KANSAS CITY — The Big 12 Conference is unique among college basketball leagues.
“This league,” says West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, “doesn’t have a bottom.”
That was evident throughout 2017-18, when nine out of 10 Big 12 members finished the regular season with a winning record, when nine teams won at least eight conference games, when the league owned the sport’s best power rating for the fourth time in five years.
Sure, Iowa State finished last this season with a 4-14 league record, but the Cyclones beat second-place Texas Tech, third-place West Virginia and sixth-place Oklahoma. Going into this week’s Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center, nine Big 12 teams have NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I don’t know if nine will make it,” said Kansas’ Bill Self, “but I certainly think there’s nine deserving teams.”
Self said the Big 12 this season is “the best it’s ever been, at least in the 15 years I’ve been in the league. You would say top to middle, because there’s obviously no bottom. And to think that 90 percent of the teams in your league have a legitimate shot of making the NCAA Tournament is pretty remarkable.”
Self’s Jayhawks won the league for the 14th year in a row, and although there was some angst going into the final two weeks, they won it by what became a massive two-game margin over Tech and WVU. So, this is not exactly a league of parity.
Only, it is.
Oklahoma State, widely forecast to finish last in the Big 12 race with a limited roster, a first-time head coach and a bad vibe from previous coach Brad Underwood’s acrimonious departure, became the first team to ever execute a two-game sweep of Self’s Jayhawks.
Mike Boynton, the guy promoted as Underwood’s replacement, equated the Big 12’s 18-game round-robin schedule to an 18-round heavyweight fight.
That’s not really hyperbole.
“There’s still some guys standing,” Boynton said. “Some of us have more bruises than others. … I think it’s the strongest league from top to bottom in America, and I’m not sure it’s close.”
Boynton’s Cowboys finished 8-10 in Big 12 play (tied with Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas for sixth place in the standings) and open the tournament on Wednesday against the Sooners.
Round three of the Bedlam rivalry could be a winner-take-all contest for the league’s last NCAA Tournament berth, but it could also be just the opposite: OU’s strength of schedule rank (27th) and RPI (38th) make the Sooners a strong NCAA at-large team win or lose, while OSU’s rankings (68th SOS, 87th RPI) indicate that one win might not be enough. Even two O-State wins inside the Sprint Center might leave the Cowboys short of an at-large berth, although that second win would mean a third victory over Kansas.
How things play out at other tournaments this week, and how things play out in Kansas City, will determine the Big 12’s NCAA fate.
“But if you’re going into the conference tournaments across America, you’d have to believe that nine from our league would be in at this point,” Self said. “It speaks volumes to the depth of the league and certainly how difficult it is to go through a round-robin schedule.
“In our league, if you play poorly, you lose.”
For comparison, the Big 12 has nine teams in the top 100 of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and one (Iowa State) outside the Top 100.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has 12 in the top 100, but also has three members ranked 146 or worse. The Big East has eight in the top 100, but two outside the top 150. The Big Ten has six in the top 100 and six outside the top 100. The Pac-12 has nine in the top 100 but three ranked 144 or lower. The SEC has 12 in the top 100 and two on the outside.
In the Big 12, Baylor coach Scott Drew says, “There are no bad losses, just good win opportunities. You can play good basketball, really good basketball, and be on the short end of a one or two possession game, and it’s not anything you did wrong, just the other team was just a little bit better. That’s what you have this year. From top to bottom all year long, it’s been the best.
“And if Iowa State hadn’t had some of the injuries they had, I think their season would have been a little bit different, too.”
Huggins and TCU coach Jamie Dixon used to coach in the Big East, which was almost literally a fist fight every night. Six personal fouls and hard screens and flailing elbows on rebounds were common in the old Big East — but while that league did have its elite members, it also had punching bags at the bottom of the standings that the good teams could count on for victories.
Those don’t exist in the Big 12.
“We haven’t had the three No. 1 seeds like we had in the Big East one year,” Dixon said. “But 10 teams, what we did in non-conference, in November-December, it’s the best it’s ever been.”
“The Big East had a bottom,” Huggins said. “They had five or six teams you were supposed to beat. And if you were a middle team, you played those teams twice.”
Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger, as he frequently does, offers assurance.
“The (NCAA selection) committee understands,” Kruger said. “They research all that. Everyone beating up on each other, it’s pretty obvious. I think the committee will get the teams that deserve to be in there, and hopefully it is nine. But the committee will do their research for sure.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.