All season long we have read, heard, and even written about, how strong the Big 12 is this season in men’s basketball.
We’ve always wanted to make that claim referring to college football, but it is exceedingly difficult to make a solid case to that effect when four of the top seven and six of the top 20 teams in the nation are from a conference other than the Big 12 and seven of the last eight national champions are from that same conference – spelled, say it with me, S..E.C.
But were talking about basketball now, which has, for as long as I can remember, been dominated by teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference, where current and former national powers such as Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Clemson and Maryland have long resided and now Syracuse and Pittsburgh. You can make a strong case for the Big Ten in that category, as well. But never the Big 12 men.
Not in a conference where football is king and basketball is just something you do in the winter months before the start of spring football. Sorry about that, Kansas fans.
The best year for the Big 12 in terms of success in the NCAA Tournament was 2003. Six teams made the field that year, and only one, Colorado, faltered in its opening tournament game. Oklahoma State and Missouri went down in their second game. Oklahoma, however, one of the four No. 1 seeds in the field, won its first three games in the Big Dance in 2003 before falling to third-seeded Syracuse in the East Regional final. Kansas, the two seed in the West Region that year, and Texas, the top-seed in the South Region, made it all the way to the Final Four that year, and Kansas all the way to the national championship game.
Carmello Anthony and his Syracuse teammates defeated the Jayhawks 81-78, when Michael Lee of Kansas missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer. On the way to its 2003 national championship, the Orange went through the gauntlet of three consecutive Big 12 schools – Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas – to claim their one and only NCAA basketball title.
The Big 12 did almost as well the previous year. Six teams made it to the Big Dance in 2002. Oklahoma earned a No. 2 seed and was the champion of the West Region and Kansas was the top seed in the Midwest. Both Kansas and Oklahoma advanced to the Final Four that year, but that was as far as their journey took them. Oklahoma lost to five-seed Indiana, and Kansas followed suit in the second national semifinal game. falling to eventual national champion Maryland. The combined record of the six Big 12 NCAA Tournament teams in 2002 was 13-6.
A record-equaling seven conference teams received NCAA Tournament bids this year. That has happened only one time before: in 20010, when No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 Baylor lost in the regional finals (also referred to as the Elite 8) and No. 1-seeded Kansas was upset by Northern Iowa, a No. 9 seed, in its second game on the opening weekend. The Big 12′s overall record in 2010 was a 9-7. Texas and Oklahoma State lost in their opening tournament games, and Missouri and Texas A&M, like Kansas, lost in the round of 32.
Of the seven Big 12 teams that made the 64-team field this season, Kansas was a No. 2 seed, Iowa State a No. 3, Oklahoma was a five seed, Baylor a six seed and Texas was seeded seventh. Kansas State and Oklahoma State were both nine seeds. Only Iowa State and Baylor are still playing. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State all were first-game casualties, and Kansas and Texas were done after their second games.
The Big 12 has had higher-seeded teams in past years, but to be honest, much more was expected from the 2014 tournament teams. After all, the Big 12 had the best RPI of any college conference this season, with all seven of the seven NCAA Tournament teams with RPI rankings in the top 51 and two (Kansas and Iowa State) in the top 10. Four conference teams – Kansas (1), Baylor (10), Oklahoma (19) and Iowa State (29) - had strength of schedule rankings in the top 30 in the country. All of this supports the Big 12′s case for claiming the power position in Division I college basketball for 2013-14.
What doesn’t support the Big 12′s stellar success and high national standing this season, though, is how pedestrian the performance was for the majority of those same teams last weekend on the sport’s highest stage: the NCAA Basketball Championship. If wins and losses, against a tournament field believed to be the best or most deserving teams in the country is considered the best means of measuring things like which conference is the strongest, the Big 12′s collective performance – excluding Iowa State and Baylor, of course – was anything but what it was touted to be coming into the tournament.
What is consistent about the Big 12′s performance in the through the first weekend of the tournament is how closely it mirrors the conference’s tournament results over the past three years. Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament the last three years combined for an overall record if 18-16. That breaks down to 3-5 with five teams in 2013, 10-6 with six teams in 2012 and 5-5 with five teams in 2011.
What this all says to me is: The Big 12 may be the strongest men’s basketball conference in 2013-14 when measured over a full season and by the overall body of work of the teams in the league. But in a one-and-done, high pressure environment, against mostly quality teams, like in the NCAA Tournament, the latter environment fails to bring out the best in the Big 12 contingent.
Using this year as a prime example of the point I am making, the two conferences considered to be the Big 12′s biggest challengers to the claim of being the best and the strongest, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, both had one less team entered in the tournament yet both have three teams still playing and a better overall record than the Big 12. The Big Tem is 6-3 through the opening weekend, and the Pac-12 sports a 7-2 in nine games. The Big 12, by comparison, is 6-5 entering the round of 16.
And here us the coup de grace: The Southeastern Conference, the fifth or sixth conference in the country, depending on whom you talk to, in terms of aggregate basketball strength, placed on three teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. All three teams – Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee – were double victors on the first weekend and stand a collective 6-0 as play begins Thursday between the 16 surviving teams.
Regardless of what happens over the next two weekends, the SEC is almost assured of putting together a better won-lost mark in the tournament than the Big 12, and with four fewer teams.
The undeniable fact is, the Big 12 had a tremendous season in basketball this year. Practically top-to-bottom, every Big 12 team was capable of beating each other, and that was reflected in how close the teams were bunched in the regular-season standings and in the number of teams (7) that were nationally ranked at some time during the 2013-14 season.
Perhaps we should leave it at that.