KANSAS CITY – Well, wasn’t that interesting. One minute, the Big 12 was supposed to be headed for a new world order. And the next, there’s Kansas winning the season and tournament titles again. All the rest of the league could do was sigh. This made the Jayhawks 11-2 in conference championship games since 1997.
So now what?
This is the Best Conference in America, right? That phrase has been more popular in Kansas City this week than barbecue. It has been used so often, the league’s acronym should now be BCIA. The 106-22 non-conference record has been cited. The five in-season tournaments won by Big 12 teams has been mentioned. The round-robin schedule of relentless heat. Yep, BCIA.
It’s prove-it time.
THE BIG 12 CHRONICLES: CHAPTER 7
Now it’s up to the selection committee to decide if the NCAA tournament will include a Big 12 tidal wave. There has been much speculation here about the chance that nine of the 10 teams would be included in the bracket Sunday. A 90-percent attendance rate. Unheard of.
Looks more like it’ll be only eight. (Sorry, Oklahoma State). Or maybe even seven. (You too, Baylor).
The coaches won’t be happy about that, for they understand what they all have gone through this winter.
Listen to West Virginia’s Bob Huggins.
“We’re not one of those leagues where you play the best teams like once every three years, you know? This league has great coaching. Not good, but great coaching. And we’ve got really good players. You put any of those other people in here that are so-called `bubble teams,’ and see what they do playing 18 games in this league.”
Or Texas’ Shaka Smart.
“When you come out of this league, you go through the fire.”
Or Texas Tech’s Chris Beard.
“When you finish second place in the Big 12, you’re good enough to win a national championship.”
Or Baylor’s Scott Drew.
“When you play top-25 teams, you rack up losses. In this league, you do.”
Or Kansas’ Bill Self.
“Basketball’s screwy. There’s three or four teams in the country, whether they win their league or not, whether they win their conference tournament, everybody knows if they play their best, they’re better than everybody else. Nobody in our league is one of those teams.
“But that’s really a complement to our league, saying we’ve got this many good teams without – Bamba’s a lottery pick (Texas’ Mohamed) and Trae’s a lottery pick (Oklahoma’s Young) — but other than that, how many first-rounders do we have in our league? I think that speaks volumes to how good the teams are.”
Listen to Oklahoma State’s first-year coach Mike Boynton, making an impassioned closing argument for his 19-14 team that closed in a rush. Something about misconceptions, and taking his program’s achievements too lightly.
“Let’s be realistic,” Boynton began in a press conference. “They hired me, and nobody in this room knew who I was. That’s the truth. So you’ve got a program that looks like it’s unstable, and you’ve got a guy who has never been a head coach before coaching it.
“(People said) no way, they’re going to be good. No way, they can win eight games in the Big 12. If they can finish 11th, they will do that.”
But the Cowboys finished tied for sixth. “It's confirmation in some ways that people just can’t accept what they see,” Boynton said, “because then it invalidates what they said a long time ago.”
Speaking of validation, it’ll be up to the Big 12 teams in the bracket to show what the fuss was all about during this conference season. And they know it.
“We can say it and say it,” TCU’s Jamie Dixon said. “But then you gotta do something about it.”
At least it’ll be refreshing going against outsiders, and not the brutal fratricide the league became. “There’s a lot of things that I’m looking forward to,” Beard said of the weeks ahead. “But playing against another Big 12 team is not one of them.”
There are some problems in the BCIA, Oklahoma, the most discussed Big 12 team earlier in the season, has hit the wall. Baylor, too. And overall, the league is starting to sound like a medical series.
Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike missed the conference tournament with a sprained knee. So did Bamba with a toe ailment that has kept down his minutes. “This toe saga has been very, very interesting,” Smart said. “Mo wants to play. Every time I took him out of the game, he was mad at me.”
The sprained toe for Texas Tech star Keenan Evans might have cost the Red Raiders the season conference title, and he’s still not totally right. Kansas State was already without leading scorer Dean Wade in the semifinals with a foot injury. One minute into the game, second leading scorer Barry Brown Jr. was also gone after getting poked in the eye. Suddenly, an ophthalmologist was added to the Big 12 doctor appointment list.
“His family flew in today,” coach Bruce Weber said of Brown, “and then they don’t even get to see him play.”
The time for healing is running out. The Big 12 has promises to keep. A rash of early flameouts the first weekend would be most conspicuous.
“It would help our league from an image standpoint if somebody does get there,” Self said, meaning the Final Four. “We’re going to have seven or eight teams that have a chance to win multiple games in this tournament. But we’ve got to go do it.”
That’s the only way there’ll be a truly happy ending to the Big 12 Chronicles.