NORMAN, Okla. — After months stuck in mediocrity, the Big 12 is starting to show a glimmer of promise as the NCAA tournament approaches.
Kansas State and Oklahoma State surged to finish the regular season, providing the conference a trio of teams that could be poised to make a deep postseason run. It’s a positive development for a league that spent most of the season struggling to claim a place in the national dialogue.
Even with three teams now ranked in the top 15, the lasting image from Big 12 play may be perennial national powerhouse Kansas losing at lowly TCU.
There’s still time to change that, if the Big 12’s top teams can play up to their potential and avoid more confounding upset losses in the postseason.
“The Big 12 has gotten much better as the year has gone along because some young teams have put some things together,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “The Big 12 is as tough as it gets this year. Our nonconference record might not have reflected that at the beginning. ... Traditionally, we’ve done real well in the NCAA tournament and hopefully that continues.”
About half of the league figures to get into the NCAA bracket, and some of that could come down to this week’s league tournament in Kansas City, Mo. Seventh-ranked Kansas, No. 11 Kansas State and No. 14 Oklahoma State are all locks to get in.
Oklahoma was distancing itself from the bubble before a stunning loss at TCU to finish the regular season, not long after Texas stormed back from a 22-point deficit in the final 8 minutes to beat the Sooners. Iowa State is also trying to cement its spot in the NCAAs, and even sixth-place Baylor put itself back in the conversation with an 81-58 blowout in the regular season finale against Kansas — another of those upsets.
“I think Baylor should already be in, personally,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, whose third-seeded Cowboys face the Bears on Thursday. “They’ve had so many big wins this year already. They’ve beaten Kentucky at Kentucky, and some people say Kentucky (is) in now. They beat us, they beat Kansas. They’ve won a lot of really good basketball games.”
It’s a huge question mark which version of the Big 12’s best will show up in the most important time of the season.
K-State coach Bruce Weber theorized that the league got a bum rap for failing to rack up impressive wins in nonconference play. When Big 12 play started in January, only his Wildcats and the Jayhawks were in the Top 25. For most of the season, Kansas was the only conference team in the top 20.
“Our conference started a little slow. That’s where you build up your RPI and you get that national recognition,” Weber said. “But if you really study it, look at Oklahoma State, how young they are. They were pretty good in nonconference but not quite where people said, ‘Man, they’re a top 10 team.’ But now, they are capable of making a run.
“I think Oklahoma is very good. Iowa State, I don’t know if anyone wants to play them. Obviously, Kansas is one of the best teams in the country.”
The Big 12 missed out on some of the spotlight when Kansas suffered its first three-game losing streak in eight years just as it was getting into the conversation as a possible No. 1 team. Instead, the conference has been largely overshadowed, even as Kansas State won 10 of its final 12 games and Oklahoma State won 11 of 13.
“The Big 12’s a terrific league. A lot of times, the bar is set early and then regardless of what happens, it just kind of plays that way throughout the year,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “But I think the Big 12’s turned out to be a much stronger, deeper conference than what maybe people were talking about early.”
While the Big Ten has had a cluster of teams near the top of the rankings and the ACC has had a high-profile struggle between Miami and Duke, the Big 12 title ended up being won in reverse. Oklahoma State lost its chance to contend for the championship by losing at Iowa State in the final week of the regular season, and Kansas State and Kansas both missed chances to win the title outright by losing their last games.
That could be a sign that there are no truly elite teams in the conference, or that the depth of the Big 12 has been better than advertised.
“Our league’s proved to be wide open,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “There’s people beating people all year.”
After seemingly showing signs of improvement down the stretch, the real test for the Big 12 lies ahead next week for whichever teams get picked on Selection Sunday.
“People don’t always see, ‘Hey, these guys have improved. They’re really good,’” Weber said. “And so, I really believe we can do some damage as a league in the tournament.”