Big 12 caught in a major drought
A lot can happen in 10 years.
A decade ago, Oklahoma State was celebrating a Final Four berth that gave the Big 12 five appearances in three years.
It was the best stretch of basketball in league history.
Four years later, Kansas celebrated the Big 12’s only national title since its inception in 1996.
On Saturday, college basketball’s Biggest Dance comes to the Big 12’s backyard.
The conference will be playing the part of wallflower. It’s an all-too-familiar position lately.
By almost any metric, the Big 12 was the nation’s strongest conference this season.
Except, you know, having the best teams.
Seven teams made the 68-team field. Four advanced to the round of 32 and the Big 12’s 6-7 record in the tournament ranked seventh in winning percentage and last among the big five leagues. Despite having the most teams in the tournament of any league, it logged the fifth-most wins among all conferences.
Before the Elite Eight, the entire conference was eliminated. Just like last year.
The Big 12 hasn’t been shutout of the Elite Eight in consecutive years since a three-year run from 1997-99.
In the six seasons since Kansas won its national title in 2008, the Big 12 has put just one team in the Final Four. (KU lost to Kentucky for the national title in 2012.)
"Lots of good, very little great" has become the league’s unofficial slogan these days, and it’s not just basketball.
The College Football Playoff begins this fall and will play its first championship game at AT&T Stadium, the same place hosting this weekend’s Final Four. Expanding the number of teams playing for a national title from two to four couldn’t come at a better time for the Big 12.
The league hasn’t played for a national title since Texas’ loss to Alabama at the end of the 2009 season. The four-year absence is twice as long as any other since the BCS began in 1998. From the 2000 to 2009 seasons, the Big 12 played for the national title seven times, winning twice.
So what happened?
Football’s greatest asset has become its biggest hurdle to reaching the game’s biggest stage.
Oklahoma State looked prepared to coast into the title game at 10-0 in 2011. Then, it tripped up as a four-touchdown favorite against an underrated Iowa State team on a frigid November Friday in Ames. Despite blowing out Oklahoma for the Big 12 title in the season finale, the Cowboys were narrowly left out of the BCS National Championship Game in favor of Alabama, who beat LSU for the title.
In 2012, 10-0 Kansas State was blitzed 52-24 by a Baylor team that began what grew into a 13-game winning streak and a Big 12 title the following year.
The Bears reached 9-0 in 2013 before an embarrassing 49-17 blowout courtesy of Oklahoma State, ending the Big 12’s hopes of a return to the national title game.
The Big 12 put nine teams (90 percent of the league, a CFB record) into bowl games in 2012 and had four 10-win teams in 2011. Quality football hasn’t been the issue. Championship-level football has proven elusive.
As the league has moved away from a decade under Texas and Oklahoma’s thumb, rising programs like OSU, Kansas State and Baylor have failed to reach the same national heights as the league’s traditional powers.
A once top-heavy league has turned into lightweights on the national stage, in part because of a deeper league producing a more difficult road to the title game.
Texas and Oklahoma’s slight slide in the recruiting rankings hasn’t helped, though Baylor and Oklahoma State have seen their efforts on the recruiting trail surge as the Big 12 has continually failed to reach the title game.
Basketball’s problems are less simple.
This season, just two of the Big 12’s seven tournament teams were seeded lower than fifth. Kansas and Iowa State–a two and three seed, respectively–dealt with crushing injuries to major contributors in the post. Kansas center Joel Embiid’s stress fracture in his back and Georges Niang’s broken foot contributed to early exits for the league’s top seeds.
The league’s other five tournament teams earned seeds from Nos. 5 to 9, and didn’t produce an Elite Eight appearance. Doing so from that position is always an uphill battle, but UConn and Kentucky made the Final Four seeded seventh and ninth, respectively.
Oklahoma State and Baylor spent time in the top 10 this season and had enough talent for deep tournament runs. They never materialized.
Reality is that top to bottom, Big 12 basketball and football are as good as they’ve ever been.
Harsh reality is that the weakness at the top of the league is hurting the league’s perception. Spending that time away from the title conversation is never good, and the Big 12 has quietly put together its worst drought ever in the two major sports.
A three-week tournament shouldn’t affect how the Big 12’s first three months of the season are viewed.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the league’s 10 coaches will spend this weekend watching the Final Four, the latter missing out on an opportunity to play in front of home-crowd support less than 30 minutes away from the league’s offices.
How much longer can the drought go on?
That oasis in the rearview mirror is getting tinier and tinier ever year.