Big 12 could be college basketball’s best conference — again
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In what may end up as the nation’s best conference two years in a row, it’s in with the new – but not exactly out with the old.
The Big 12 will follow up a year in which the league ranked as the nation’s best in RPI with a scintillating 2015-16 season in which three teams – Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma – rank in the top eight in the preseason USA Today coaches poll and two more, Baylor and West Virginia, are in the top 25.
But the story of this year’s Big 12 isn’t so much the conference’s old guard. It’s the new guard.
Not to say the old guard isn’t damn impressive. Bill Self is working on the most impressive streak going in sports as he aims for Kansas’ 12th consecutive regular-season conference title. Lon Kruger enters his 33rd season as a head coach with an Oklahoma team that has a real shot at a Final Four. Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith still has a ring, Scott Drew has quietly built Baylor from nothing into a perennial Big 12 contender, and Travis Ford will try to get his second Oklahoma State team in a row to surpass low expectations.
But it’s the Big 12’s new guard that has injected the conference with intrigue heading into the season that starts next month.
Steve Prohm, who took over for The Mayor at Iowa State, is walking into one of the most unique coaching situations in college basketball history. Not only is he stepping into the shadow of a legend, but he’s in the pressure-filled spot of having a Final Four-capable team during his first season as a major conference head coach.
Shaka Smart is bringing Havoc to Austin, where he’s taking over a hugely talented Texas team that’s been labeled a perennial underachiever – and is turning a basketball program that seemed tired into a place players describe as inspiring and fun.
And yes, I’m putting Bob Huggins in the Big 12’s new guard. Crazy to lump a 62-year-old coach with 765 career wins into any sort of new guard – until you realize the frenetic full-court press he installed before last season gave him a renewed life in coaching, and turned “PressVirginia” into one of the most exciting teams in the country and one of the most difficult scouts in the Big 12.
“I was tired of losing,” Huggins said of his late-career shift in philosophy. “That was the biggest thing.”
Welcome to the new Big 12, where the old guard hasn’t quite left but where the new is changing the face of the league.
It was almost comical how last March – after Iowa State and Baylor both got knocked out of the NCAA tournament by three-seeds, and after zero teams from the nation’s top-ranked conference made it past the Sweet 16 — pundits used March failure as evidence the Big 12 had been overrated all season. That’s both the joy and the frustration of college basketball — how a season’s narrative can hinge on a few wins or losses in March.
The Big 12 seemed hellbent on rewriting that history at Tuesday’s media day in Kansas City.
On a screen in the Sprint Center flashed all sorts of Big 12 facts: “Six Big 12 coaches have led teams to the Final Four — most in the nation.”
“Nine of 10 teams were ranked or received votes in the top 25 last season.”
“The Big 12 has led the nation in NCAA bids each of the last two seasons.”
“More than 91 percent of Big 12 games last season involved at least one Top 25 team.”
OK, guys, I get it: You feel like last season’s narrative of an overrated Big 12 was patently unfair. Thing is, I agree. A season’s success is determined by a few weeks in March, not by the four months leading up to it.
Fortunately for the Big 12, this season is a shot at redemption.
Kansas looks like the deepest, most balanced team in the nation and will be my preseason pick to win it all. (A 17-day trip to South Korea for the World University Games this summer can only help with that.) Iowa State returns almost everyone, and Prohm has pledged to keep the same free-flowing offense from Hoiberg’s era but to add a renewed emphasis on defense. Oklahoma is a talent-laden, experience-rich squad that can score buckets as well as anyone in the nation. Texas has old talent and a new enthusiasm, West Virginia has that chaotic press that can disrupt any team, Oklahoma State has grit and Baylor has a ridiculous front line.
"This could be the best year of the Big 12 since I’ve been there."
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford
“This could be the best year of the Big 12 since I’ve been there,” eighth-year Oklahoma State head coach Travis Ford said.
He ain’t wrong. I know we think college basketball is all about the one-and-done players now because those are the guys who get all the pub. But despite the fact we’re coming off a season when a one-and-done-dominated Duke team won it all, and when the sixth-youngest team in the nation, Kentucky, nearly ran the table, I still believe the equation for college basketball success looks like this: “T+E=Ws.”
Talent + Experience = Wins.
While many other top teams from a season ago are either reloading or rebuilding, the Big 12 is simply reengaging. Four of the five members of the All-Big 12 first team return. So do six of the conference’s top nine scorers.
And the conference is adding some elite freshmen, like Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg at Kansas, Jawun Evans at Oklahoma State and King McClure at Baylor.
The new and the old. The recent history of success dampened by the memory of March. The fact that conferences like the ACC or the Big Ten seem to always treat Big 12 basketball as their lesser, despite evidence to the contrary.
All of it adds up to what will almost certainly be the most exciting conference in college basketball — and, perhaps, the best, for the second season in a row.