Bill Self expects ’wide-open’ Big 12 race this season
LAWRENCE — Kansas basketball enters the 2020-21 season with high hopes, but it’s a conference foe that has already made history.
Whether Baylor can now live up to the type of lofty expectations that the Jayhawks are accustomed to remains one of the upcoming campaign’s most intriguing storylines.
The Bears, who return standouts Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell, MaCio Teague and Mark Vital, were last month picked to finish atop the league in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll, a first for the program. Baylor earned seven of a potential 10 first-place votes. KU, which had been the projected conference champion in each of the previous eight preseason polls, finished second with three first-place votes.
For what it’s worth, KU head coach Bill Self is A-OK with how everything shook out.
“Well, they’re loaded. Obviously returning the players they do ... I really believe they deserve to be ranked where they are,” said Self, speaking last week on the Bears’ potential. “I know that them and the Zags (Gonzaga) have kind of split the preseason No. 1 ranking, and I think they both are deserving. I love their roster and the pieces seem to fit well, at least they did last year. I anticipate them having a tremendous year.”
Indeed, there appears no national consensus on which team deserves the preseason No. 1 spot. Baylor landed at the top of the season’s first USA TODAY coaches poll with 12 first-place votes versus Gonzaga’s 10, while the Bulldogs bested the Bears in The Associated Press’ initial offering with 28 first-place votes to 24 for Scott Drew’s crew.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Self agrees with Baylor’s placement in the Big 12 poll.
“If I was a coach in our league that could vote for anybody I would vote for Baylor,” said Self, whose Jayhawks open their season with a high-profile matchup against Gonzaga at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Fort Myers, Fla. “I voted for Baylor, obviously, because you can’t vote for your own team, but just being totally objective, they return the best team on paper and we lost obviously two consensus second-team All-Americans (Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson). That doesn’t bother me at all. I think they’re deserving of that.”
KU, the nation’s top-ranked team in both polls when everything came to an abrupt end last March, is this preseason pegged fifth in the USA TODAY poll and sixth in the AP. As mentioned earlier, the Jayhawks are also second in the Big 12 preseason poll, where the Bears had 79 points and Self’s squad netted 73.
“Of course as we all know preseason stuff really doesn’t mean much, but I guess I was happy that the coaches thought enough of our team to pick us second,” Self said. “It’s going to be a great league race. It’ll be wide-open. There will be ebbs and flows — there always are. But I actually agree with that prediction.”
The Big 12 on the whole is expected to have another strong year.
The league bested the Big Ten for first at advanced analytics outlet KenPom.com’s preseason conference strength rankings. Five Big 12 teams appear in both Top 25 polls, with Texas Tech (13th at USA TODAY/14th at AP), West Virginia (15th/15th) and Texas (22nd/19th) also earning nods. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, sixth and seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, respectively, are also expected to challenge for NCAA Tournament berths.
Asked what’s made the Big 12 so strong in recent years, Self cited his “tremendous, tremendous” head coaching peers. He also pointed to Texas’ emergence as a recruiting hotbed for the league — the Lone Star State produced three members of this year’s preseason All-Big 12 team (KU’s Marcus Garrett, Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, Texas’ Matt Coleman) and two players that ended up as honorable mentions (Texas’ Greg Brown, Texas Tech’s Kyler Edwards).
Self said the league is rightly getting “the recognition that it is due.”
“It’s not bottom-heavy at all,” Self said of the Big 12. “I mean teams that are finishing seventh, eighth, ninth in our league are potential NCAA Tournament teams. That’s the thing I think is different, is that we play hard out-of-conference schedules and it’s not bottom-heavy; it’s top- and middle-heavy. Just makes it where there’s so much more competitiveness in it.”