Explaining the series:
In this series, I will be looking at the top few teams in each major conference. These are teams that might be NCAA foes (some of them will be regular season foes), and this series should serve as a viewing guide for non-MSU games you watch. These previews will not be quite as detailed or precise as an actual game preview, but rather serve as a benchmark for the matchup with each of these teams and important factors to keep an eye on for these teams. This process will “build-out” some of the initial sketches I provided in my final pre-season top-60 rankings.
Having examined the top teams in the ACC, we shift our focus to the Big 12 (before tackling the SEC, Pac-12, Big East, and others). When we get to any actual future match-ups with the teams I do discuss, these previews can serve as a starting point and point of reference.
The Big 12 will yet again compete with the Big Ten for the best conference in the country. In this piece I will take a closer look at Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, Texas, and West Virginia. You will note that each of these teams are in Kenpom’s top-nine teams in the nation in his preseason ratings; needless to say, I do not believe that is an accurate measurement of how good these teams will be and I expect them to fall off to approximately where I have them (maybe a bit higher for West Virginia) as the season progresses, but time will tell (there are methodological reasons as to why they benefit — namely the confounding variable of getting to play a smaller number of conference teams, with a higher proportion of good teams, some of whom Kenpom’s ratings love far more than they should be loved).
(No. 2 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 1 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Davion Mitchell, LJ Cryer
2 - Jared Butler, Adam Flagler
3 - MaCio Teague, Jordan Turner
4 - Mark Vital, Matthew Mayer, Dain Dainja, Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua
5 - Tristan Clark, Flo Thamba, Zach Loveday
Mitchell, Teague and, especially, Butler all return on the perimeter — a superb trio of guards who will dominate the Baylor offense — and Vital returns as the glue-guy, offensive rebounder, and defensive specialist that really puts this team over-the-top in a lot of games. Though he is undersized he formed a potent duo with Freddie Gillespie last year in the front-court. Now that Gillespie is gone, Clark, Mayer, and a host of others will vie for the minutes in the front-court.
This team can shoot the rock with confidence, has really good play-makers, a host of bigs to throw at teams, and a couple of newcomers in the back-court that should provide a relative step-up in level from the inefficient Devonte Bandoo who graduated last year.
Losing Gillespie should not be underrated — he was central to their defensive success, and a crucial offensive rebounder for a team that got blocked a TON and was an awful two-point shooting team. Replacing Gillespie with Clark in the starting group will help on offense, ostensibly, making Baylor a better paint scoring team, but Clark is not a great offensive rebounder, and he is a mediocre defensive player. Baylor has also dramatically shifted its style from when Clark was dominating at the beginning of the 2018-19 season; now a perimeter oriented offensive team, how will the team readjust to Clark’s need for paint touches to justify heavy minutes? Or, will Drew decide to roll with the role-playing bigs (of which he has so many to choose from)?
Baylor should be deeper this year with the newcomers on the perimeter, but Mayer is the only returner with experience in this system and playing at this level. The biggest weakness will remain their slow pace, which invites teams to hang around — the Bears were in 12 games that finished within three possessions (going 9-3 in those 12 games, which flattered them a bit) — but this team should be very good.
Other than needing Butler, Vital, and Teague to continue to do their thing, the most important players will likely be Mitchell, who simply must cut down on his turnovers and hit more three-point shots, Flo Thamba, who will need to provide shot-blocking, offensive rebounding, and toughness that is not really in Clark’s game, and one of LJ Cryer or Adam Flagler — head coach Scott Drew will need a fourth guard to really step to the fore and neither guy has done it at this level yet. Cryer, a talented freshman, and Flagler, a potent transfer from a lower-rated league, can both play, but hacking it in one of the top-two leagues in the nation twice a week is a very difficult proposition. If neither guard can really be counted on, then Drew will likely play bigger with Mayer and Vital manning the wings whenever one of his three guards takes a rest; not a bad outcome, but not Drew’s preferred personnel grouping with this roster.
Run some decent actions for Clark, who will do his best Nick Ward impression — a relative black-hole, but a solid scoring option who can get on a roll and hurt teams — and then cause chaos for the three guards who should bomb away from three and have a full green light to take shots a bit quicker than they did last year given the increased depth. Vital will hustle, connect play, and rebound, and this team will get in your vest on defense. The Bears still have never proved themselves (particularly Drew himself) in a tournament setting, but this may be the year.
Michigan State perspective:
There is not too much to worry about from a Michigan State perspective here, the Spartans match-up really well against Baylor; paying attention to the reserves will be key (trying to find match-ups that the Spartans can exploit), figuring out the spots that Vital likes to rebound from, and making sure that Butler really is the main guy to shut-down.
(No. 10 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 5 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Marcus Garrett, Dajuan Harris, Latrell Jossell
2 - Bryce Thompson, Tyon Grant-Foster
3 - Ochai Agbaji, Jalen Wilson
4 - Christian Braun, Mitch Lightfoot, Tristan Enaruna
5 - David McCormack, Gethro Muscadin
Kansas will have superb perimeter defense from Garrett (one of the best defensive guards in the nation), Harris, and Agbaji. The Jayhawks also boast eight players between 6-feet-4-inches and 6-feet-8-inches tall —Thompson, Grant-Foster, Agbaji, Wilson, Braun, Lightfoot, and Enaruna — who can score, handle, and drive (the question is how many of them can shoot from beyond the three-point arc). Thompson, Agbaji, and Grant-Foster should form a dynamic scoring trio on the wing, with Wilson and Enaruna hopefully healthy and contributing behind that main group. Christian Braun is a solid shooter and a terrific glue-guy and just all-around good basketball player. They should have a high floor and a ton of depth at the one-through-four positions.
The questions revolve around the center position where McCormack returns and should be solid, but in no way can he, or will he, replicate the dominance of the now-departed Udoka Azubuike. Muscadin is an athletic and talented young big as well, but unseasoned; with Lightfoot as the emergency center (a slightly taller version of Kenny Goins without the three-point shooting). The other challenge may be the loss of their dynamic point guard Devon Dotson. Garrett will get the keys to the offense; he averaged nearly five assists per game last year and brings superb defense, but his three-point shooting has to dramatically improve in his senior season or the floor will become increasingly cramped with teams going under on screens.
Bryce Thompson has to be a go-to scorer at the shooting guard and has to shoot the lights out, which he is capable of. Agbaji has to take yet another step forward (very much in a similar spot to Aaron Henry). McCormack HAS to lock down the center position, and Grant-Foster, Wilson, or, possibly, Enaruna have to join Braun as solid big-wings. Bet on Grant-Foster being the key guy off the bench as a scoring dynamo.
I expect a lot of pace-pushing, and a focus on early offense and quick hitters. Bill Self has not run much motion-offense in the last few years, having had his offense anchored in the post, but you can expect plenty of driving from the wings, plenty of UCLA two-screen cutting actions from the 1-4, and some flex offense as well. Defensively, this group will be very good on the perimeter, but may really struggle against bigger teams, which will be an interesting role reversal for Kansas who usually bully teams. Finding ways to cope with the big teams in conference — West Virginia, Texas, and Baylor — will be a challenge.
Michigan State perspective:
An interesting matchup given then relative similarities between Kansas and Michigan State. Identifying which perimeter guys to really be worried about from three-point range will be the essential scouting task. If Kansas does not get floor-spacing from guys other than Thompson and Braun (i.e. if Agbaji, Garrett, Grant-Foster, Wilson, and Enaruna continue to struggle from range), then Kansas becomes a far easier team to game-plan for due to their relative lack of matchup advantages. Joey Hauser would be in line for a big-game against Kansas; beyond that near-certainty, keeping an eye on how effective Thompson is on defense would be the final essential consideration — if he can be hunted on defense, then that likely would force Kansas’ best offensive player to the bench.
(No. 12 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 6 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Mac McClung, Jamarius Burton, Clarence Nadolny
2 - Kyler Edwards, Avery Benson, Chibuzo Agbo
3 - Nimari Burnett, Micah Peavy, Kevin McCullar
4 - Terrence Shannon, Joel Ntambwe, Tyreek Smith
5 - Marcus Santos-Silva, Vladislav Golden
Texas Tech’s biggest strength is Chris Beard, one of the best coaches in the country. Their defense should be superb, and, where they struggled on offense last year, they will have a LOT more offensive pop this year from every position. McClung can really fill it up (although Beard will need to rein in his shot selection), Edwards and Shannon should improve their efficiency as veterans in the system, Santos-Silva is an undersized bull and effective scorer in the paint, the two freshmen Burnett and Peavy can both really score and play both ends, and Ntambwe should be a floor-spacing stretch four who plays a ton of minutes off the bench. The question is whether or not Burton, Agbo, Nadolny, McCullar, and one of the bigs can take steps forward — Burton, particularly, should be a rotation feature as a heady and competitive solid-scoring guard.
Three-point shooting and offensive efficiency will remain questions until they are conclusively resolved. McClung had efficiency and turn-over issues while losing a lot of games at Georgetown, Burton had wild shooting slumps at Wichita State, and Edwards (who had a sophomore slump from three-point range) is the only other guard or wing to have demonstrated the ability to shoot jump shots at this level. If Peavy and Burnett prove they can do so, then this concern lessens. The other question is the front-court, which is completely new, and reliant on a thin stretch-four and an undersized center to play major and impactful minutes when the Red Raiders go big. Can Golden, the only player over 6’-foot-8-inches on the roster play meaningful minutes as the reserve center as a Euro freshman big?
The guards and wings will have to be stellar on both ends — McClung, Burton, Burnett, Edwards, and Shannon — but the most important players are probably Peavy (a tough multi-positional forward), Santos-Silva who has to be good-enough to cause Big 12 teams the same kinds of problems he caused for A-10 teams (while he was still at VCU), and Ntambwe, who has to drill three-pointers and block shots.
Defense will continue to dictate everything Beard does. Expect it to be great again, with McClung likely getting a short leash given Beard’s willingness to sacrifice offensive punch in favor of defensive competence every time. On offense I expect some slashing and kicking from McClung, Burnett, Burton, and Edwards; plenty of posting from Santos-Silva, and maybe a bit more pace and transition offense than Beard has tended to allow in his Texas Tech tenure thus far.
Michigan State perspective:
Which guys on offense are the real threats and does anyone need special attention? Otherwise this should be a fairly straightforward Michigan State advantage. Texas Tech does not have nearly the level of individual defenders that they did when the Red Raiders beat the Spartans in the 2019 Final Four, and, thus, should have a considerable disadvantage in any potential matchup.
(No. 16 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 9 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Matt Coleman
2 - Courtney Ramey, Jase Febres, Donovan Williams
3 - Andrew Jones, Gerald Liddell, Brock Cunningham
4 - Greg Brown, Royce Hamm, Will Baker
5 - Jericho Sims, Kai Jones, Kamaka Hepa
Texas returns nearly their entire team, and the Longhorns really figured out how to play and win down the stretch last year — their continuity and adding future lottery pick Greg Brown to that returning group should prove a potent mixture. Coleman, Ramey, Jones, and Febres should have terrific years in the back-court, Brown should dominate with athleticism, and Sims, Jones, Hamm, and, hopefully, Baker (who disappointed last year) should provide a sizable and forceful front-court to solidify the glass and defense.
Texas has to cut down on turnovers, do a far better job on the offensive glass, make shots from the perimeter consistently, and find a way to get to the free-throw line more. Coleman and Ramey should finally come good on their ball-handling as upperclassmen, but the real goats on the turnover issue were the bigs — those guys just have to play simple basketball. Brown should, essentially, solve all three other potential weaknesses (which is why I am so bullish on this team): he will be a terror on the offensive glass and create considerable offensive-rebounding gravity, which will help the other bigs crash the glass (especially if Shaka Smart goes with a jumbo line-up with Brown on the wing), Brown will create gravity on offense that should open up the three-point shots that were so closely contested last year, and, finally, his gravity and activity should have a spill-over effect on every other player’s free-throw rate, in addition to the fouls that he draws himself. Texas should get in the bonus far quicker and more often this year, and it should pay dividends.
Brown has to play like a lottery pick, which I do expect from him, and the guards have to drill shots (particularly Jones and Ramey). The bigs should be fine as a group, but getting more out of Will Baker, and particularly some of his reputed three-point shooting, would be a major development.
Let Brown go to work, defend and run in transition, and use Coleman and Brown’s paint-penetration to open up easy looks from the ‘dunker-spot’ and at the three-point line.
Michigan State perspective:
Sorting out the best matchup for Greg Brown will be essential — is he a guy that Malik Hall, Aaron Henry, and Gabe Brown can shut down? If not, sort out how best to defend him with help while still funneling offense and as many shots as possible to him (encourage him to “get his”). Everything else is relatively straight-forward.
(No. 30 in my final pre-season rankings; No. 8 in Kenpom’s preseason rankings)
1 - Jordan McCabe, Taz Sherman
2 - Miles McBride, Sean McNeil, Kedrian Johnson
3 - Emmitt Matthews, Jalen Bridges, Taj Thweatt
4 - Oscar Tshiebwe, Gabe Osabuohien
5 - Derek Culver, Isaiah Cottrell
They are huge, strong, and imposing in the front-court— Tshiebwe is a beast, Culver is very talented, Osabuohien is a super glue-guy, and Cottrell is another young big with talent and a nose for the glass — and they have a guard in McBride with the confidence and competence to take and make tough shots. This team will be a superb half-court defensive team and will likely be the top rebounding team in the nation, or at least in the top-three or so. Huggins also has a ton of depth this year, after last year’s inexperienced group flailed at times in conference play, this group should be more seasoned and handle adversity better.
The problem is the offense. They were one of the worst shooting teams in the nation last year and have only added a couple of potential impact players from behind the arc in Kedrian Johnson (a high-scoring JUCO guard) and Jalen Bridges a solid-shooting redshirt freshman. Apart from those two additions, the Mountaineers are banking on internal improvements: McCabe’s three-point percentage and volume dropped a ton as a sophomore, Sherman and McNeil were both solid-but-not-great as JUCO transfers, and Matthews’ three-point shooting improved (all the way to 30 percent as a sophomore). There is a LOT of wishing and hoping when it comes to three-point shooting that will have to come good if West Virginia’s offense is going to become anything more than chuck-up-bricks and put-back-misses.
While just about every pundit is confident that the Mountaineers will really take that major leap on offense, I am absolutely skeptical until I see any sort of consistent evidence.
McBride has to be a go-to scorer and to become more consistent with his shooting (he wore down last year). Tshiebwe and Culver have to find a way to have a more efficient impact on offense (particularly Culver, a 51 percent free-throw shooter, and a center whose two-point shooting was just under 46 percent — “Not great Bob!”). Beyond these three, Bob Huggins has to find one or two guys who can score the ball a bit; my bets are Bridges and Johnson.
Chuck up bricks and score on put-backs, slow the game down, concede nothing inside the arc, and find ways to get McBride decent looks. It is not going to be complicated; the question is whether or not you can stop it.
Michigan State perspective:
There is not a lot of nuance to this matchup. Tom Izzo will spend days talking about the need for toughness and rebounding, and, fortunately, MSU has the bodies and guards to take this matchup pretty comfortably. Keeping track of emerging shooters is important, but the main guys to stop are McBride (who Rocket Watts, Josh Langford, and Henry can handle) and the two bigs, who would be a great battle for the Spartan front-court, but not an overly difficult prep: fight for position, keep them off the glass, cut-out, and draw fouls when possible.
Keep an eye on these teams as the season gets rolling, while the Spartans will not be playing any of them in the regular season (that we know of at this point), there is a strong likelihood that at least one of these foes will surface in the NCAA tournament.