November 24, 2020 

Your 2020-21 Big 12 season preview

Despite injuries, it's still Baylor over everybody

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Yeah, so this is still Baylor’s conference. So what?

Texas has reloaded with a new head coach, Iowa State is interesting with a plethora of options and a stacked incoming class, and at least nine teams could make noise in this conference (sorry, Kansas).

Every team is navigating uncharted territory here. After months without practice, no team is going to be truly ready until 2021. Every team has question marks, but this is something different.

The top tier: Baylor and Sweet 16 hopefuls

1. Baylor

2020 Finish: 1st in Big 12, 28-2 (17-1)
Expected MVP: NaLyssa Smith
X-Factor: DiJonai Carrington
Biggest loss: Lauren Cox

If you’re unfamiliar with the lore of Baylor women’s basketball, let’s get you up to speed. We’re talking about 10 straight conference championships. A 170-8 record in conference play over the past decade. Six Elite Eight appearances, and of course two national championships. Technically, the Bears are college basketball’s defending champs, after the NCAA canceled March Madness 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year’s squad was poised to make yet another deep NCAA tournament run. Then, they lost three names — Lauren Cox, Te’a Cooper, and Juicy Landrum — to the 2020 WNBA Draft. But this team is not barren for talent.

Junior forward NaLyssa Smith will lead the way for the Lady Bears. For as dominant as Cox was last season for the Lady Bears, one could argue that Smith was just as impressive. She should comfortably slide into the leadership role as Baylor seeks its 11th straight Big 12 title. Smith is a scoring savant around the rim and could stake her claim as the best player in college basketball this year. This Baylor team will score at will in the paint, and Smith the reason why.

“The two keys to the teams that survived this year are those that have the most depth, and those that have the most experience,” head coach Kim Mulkey said. “Because you’re going to have to play games where there’s not gonna be a whole lot of coaching and preparation involved. When you do some games there’s going to be games where you have kids that are out quarantined or sick. You just got to go play,”

Didi Richards is a playmaker’s playmaker, a defender’s defender, and directs a Baylor defense that ranked second in the nation last season. In the offseason, Richards added a mid-range jumper and it looked like she wanted to do more than repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. But after suffering a spinal injury on Oct. 24, it’s unclear what her timetable to return looks like.

Surrounding Smith and Richards is quite a cast of role players. It doesn’t hurt to return Sixth Person of the Year Queen Egbo, and she could make the leap this year with a fortified spot in the starting lineup. Two fresh faces are expected to contribute immediately, with grad transfer DiJonai Carrington snagging Preseason Newcomer of the Year, and freshman guard Sarah Andrews picking up the Preseason Freshman of the Year.

Carrington is the Lady Bears’ biggest wild card, and whether or not she fits comfortably into this roster could be the difference between an NCAA championship and just another Elite Eight appearances. Knee injuries have plagued Carrington’s career, though she’s had plenty of time to rehab and train in quarantine. Penn State grad transfer Kamaria McDaniel, who averaged 19.8 points per game, should also make an instant difference in the rotation.

Simply put, it’s championship-or-bust for Baylor basketball. But do they have the shooting to get it done? Baylor’s shot 39% from deep last season, the fourth-best mark in the country, but Landrum and Cooper were responsible for almost 85% of the team’s production. They’re gone. This leaves Carrington as the only true shooter on the roster, with senior Moon Ursin and her 12 total treys as the next woman up.

The hope for Baylor is that the rookie Andrews can space the floor for others. Mulkey has made plenty of different offensive configurations work during her tenure, but in the NCAA tournament, a lack of perimeter shooting can sink you.

Fun stat: Four of the Big 12’s top 10 defenders by opp. FG% played for Baylor last season. In all likelihood, none will play for the Lady Bears at the start of the year.
Final thought:
Baylor’s shooting may be in witness protection, but it might not matter. If Richards is back to 100% by March, Baylor is on the shortlist of Championship contenders. If not, they’ll still win the Big 12.

2. Texas

2020 Finish: 3rd in Big 12, (19-11) (11-7)
MVP: Charli Collier
X-Factor: Deyona Gaston
Biggest Loss: Sug Sutton

Texas basketball is back, baby.

“We have a saying it’s not what we do, but how we do it, that separates us from the rest of the country.”

Junior center Charli Collier and sophomore guard Celeste Taylor will take the reins from Joyner Holmes and Sug Sutton, and hope to shepherd Texas back beyond the Sweet 16 this year. Collier fronts the Longhorns offense, penciled in as the team’s primary scoring option, and there are already rumblings that she’ll hear her name toward the top of the WNBA draft — if she declares. Collier’s idol is Candace Parker and there’s little doubt they’ll face off — or team up — in the next two years.

In the near future, we can guess that Collier has Baylor circled on the schedule. The third-year center averaged just 5.5 points per game on 23% shooting from the field against the Lady Bears defense last season. Texas has not defeated Baylor since the 2016-17 season.

Taylor is a quick-twitch athlete with a methodical approach, high motor, and even higher basketball IQ. Her freshman year, she played like anything but a first-year. Not since the days of Ariel Atkins has Texas had a guard as polished as Taylor. There’s no telling what her ceiling is, or if she even has one, but this two-way phenom could bring Texas basketball to new heights.

New head coach Vic Schaefer joined the program after eight years in Starkville, where he built Mississippi State into one of the nation’s preeminent hoops powers. Defensive intensity and offensive ingenuity have been the staple of Schaefer’s squads, and now, he’s found his calling in Texas. He and the team have a chip on their shoulders.

“All I did was jumped out of the frying pan and into the grease,” Schaefer said. “When you got Texas across your chest, everybody seems to play a little bit harder, that plays against you. And that’s how we want it.”

Granted, no team is as talented up top as Baylor, but Texas has the depth to make noise in the conference, particularly with its freshmen. With several injuries on the roster, Precious Johnson and Deyona Gaston will have to contribute immediately, though neither player is 100% healthy themselves. Gaston, in particular, could be Schaefer’s ace in the hole.

Just four short years ago, Gaston was the top-ranked player in her class. But after a string of injuries in her sophomore season, Gaston dropped down 89 spots in the rankings. Don’t let that fall fool you. Gaston exudes potential as a 6’2 wing with a shot, handles, and legitimate guard skills. If she can hit her stride by February or March, Texas is a real threat to make the Elite Eight.

Texas enters the season with no seniors on the roster, a new scheme, and a new coach — but also no weaknesses. The Longhorns could take a few weeks to hit their stride, but once they do, it’s an obituary to the rest of the conference.

Schaefer has been adamant that his goal is a national championship. He’s been dealt a strong hand, but going that far without a senior or a track record at Texas will be a challenge. If the goal is an Elite Eight appearance? They might just have the firepower to do it.

Fun stat: Despite her record against Baylor, Collier is a big-game hunter. In the Longhorns win against top-ranked Stanford, the young center was just one board short of a 20-20.
Final thought:
New coach, new star, same story. Death, taxes, and Texas playing catch-up with Baylor.

3. Iowa State

2020 Finish: 4th in Big 12, (18-11) (10-8)
MVP: Ashley Joens
X-Factor: Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw
Biggest Loss: Adriana Camber

Iowa State is young, and Iowa State is hungry. Ashley Joens led the Big 12 in scoring last year as a sophomore. She is nearly unstoppable coming off screens — or anywhere on the court, for that matter. Four of the five starters from last season, including runningmate senior Kristin Scott, return to Ames. Most everyone on this squad can shoot, and head coach Bill Fennelly will have plenty of lineup permutations to play around with.

The return of senior playmaker Rae Johnson and sophomore scorer Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw should also bolster the team’s guard depth. Espenmiller-McGraw could make the leap as the true tertiary star in this offense, but she’ll need to bump up her efficiency from inside the three-point line to do so.

The young guns are led by 5-star recruits Lexi Donarski and Ashley’s sister, Aubrey Joens. Donarski was impressive in high school, even outscoring No. 1 recruit and UConn freshman Paige Bueckers 24-9 in their matchup earlier this year. She has the offensive versatility and swagger to immediately flex into the offense. Joens, meanwhile, will join her sister Ashley on the court. While Ashley prefers to get her work done in the paint, Aubrey is more comfortable spotting up on the perimeter and should fit seamlessly into the rotation.

The question for this squad is how much of a difference freshmen can make in a year marked by a pandemic. Every new player is an additional film session, an extra lift, one more run through a drill. The Big 12 is a high-stakes environment that doesn’t allow for large margins of error.

The Cyclones have been around the block, and have a methodical approach to the game within an efficient, pro-style offense. Head coach Fennelly made sure this squad frequented the charity stripe and the arc last season, topping the Big 12 in free throw rate and three-point rate, per Her Hoop Stats. The offense will work.

Everything clicked at the right time for the Cyclones last year, ending the season with a one-point win over Baylor to break the Lady Bears 58-game win streak over Big 12 opponents. It’s been over eight months since anyone has played organized basketball so it’s hard to say whether the team is still “riding any momentum” from the season finale. But it has the pieces to compete.

This Iowa State team will be fun, and competition for minutes will be fierce with such a stacked incoming class. It will be on Fennelly to make sure they mesh. It has the offensive firepower, experience, and an element of randomness to make them must-watch TV.

Fun stat: Ashley Joens is about as close as you’ll get to a unicorn — per HerHoopStats, she was the only high-major player in the country to average at least 10 boards and one 3-pointer per game last year.
Final thought:
They might have the perfect blend of tested veterans and hungry freshmen. If you’re looking for a team with the most question marks, the Cyclones are right there. If you’re betting on any team to figure it out, bet on Iowa State.

On the bubble: NCAA Tournament hopefuls

4. West Virginia

2020 Finish: 6th in Big 12, 17-12 (7-11)
MVP: Kysre Gondrezick
X-Factor:Madisen Smith
Biggest Loss: Tynice Martin

West Virginia is your favorite team’s least favorite team. West Virginia does not care about your viewing experience. They play slow. They don’t score. They miss more shots than anyone in the conference. They don’t pass the ball particularly well. But they will make sure your offense is no better.

Last season, the Mountaineers started off 13-1 before sizzling out on a 4-11 run to end the season in 6th place and out of Tournament consideration.

Redshirt senior guard Kysre Gondrezick, of course, goes against the West Virginia mantra. Not only is Gondrezick a fun watch, but she’s one of the most complete scorers in the conference. There aren’t enough words to describe the joy the she brings to the court.

Junior forward Kari Niblack returns to the squad as well as the team’s preeminent defensive wing who can do everything on the court except shoot. There’s no worry with Niblack on the defensive end of the court: she shifts her feet well enough to keep up with most guards, and is big enough to contest anything around the hoop. Last season, she was the only player under 6’3 to average at least 1.5 blocks per game.

Junior guard Madisen Smith is the key to unlocking this offense’s potential. While her consistency wavered throughout last year, she put together a nice string of games in the back half of the year. This included a 17-point outburst in a close loss to Iowa State. Without Smith, the Mountaineers are not in that game — she’ll need even more of those performances this year.

Fun stat: Gondrezick’s field goal percentage changed by just 0.009% between her freshman and sophomore year
Final thought:
West Virginia is here to grind out games and make your team uncomfortable. In a season where we can’t truly predict anything, defensive continuity and an old-school grit n’ grind style is actually an advantage.

5. Kansas State

2020 Finish: 5th in Big 12, 16-13 (10-8)
MVP: Ayoka Lee
X-Factor: Christianna Carr
Biggest Loss: Peyton Williams

Peyton Williams and her 15.4/11.0/3.1 splits are off to ball in Moscow, leaving this squad in the hands of Freshman of the year Ayoka Lee. This is the highest preseason ranking for the Wildcats in 15 years. That’s largely due to Lee’s dominance over this past year.

Lee can bang with the best of the Big 12 down low and on the boards. The 6’6 sophomore’s herky-jerky post game would be impressive for a senior — once again, she’s just 20 years old. Last year, she was top 3 in the conference in field goal percentage, blocked shots, and led the conference with over four offensive rebounds per game.

The Wildcats once again will ride a defense as they hope to sneak into the NCAA tournament. To do so, they’ll need the complimentary guards around Lee — juniors Christianna Carr and Savannah Simmons, redshirt junior Rachel Ranke — to show their chops on the offensive end.

Kansas State got hot at the end of last season, ending the year on a 6-2 stretch. Let’s see if they’ve kept any inertia.

Head coach Jeff Mittie has his hands full trying to find the team’s secondary star, but there’s no better sophomore to build around than Lee.

Fun stat: Lee averaged 6.9 post points per game last season, the eighth-best mark in the country
Final thought:
The Big 12 is probably underrating Lee’s talent and overrating the supporting cast.

6. Texas Tech

2020 Finish: 7th in Big 12, 18-11 (7-11)
MVP: Vivian Gray
X-Factor: Daija Powell
Biggest Loss: Brittany Brewer

Obviously, we have no idea what this team will look like after the shocking departure of head coach Marlene Stollings, who was fired after a USA Today investigation revealed a toxic and abusive culture.

To say that new head coach Krista Gerlich has a lot on her plate is an understatement. Surely this is true on the basketball side, but more importantly, she’ll have a role in managing her players’ well-being of the players. We don’t want to speculate on her player’s well-being, so let’s look at the roster she’s inheriting.

Oklahoma State transfer and energizer-bunny Vivian Gray heads across the Big 12 to Texas Tech, ready to wreak havoc on any and all opponents in her path. Her lightning quick-trigger makes her a threat to pull-up from anywhere. Gun to my head, I’d say that Gray has the most devastating turnaround midrange shot in all of college basketball.

Texas Tech isn’t short on a secondary star — Chrislynn Carr is a talent in her own right, and effectively functions as this roster’s connective tissue. Her choice to exit the transfer portal after Garlich’s hiring saved this roster from serious chemistry issues. Carr is a shifty playmaker who finished second in the Big 12 in assists per game last season and was second on the team with 13.0 points per game. She and senior Lexi Gordon are lights-out shooters that give the Raiders a nice perimeter offense to experiment with.

Of course, Brittany Brewer’s graduation leaves this team shallow in the middle of the floor, which is what knocks the Raiders tournament hops down. With just four centers of forwards on the roster, three of whom are freshmen, Gerlich will need to make a mountain out of a molehill.

To crack the Big 12’s upper echelon, one of the young guns will have to impress. The best bet? Dajia Powell, a 6’1 freshman forward out of Atlanta. Powell is an extremely fluid athlete who can put the ball on the floor and has tremendous verticality to disrupt shots on the defensive end.

Fun stat: The guards on the team have ∞ percent more experience on the roster than the forwards and centers who have logged exactly 0 minutes for the Raiders.
Final thought:
Expect the Raiders to run an up-tempo offense. The fact this team could sneak into the tournament without a true forward is a testament to Gray and Carr’s talent. But it doesn’t change the reality that they probably won’t make it.

Just looking to make some noise

7. Oklahoma

2020 Finish: 9th in Big 12, 12-18 (5-13)
MVP: Taylor Robertson
X-Factor: Gabby Gregory
Biggest Loss: Aspen Williston

The great news: Taylor Robertson is still the best shooter in all of college basketball.

The good news: Everyone who played more at least seven minutes per game is back from last season.

The bad news: Last season, and probably this one too. Also, the defense.

Junior guard Madi Williams, senior guard Ana Llanusa, and sophomore guard Gabby Gregory round out the team’s top options, though the shot-creators fall-off pretty hard afterward. 5’3 freshman guard Nevaeh Tot could look to push the pace in her freshman season as well.

The three-point options extend to Llanusa and Gregory, so at least this is a modern offense. Depth at the forward spots will elude the Sooners roster.

Oklahoma was the worst defense in the Big 12 last season — by a wide margin — and did little to address those issues. The coaching staff, led by head coach Sherri Coale, will have to throw creative looks down on that end if they expect to compete in this league.

Fun Stat: The gap between Robertson (131 three-pointers) and the player with the second most treys (106) is the same as the gap between second and 31st (81).
Final thought:
Robertson is a generational shooter on a generationally bad defense. Sadly, basketball is still a team sport.

8. Oklahoma State

2020 Finish: 8th in Big 12, 15-15 (6-12)
MVP: Natasha Mack
X-Factor: Taylen Collins
Biggest Loss: Vivian Gray

It’s the return of the Mack. But who joins her? This year, it’s Natasha Mack, and whatever else Oklahoma State can round up. Mack was one of six unanimous selections to the All-Big 12 team, and her two-way play last season kept Cowgirls games close. Mack finished third in the country in blocks and rebounds per game and brings a certain gravitas to the floor that is rare at the collegiate level.

But this offense cannot compete in the Big 12 without Vivian Gray.

As the O’Colly highlighted, Littell is an old-school coach with odd expressions, demanding expectations, and a history of exceeding expectations. Taking this squad to the NCAA tournament would be his most impressive feat yet.

OSU added five freshmen to the roster, most notably Taylen Collins, who is the eighth-ranked wing in the 2020 class. Unlike other teams expected to finish around the bottom of the conference, the Cowgirls have depth at the wing. The catch is that they lack it everywhere else.

(Not so) fun stat: Oklahoma State shot worse from the field (38.8%) than Baylor shot from three last season (39.1%). It also allowed nearly the same FG% on two-pointers (37.7%) as it did on three-pointers (36.2%)
Final thought:
This is a solid interior defense that cannot shoot or defend the three-point line. That’s important in 2020. Natasha Mack is still a bucket and a board, though.

9. TCU

2020 Finish: 2nd in Big 12, 22-7 (13-5)
MVP: Lauren Heard
X-Factor: Yummy Morris
Biggest Loss: Kianna Ray, and well, every player except Lauren Heard

Lauren Heard will be back with a vengeance for TCU one year after emerging from her spot as a middling contributor to average 18.4 points per game for the Horned Frogs.

So TCU still has its leading scorer from last season. That’s about all its bringing back, as five legitimate contributors from last year’s second-place team are gone. Yummy Morris showed flashes of brilliance during her sophomore season, but she’s more of a high-end role player than a high-usage starter.

While TCU generally has an undersized roster heading into this season, it did pick up 6’7 center Patricia Morris from Oregon State. If nothing else, she’ll add another defensive option for a squad that is losing former senior All-Defensive guard Kianna Ray in the offseason.

(Not so) fun stat: Outside of Heard, just one player on this iteration of this Horn Frogs roster started a game last year. It was then-redshirt freshman Becky Obinma, who shot 1-6 in her singular start.
Final thought:
TCU has fallen quickly and fallen hard. Heard has the skill to beat up on some of the conference’s weaker opponents, but she’s going to see a lot of double-teams this year. Thoughts and prayers.

Just looking to rebuild

10. Kansas

2020 Finish: 10th in Big 12, 15-14 (4-14)
MVP: Zakiyah Franklin
X-Factor: an unpredictable season
Biggest Loss: Mariane De Carvalho

Yeah, Kansas basketball still isn’t great, but that’s okay! Zakiyah Franklin is a throwback guard, preferring to slash and drive rather than pull up from long-range. Alongside Franklin is fellow sophomore standout Holly Kersgieter who can knock down the three-ball and has a penchant for pick-pocketing opponents. Both players will need to cut down on the turnovers, though.

Of course, Kansas was abysmal in the Big 12 last year, and their incoming class doesn’t scream potential, with no top-100 recruits. The Jayhawks bring back 10 players from last year’s team and pray that at least one makes the leap.

No one expects the Jayhawks to win much in the Big 12, which is fine for them. They’re young, rebuilding, and hopefully use the chip on their shoulder to their advantage.

Fun stat: There’s no such thing as a fun stat for a team that finished 4-14 in the conference and lost three starters.
Final thought:
At least one player will make the leap from anonymity this year. Kansas picked the perfect year to find excuses, but they’ll run out of them by February, and by then it could be too late to salvage much of a roster.

Written by Spencer Nusbaum

Atlanta Dream & Big 12 reporter, breaking news and other things.

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