Scott Drew finally got his national title and Cade Cunningham soared to headline the conference in 2020–21.
The 2020–21 men’s college basketball season is in the books, but it’s not too late to look back on the year that was. We’re going conference by conference within the high-major leagues to examine what went right—and what went wrong—along with a brief look ahead to 2021–22. First up was the ACC, next is the Big 12.
The 2020–21 season marked one of the deepest versions of the Big 12 in recent memory as the conference tallied seven men’s NCAA tournament teams, though just one advanced past the second weekend. Texas imploded against Abilene Christian in Shaka Smart’s final game in burnt orange, while Texas Tech and West Virginia narrowly missed out on Sweet 16 appearances. But the modest showing in total proved worthwhile as Baylor stormed past Gonzaga en route to the first national championship in program history. While the powers that be in Austin scrambled for a new coach, those in Waco enjoyed the six-game romp to the title.
So what did we learn about the Big 12 this season? Let’s dive into the best and the worst from the conference in 2020–21.
Most important thing we learned: Scott Drew is an elite coach
Anyone who has been paying attention to Baylor over the last two decades knows how good Drew is. He took a truly dormant program and created a perennial tournament team, and while there are some disappointing tournament losses on his résumé—most notably 2015 vs. Georgia State and 2016 vs. Yale—his teams were consistently in position to compete for the Final Four. Drew could have captured his first national title in 2020 if not for the COVID-19 crisis. He finally broke through in 2021.
Baylor really wasn’t tested throughout the NCAA tournament, and it frankly cruised through the national title game vs. Gonzaga. Getting any talent to come to Waco is an accomplishment in itself. Taking those players and molding a champion is what puts Drew in the top tier of college coaches.
Best game: Texas 72, West Virginia 70
The 10–1 Longhorns faced a difficult battle in a top 15 January bout in Morgantown as Texas attempted to survive an ugly shooting night against one of the Big 12’s best defenses. But when it mattered most, Texas junior Andrew Jones saved the day.
Jones received a wide-open pass from guard Courtney Ramey in the final seconds down 70–69, and he smoothly drilled the jumper to give Texas a two-point win at the buzzer. The shot in itself was impressive, but more important, it served as a capstone to Jones’s journey. The Longhorns’ junior was diagnosed with leukemia three years prior, and he survived the disease before working his way back on the floor. Jones surpassed 1,000 career points in the matchup against the Mountaineers, and the three to beat West Virginia is likely the highlight of his career.
Best player: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
No disrespect to Baylor’s trio of guards, but this was a slam dunk following Cunningham’s excellent freshman season. The likely No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft more than lived up to the hype in his lone season in Stillwater, leading Oklahoma State to the Big 12 title game before a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Cunningham averaged 20.1 points per game on 44/40/85 shooting splits. He hung 40 on Oklahoma, and he nearly led Oklahoma State past Texas with 29 points in the Big 12 tournament title game. No other player really had a claim to the conference’s Player of the Year award by season’s end.
The statistics don’t even necessarily illustrate the brilliance of Cunningham’s freshman year. He played like a four-year veteran from his first games in the Big 12, sporting elite court vision and a knack for scoring late in games. No defense could rush Cunningham as he probed through the lane. Even the conference’s best centers failed to compete at the rim. Cunningham’s NBA range stretched the floor out near the logo, and he was an absolute menace in transition. It may take a decade before we see a freshman dominate the Big 12 quite like Cunningham.
Best coach: Scott Drew, Baylor
Smart could have won this award if Texas didn’t completely spiral against Abilene Christian. Mike Boynton deserves credit for the job he’s done at Oklahoma State, which was more than The Cade Cunningham Show throughout much of 2020–21. But we have to recognize Drew here once again, after he followed the disappointment of 2020’s canceled tournament with a truly dominant season.
One additional note: Oklahoma never had a chance when it faced Gonzaga in the 2021 tournament, yet I’d be remiss not to note the job Lon Kruger has done over the last decade in Norman. The Sooners reached the Big Dance seven times under Kruger, posting a .604 winning percentage in 10 seasons. Kruger’s teams were always prepared for the best of the Big 12, and he broke through to the Final Four in 2016. Best of luck in retirement to a true college basketball legend.
Best newcomer: Mac McClung, Texas Tech
We’ll bypass Cunningham in this section after detailing his dominant freshman year above. Instead, let’s highlight the strong season from McClung. The former YouTube sensation and Georgetown guard made an easy adjustment to the Big 12 as a junior in 2020–21, earning All-Big 12 honors as he averaged 15.5 points per game. McClung isn’t exactly the most efficient scorer in college basketball, but he was the driving force behind a Texas Tech team with limited scoring punch. McClung is a reliable late-game option and a quality lead ballhandler. He became a more mature player at Texas Tech under Chris Beard, and his defensive limitations are decreasing by the year. McClung’s NBA future is murky at best. But if he returns to the college ranks in 2021–22 after entering both the draft and the transfer portal, he could make a major impact with a third school in the last four years.
Biggest surprise: Davion Mitchell’s rise
Baylor’s guard was a rarity in NBA mock drafts before the 2020–21 season, and he sat outside the top 60 in Sports Illustrated’s Jeremy Woo’s Big Board in December. Mitchell stands a shade under 6′ 2″, and he will turn 23 by the start of the 2021–22 NBA season. But after a breakout second season at Baylor, Mitchell could very well be a lottery pick this summer.
It’s not hard to see why Mitchell’s draft stock rose so significantly last season. He was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and he emerged as Baylor’s premier shotmaker despite the presence of former All-Big-12 guards Jared Butler and MaCio Teague. Mitchell was an elite scorer late in the shot clock, and his smooth step-back jumper should translate at the pro level. Mitchell was perhaps the best non-Cunningham player in the Big 12 last season. Don’t be shocked if he’s a lottery selection alongside the former Oklahoma State star.
Biggest disappointment: Texas’s tournament flop
It’s hard to paint Texas’s pretournament portion of the 2020–21 season as a disappointment, but the Longhorns’ collapse against Abilene Christian deserves a mention in this space.
Texas turned in an absolutely dismal offensive performance in its loss to the No. 14 seed, finishing the night with more turnovers (23) than made field goals (18). Five-star freshman Greg Brown played just six minutes in the loss. Senior guard Matt Coleman tallied seven turnovers to pair with a 1-for-6 mark from three. The Longhorns cruised through the Big 12 tournament, entering Indianapolis as a potential Final Four contender. But Smart’s squad flopped once again in the tournament, leading to his departure from Austin. After six years without a men’s NCAA tournament win, perhaps Beard can bring Texas back to a reasonable standard.
Outlook for 2021–22
Baylor could very well win the conference crown in 2021–22, though this isn’t necessarily a slam dunk like last season. Mitchell has exited the program to enter the NBA draft, and it’s likely Butler leaves as well. But the cupboards won’t be truly bare for Drew. Sharpshooter Matthew Mayer could return to school after testing the NBA waters, while both guard Adam Flagler and forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua could make major leaps in their junior seasons. The Bears can also pluck from the emerging transfer market, and five-star wing Kendall Brown is set to join the program. This remains a Final Four contender.
Who would challenge the Bears? Kansas is relatively restocked, though forward Jalen Wilson’s draft decision could swing its season. Beard could be the coach to break Texas’s drought, and he’s already made a splash in the transfer market with the addition of Utah guard Timmy Allen. Both Oklahoma squads should remain healthy tournament teams, and Bob Huggins’s squad in Morgantown will be dangerous if Miles McBride returns. Expect continued depth from the Big 12 in 2021–22.
More College Basketball Coverage: