After being left for dead last December, the Big 12 is the best hoops loop in the land

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A year ago at this time, the Big 12 was stone dead.

Well, OK, maybe not dead dead, per se, but the breathing was heavy, the gait slow and labored.

More like the undead, then. Zombies in Nike kicks, shuffling up and down the hardwood, eating brains and tossing bricks.

Last December, there was just one member of the club among the top 30 in the Ratings Percentage Index (all together now: Kansas), and only two schools (the Jayhawks and Baylor) within the RPI top 50.

The Big 12 was fifth in terms of league RPI and a don’t-put-that-in-the-game-notes 0-for-5, head-to-head, against the Big Ten. From a national purview, it was KU and a golf clap.

Things weren’t much better in Bracketville, either. Kansas And The Little Nine went 3-5 in The Big Dance, and only the Jayhawks and Iowa State came out of their opening tilts unscathed.

Well, the zombies are back. And they’re taking zombie names.

Fast forward to Tuesday afternoon. The Big Ten? No. 2 in circuit RPI. The Big East? Fourth. The ACC? Fifth. No. 1? The Big 12.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks, with an RPI rank of No. 4 nationally, are in the middle of perhaps their toughest pre-conference slate over the past 10 years. “Everybody has had quality wins.”

It’s not just quality; it’s quantity. Baylor (8-1, RPI rank: No. 1), Kansas (7-3, RPI: 4), Iowa State (8-0, RPI: 9), Oklahoma State (9-1, RPI: 14), Texas (9-1, RPI: 34) and Oklahoma (9-1, RPI: 42) are at the front of the sleigh, pulling the rest of the loop through the cold December nights at a lightning clip. The computers and various metrics love quality opposition, especially the non-league variety. And the Big 12 isn’t just scheduling big boys — it’s beating them.

Going into Tuesday night, the league was 3-2, head-to-head, versus the Big East, which is crazy deep; 3-2 versus the Big Ten, which might be even deeper; 2-2 versus the Pac-12; and a resounding 8-3 versus the SEC, affirming that — Mizzou, Kentucky and Florida aside — as a basketball league, the latter is one hell of a football conference.

Among the seven “power” leagues, only the ACC (27) and Pac-12 (24) had played more games against the RPI Top 50 than the Big 12’s 23 and only the Pac-12 (12-12) had more league top 50 victories than the Big 12’s 10.

It’s a week ’til Christmas, roughly a third of the way into the story, so you have to take snap judgments with the appropriate grains of salt. But no matter how you slice or qualify it, it’s one hell of a start.

“I think our strength of schedule was head-and-shoulders the most difficult in the country so far,” Self said. “Of course, we’re not going to do anything else to take that away with our next several games (vs. Georgetown, vs. Toledo, vs. San Diego State).”

And that’s saying something when you consider that the Jayhawks have played, to date, the toughest schedule in the country (SOS rank: 1, 0.6940); the Bears were No. 2 (0.6917) to start the week; Oklahoma State was 20th (0.6045).

The Big 12 and the ACC are the only BCS-level circuits — there’s a term we won’t be using very much longer — to feature more than two schools among the top 30 toughest schedules played. And the same two conferences are the only ones that have more than three schools — with four each — among the top 50 youngest programs in America, according to StatSheet.com (Kansas, No. 4; Texas, No. 8; TCU, No. 41; and West Virginia, No. 47).  

So in the Big 12, youth is being served and dishing out portions of humble pie, all in the same breath. A majority of the membership already has at least one pelt over a top 65 RPI opponent up on the wall. The Jayhawks topped Duke and New Mexico on neutral floors. Iowa State won at BYU. Baylor took out Kentucky at Jerry World. Oklahoma State beat Memphis at home and Butler in Florida. Texas trumped Temple at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Kansas State knocked off Ole Miss at the Octagon.

“Our league is far better than a lot of people anticipated,” Self said. “I’ve heard experts say we’re going to have four or five teams in our league that are as good as any other league.”

Laymen will say it, too. You build the frame of your NCAA tourney resume in January and February’s conference grind, but November and December are about picking up little chips that can be cashed in come March. And don’t look know, but the walking dead are, at the moment, the ones laughing all the way to the bank.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.