Watching Big 12 basketball has become a May-December romance – or more precisely, November-March fling. You fall in love early and often. Rock Chalk! Shaka! Huggie Bear! Press Virginia! Hilton Magic!
Then your heart is broken. It’s not you, it’s me. Time to move on. Let’s stay Facebook friends.
The Big 12 hasn’t had a team in the Final Four since 2012. That’s only a drought if we’re talking dog years. But the league itself knows there has to be a breakthrough in 2016.
In essence, the Big 12 has become the best on-paper league in the country. The conference has been the No. 1 RPI league all three of those Final Four-less seasons. But the conference that dominated the regular season has been mostly a bust in the postseason.
It is the only Power Five league with a losing tournament record since 2013. More than that, it is the only such league with a losing tournament record each year since 2013.
This is the month when you prove it. This is when the world pays attention, and we’re not just talking about our friends in the Nevada desert. That RPI ranking and a quarter will get you a bag of chips. On paper? The Big 12 needs to jump off the page instead of, well, wiping with it.
“There is something to that national reputation,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, “that postseason does validate it.”
It has been a giddy ride these past few years. The conference owns Big Monday the way the old Big East used to. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla is the face of the league almost as much as Buddy Hield. When Fran called the Big 12 Tournament the best in the country, he was right.
But guess what? That page turns this week. The last four months essentially don’t matter. There’s a reason only the Super Bowl creates more wagering interest in Vegas than the NCAA Tournament. Forget lately, it’s what you do for me right now.
“There is a validating of what people have thought of the entire year,” Self said. “If our league is as good as we said it is, and what we know it is, you’ve obviously got to have some teams perform well in the postseason and advance.”
Given the depth and breadth of the conference, the Big 12 needs to get at least one team to the Final Four. We’ve heard enough of the conference’s greatness during the winter. It’s about time it grows some roots during the spring of March Madness.
This is only the second time a conference has sent at least seven teams to the tournament three consecutive years. The Big East is the other. From 2008-13, the Big East placed at least seven teams in the bracket. In five of those six years, at least one Big East team made the Final Four. Connecticut (2011) and Louisville (2013) won it all.
You paying attention, Big 12?
“I know all of us are tired of answering that question — why we didn’t do as well last year and the year before that,” Baylor’s Scott Drew said.
The Big 12 can start by getting out of the Sweet 16. That hasn’t happened either since 2012. That was the year Kansas lost the national championship game to Kentucky in New Orleans.
Ten times since then, a Big 12 team has lost to a lower-seeded opponent. In six of those games, the winner was separated by at least seven seed lines from its Big 12 foe.
The winds of fortune are fickle in March. There are injuries and matchups to consider. A couple of years ago future NBA star Andrew Wiggins took six shots in a second-round game against Stanford. He made one and committed four turnovers.
See ya, Jayhawks.
In the first round last year, Georgia State beat third-seeded Baylor. Fourteenth-seeded Alabama-Birmingham beat Iowa State.
It’s been suggested the Big 12’s 18-game round-robin conference schedule is simply too tough. That conversation cuts both ways. Great teams and conferences are forged in those tough league matchups. See: that old Big East, the ACC and Big Ten.
One man’s excuse is another man’s tune-up for the tournament.
“Our round-robin is a monster … ,” Self said.
“I do think that’s a grind. I do think there’s wear and tear there,” Self added. “[But] I think over time it make you tougher.”
Kansas is the Big 12’s flagship, the Big 12’s best chance at the Final Four, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed. Under Self, it is 15-4 as a top seed including that 2008 national championship.
But ask the average Kansas fan if that means squat this week. The Jayhawks are expected to be the most dominating force to hit Des Moines, Iowa since the Great Flood of 1993.
Kansas seemingly has everything needed to get to the Final Four – excellent backcourt, multiple pros, momentum. But Self knows his team can be inconsistent from the arc and free-throw line.
A Big 12 Tournament loss to West Virginia proved Hield – and by extension Oklahoma – is vulnerable.
Arguably the best player in the country made one shot. That’s the lasting memory we have of Hield we have going into this week.
“That’s the best I’ve been defended my whole career,” Hield said.
Those Mountaineers can run you out of the gym with their press. But is Texas ready yet in Shaka Smart’s first season? Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith was named by one outlet as the national coach of the year. Iowa State is third nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency.
Trust me, that’s good.
Remember the name Taurean Prince. And remember that Baylor’s 2-3 zone is made perfectly for the half-court oriented tournament.
Taken as a whole, that’s either a flag-waving endorsement for the best conference in the country or the beginning of another bitter end.
The Big 12 has established this certainty: In this November-March romance, there’s no letting us down easy.