have the goods to win the league. The Jayhawks are 11-1 with their lone loss coming on the road to a ranked Arizona State team, holding steady in the top 10 of the rankings all season. And despite their fast start on paper, they during this run.
But early returns from this season suggests they may have some stiffer-than-expected competition from a host of surprise teams to defend their crown. Texas Tech, like KU, is off to an 11-1 start, matching its best start since last season. The Red Raiders have been pleasantly brilliant. Led by the No. 1 ranked defense in adjusted efficiency, they have a star coach in Chris Beard, a lottery-bound NBA prospect in Jarrett Culver, and a pair of seniors in Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens setting the pace.
As you can see in the table to the side here, we're doing a midterm check on all major 7 conferences, so today we're recalibrating expectations for the Big 12. Here's how we think this league shakes over the next two months.
The Big 12 is in terrific shape overall. It has five programs that rate inside KenPom's top 25, it has fared well in nonconference play, and projects to be at least a six-bid league -- and maybe seven. After sending seven to the NCAA Tournament last season, the league is plenty healthy.
But our experts still feel it is a bit top-heavy on the whole, with all five of our experts going chalk and picking Kansas to win it again. Kansas already has wins over Tennessee, Michigan State, Marquette and Villanova, all which will age with grace, and it has a host of experienced college players -- among them POY candidate Dedric Lawson and his fifth-year teammate, Lagerald Vick -- primed to make sure it wins another Big 12 title.
Overrated: Iowa State
Not an easy choice, because I dig Iowa State's pieces and potential. I love Lindell Wigginton, I'm infatuated by Talen Horton-Tucker's NBA upside, and I'm mesmerized by what Marial Shayok, the Virginia transfer, has accomplished for ISU. Still, its 10-2 record -- most of which it has accomplished without Wigginton -- may be a bit of fool's gold. The Cyclones have only played three teams inside KenPom's top-100, and they are 1-2 -- with losses to Iowa and Arizona, and a win over Missouri -- during that span. Of those three, I'd argue Missouri is the least impressive squad of the litter.
Getting Wigginton back is going to be huge for Iowa State. As a true freshman last season, he led ISU in scoring and shot a remarkable 40.1 percent. But this team has a pretty significantly different makeup overall. Donovan Jackson is gone, Cameron Lard is being cast in a smaller role, and the largest piece of all -- Wigginton -- is going to have to cut his teeth this season without the benefit of a nonconference runway. He played 18 minutes against Eastern Illinois on Dec. 21, and will play next in the Big 12 opener against Oklahoma State.
Steve Prohm and Co. have the pieces to be a tourney team, and I think they definitely can secure a winning record in Big 12 play, but our experts have them finishing as high as second and as low as sixth. As you can see in the table above, I'm on the lower end of that spectrum for now. It still has a lot to prove to boost its postseason profile and show it can win consistently against top-end competition.
Incredibly, a year removed from being the talk of the sport with Trae Young, Oklahoma has quietly slid under the radar. The Sooners are off to an 11-1 start, matching their record last season at this time, and have a host of experienced college players that give Lon Kruger a puncher's chance to outperform their preseason projections.
OU was a whole lot of Trae Young last season and not much else, but this team is thriving on balanced production in 2018. Led by senior Christian James, who is averaging.17.9 points per game, OU's bench is among the deepest in the conference. They go nine-deep, with nine averaging more than 13 minutes per game.
What's impressive about OU is how Kruger has changed his team's identity on the fly and custom-fit the pieces for success. A year ago, the system relied on Trae Young and OU's offense to outscore opponents. This season, it's OU's defense, which ranks No. 8 nationally in adjusted efficiency, that is its strength. The team is long and athletic, and figures to be a top-2 squad Kruger has fielded at OU.
Player of the Year: Dedric Lawson, Kansas
After sitting a season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, KU's unleashed Lawson to the world and he's been a game-changer. Lawson has averaged 19.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game for the Jayhawks, scoring 20 points or more in eight of their 12 games on the season. And he's been especially great in big games: Against ranked opponents, he's averaging 25.5 points, 13.25 rebounds and 3.25 assists in four games.
Freshman of the Year: Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State
With Lindell Wigginton missing all but one nonconference game with injury, Chicago product Talen Horton-Tucker has emerged as a reliable force for Iowa State. Horton-Tucker impacts the game in a number of ways as a rebounder, facilitator, scorer and finisher, and he brings that precious V word -- versatility -- to the Cyclones. He's a linebacker playing a guard spot in the Big 12, but with grace and finesse of a gazelle.
Coach of the Year: Chris Beard, Texas Tech
Texas Tech is good. Like, really good. It was not supposed to be this good. Chris Beard lost a super senior to graduation in Keenan Evans, a lottery pick freshman in Zhaire Smith, along with four seniors from last year's roster, and he's managed to maybe field a better team overall. If Tech finishes at No. 2 in the league as we expect, Beard's a lock to take home the honor running away.
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