It’s not the first weekend that has set the tone for overall poor performances by the Big 12 in the NCAA Tournament over the past four years.
It’s the first round.
Since 2013, Big 12 teams went a collective 12-14 on the opening Thursday and Friday. No horrible, right? Nearly break even.
Until you consider that in the 14 losses, the Big 12 team was better seeded nine times.
The roll call of recent upsets invariably includes Big 12 teams.
In 2015, West Virginia (No. 3 seed) lost to Stephen F. Austin (14) and Baylor (5) lost to Yale. The 2015 tournament was only hours hold and Iowa State (3) had lost to Alabama-Birmingham and the Bears (3) to Georgia State (14). Oof.
Oklahoma’s Final Four run removed some of the sting from the overall performance, but the early bust trend had continued.
The conference came better prepared to compete this year.
Five of the six teams won their first games. The one that didn’t, Oklahoma State, was a No. 10 seed that fell to seventh-seeded Michigan on Friday.
No pratfalls by others that were better seeded. Kansas, West Virginia, Baylor and Iowa State all got through without a stunner. That’s progress.
Kansas State got things started with its triumph over Wake Forest in the opening around. The appearance was a first for a Big 12 team in the seven years of the expanded field, and the Wildcats got their first tournament triumph in Coach Bruce Weber’s five years.
There’s more than conference pride on the line. Each NCAA Tournament victory is worth about $265,000 that gets deposited into the league coffers.
The Big 12 has been a puzzle throughout most of its existence. The conference tends to start quickly, rack up impressive non-conference triumphs. This year, Baylor became the fastest team in the history of the Associated Press poll to go from unranked to No. 1 — nine weeks — when the Bears got the top spot in January.
Baylor improved to 13-0 against non-Big 12 opponents with Friday’s tournament victory over New Mexico State.
The non-league triumphs in November and December are why the Big 12 has been ranked first or second in the conference RPI over the past four seasons.
But lately, that success hasn’t carried into the NCAA Tournament. Some have speculated that the league’s complete round-robin scheduling, plus the always competitive league tournament takes a toll on teams. That sounds more like an excuse.
Coaches say the tournament is all about matchups, but it’s difficult to accept the notion that Big 12 teams have more bad matchups than any other power league.
What is true is that the early season success sets up Big 12 teams for multiple teams and nice seeds. It’s been a few years since a Big 12 team had a strong case after an omission.
And the league is on its best run in terms of total teams on the bracket in league history, including the 12-team years. The Big 12 has had 27 teams selected since 2014. Only the ACC with 28 has more.
The hard part comes next. Second round opponents include Big Ten champion Purdue against Iowa State, ACC Tournament finalist Notre Dame against West Virginia and Southern California, which has posted comebacks from double digits in both of its NCAA victories, against Baylor.
The Big 12 pushed three into the Sweet 16 last season, the most since 2009. The opportunity for more presents itself in the second round. For the first time in several years, the conference enters those games with some momentum.