LAWRENCE — After two months spent mostly bludgeoning each other into submission, coaches in the Big 12 are starting to cast a wary eye toward the NCAA tournament.
Many of them are nervous.
While other conferences may have a handful of standout teams, there are usually a few bottom-dwellers that everybody else can use to pad their records. That’s not the case in the Big 12, with its grueling double round-robin schedule, where even good teams are piling up losses.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I think these last games are huge for a lot of teams. The fact that the Big 12 is No. 1 in RPI, BPI, whatever three-letter indexes you’re looking at will help all the teams.”
Still, even though the selection committee takes dozens of factors into consideration for the field of 68, something as simple as overall record can sometimes hold sway.
For instance, no team from the Big 12 has made the NCAA tournament with a losing league record. That would seem to put Baylor and Oklahoma State, two teams that once ranked in the top 10, in jeopardy — both are 18-10 overall but just 6-9 in conference play.
The Bears didn’t help their cause Wednesday, when a second-half rally came up short in a 74-69 loss to Texas. And the Cowboys didn’t help themselves by dropping all three games without Marcus Smart, who had been suspended for shoving a fan during a game at Texas Tech.
“A week ago, the team that was in ninth place in the league was Oklahoma State. Are you kidding me?” TCU coach Trent Johnson said. “And two weeks ago it was Baylor. Are you kidding me?”
Throw in the fact that Texas Tech has caused indigestion for just about everyone, even with its losing record, and that leaves only the Horned Frogs as a relatively easy draw.
“The bottom line is there’s good teams and good players and good coaches, from top to bottom,” Johnson said. “With the exception of one team, this league is extremely strong right now.”
Through Wednesday night, the league had the top average strength of schedule and best average RPI. Fifth-ranked Kansas was No. 1 in both of those individual metrics, owed partly to a brutal non-conference schedule but also to its success in the conference race. The Jayhawks (22-6, 13-2) have already wrapped up a share of their 10th straight title. They can win it outright with a victory Saturday at Oklahoma State.
“There are a lot of other teams in BCS leagues with a lot better records,” Cowboys coach Travis Ford said. “You’re going to have records in our league that are not true to what they look at in terms of wins and losses.”
Just look at the Cowboys, who at one point lost seven straight Big 12 games. They’ve also beat Memphis and Colorado, both ranked at the time, along with current No. 24 Texas.
Or consider Baylor, which lost six of its first seven league games. That stretch came after wins over Colorado and Kentucky, and was followed by wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas are almost certainly locks for the NCAA tournament, and the Kansas State (19-9, 9-6) is also a fairly safe bet. So if the Bears and Cowboys can squeeze into the field, it would give the 10-member Big 12 seven representatives.
That would be the most since 2010, when the Big 12 actually had 12 teams.
“In my memory, I can comfortably say this is the toughest the league has been,” said Sooners coach Lon Kruger, who also coached Kansas State in the Big Eight. “I think the selection committee tries to pick the best, I really do, even if there’s awareness of teams from the same league.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins doesn’t think records will have anything to do with it.
“Regardless of what they say, they rely heavily on RPIs, and I think the RPIs in this league are very, very good,” he said of the committee. “I think you’ll be rewarded for playing the people you play, and being the best league in the country, I think we’ll be rewarded.”