FOX Sports Exclusive
Big 12 among deepest conferences
Since the Big 12 Conference was formed, its basketball landscape always has been fairly simple to draw: There’s Kansas. Then there’s everyone else. Twelve regular-season championships in 16 Big 12 seasons for the Jayhawks, including each of the past eight, will give a conference that sort of reputation.
But the past few years seemed to mark a paradigm shift. Even as Kansas continued to dominate, the rest of the Big 12 caught up. The Big 12 ranked third in the country in RPI at the end of last year, just behind the Big East but ahead of the SEC, which boasted the eventual national champion, Kentucky. Kansas, as always, led the way, but you can’t score high in RPI if you don’t have a deep conference. That’s exactly what the Big 12 had become: Mizzou and Baylor both were ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll for much of the year, Iowa State and Kansas State both cracked the top 25, and Texas boasted one of the nation’s elite scorers in J’Covan Brown.
This year? Conventional wisdom says that the Big 12 has reverted back to the old ways, with Kansas as king and everyone else playing in a lesser league. The Jayhawks are ranked third in the nation (though, in my opinion, ought to be first). Mizzou is gone to the SEC, replaced by a West Virginia team that has underwhelmed. The only other Big 12 team in the top 25? Kansas State at 11th, although those who pay attention to the numbers game see the Wildcats more like paper tigers. As basketball analytics guru Ken Pomeroy will tell you on his web site, KenPom.com, Kansas State might be one of the nation’s most overrated teams, since the Wildcats are 44th in his mathematical ranking system despite their No. 11 ranking in the polls. (First in his rankings, it should be noted, is Florida, which Kansas State beat in December. College basketball, right?)
But look a bit deeper at the Big 12. You’ll see that, despite being ranked fifth in conference RPI, it still has the complexion of the same conference it’s been for the past five years: consistently one of the deepest in college basketball.
Example A came at Monday’s matchup between Baylor and Oklahoma State in Waco. Two young teams played a hard-fought and sometimes ugly game; peep at each team’s free-throw shooting, which hovered just above 50 percent. Baylor pulled out its biggest statement victory, 64-54, since it beat then-eighth-ranked Kentucky in December. But the biggest impression left was that both the Bears and Cowboys have Top-25-caliber talent that, when it plays to its potential, can beat not only Kansas but pretty much anyone in the nation.
“I think the Big 12 is as good as any conference in the country, I really do, from top to bottom,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “When you gotta go on the road, I don’t think there’s many leagues in the country where it’s as tough to win on the road as it is here in the Big 12. I’ve been in some of those other leagues. There’s a lot of talent in the Big 12.”
Sure, numbers can be shaped and molded to back up any argument, but here are facts: Only two conferences, the Big Ten and the Big East, have more teams in the top 50 in the KenPom rankings than the Big 12 with six: Kansas (8th), Oklahoma State (17th), Iowa State (31st), Baylor (42nd), Kansas State (44th) and Oklahoma (50th). Each ought to be somewhere between shoo-ins and on the bubble come tourney time.
Add this year’s numbers to the conference’s recent past and you’re left with a conference that, even in a slightly down year, should still be considered among the nation’s top three. Over the past five years the Big 12 is No. 1 in average final RPI, rankings second in 2008, third in 2009, first in 2010, third in 2011 and third in 2012. Over the past five years the Big 12 has had more total NBA picks (40) and more lottery NBA picks (12) than any other conference.
“For the past five years, you had so much great players, and it leads to a lot of turnover,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew, whose program lost three players to the NBA last year, told FOXSports.com. “We have several teams that are younger and trying to jell in non-conference play. What that led to was more losses in the non-conference than normal… There’s so much parity, and I think a lot of our teams have gotten better just in the past couple months.”
Drew points to Oklahoma and Texas as young teams that will improve as conference play continues. Oklahoma State has two potential first-round picks in freshman combo guard Marcus Smart and sophomore forward Le’Bryan Nash, dynamic talents who’ll grow in the next couple months. Teams like Kansas State, with six juniors and seniors in their rotation, and Kansas, with four starters who are seniors, have that valuable experience that others envy, but younger teams like Baylor and Oklahoma State have a ceiling that’s just as high.
For Baylor, when their top three talents play like they are capable of playing, they’re a top-notch team that can beat anyone. In their loss at Kansas last week, their biggest talents fell short: Power forward Cory Jefferson missed all six of his shots, and speedy point guard Pierre Jackson went 2-for-12. Likely lottery pick Isaiah Austin was the only one to show up in Lawrence, with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
But against a scrappy, physical Oklahoma State team, all three of the big Baylor talents showed up — and at the right time, considering three dozen NBA scouts were in the house. Austin had the seventh double-double of his career, with 10 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. Jefferson had a double-double too, adding six blocks to his 11 points and 11 rebounds. And Jackson shook off a middling first half to drill three 3-pointers in the second half, including an eight-point burst in 80 seconds that widened Baylor’s lead.
“I know people say it’s a down year (for the Big 12), but when you’ve been so good for so long, eventually that’ll happen,” Drew said.
And when you up the ante with a run like the Big 12 has had the past five years, anything short of elite feels like a disappointment. But just wait and see. Writing off the Big 12 in January might prove a costly error come March.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
More Stories From Reid Forgrave