As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Nov. 9, an ESPN panel of experts is making predictions for all of the nation’s top leagues. So far we’ve taken a look at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), followed by Memphis, Houston and the AAC, the Villanova-dominated Big East and UCLA and the resurgent Pac-12 Conference. We continue our series with the Big 12, a league that will soon be undergoing some major changes but will remain among college basketball’s most difficult gauntlets until further notice.
The Baylor Bears will enter the 2021-22 college basketball season as the sport’s defending national champions, but major storylines abound beyond Scott Drew’s Bears. Chris Beard moves from the Texas Tech Red Raiders to the Texas Longhorns, where he has put together a national championship-contending roster highlighted by a healthy selection of the nation’s top transfers. Beard’s previous stop, Texas Tech, will begin a new coaching era with former Beard assistant Mark Adams at the helm, while both the Oklahoma Sooners (Porter Moser) and Iowa State Cyclones (T.J. Otzelberger) have high expectations for first-year head coaches as well. The Kansas Jayhawks, with another top transfer (ex-Arizona State guard Remy Martin) in tow, also appear to have Final Four talent.
In a season in which the conference has arguably the most top-to-bottom talent in the country, ESPN’s writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi sized up the key storylines, made their predictions and weighed in on all the Big 12’s top issues.
Big 12 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Marcus Carr, Texas
Borzello: Marcus Carr, Texas
Gasaway: Kendall Brown, Baylor
Lunardi: Marcus Carr, Texas
Big 12 2021-22 writer roundtable
Baylor is widely expected to take at least a small step back after winning the national title. What do you think that step back will look like? Is it inconceivable that this could be college basketball’s first back-to-back champ since Florida in 2006-07?
Medcalf: I think it’s important to consult college basketball history in this case. Since UCLA won seven consecutive national titles from 1967 to 1973, two teams have won back-to-back national championships: Duke (1991, 1992) and Florida (2006, 2007). Never mind the squads that had to reload after a title run; think about the teams that brought back the key players on their rosters and couldn’t do it. Think about Georgetown with Patrick Ewing winning in 1984 and losing in the title game in 1985. The UNLV teams of the early 1990s that couldn’t do it. That’s why it’s difficult to envision back-to-back national titles for a Baylor squad that has lost so much. Our sport, in a post-John Wooden world, isn’t really designed for that.
But I also think a “step back” will still position this group as a Big 12 title contender. I think Kansas is a few steps ahead of the whole league, but Baylor could be right there with Texas. Matthew Mayer has to make some major strides to play a bigger role with this group. James Akinjo should have a strong season after transferring from Arizona, and the Kendall Brown buzz is strong, too. This team definitely has second-weekend potential.
Borzello: I think it’s a stretch to think this team can win a second straight national championship; it just lost too much. Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague worked together seamlessly on the offensive end, and Mark Vital was one of the best and most versatile defensive players in the country throughout his career. I just think it’s too much for Scott Drew to replace in order to go back to back.
But I don’t think they’re going to fall too far. I still have Baylor ranked in my preseason top 10, and I think it’s closer to Kansas and Texas at the top of the Big 12 than the middle of the pack is to the Bears. Adam Flagler might be the team’s best scorer after coming off the bench last season, while Mayer has generated NBA draft buzz. Akinjo was a first-team All-Pac-12 guard at Arizona last season, and Drew also brings in a trio of impact freshmen. Defense might be the biggest question; Baylor had truly elite individual defenders last season, and they’re mostly gone.
Gasaway: No shame in taking a step back from what was one of the strongest teams we’ve seen in the past decade. Drew’s men went 29-2, and in a “normal” year without COVID-19 that number in the loss column would likely have been even smaller. Villanova had a tremendous first half against the Bears in the Sweet 16, but, really, no opponent up to and including No. 1-ranked Gonzaga seriously threatened this team throughout the course of the NCAA tournament. So, yes, there’s going to be a step back.
Still, we’re looking at a group that could win the conference in 2022. I came within a whisker of tapping Mayer as my Big 12 preseason POY. Flagler hit 43% of his 3s last season, and this year, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua will get more minutes in which to frustrate opposing offenses. Last season, it was Baylor and then everyone else in the Big 12. In 2022, it should be a true battle at the top of the league, and the Bears will be right there.
Lunardi: Let’s not bury the lead. Baylor is not repeating as the national champion. Despite picking the Bears to win it all in this space a year ago — as well as being a big Drew fan — the reality is that repeat titles are extremely unlikely in the best of circumstances. With Mitchell, Butler, et al., plying their trade elsewhere, the Bears are without their biggest advantage of last season: continuity.
All of which isn’t to say the Bears are about to fall off the map. A Sweet 16 or even second-round NCAA exit is no embarrassment for a rebuilding — or at least reloading — program. Baylor has much to celebrate. Raise your hand if you ever thought they’d be raising an NCAA championship banner in Waco, Texas. Raise your other hand if you think it can happen again someday.
The latter position likely has more takers than the former. Baylor really can win another national title. Just not this year.
Texas is back, with one of the best coaches in America in Chris Beard and a stacked roster. What is the impact on college basketball if the Longhorns win it all? What will it tell you if they underachieve?
Borzello: It’s a fascinating storyline to watch. No one has done what Beard is attempting to do this season. There have been teams stacked with transfers, but not to this extent. This is six of the top 30 transfers in the country added to a roster that returned four players from a team that won the Big 12 tournament and earned a 3-seed in the NCAA tournament. There’s a level of proven college talent rarely seen in the modern era. It’s akin to the first few rosters that John Calipari built solely with elite freshmen, just adapted to the transfer portal age.
If Texas wins a title, building almost exclusively via the portal might become more of a trend — especially for first-year coaches. It’s already happening at a lot of places — Kentucky, known as the recruiting capital of the sport, landed four transfers this spring — but could we see Duke, Villanova or another big program begin to look more heavily at the portal? If the Longhorns underachieve, I think a lot of people will be “proven right,” that it’s really hard in this day and age to stockpile endless talent and just hope it works out. I think it will take more than one disappointing season at Texas to suddenly discount Beard as a coach, however.
Gasaway: Iowa State-era Fred Hoiberg already proved you can thrive by stacking your program with transfers, no? I for one have been waiting for the next Hoiberg ever since. Why take a chance with iffy recruits when you can sign a guy you’ve already seen playing against high-level Division I competition?
I have no doubt Beard can do a Hoiberg if he wishes to go that route, but a national title in 2022 might be a tall order. For some reason, we tend to be a bit more bullish on a transfer than we would be with the exact same player if he stayed with the same team. Speaking of players who return, I’m not sure the most important Longhorn won’t turn out to be Courtney Ramey. He shot 41% on his 3s last year, and, even with the influx of talent, perimeter shooting looms as a question mark with this group.
Lunardi: If we’ve learned one thing about Beard, it’s that he consistently gets the most out of the group in front of him. I expect nothing less this year in Austin. Beard hit the ground running at Texas and will be anything but a total flop. A Final Four run is a more likely outcome than any hint of disappointment.
Here’s an exercise: Compare Texas Tech’s roster from its 2018-19 NCAA runner-up season to Beard’s current Texas lineup. A strong case can be made in favor of the Longhorns, at least on paper. Does it all come together in the first year? The odds are against it. But what were Texas Tech’s odds three years ago?
I’m not betting against Beard or the Longhorns anytime soon.
Medcalf: Before John Calipari won a national title with Anthony Davis and Co. in 2012, a multitude of college basketball coaches had decided that the one-and-done era would ruin the sport. Then, after Kentucky won, they realized that they had to battle Calipari and their peers for those players. You don’t hear coaches calling out “one-and-done culture” the way they did a decade ago.
A Texas national title run with this transfer-backed crew would have a similar impact. The Longhorns would be the second consecutive team to win a national title with the help of key transfers. It would highlight the significance of the transfer portal for both coaches and players who would watch a group of their peers come together to form a title team. That’s NBA-like. That could happen in college basketball and change the sport.
I think underachievement for Beard would have to be a total flop with this group. If something wild happens and Texas loses in the first round of the NCAA tournament or finishes fourth or fifth in the Big 12, I think a lot of the naysayers will take the “I told you so” approach. But I don’t see that happening.
Kansas is always a story in the Big 12, and nationally. Give the world one reason why the No. 3 Jayhawks will live up to their Final Four billing, and one thing that worries you about Bill Self’s team?
Medcalf: Last week, I sat across from Self at Big 12 media day and asked him those questions. Remy Martin is still adjusting to life as a star with the talent around him. His teammates told me that his speed is uncanny and changing the way they can play, but Self said the Arizona State transfer is still hesitant to attack at this stage. To have a player like Martin within this group gives the Jayhawks a talent pool that maybe only Gonzaga can match. And I just think the Jayhawks will continue to get better as Martin gets more comfortable. This group has it all.
The concern? I wonder if these Jayhawks are just too nice. When I asked David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji whom the team will turn to when it faces adversity this season, Agbaji said the veterans will lead by committee. McCormack agreed. And that’s fine. But Self admitted that he wonders if he has enough “dogs” on this roster. I do, too. I don’t know if this group has an Elijah Johnson, a Devonte’ Graham or a Frank Mason. Beyond its injuries, the Andrew Wiggins-Joel Embiid squad in 2013-14 didn’t have enough of that consistent energy. I have a similar concern about this group.
Borzello: On paper, Kansas has everything. The Jayhawks returned four starters from last season, including three guys who have been in the program seemingly forever in Christian Braun, Agbaji and McCormack. Jalen Wilson had stretches when he looked like a future NBA player. Point guard was the biggest question mark entering the offseason, so Bill Self went out and landed Martin, one of the two best transfers in the country last spring. He also signed ESPN 100 prospect Bobby Pettiford and returns DaJuan Harris, who has received rave reviews. Self does his best with experienced teams like this, so I’m optimistic for the Jayhawks.
If there’s one concern, it’s how Martin adjusts his game at Kansas. He was terrific with the ball in his hands at Arizona State, averaging 19.1 points in each of the past two seasons and spearheading one of the fastest teams in the country. That’s going to be different in Lawrence. He won’t need to score as much, he won’t be playing as fast and he’ll have to defer to his teammates much more often. Shooting is a potential issue, but Martin and fellow transfer Joseph Yesufu are capable 3-point shooters, so I’m not as concerned about that area.
Gasaway: You have to like Self’s chances when he has an experienced rotation. Actually, you pretty much have to like Self’s chances anytime, but he will definitely be heard from when guys like Agbaji, McCormack, Wilson and Braun are all a year older and better. Then there’s the fact that I picked Martin as my preseason Big 12 POY. The Jayhawks will not lack talent.
Now for the gloom and doom! KU was just average on offense in Big 12 play last season. Does that really change so dramatically with maturation and the arrival of Martin? Not to mention losing the team’s only Big 12 All-Defensive Team performer and a key distributor of the ball (Marcus Garrett) could turn out to be a more significant hit than expected. Be that as it may, I’m sticking with Kansas to win the league.
Lunardi: One reason? Probability. No program in America is as consistently positioned for a Final Four or national championship than the Jayhawks.
The bad news about being a No. 1 seed nine times in 18 seasons? Self has only one national championship to show for it. The good news? The best path to being a national champion is to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Kansas will very likely be a No. 1 seed again on Selection Sunday in 2022, maybe even the top overall seed. The Jayhawks should be on the shortest list of title contenders this year.
They are at the top of mine. Probability says they are well overdue for Self’s next title.
Apart from Beard, the Big 12 has new coaches at Oklahoma (Porter Moser), Texas Tech (Mark Adams) and Iowa State (T.J. Otzelberger). Which member of this trio do you see making the biggest immediate impact?
Lunardi: He might not make the biggest impact right away, but I’m going with Moser. If Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione is right — and there are a boatload of reasons to think he is — the Sooners are embarking on a special era.
In pretty much every sport, all the Sooners do is win. Big. Four different coaches have taken Oklahoma to a Final Four. One day, Moser will become the fifth.
Borzello: It’s hard to really gauge which one will make the biggest impact in Year 1, because I think Mark Adams took over the best situation of the three, but because I have Texas Tech finishing highest of that trio, I’ll go with Adams. It helps that Adams is familiar with the Red Raiders, the school, the roster and the system, and it also helps Adams has helped lead a top-20 defense in Lubbock, Texas, for four straight years.
Several guys entered the portal following Beard’s departure for Texas, but Adams was able to keep Terrence Shannon Jr., Kevin McCullar and Marcus Santos-Silva, among others, and then landed seven transfers — at least five of whom are capable of making an immediate impact. The most promising of the group are NCAA tournament star Kevin Obanor (Oral Roberts) and Bryson Williams (UTEP). I think Texas Tech is an NCAA tournament team and should finish in the top half of the Big 12.
Gasaway: What Borzello said: Adams is walking into the best situation of these three coaches, so he’ll win the Immediate Impact award. Oklahoma was about as strong as the Red Raiders on a possession-for-possession basis in conference play last season, but Moser doesn’t have as much in the cupboard in Norman as Adams does in Lubbock. Bear in mind Loyola Chicago didn’t become the sensational Sister Jean-meme-spawning machine we all know and revere until Moser had been in place on the North Side for a few seasons. And as for Otzelberger, his work in Ames, Iowa, will begin with building a cupboard, period.
Medcalf: Borzello and Gasaway are both right. It’s definitely Mark Adams. I wonder why more teams don’t take this approach, if they can, and hire a trusted assistant in those situations. You don’t always need a big name. Adams has been coaching in Texas since the early 1980s. He has worked with Chris Beard for years. The players who remained on the roster approached Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt and pushed for Adams after Beard left for Texas. That says a lot about this group and its level of comfort entering the season.
Here’s another thing to consider: Adams was in charge of the defense with those great Texas Tech squads. I think these teams will look a lot like the squads that were coached by Beard. And that’s a good thing for the fans in Lubbock. I think Moser and Otzelberger will get there eventually, but Adams is walking into a favorable situation.
Big 12 2021-22 predicted order of finish
4. Oklahoma State
5. Texas Tech
6. West Virginia
9. Kansas State
10. Iowa State