Seven of the 10 schools in the Big 12 made this year’s NCAA tournament. It was consistently ranked as the country’s best conference all season long, and it showed with more teams getting bids than any other league in the land.
Kansas has long been the belle of the ball in the Big 12’s hoops world. The Jayhawks were 14-4 in the league this year, good enough for first place yet again. They had the best recruiting class in the country, courtesy of Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could legitimately go No. 1 and 2 in the NBA Draft.
In the 18 years of the modern Big 12, Kansas has either won a share of the regular season title or taken it outright 14 times, including each of the last 10 years. They’ve also won nine of the 18 tournament championships.
Texas is the marquee football program, of course, and it isn’t even close. And by nature of the beast in that part of the country, if you own football, you own the world. Hence, Texas and Kansas own the Big 12.
But not this year.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It was surely supposed to happen this year. It just hasn’t worked out that way. Kansas was a preseason top-five team thanks primarily to the hype surrounding Wiggins’ arrival. And the Jayhawks won the season crown. However, they somehow found a way to lose 10 regular season games.
Texas surprised everyone, starting the season off 10-1 with wins over North Carolina and NCAA tournament darlings Mercer and Stephen F. Austin. During the conference season, it finished third in the league, beating four Top 25 teams in the process, Kansas amongst them.
However, neither of those programs remain in this year’s NCAA tourney. In fact, neither even appeared in the Big 12 championship game. The only two programs who fit those bills this season are Iowa State and Baylor.
Iowa State finished third in the league with an 11-7 record, but went a perfect 17-0 out of conference, with wins over tournament teams Michigan, Iowa and BYU. Baylor climbed to No. 7 in the country before starting off the Big 12 season 2-8. But, boy, did it rebound … literally. It’s gone 12-2 since that slide, including a trip to the conference title game, which it eventually dropped to the Cyclones.
The Bears also sport one of the tallest and longest rosters in the country with six players at 6-foot-8 or taller, four of whom average more than five rebounds a game. 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin may be the most complete big man currently left in the tournament.
Three of the seven Big 12 programs in the Big Dance were ousted in the opening round (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State). Then Kansas got upset by Stanford and Texas was beaten by Michigan, leaving only Iowa State and Baylor to fight for their league’s reputation.
Now it’s Sweet 16 time, and both the Cyclones and Bears are as hot as any team remaining. Connecticut and its star guard Shabazz Napier stands in Iowa State’s way, but they’re not nearly as well-rounded as ISU. Even without all-everything forward Georges Niang, who broke his foot in the win over North Carolina Central, the Cyclones will be favored in this one and should earn their way into the Elite Eight.
For the Bears, it’ll be a tougher road. Wisconsin is one of the most well-coached programs in the nation, and it’s always a tough out. But Baylor is absolutely on fire, having powered through Nebraska in its first game, then demolishing No. 3 seed Creighton by 30 points in the Round of 32. I wouldn’t want to be Wisconsin this week.
This could end up being one of the best games of the Sweet 16. If any team can match the Badgers’ front line, it’s the Bears. They go bigger at all three power positions, and the way they’re playing now, they could beat anyone.
In the end, only two Big 12 teams are still standing, and I have no reason to believe that won’t be the case heading into the weekend. Look for Iowa State and Baylor to both survive, and for the Big 12 to rest their tournament hopes in the tiny towns of Ames and Waco for at least another round.