Close your eyes, clear your mind and give me the answer to one simple question: Which college basketball program is the best in the Big 12? Don't cheat and scroll ahead to our own conclusions. There's no right answer (yet). Just take four seconds and give it your best go.
OK. Your first thought was probably Kansas, right? KU has won at least a share of 15 conference crowns since the 2004-2005 season. Or maybe you guessed Texas Tech, the upstart program Chris Beard helped jumpstart into a contender year in and year out. Or perhaps you're a K-State fan and you went with the Wildcats. (If so, please don't scroll to the bottom.)
Whatever you answered, you might wind up being right! But our panel of experts have compiled their preseason prognostications for the Big 12, and Baylor -- the team that spent most of last season as the No. 1-ranked team in the sport -- comes in as the unanimous No. 1. The Bears get back their top three scorers, one of the best players in the league in Jared Butler, and the nucleus of one of the sport's most lethal defenses a season ago. We've shaken the eight-ball a few times, and almost everything is coming up Baylor.
Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year
Jared Butler, Baylor
Baylor's big offseason score was getting Butler back into the fold after testing the draft waters. He's the Big 12's top returning scorer, its top returning 3-point shooter in terms of percentage and 3-pointers made per game, and generally just the most well-rounded returning player in the league. Butler is a microwave scorer who can create in the pick and roll and helped key Baylor's offense to a top-20 mark nationally last season. He averaged 16.0 points, 3.1 assists and 3.2 boards per game, and should be on the radar as a top-five candidate to win Naismith Player of the Year honors this season and is a first-round talent primed to take it up a notch.
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Big 12 Preseason Coach of the Year
Scott Drew, Baylor
We've got Baylor as our preseason No. 1 Big 12 team, and so Baylor's coach, Scott Drew, gets the nod here as the league's preseason Coach of the Year. Drew guided his bears to a 26-4 mark last season, during which they won a remarkable 23 games in a row and established a No. 1 seed-like resume. Losing defensive stalwart Freddie Gillespie is a tough replacement, but he's returning most of the goods that helped deliver one of the program's best seasons ever.
Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
(Full disclosure: Cade Cunningham is my preseason player of the year pick. And I'm not alone in that.) Folks around Oklahoma State are raving about the true freshman five-star import from Texas. He's the projected No. 1 pick in next year's NBA Draft, and he's set to elevate an Oklahoma State team that's only once won 20 games under Mike Boynton into a team that could challenge in the top half of the Big 12 standings.
Predicted order of finish
The top three scorers from last season's 26-win team -- Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell -- are back for Baylor. So is Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalist Mark Vital. This team should again be balanced with a nice blend of offensive punch led by Butler and enough length and experience on defense to challenge as the league's top D.
Kansas had the Big 12's most efficient defense and the most efficient offense last season led by Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson as it won the league's regular season race by multiple games. But with both off to the NBA, Bill Self finds himself in a mini reboot. The Jayhawks will turn to veteran guards Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji to defend their crown, and they've got a five-star boost with incoming freshman Bryce Thompson, who is in line to surprise as a reliable producer in a crowded backcourt.
Texas Tech's top two scorers from last year's squad turned pro, but -- [inject sarcastic tone] and you'll be shocked to hear this [end sarcastic tone] -- Chris Beard has once again pieced together a squad capable of winning the league. Kyler Edwards is the leading returning scorer after averaging double figures, and Terrance Shannon Jr. has first-round NBA talent as he enters his second season in the program. Then there's the transfers, led by Georgetown stud Mac McClung, VCU big Marcus Santos-Silva and Wichita State two-way guard Jamarius Burton. And oh, by the way: incoming top-50 national recruits Nimari Burnett and Micah Peavy should be a factor here as well. The collection of talent is jarring, and the expectation is that despite their collective experience together, Beard has the goods to figure this thing out.
Last season I wrote that West Virginia's frontcourt would be a problem for other teams. Bob Huggins added stud freshman Oscar Tshiebwe to a front line that featured an underrated shot-swatter in Derek Culver. Now, I'm back to my crystal-ball-reading ways to call my shot: This West Virginia team will boast the No. 1-rated defense in America. Tshiebwe and Culver, the team's top two scorers, are back for the Mountaineers and should be primed to take steps forward. And rising sophomore gunner Miles McBride returns after a productive rookie campaign in which he averaged 9.5 points and 2.4 boards per game. Huggins has some real continuity and roster stability, and a real chance to improve upon a third-place finish in 2019-20.
This feels like the exact opposite treatment of how Texas football is treated in preseason polls. Shaka Smart's Longhorns return all of their scoring production from last season and they're enrolling five-star big man Greg Brown to add to the mix in the front line. Texas wasn't a real threat to win the league last season (it finished eight games back from first place) but the crop of young talents on this roster -- Courtney Ramey, Kai Jones, Will Baker -- should all make strides this offseason to thrust this team into a spot where the team should improve incrementally, if not substantially.
Mike Boynton's Cowboys won eight of their final 11 games and were careening close to an NCAA Tournament bid before the pandemic shutdown. Now that team, minus several savvy outgoing veterans, adds No. 1 overall recruit Cade Cunningham to the fold to formulate the league's most versatile backcourt alongside Isaac Likekele. Depth in the frontcourt remains a question, but optimism abounds that sophomore Kalib Boone will take over the center spot -- and that the star power of the backcourt will win the day. The biggest question surrounding this program is off the court, as the NCAA has served up OSU with a postseason ban in 2021. The decision remains in the appeals process.
OU will have a tough time replacing leading scorer Kristian Doolittle, but two players who averaged double figures in scoring last season, Austin Reaves and Brady Manek, return as anchors of what this squad could look like. There's also some continuity at guard, with returning point guard De'Vion Harmon and shooting guard Alondes Williams back. Harmon, a freshman last season, has All-Big 12 potential -- and a strong supporting cast to help him make a sophomore leap.
Iowa State must do the impossible this offseason in trying to replace lottery prospect Tyrese Haliburton. TBD on if coach Steve Prohm is successful in that endeavor. But, he's done a fine job backfilling this roster. The Cylones added Memphis transfer Tyler Harris this offseason as well as DePaul transfer Jalen Coleman-Lands to shore up the backcourt, and both are eligible to compete in 2020. And in the frontcourt, George Conditt and Solomon Young return as vets to give the team reliable producers in the post.
Tough road ahead for TCU. After losing 11 of its final 14 games, it looks to a post-Desmond Bane world where RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel -- the team's top two returning scorers -- should slot into larger roles. Bane was a two-time All-Big 12 performer who could wind up as a first-round pick in this year's draft.
With a relatively older roster, Kansas State stumbled last season to an 11-21 record -- and losses in 10 if its last 12. Now the Wildcats lose leading scorer Xavier Sneed, second-leading scorer Cartier Diarra and third-leading scorer Makol Mawien. The top returning player is Mike McGuil, who played only 24.7 minutes per game last season and averaged 6.9 points and 2.4 boards per game. It's hard to make a case that an experienced team that lost a ton of major pieces will be in line to improve any, if at all. And last year's K-State team finished last in the league standings by multiple games.