If a conference was ever balanced at the top, it's this year's Big 12. Defending champion Kansas and 2021 national champ Baylor are tied at No. 5 in the AP's preseason poll. Both look poised to reach the Final Four.
Then again, the Big 12 season has already opened in surprising fashion with the news that Kansas head coach Bill Self is suspended for the first four games. The penalty was imposed by the university amid continuing fallout from the FBI's 2017 investigation into college basketball.
Before and after Self's return, the Jayhawks will rely on Jalen Wilson, Dajuan Harris Jr., Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar Jr. and highly anticipated recruits like Gradey Dick, Ernest Udeh and M.J. Rice. Kansas will need to gel quickly, because Baylor returns LJ Cryer, Adam Flagler and Flo Thamba while adding Keyonte George, the No. 6 prospect in the 2022 ESPN 100.
Still, the rest of the conference won't make things easy. Texas is putting veterans Marcus Carr and Timmy Allen alongside Iowa State transfer Tyrese Hunter and potential 2023 lottery pick Dillon Mitchell. TCU returns all five starters from a team that took top seed Arizona to overtime in the round of 32 last March.
Texas Tech is known for defense, and Mark Adams and his group project to uphold that reputation this season. With the tournament run the Red Raiders posted under Chris Beard back in 2019, the Big 12 has been represented in each of the last three national title games. Don't be surprised if that streak reaches four straight in 2023.
Find more preseason analysis here.
Big-12 2022-23 superlatives
Player of the Year
Myron Medcalf: Mike Miles Jr., TCU Horned Frogs
Jeff Borzello: Mike Miles Jr., TCU Horned Frogs
John Gasaway: Adam Flagler, Baylor Bears
Joe Lunardi: Jalen Wilson, Kansas Jayhawks
Newcomer of the Year
Big-12 2022-23 roundtable
Baylor and Kansas have given the Big 12 back-to-back national championships. What are the chances of a Big 12 three-peat, and which program could accomplish it?
Borzello: If a Big 12 program is going to win the title this year, it's going to be Baylor or Kansas. While neither are considered the favorites, both are consensus top-10 teams and are even tied at No. 5 in the preseason AP poll. Baylor should have one of the best perimeter groups in the country, with five-star guard Keyonte George joining Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer, while Kansas has a top-five recruiting class, Bill Self and potentially a breakout season from Jalen Wilson. It's not out of the realm of possibility.
Gasaway: I like Baylor's chances. It could be hard to tell in last year's "everybody has an incredible defense" Big 12, but the Bears were elite on offense even with Cryer sidelined for all but 15 minutes of February and March. Now he's back, and part of what should be a loaded backcourt. Plus, Kansas took away Baylor's No. 1 ranking in the conference in shot volume last season, by a hair. The Bears will be crashing the offensive glass and playing angry!
Medcalf: The eight or nine teams below No. 1 North Carolina in the AP preseason poll, including Baylor and Kansas, all seem comparable entering the season. I give Baylor the slight edge over Kansas, though. Bill Self has said Jalen Wilson has to be an All-American for Kansas to reach its potential. I think he has that potential, but we have to see if he can play the way he did in the national title game for an entire season. Baylor has been top-25 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency over the last three years, and won an average of 27 games during that stretch. I think that will continue with this year's talented group, enhanced by George's potential.
Lunardi: Kansas and Baylor were consensus No. 1 seeds for the canceled 2020 tournament, with Kansas being the No. 1 overall seed. The chance of one of them winning it all -- both were two of the top three teams in the country that year, along with Gonzaga -- was pretty high. If forced to pick one of the Big 12 powers in 2023, I'd go with Baylor. The Bears have a little more experience and a stronger perimeter than the defending national champions. But the real story is just how dominant these two programs have been for the last four years.
Chris Beard underwhelmed in his first season coaching at Texas. Is this season's squad better than the last?
Gasaway: In the last decade, Texas has earned a higher seed than last season just once. Over the same span, the Longhorns never went deeper into the tournament than what we saw in 2022. So by local standards, maybe Beard did alright with the No. 6 seed and the trip to the round of 32. This season, the Longhorns should do even better because it's inconceivable that a Chris Beard defense will be (surprisingly close to the lofty Big 12) average two seasons in a row. Plus, Marcus Carr's still here. Do we get to do Perry Ellis jokes with him yet?
Medcalf: Texas shot just 31% from 3 in league play last season. If that stat doesn't improve, the Longhorns might fall short of their ceiling again. But I talked to Tyrese Hunter at Big 12 media day, who said Carr was critical in his recruitment. He also thinks this year's group will have that connection and poise necessary to reach its potential. If they blend, the Longhorns could last longer in the NCAA tournament than they did a year ago.
Borzello: Texas had Final Four hopes last preseason, with two starters returning from the Shaka Smart era and Beard bringing in one of the best transfer classes of all time. But the team never lived up to the October hype. And even though the program has seen some departures, the talent level might be higher this season. Starters Carr and Timmy Allen return, and five-star recruits Dillon Mitchell -- a potential lottery pick -- and Arterio Morris arrive alongside top-three transfer Tyrese Hunter. Can all this talent score more efficiently than last season and make shots from the perimeter more consistently? If the answer to both questions is yes, Texas should go further.
Lunardi: Not sure "underwhelmed" is the word I would choose for Texas. Maybe expectations were a bit unreasonable for a transition year, however individually talented the Longhorns may have been. Let's not forget: Texas hasn't won an NCAA tournament game since 2014. The Longhorns haven't outplayed their seed in 20 years. I suspect this will be the season that changes.
This league has been synonymous with outstanding defense over the past few seasons. Which team will finish with the best D in the conference?
Medcalf: When Texas Tech made its run to the Final Four in 2019, Mark Adams was its defensive coordinator. His Texas Tech team last season was No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency in the country. The Red Raiders were also top-10 in three of the four previous seasons, when Adams was Beard's assistant. Adams is college basketball's Monte Kiffin. I'll always assume his team will have the top defense in the league. It's no different this season.
Gasaway: Until further notice, the road to this "best defense" title still goes through Lubbock. Last year, Texas Tech was No. 1 in the nation for adjusted D at KenPom for the second time in four seasons. That of course has come under two different head coaches. Maybe it's something in the water, but expect Mark Adams and his guys to hold onto what's theirs. Saying you're the best defense in the Big 12 is no mean feat.
Lunardi: The league's best defense will be somewhere in the Lone Star state: Texas Tech, Texas or Baylor. With Chris Beard now having a full year's buy-in to his system, I'm going with the Longhorns. Either that, or guys who figure to be doing a lot of playing will be doing a lot of watching. My money is on Beard winning a test of wills.
Borzello: If Fardaws Aimaq was going to be fully healthy from day one, I would've probably picked Texas Tech. But the Utah Valley transfer is out for the first part of the season due to a foot injury. So I'll go with Texas. The Longhorns were a top-15 defense nationally last season and fourth in the Big 12. Now add Hunter, one of the best on-ball defensive guards in the country a year ago, and Mitchell, a versatile defender whose explosiveness and 6-foot-9 size make him a defensive playmaker on the wing. The sleeper in this category might actually be Oklahoma State, which quietly had a top-five defense nationally last season and still has Moussa Cisse protecting the rim.
Who or what are we not talking nearly enough about across the Big-12?
Borzello: TCU is going to be fascinating to monitor this season. The Horned Frogs bring nearly everyone back -- including Preseason Player of the Year Mike Miles Jr. -- from a team that blew out Seton Hall and then took 1-seed Arizona to the wire in the second round. But Jamie Dixon's team needs consistency. They beat Kansas, Texas Tech, Texas and LSU. They lost to Santa Clara, West Virginia, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. They never won more than two games in a row over the final three months of the season. But the sort of continuity and roster retention they have is uncommon in modern-day college basketball. And that should be a difference-maker.
Lunardi: My Big 12 storylines are bookends of sorts. The TCU resurgence under Jamie Dixon is well-documented and should result in the program's best team this century. At the other end of things, I wonder if we're seeing a permanent decline at West Virginia. The Mountaineers tied for their worst Big 12 record of the Bob Huggins era, and there is no obvious rebound in sight. WVU has never come close to back-to-back losing seasons under Huggins. But it could happen, and there could be unpleasant whispering in Morgantown.
Gasaway: Say it with me. Three-peat! Three-peat! The first question already alluded to this, but we're still not talking nearly enough about this. Just consider three national championships in a row for one league. It has happened once in our post-Wooden era, when Duke won back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992 and North Carolina followed in 1993. For a league that will add Houston next season, the Big 12 is already impressively, if not historically, strong.
Medcalf: I don't think we're talking enough about the fact that Mike Boynton's program was banned from last year's postseason for infractions that did not involve any current player, coach or staffer at Oklahoma State. A year later in a separate process, the IARP panel essentially exonerated Penny Hardaway and Memphis in a case that also involved allegations of improprieties. The IARP seemed to understand that the NCAA had failed in its duties in previous infractions cases, in the ruling. But Oklahoma State suffered a setback that was unfair to that program. Boynton and his team deserve an apology.