KANSAS CITY -- The deepest and most brutal conference in America begins its tournament here Wednesday. Should it be any different than the uproarious regular season that came before? Probably not. The plot was forever thickening in the Big 12.
Which is why we’ll spend this week with the league in book form, adding chapters as the tournament goes along. A tale of one city – and 10 teams trying to weather the storm.
THE BIG 12 CHRONICLES: CHAPTER 1
Consider the possibility.
Andy Katz's most recent bubble breakdown has seven of the 10 Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament – with two more, Texas and Oklahoma State, on the bubble. Nine from a 10-team league getting bids?
“You could say going into this tournament nine teams deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You can positively say that.
"It speaks volumes to the depth of this league."
If any of the nine don’t make it, TCU coach Jamie Dixon mentioned, “I guarantee you they’re as good or better than the last team in.”
Strange thing: Only four Big 12 teams have a winning record in conference play. That’s what life has been like, in what Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton called “the strongest league from top to bottom in America, and I’m not sure it’s close.”
Self calls it “from top to middle. There’s obviously no bottom.”
Big 12 teams played 128 non-conference games. They lost only 22 of them. But look what happened when they went at one another.
West Virginia began the season 15-1 and was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Then the Mountaineers lost five of six games.
The same Texas Tech that started 14-1 later lost four conference games in a row. Baylor went from 10-2 to dropping eight of 10.
TCU was 12-0. The Horned Frogs then played their first five conference games in which they were outscored by only eight total points. They lost four of them.
March Madness today: Gonzaga, BYU and 5 more big-time NCAA games
Oklahoma was once ranked fourth in the nation. Now the Sooners are seeded ninth in their own conference tournament. In January, Trae Young was considered a near-lock for national player of the year. By the time the Big 12 schedule was done with him, he wasn’t even named the top player in the league.
Kansas won the conference season title for the 14th consecutive year. But the Jayhawks lost five league games and won four others by a combined 10 points. They were swept by Oklahoma State. Nobody had done that to them in 14 years, or 102 series. “We don’t put fear in anybody,” Self said last week.
Five teams around the country tied for most wins against top-25 opponents with six. Three are from the Big 12, including Oklahoma State and Oklahoma – who are seeded eighth and ninth in the conference.
Now THAT is how you start March. pic.twitter.com/Y0Hz4F1OmN— Oklahoma Basketball (@OU_MBBall) March 3, 2018
Since Jan. 1, there have been 33 games nationally when an unranked team knocked off a top-10 opponent. Ten of them happened in Big 12 games.
The Big 12 fact of life, according to Self. “If you play poorly, you lose.”
Thirty-five of the 90 conference games – 39 percent – were decided by six points or fewer.
The John Wooden Award just named 15 finalists for college basketball player of the year. Five are from the Big 12. There are five finalists for the Bob Cousy Award for the nation’s top point guard. Three are from the Big 12.
“There are no bad loses, just good win opportunities,” Baylor coach Scott Drew was saying about his league. “You can play really good basketball and be on the short end of a one or two possession-game, and it’s not anything you did wrong.”
Injuries have taken a toll on several teams. This is not the league to be short-handed. Take Iowa State. The Cyclones have been down to seven players some nights. No surprise they’re in last place, having won only four Big 12 games – but three came over teams ranked 17th or higher.
The conference tournament has several issues to sort out. Can Kansas hold onto a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament? Can Oklahoma prove it has stopped the bleeding? Can Texas Tech win its first Big 12 tournament championship in history? Where does the Baylor thrill ride through its conference schedule – lost eight of 10, won five in a row, lost three of four – go from here? Can Texas, which has played five Big 12 overtime games, stay in the NCAA bracket?
It begins with Bedlam Wednesday, which seems perfect enough, given the season just past. Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State for the 236th time – and for the Cowboys, it’s probably win-or-else as far as an NCAA Tournament bid.
And then Texas and Iowa State, two teams who have had to deal with real life along the way.
On the January day the Longhorns learned that one of their own — Andrew Jones — was starting treatment for leukemia, they beat TCU 99-98 in two overtimes.
Four days after he lost his father, Iowa State’s Donovan Jackson scored 27 points in a loss to TCU, then sobbed in the press conference afterward. “I know he’s not going to call me,” Jackson said. “I have to do everything he told me I had to do.”
The Big 12 season had trials and tribulation and tears. And now, the tournament. More chapters to come.