BettorIQ’s College Basketball Betting Preview: Big 12
With the college basketball season getting underway today, let’s take a look at the state of affairs in the Big 12, as well as a few teams who may be particularly intriguing as the season unfolds.
Last season was, to be kind, a down year for the Big 12 Conference. While it did manage to field six NCAA tournament teams, none managed to get on one of the top two seed lines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conference (Texas Tech excepted), fared poorly in March Madness. While the Red Raiders marched all the way to the national championship game, not a single other Big 12 team could make the Sweet 16. At first blush, one may think the Big 12 could be in for another struggle, as it had only three teams named in the AP preseason top 25. KenPom’s preseason rankings paint a different picture, however, one that suggests this could be the deepest conference in America. How deep? All ten of the team’s in the Big 12 are ranked inside KenPom’s top 60. While all ten won’t make the tournament, the selection committee will almost surely have to make more room for the Big 12 this time around.
Last season, for the first time since 2004, the Kansas Jayhawks were unable to claim at least a share of the Big 12 title. Despite a preseason #1 ranking from the AP, the Jayhawks were overcome by all kinds of injury and eligibility issues, combined with the unexpectedly inconsistent play of some of its highly touted recruits. The result was a 12-6 conference record that will not sit well in Lawrence. Interestingly, despite the problems last year, the media seem a little overconfident in Kansas, ranking them 3rd in the preseason poll, whereas KenPom is a touch more tempered, ranking the Jayhawks 10th. There’s no doubt that the talent is there, but it will be interesting to see how it gels, and how long it takes for all these moving parts to settle into a cohesive unit.
Headlining the roster is the exceptionally talented but injury prone big man Udoka Azubuike. While serious questions remain about his ability at the next level, Azubuike can be an absolutely dominant force in the college game. Combined with another frontcourt stud in Silvio De Sousa, Azubuike should make Kansas won of the premier post-up offenses in the nation. Before he was injured, Azubuike was in the 89 percentile for offensive efficiency when posting up. He scored at a 1.029 PPP and shot 64% from the field on these plays. With De Sousa in tow, doubling this talented post scorer will be a difficult task for opponents.
While Kansas do not have a true superstar freshman this season, sophomore point guard Devon Dotson’s decision to return gives Kansas one of the country’s best lead guards, and a player who should combine in high-low action with Azubuike and De Sousa to great effect. This should help open up plenty of shooting and cutting opportunities for the vastly underrated Ochai Agbaji, from whom Bill Self expects plenty.
This roster is loaded and deep, and huge. The defensive potential is downright frightening if the team can stay healthy and stay out of trouble. Last year’s defense ranked 17th in KenPom defensive efficiency, but this team, as constructed, could find itself closer to the 3rd ranking Kansas occupied as recently as 2016. People may not yet realize how good this defense can really be, so betting opportunities going under the total may present themselves through the non-conference schedule.
Isaiah Moss should provide some much-needed experience, coming over as a grad transfer from Iowa. He is the most likely beneficiary of Kansas’ offensive balance, and could be the missing piece. Moss shot 42.1% from three last year, and was in the 99% percentile of spot-up shooters in the country with 1.4 ppp and an adjusted field goal percentage of 76.3%. If he is able to put these types of numbers up again, this makes the Kansas half court almost unstoppable.
The question remains, can Kansas get out of its own way? Uncertainty looms over the program after a notice of violations, and a weird preseason controversy in which rapper Snoop Dogg appeared to make light of the situation. Perhaps the glare can serve as a motivation for this team, but all of this creates plenty of disturbing unknowns for bettors, and this situation, along with the health of Kansas’ bigs must be monitored carefully throughout the year.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
The steady rise of the Texas Tech basketball program reached a peak last year that few outside of Lubbock could have imagined. A fantastic run through the NCAA tournament saw the Red Raiders announce their arrival as a major national program. Defeating traditional powerhouses Michigan, Gonzaga, and Michigan State before losing in heart-breaking fashion to Virginia in overtime. While nobody truly expects Texas Tech to go one better this season, Head Coach Chris Beard has rightfully taken his place as one of the very best coaches in the land, and the culture he has created in this program will ensure that it remains competitive. He’s just that good.
The biggest hurdle to overcome is the loss of do-everything star Jarrett Culver to the NBA. Culver embodied everything about Tech and Chris Beard’s vision. A stunningly hard worker, unselfish at the core, phenomenal on both ends of the floor, Culver provided that top-end quality that is needed for a hard-nosed team to really compete at the upper echelon of the college game. The second-team All-American was drafted 6th overall in the 2019 NBA draft and leaves a huge hole.
It won’t be easy to deal with Culver’s departure, but in truth it runs deeper than that. Davide Moretti is the only returning starter, and the roster is filled with transfers and newcomers. An exhibition loss to UTEP highlights the reality that this team could struggle out of the gates. With the public perception perhaps at an all-time high because of last season’s success, there may be value fading Texas Tech out of the gates. That doesn’t mean anyone should give up on them. Transfers like Chris Clarke from Virginia Tech will eventually provide quality minutes. The program has very high hopes for 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman point guard Kevin McCullar. Head coach Chris Beard, notoriously careful with his words, said of McCullar, “He has the chance to be one of the best players ever to play in this program.” No matter the floor and ceiling for this team, the defensive scheme of Chris Beard will still give opponents fits. It’s simply that effective. Under could be a good play in non-conference games, as it is that much harder for teams who do not regularly see Texas Tech to deal with what comes at them. There’s just no action this defense does not frustrate. Assuming Beard gets the buy in from his guys, and we just have no reason to anticipate he won’t, Texas Tech should not fall too far.
Lastly, let’s take a glance at the enigma that is Shaka Smart’s Texas basketball program. After years of turning down offers from all over the country to stay at VCU, Smart made headlines when, in April of 2015, he decided he couldn’t say no to the Longhorns. After building a phenomenal VCU program that regularly punched above its weight and played a beloved brand of high-pressure, no-holds-barred basketball, expectations were sky high in Austin. Instead, Smart and Texas have struggled mightily. A 71-66 record, compared to 163-56 at VCU, is nothing short of shocking. Even stranger, Smart hasn’t been able to create anything like the style of play and identity he was so well-known for at VCU. It’s hard to say exactly what’s gone wrong, whether Smart lost faith in what got him here, or if he wanted to put more emphasis on recruiting top talent, but it feels like Shaka and Texas are stuck somewhere in between.
Everybody loves Shaka Smart, but even for a figure as well-respected as him, the time on the hot seat will come. That time, it seems, is now. Anything short of an NCAA tournament appearance, and perhaps even a run to the second weekend, could end his time at Texas. One hopes that this will motivate the Longhorns, but it’s hard to be too confident, as this has been a team that has often wilted in big moments, and at times seem far too satisfied with NIT appearances for a program that should be consistently winning games in the NCAA tournament. One hopes that last season’s NIT title can embolden this group to go further, but it’s very difficult to trust Texas these days.
The defense was strong last season, finishing 26th in KenPom ratings. Interestingly Smart hired former Michigan defensive specialist Luke Yaklich to further bolster play on that end of the floor. This has apparently been done with an eye to speeding up the Longhorns, creating turnovers and taking advantage of a transition offense that scored 1.11 ppp last year. In Yaklich’s three seasons at Michigan, the Wolverines ranked 8th, 57th, and 15th in turnovers created. That Smart has decided he needs help to create some of the havoc he wrought during his time at VCU is a little strange, but that hardly makes it unwise. Another set of expert eyes could do wonders, and may present problems for conference opponents who may not be prepared for the changes.
Texas and Smart will be under the microscope this year, and accordingly, will be one of the most fascinating subplots of the college basketball season. If they are able to turn the ball over at a much higher clip, and get out and run, they could represent serious value playing as a team and on the over, particularly before opponents come to grips with the combined work of Smart and Yaklich.