Its seven NCAA teams flamed out, but the Big 12 has NOTHING to apologize for
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The narrative is that Bob Bowlsby somehow has something to apologize for, and it’s bunk. Malarkey. Happy horse crap. Take your pick.
Connecticut, a 7 seed, is the life of the party in North Texas, a deadeye flurry of 3-pointers and free throws, the whole Shabazz and shebang. It doesn’t erase Houston 75, Huskies 71, on Dec. 31.
Kentucky, an 8, is still playing. Hats off to the Baby Blues, who had to take out the 1 seed (Wichita State), the 4 (Louisville) and the 2 (Michigan) in order to sniff the Final Four. It doesn’t change the fact that Baylor beat the Wildcats, head to head, at Jerry World, on Dec. 6.
There is a premise — not ours, obviously — that the Big 12 Conference is hosting college basketball’s biggest party/event/job fair in Arlington, Texas, this weekend with all the enthusiasm of a scolded puppy, what with the tragic embarrassment of a member school not even reaching the Elite Eight for a second straight year.
To which we simply rebut with this:
Embarrassed for what?
Embarrassed that Kansas center Joel Embiid re-aggravated a stress fracture in his lower back on the first day of March — thus immediately robbing the league’s best team of its best defensive player, and wiping arguably the biggest defensive force in the conference from the Bracketville stage?
Embarrassed that big Iowa State forward Georges Niang, a post-slash-perimeter threat who’d averaged 16.3 points per game in March and 19 per tilt in February, broke his foot in the Cyclones’ second-round matchup with North Carolina — thus immediately robbing the league’s tournament champion of its greatest matchup curveball?
Embarrassed that Oklahoma State lost its best interior threat, Michael Cobbins, before league play even started, yet still recovered like crazy from its own internal nuclear midseason meltdown just to squeeze into the field?
Embarrassed that Oklahoma and Texas and Kansas State were better than the "experts" had predicted the previous summer, despite their youth and roster turnover?
Embarrassed for what?
The Big 12 was the nation’s deepest conference, from a quality perspective, placing seven teams in the Big Dance. The last two weeks do not somehow allay that notion, nor was it invalidated on the road to North Texas.
Yes, five of those aforementioned teams went home after the first full weekend of the event, including the Jayhawks. Sure, the league went 6-7 for the Big Dance, posting a collective losing record in the event for only the fifth time since the loop’s inaugural season of 1996-97. Only the aforementioned Bears and Cyclones got as far as the Sweet 16.
Granted, instead of picking it up and running with it — the way, say, Kentucky has — KU turned up in St. Louis and promptly dropped the flag. In hindsight, a young crew that was inconsistent at the point guard slot through the season — and, in fact, actually needed to overcome that weakness in order to notch a 10th straight league crown — needed to be at full strength to make a serious run.
They weren’t. And they didn’t.
You say the Jayhawks missing Embiid is an excuse. We say it’s a fact. If Stanford beats KU with a healthy JoJo on the floor, we’ll eat your iPad.
The Huskies, like John Calipari’s Wildcats, are playing at a different level now, peaking at just the right time. But who’s to say they survive the Cyclones with a healthy Niang, even at the noisy, friendly confines of Madison Square Garden?
What we love about March Madness — the unpredictability, the Cinderellas, the drama, the stars — also underlines one of the sport’s greatest weaknesses: April Alzheimer’s. We forget, either accidentally or intentionally, the long journey to Bracketville’s pearly gates; college hoops’ regular season is at once invalidated and compartmentalized.
In a flash, four months of toil and resume-building are reduced to mere prologue, erased from all conversation and context. It’s sort of like the series finale of "How I Met Your Mother," only with Coach Cal playing the part of Ted Mosby.
We forget that the Big 12 had the No. 1 collective RPI in country (.579), the top non-conference strength of schedule RPI rank, the top average RPI (61), the best median RPI (44). We forget that the Big 12, as of late Wednesday night, made up 14 percent — seven teams — of the KenPom.com Top 50, same as the Big Ten.
Great? Well, no. But neck-deep in very, very good is nothing to sneeze at, nothing to apologize for. In terms of quality, a preponderance of quality, the Big 12 was the best in the land. One month doesn’t do a damn thing to change that.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.