By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
The Big 12 Conference has accounted for the last two national championship teams — Kansas and Baylor — and has had a team qualify in each Final Four since 2018. It’s safe to say the league is on the sport’s mountaintop, and there are zero signs that the case will be any different in the 2022-23 season.
In fact, there’s a case to be made that the conference has four teams that could make a run to the Final Four, with the Bears, Jayhawks, Texas and veteran-laden TCU all consensus preseason top-15 teams. Beyond that group, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma should all be NCAA Tournament contenders, so there’s potential for 70% of the league to go dancing in 2023.
With that in mind, here are six thoughts on the Big 12 heading into the upcoming season.
Scott Drew and Baylor have reloaded and can contend for a title.
The Bears have leading scorer Adam Flagler back. After an injury-ridden season, LJ Cryer will join him in the backcourt. Combine the experience of those two with a five-star, 6-foot-4 freshman in Keyontae George, and the Bears should have a nice blend between their guards.
Baylor also acquired some length in the transfer portal with West Virginia’s Jalen Bridges (8.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG) and BYU’s Caleb Lohner (7.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG). Bridges could end up starting at the power forward position, while Flo Thamba returns at the center slot after starting all 34 games last season.
One big question for the Bears is the status of Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, who suffered a knee injury last February that ended his season after he averaged 8.4 points and 6.8 boards on 68% from the floor. It’s unclear when the 6-foot-8 forward will be available to return, but if he can serve a role, that would only add to a team that’s already going to be in the preseason top-10 when the polls come out.
Kansas has versatility, needs freshmen and supporting cast to step up.
The reigning national champions should again be a preseason top-10 team with a couple of key returnees, one of the best recruiting classes in the country and an impact transfer addition.
Of the returning players to the program, point guard Dajuan Harris is back for coach Bill Self, as well as 6-foot-8 forward Jalen Wilson, who is returning for a fourth season after withdrawing from the NBA Draft. Wilson put his skillset on full display in New Orleans this past April, combining for 26 points, 16 boards and seven assists in the national semifinal and title game victories, and he will only increase his role in the coming campaign.
As for the addition from the transfer portal, the Jayhawks did not need to do any extra research on Kevin McCullar. The former Texas Tech standout has gone the intraconference route and will suit up for the Jayhawks after he played a key role on a Sweet 16 Red Raiders squad this past season. The 6-foot-6 wing is a high-level defender who averaged 10.1 points, 3.1 assists and 4.6 rebounds this past season. McCullar really sums up the strength of KU heading into 2022-23 because he can match up with almost anybody on the defensive end and can make plays for others.
So, Kansas has some known commodities, but the key questions for this team to answer will be what they do at the center position and how the supporting cast shakes out. A ton of buzz surrounds five-star prospect Gradey Dick, a 6-foot-7 wing who could very well start from the get-go. Four-star freshman wing MJ Adams is a top-30 recruit and figures to play a role as well.
As for some other returning players who will be relied upon to increase their role, Bobby Pettiford enters his second season for the program after showing some flashes early last year before being sidelined with an abdominal injury. Drake transfer Joseph Yesufu, who averaged just 2 points per game last season, is someone who KU will be looking for to step up as well.
Now, back to the question at the center position. Self will have some decisions to make with David McCormack gone, as there’s not really a clear-cut answer. Sophomore Zach Clemence is the frontrunner for the job after learning for much of last season, but four-star 6-foot-10 recruit Ernest Udeh could be someone who takes on the role. It’s always difficult to gauge what freshmen will do, especially those who play in the paint. Another four-star freshman, Zuby Eljofor, as well as Division II transfer Cam Martin round out the options at the center slot.
While Kansas has certainly lost a lot, with Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, Remy Martin and McCormack headlining the departures, there’s no shortage of options for Self. This Jayhawks team has the potential to cause some matchup problems for opponents on the wing.
TCU could have one of their best seasons in program history.
Texas Christian University as a top-10 team in college basketball?!
Jamie Dixon welcomes back his top six scorers from last season, including his entire starting five. In an era in which roster turnover is commonplace, the Horned Frogs define continuity.
Junior guard Mike Miles will be one of the best guards not just in the Big 12, but in college basketball. He averaged 15.4 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds this past season, combining for 41 points in two NCAA Tournament games. Senior Damion Baugh, a 6-foot-4 guard who showed his playmaking ability with 10.6 points and 4.5 assists per game last season, will join Miles in the backcourt.
With seniors Emanuel Miller (10.3 PPG) and Chuck O’Bannon (9.5 PPG) filling out the versatile forward roles for TCU, the Horned Frogs have the ability to be switchable and long defensively. Eddie Lampkin, who played his first full season last year while posting 6.8 points and 6.2 boards per game, will hold down the center position and could be a breakout candidate.
The Horned Frogs’ biggest strength? Defense. They ranked 15th in the country in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency last season. The question will be how they handle the preseason hype, as well as if they can improve on the perimeter. TCU was ninth in the Big 12 last season at just over 30% from 3-point territory.
Texas’ Chris Beard has the best backcourt of his coaching career.
College basketball is a guard’s game, and the Longhorns are filled with options in their backcourt. Marcus Carr returns for a fifth season, his second in Austin.
Beard and his staff also landed their top choice out of the transfer portal, with Iowa State’s Tyrese Hunter staying in the league and heading to Texas for his sophomore season. As a freshman, the 6-foot guard tallied 11.0 points and 4.9 assists per game, making a huge impact for a Cyclones team that surprised many across the sport.
The Longhorns aren’t done there, with the nation’s sixth-best recruiting class, according to 247 Sports.
Five-star prospects Dillon Mitchell and Arterio Morris figure to make an immediate impact for Texas, with Mitchell on track to likely start. A player who should not be forgotten for the Longhorns is New Mexico State transfer Sir’Jabari Rice, who played a major role on an Aggies team that upset UConn in the NCAA Tournament. Beard believes Rice’s impact could surprise.
Despite new faces, Texas Tech can be a top-25 team.
Year 1 of the Mark Adams era was impressive, with the Red Raiders advancing to the Sweet 16 of behind the best defense in America. But it was an offseason of change for Texas Tech.
Terrence Shannon Jr. (Illinois) and Kevin McCullar (Kansas) both transferred out of the program. Davion Warren, Bryson Williams, Marcus Santos-Silva, Adonis Arms, Chibuzo Agbo and Mylik Wilson are also gone. That opened up a bevy of roster slots.
Texas Tech did reel in some quality adds in the portal and will have one of the most dangerous frontcourts in the conference with Utah Valley transfer Fardaws Aimaq joining 6-foot-8 fifth-year senior Kevin Obanor.
Standing at 6-foot-11, Aimaq was one of the best available big men in the portal. He tied National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe with 27 double-doubles this past season and was second in the country with 13.6 rebounds per game, to go along with his 18.9 points.
The biggest key for the Red Raiders is what they end up getting from a new-look backcourt. De’Vion Harmon will be in his third school (Oklahoma, Oregon) in four years. Former North Carolina guard Kerwin Walton comes to Lubbock looking for a role and production increase, while D’Maurian Williams transfers into the program after averaging 14.5 points and 2.5 assists for Gardner-Webb.
One of the pieces most difficult to gauge is freshman guard Elijah Fisher. The 6-foot-6 prospect from Toronto was the No. 15 prospect in the country in the 2023 recruiting class before he elected to reclassify to this year. He picked the Red Raiders over Kansas, Kentucky, Baylor and Memphis, among others. This past year in high school, Fisher averaged 28 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and three steals per game. He has also spent time with the Canadian national team program.
Another interesting X-factor candidate is 6-foot-6 Texas transfer Jaylon Tyson, who originally committed to the Red Raiders before following Beard to Texas. He transferred mid-season last year after appearing in only eight games for the Longhorns. Tyson was a top-40 recruit out of John Paul II High School, which he led to its first state title as a junior. Could he be someone who emerges after going through a summer of development under Adams? We shall see.
Texas Tech is really the wild card of the conference. Given how well the Raiders have defended, not to mention the winning pedigree they have developed, it would not be surprising to see them rise into the top-15. But there are also some unknowns that could lead them more into being a top 30-35 squad.
A Battle of Oklahoma could play out to fill out the top six.
Mike Boynton did an admirable job last season with an Oklahoma State team that had nothing to play for except pride, and with a tournament bid back in the picture, the Cowboys could very well be a team that goes dancing next March.
Boynton welcomes back his top two scorers from last season in Avery Anderson and Bryce Thompson. With reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Moussa Cisse back for his third season of college basketball, the Cowboys have the league’s leader in blocked shots (54) and a strong 7-foot-1 rim protector.
It will be interesting to see if Tyreek Smith can make a leap with some more experience and a potential role increase. In terms of the portal, Boynton reeled in High Point transfer John Michael-Wright, a 6-foot guard who is coming off a junior season in which he averaged 18.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. He will get an opportunity to play a key role, and it will be interesting to see just how much of his success at a mid-major level translates to the Cowboys and the Big 12.
Meanwhile, Porter Moser enters his second season looking to build off a 19-16 campaign in which the Sooners reached the second round of the NIT. Like most cases for a team trying to take a leap, transfer portal additions — and to a lesser extent freshmen — will play a key role in just how much progress the Sooners will make in the 2022-23 campaign.
The player to watch is Nevada transfer and 6-foot-2 senior guard Grant Sherfield, who averaged 19.1 points, 6.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds for the Wolfpack this past season. The All-Mountain West selection will be counted on to step in and be Oklahoma’s primary ball handler.
Just this week, the Sooners received the great news that George Washington transfer Joe Bamisile received an NCAA waiver and will not have to sit out this year. The 6-foot-4 guard is on his third school in as many years after starting his career at Virginia Tech, but he did stand out as an All-Atlantic 10 selection this past season (16.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG).
While the third starting guard spot is a bit up in the air, Oklahoma has a pair of four-star recruits coming into the program to headline the nation’s No. 37-ranked class, according to 247 Sports. Out of Blair Academy in New Jersey, 6-foot-6 shooting guard Otega Oweh is someone who could step in and make an impact. The other top prospect entering Norman is four-star point guard Milos Uzan, who could be a reserve behind Sherfield.
The frontcourt should be steady with fifth-year senior and All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection Tanner Groves back in the fold. Another key returnee is 6-foot-6 senior Jalen Hill, who started every game last season and could emerge as a double-figure scorer in his fourth year with the program.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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