Big 12 Associate Commissioner John Underwood sat in a dining area in the KFCyum! Center, watching the final few moments of Texas’ loss to Butler in the NCAA Tournament on television.
He wasn’t smiling.
Already the Big 12 had experienced a remarkably bad day. The Tournament was only a few hours old and already two of its best teams — Iowa State and Baylor — had been eliminated. Underwood had watched the third-seeded Cyclones’ loss to No. 14-seed Alabama-Birmingham.
Now Texas was going down. Three Big 12 teams had played and lost before dinner on the first day.
“March Madness,” Underwood said shaking his head. “This can happen.”
Thursday, it happened repeatedly to the Big 12, considered college basketball’s top conference this season, and the criticism quickly followed through social media.
Overrated … Joke … The Big 12 needs dance lessons ... and that was the tamer stuff. The harsher criticism undoubtedly originated from those whose office and family NCAA brackets were trashed by having the Cyclones and Bears, who were also seeded third and lost to 14th-seeded Georgia State, bounced from the field by one-point losses.
Around 4:30 p.m., with six games in the books, ESPN issued a news release saying that only .1 percent of the 11.6 million brackets completed through the network’s website were still perfect, mostly because of the Big 12’s failures.
“If you know anything about basketball, this tournament’s not a given to anybody,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said after his team’s loss. “All you have to do is look around today.”
The opportunity for Big 12 redemption comes Friday. Opening their NCAA Tournament quests are Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
Perhaps the most sure Big 12 hopes ride with the Jayhawks, a No. 2 seed in a Midwest Region game at Omaha, Neb., against 15th-seeded New Mexico State.
Kansas is the best seed among conference teams, although that hasn’t helped the Jayhawks in the previous two years. They had the same seed last year and fell to a No. 10 seed in the first week; in 2013, the Jayhawks were a top seed and lost to a No. 4 seed in the Sweet 16.
But if Kansas and Wichita State win on Friday — the Shockers meet Indiana — the teams will meet on Sunday in one of the most anticipated games in the state’s rich basketball history.
Kansas isn’t interested in scheduling the Shockers during the regular season, so an NCAA Tournament collision like this would be required for such a contest. And the Tournament selection committee has complied in setting the stage.
The teams have to win Friday, and at least in the Jayhawks’ case, they’re finding no comfort in the performances of their league brethren.
And to think: Just a few days ago, the Big 12 and Kansas City were glowing over a successful conference tournament.
Competitive games, a remarkable atmosphere inside Sprint Center and the Power & Light District ... the only complaint during the conference tournament was your team losing, and even then you walked outside into perfect weather.
Amidst the excitement, coaches and respected observers alike spoke about the strength of the Big 12, how the teams were well positioned for collective NCAA Tournament success.
Success in the non-conference games of November and December pushed the Big 12’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) to the game’s best. Then they beat each other up during the 18-game round-robin conference schedule, and tangled for a final time in Kansas City with Iowa State emerging as champion for the second straight year.
The thinking went that the different styles of all these Big 12 teams — offensive-minded Iowa State and Oklahoma, West Virginia’s pressure, Baylor’s zone defense, Texas’ length, Kansas’ tough overall defense — ensured that a Big 12 team wouldn’t see an unfamiliar style in the NCAA Tournament.
That didn’t matter on Thursday. Alabama-Birmingham, a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with 15 losses — second-most among the Tournament’s field — played Iowa State evenly throughout the game and won 60-59.
Georgia State, champion of the 19th-rated Sun Belt Conference, scored the game’s final 13 points to beat Baylor 57-56 and provide one of the day’s great visuals when coach Ron Hunter fell out of his chair after his son, R.J., hit the game-winning three-pointer.
Finally, Texas, seeded 11th, lost to sixth-seeded Butler. Based on the seeds, the game wasn’t supposed to go the Longhorns’ way, but Texas had played well recently, and maybe there was a chance …
Not Thursday, not on what might have been the worst day the Big 12 has ever experienced in the NCAA Tournament.