Big 12 basketball preview: Can Houston, or anyone, catch Hunter Dickinson and No. 1 Kansas?

The 2023-24 college basketball season is just seven days away. Come back each day this week as we break down the biggest conferences, teams and more leading up to the season.

The Big 12 looks very different this fall, and even more changes are coming next year.

But one thing remains the same headed into the 2023-24 season: Bill Self’s Kansas team is starting the year on top of the conference.

While there are plenty of teams in what has proven to be the best conference in the country in recent years who can challenge the Jayhawks for the conference title come March, including recent powerhouse Houston, Self’s squad is not going to make it easy.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Big 12 headed into the college basketball season this fall.

Ranked Big 12 Teams

No. 1 Kansas

No. 7 Houston

No. 18 Texas

No. 20 Baylor

Others Receiving Votes: TCU (24), Kansas State (13)

Kansas back at No. 1 after landing Hunter Dickinson

Kansas opened as the clear No. 1 in the preseason poll earlier this month, flying past Duke and the rest of the field. It's the third time the Jayhawks have opened as No. 1 under Self, and it makes sense.

He’s bringing back Kevin McCullar Jr. and DaJuan Harris Jr. this season, and four-star recruit Elmarko Jackson should fit into his system nicely.

But most notably, Self landed Hunter Dickenson in the transfer market. Dickenson was easily the most sought-after player in the portal this past offseason after he averaged 18.5 points and nine rebounds per game last season at Michigan. The 7-footer was named a preseason All-American, too, and will boost Kansas’ presence inside along with K.J. Adams — who is coming off of a breakout season himself.

"He's the best offensive big I've ever had," Self said of Dickenson at the Big 12 media day, via ESPN. "Not the best defensive [center]. He's got to get better: athleticism, guarding the ball screen. ... 'How are you going to utilize him in certain situations?' But as far as, 'Can he shoot it? Can he pass it? Can he score on the block? Can he play out of [double-teams]?' There's a lot of things that he does that are gifted, that hopefully we can take advantage of. Because I think he's really, really talented."

Perhaps the best part about this Kansas team, though, is that we’ll know how good they are right away. The Jayhawks have a daunting non-conference schedule, starting with a matchup with No. 16 Kentucky in just their third game of the year. They’ll also take on defending champion No. 6 UConn, Missouri and Indiana.

The Jayhawks will compete in the Maui Invitational, too, where they’ll see either UCLA or No. 5 Marquette, and could see Syracuse, No. 3 Purdue, No. 9 Tennessee or No. 11 Gonzaga.

Kansas’ season could easily be off the rails by mid-December. No. 25 Illinois beat the Jayhawks in an exhibition on Sunday night, too, so it’s not like they’re unbeatable. With how good the Big 12 conference is once again, that could make for a tough run for one of Self’s best teams in a while.

But if they can navigate that early stretch correctly and enter Big 12 play on the right note, this Kansas team will be in a tremendous position to not only earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament, but also make a deep run to try and win Self a second championship in three years.

Welcome to the Big 12, Kelvin Sampson

Though they’ve yet to play a game, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson is already feeling the difference that comes with playing in the Big 12. That, he said at the Big 12 media day, was made very clear when he attended his first conference coaches meeting.

It felt like he was on a trip to the dog park.

"You've got two dogs walking by each other, kind of side-eye, or a little one starts yapping at the big one and they start sizing each other up," Sampson said, via The Associated Press. "I was sizing them all up. It used to be you could look at a few of those little dogs and go, 'I can get that one. I can get that one, I can get that one.'

"I ain't seen nobody in this conference like that … They're all German Shepherds, man. Where's the Shih Tzus? Where's the Chihuahuas at? Or, that's a Rottweiler. Oh my god, that's a pitbull. This is a tough dog park man."

The Big 12 has consistently been the best conference in college basketball in recent years. It’s going to be a very different scene for Sampson and the Cougars than the American Athletic Conference was.

But, if anybody is going to be able to catch Kansas, it looks like that’s going to be Houston.

The Cougars have made it to at least the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament three straight times, including their Final Four run in 2021, and they've averaged just shy of 30 wins a season over the past six campaigns. They are bringing back six players from last year’s team that made it to the Sweet 16, including guard Jamal Shead, J’wan Roberts and Terrance Arceneaux. Sampson also brought in Temple transfer Damian Dunn and Baylor transfer L.J Cryer.

There are plenty of other teams in the league who can challenge Kansas in the Big 12. Texas and Baylor are both capable of making a run, and TCU, Kansas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech, BYU and even West Virginia — despite their issues with former head coach Bob Huggins’s departure — are all tournament-quality teams.

But if Sampson’s team is going to finally get over the hump and bring him a title — and perhaps more importantly prove they belong in a top-tier league — now is the time. With four more teams on their way to the conference next summer, it's only going to get harder.

Notable Early Games

All times ET | * neutral site game

Nov. 6

No. 21 USC at Kansas State | 10 p.m. | TNT *

Nov. 7

Auburn at No. 20 Baylor | 9 p.m. | ESPN *

Nov. 10

No. 17 San Diego State at BYU | TBD | ESPN+

UCF at No. 13 Miami | 7 p.m. | ACC Network

Nov. 14

No. 1 Kansas at No. 16 Kentucky | 9:30 p.m. | ESPN *

Nov. 19

No. 18 Texas at Louisville | 3:30 p.m. | ESPN *

Nov. 22

Texas Tech at No. 22 Villanova | 2:30 p.m. | TBD *

No. 20 Baylor at Oregon State | 7 p.m. | ESPN *

Nov. 23

Oklahoma at Iowa | 3 p.m. | FS1 *

Iowa State at VCU | 5:30 p.m. | ESPN2 *

BYU at Arizona State | 11:59 p.m. | ESPN2 *

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