January 5, 2021
Big 12 Power Rankings: Evaluating teams after the start of conference play
Baylor, Texas, and Iowa State remain on top
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1. Baylor (-)
Tier: 1 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 1 | Record: 8-1 (3-0) | National Ranking: No. 6
After two weeks without action, Baylor came into the new year blazing, overwhelming TCU with length. Senior guard Moon Ursin broke through with a career-high 21 points, and freshman center Hannah Gusters has proved to be a consistently valuable offensive piece in relief, shooting 75% from the field. Baylor has survived with a less-experienced backcourt thanks to Ursin’s leap.
Last season, Baylor was more efficient than its opponents from every zone on the floor. While the Lady Bears are struggling to hit many of their 3-pointers and straightaway mid-range shots, they’re still feasting around the basket, taking 27% of their shots at the rim — a full nine-point jump from last year. The interior threat of NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo has been too much for opponents to handle.
Baylor’s embrace of paint production is a byproduct of its terrific offensive rebounding numbers grabbing nearly half (48.6%) of their own misses. On the defensive end, the Lady Bears are on pace to finish their fourth-straight year allowing the lowest field goal percentage in the country.
So yeah, the season will probably end with Baylor’s 11th straight Big 12 championship — the Lady Bears are simply deeper than the rest of the conference. The parity is ever-so-slightly shrinking, but that’s only because Texas and Iowa State are getting better. Not because Baylor is getting any worse.
Coming up: Baylor’s toughest test of the season will come on Thursday against No. 3 UConn. The Lady Bears have been just fine against elite teams in the past without top-tier shooting and won it all in 2018-19 shooting even fewer outside shots than they have this year. The Huskies, who also shoot poorly, will test Baylor’s interior scorers.
2. Texas (-)
Tier: 2 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 2 | Record: 8-1 (2-0) | National Ranking: No. 17
Well, Texas is legit. On the back of junior center Charli Collier, the Longhorns have jumped out to an 8-1 start, including a convincing 74-59 win over Iowa State on Sunday.
The Longhorns defense continued its dominance against the Cyclones, holding the otherwise-efficient offense to a season-low 59 points on 38% shooting. Perhaps the most impressive part of its win was that Collier had an otherwise pedestrian game. Four other Longhorns finished in double digits, and Texas proved that its collection of two-way talent is just that — a collection.
“Our guards made shots … that’s going to make life a whole lot easier for Charli,” head coach Vic Schaefer said. “If they’re going to double and triple-team her down there, they’re going to pay.”
Joanne Allen-Taylor, Audrey Warren, and Celeste Taylor are all fantastic compliments to Collier’s game. Allen-Taylor in particular has become a favorite of Schaefer’s thanks to her hard-nosed play on both ends of the court. Taylor, meanwhile, recently returned from a foot injury, and her play against Iowa State (5 points, 2-of-9 from the field) signaled that she’s not back to 100%. But she’s getting there.
While the halfcourt offense can look stagnant at times, they’re equipped to overcome it, blitzing teams in transition and pounding the offensive glass.
Texas forces more turnovers than any team in the conference not named Baylor, and choke out its opponents’ perimeter shots, forcing guards to drive in the paint (and into Collier and freshman wunderkind DeYona Gaston, who has 2.1 blocks per game). The Longhorns also lead the Big 12 in points off turnovers and convert the second-most second-chance opportunities.
Coming up: Next Saturday, Texas takes on a sneaky-talented West Virginia team that’s hungry for an upset. How West Virginia approaches Collier’s post play could foreshadow the type of defense she’ll see throughout the rest of the conference. The Cyclones’ top priority was denying her the ball, and it kept the game close in the first half. If the Longhorns’ secondary creators can continue to knock down shots, the lanes will open back up.
3. Iowa State (-)
Tier: 2 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 3 | Record: 6-4 (2-1) |
Iowa State had a wake-up call this weekend in its loss to Texas. The Cyclones’ weaknesses — offensive rebounding and playmaking — are exposed against the conference’s top two teams, who excel in both areas.
It isn’t by a huge margin, but Ashley Joens is still the best player in the conference. Lexi Donarski (the highest-ranked recruit in Iowa State history) and Emily Ryan (who leads the conference in assists per game) have been phenomenal as freshmen. The future is bright — all four freshmen are true rotation pieces, seemingly without a nerve in their bodies, and the team’s ceiling is heightened because of its outside shooting and the mere presence of Joens on the floor. Meanwhile, the veterans around Joens — Kristin Scott and Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw — both play critical roles on this team.
But the defense needs to get better. They certainly don’t force enough turnovers, and while packing the paint certainly helped slow Collier down, it left other Longhorns wide open. That’ll be a point of emphasis in their next matchup.
Sunday’s loss isn’t the end of the Cyclones season. But they’ve now lost three games against teams that they had a realistic shot at beating in South Dakota State, Iowa, and now Texas.
Coming up: The Cyclones won’t play until next Sunday against Texas Tech, and then have two tough matchups against Oklahoma State on 1/13 and Baylor on 1/16. A week of practice will help.
4. Oklahoma State (+4)
Tier: 3 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 8 | Record: 7-2 (3-0) |
Well, this came out of the blue. Or did it? This team rosters Natasha Mack, a true force of will on both ends of the court. The true development is that Mack has the pieces around her to thrive.
Redshirt junior guard Ja’Mee Asberry has emerged as the most improved player in the conference, jumping from 6.8 to 16.1 points per game through nine games. At 5’5, she surprises as an all-around scorer, and it showed in her 28-point performance against Texas Tech to open the year, where she hit all six of her 3-point attempts. She and Mack are clicking especially well in the pick and roll, and the entire team’s chemistry receives a boost when those two share the floor.
Watching the Cowgirls on defense might be even more fun than their offensive prowess, with Mack once again leading the way. Oklahoma State likes to gamble on that end of the court, and it pays off — per CBB Analytics, 29.1% of their opponents’ possessions end in a steal or a blocked 2-point shot, which ranks in the top percentile in the nation. If you’re looking for a new team to watch in the Big 12, pick Oklahoma State.
Looking ahead: The Cowgirls hit the road against TCU on Wednesday and head home for a game against Kansas on Saturday. If they win both as expected, a 5-0 start to conference play will be quite the statement for a team that the coaches and I both picked to finish 8th.
5. West Virginia (-1)
Tier: 3 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 4 | Record: 7-2 (1-2) |
Right below sits the Mountaineers, whose spot here speaks to a much-improved and much-complete offense. The team started 2021 with an 18-point win over middling Oklahoma, and the usual suspects — redshirt senior guard Kysre Gondrezick, junior guard Madisen Smith, sophomore guard Kirsten Deans, and sophomore forward Esmery Martinez — are all stepping up with double-digit scoring averages. Gondrezick, in particular, has impressed, taking her scoring up to 20.1 points per game while dominating at all three levels.
Martinez and junior forward Kari Niblack are also feasting on the boards. Niblack has handled a smaller scoring load and her defense has been volatile — she blocks a lot of shots, but she also fouls a lot, which is an issue.
Stylistically, the Mountaineers aren’t shooting often, but when they are they’re connecting, converting 40.4% of their outside shots. They’re also pushing the ball more than last season, which has helped jumpstart the offense.
The gap between West Virginia and Oklahoma State is slim — they lost to the Cowgirls by five earlier this season with a bench scoring explosion on the Oklahoma State side — but the Cowgirls get the slight edge until the Mountaineers can prove otherwise. They also have an impressive set of wins against Ohio and Tennessee that keeps them in the hunt for a tournament bid come March.
Looking ahead: The Mountaineers have a chance to slip ahead of Oklahoma State if they can find a way to overcome Texas on Saturday. To do so, Gondrezick will have to be on her A-game.
6. Kansas State (-1)
Tier: 3 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 5 | Record: 5-4 (0-2) |
Ayoka Lee is once again leading the team in scoring, with guards Christianna Carr and Rachel Ranke opening up the floor around her. We haven’t had a good look at the Wildcats in awhile, though. On Dec. 30, Kansas State paused all basketball activities, postponing two of the Wildcats’ games and leaving them on a 19-day stretch without basketball. There’s still a nine-game sample to work with — we do know that they play very slow and take a lot of 3-pointers, largely due to the heliocentric offense around Lee.
It’s been a rocky schedule for Kansas State, but it has some encouraging performances under its belt. Want a fun stat? The rest of the Big 12 is 0-8 against Top 25 teams, while Kansas State is 1-2 with a surprising victory over No. 22 South Dakota State on Dec. 10.
Looking ahead: The Wildcats are getting the three toughest conference opponents out of the way early, with losses to Iowa State and Texas and an upcoming game against Baylor on Sunday. That’s certainly apt to test a team’s mental toughness — will an 0-3 conference start deflate Kansas State, or can it bounce back against the teams in tiers three and four?
7. Kansas (+3)
Tier: 4 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 10 | Record: 5-2 (1-0) |
Kansas has some life in it, after all. The Jayhawks are suffocating their opponents around the rim and on the boards, and last season’s nonexistent intangibles have dissipated. Miraculously, they’re off to their first 1-0 start in conference play since the 2012-13 season.
“This particular team has been doing a pretty good job, when it comes to especially the statistics rebounding margin,” head coach Brandon Schneider said after the Dec. 29 win over New Mexico State. “I think when you look at the game and you look at the hustle game or the 50-50 balls that a lot of people talk about, I thought that was an area in which we excelled today.”
Four Jayhawks are averaging at least 10 points per game, followed closely behind by freshman forward Ioanna Chatzileonti, who is averaging 8.6 points and leads the team with 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.
Like their cross-state rivals, the Jayhawks are on pause due to COVID-19 protocols and injuries in the program. Games against West Virginia and Iowa State were postponed.
Looking ahead: The Jayhawks head to Oklahoma State on Saturday in their first true litmus test of the season. If they can keep the contest close, or even upset the Cowgirls, they could move their way into tier three.
8. Texas Tech (-2)
Tier: 4 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 6 | Record: 6-3 (1-2) |
The Lady Raiders had a chance to make a name for themselves with a competitive game against the streaking Cowgirls. They did not take that opportunity, falling by an 18-point margin.
Despite the scoring punch from grad transfer Vivian Gray and Lexi Gordon, who combine to average 35.7 points per game, the Lady Raiders can’t seem to consistently click on both ends of the court. That is in part due to the departure of junior guard Chrislyn Carr, who entered the transfer portal in mid-December after averaging 9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists.
Looking ahead: The Lady Raiders have their easiest in-conference test thus far on Wednesday with a home game against Oklahoma. If they can earn a convincing win, they’ll at least have some confidence heading into a three-game stretch against Iowa State, West Virginia, and Texas.
9. TCU (-)
Tier: 4 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 9 | Record: 5-3 (0-3) |
As expected, Lauren Heard is carrying this team as much as she can, with the third-highest usage percentage in the conference and the fourth-highest assist percentage. She leads the Horned Frogs in points, assists, and is second in rebounding, but there’s only so much one woman can do.
That showed up in the weekend’s loss to Baylor, where DiDi Richards held her to 2-15 shooting. While the Horned Frogs shot a poor percentage in the game, they defended pretty well given the challenges that Baylor presents.
TCU isn’t sloppy or painful to watch — it moves the ball a lot without turning the ball over — but the lack of secondary creation around Heard has sealed this season’s status as a rebuild following 2019-20’s second-place finish.
Looking ahead: TCU will end its three-game road stand on Wednesday against Oklahoma State and will follow the contest up on Saturday against Oklahoma. If it drops both games, things could quickly turn from ugly to unsalvageable.
10. Oklahoma (-3)
Tier: 4 | The Next’s Preseason Ranking: 7 | Record: 3-5 (0-3) |
Yeah, there’s no other way to put it — this season has been hard on the Sooners. Oklahoma was almost in a tier of its own, but it’s too early to count them out of every contest.
If the Sooners’ season is lost, it certainly won’t be junior guard Madi Williams’ fault. Williams opened up the new year setting the Oklahoma single-game scoring record with 45 points against West Virginia, accounting for more than half of the Sooners’ 72 points.
Oklahoma has gone through injuries, COVID cancelations, and an underwhelming year from junior guard Taylor Robertson, who averaged 19.1 points last season while leading the nation in 3-pointers made, and now is averaging just 13.3 points per game.
Looking ahead: The Sooners play a pair of tier four teams this week in Texas Tech and TCU, and if neither game ends in a win, this season is as good as lost. The following three games will come against Texas, Iowa State, and Baylor.