A big chunk of Big 12 pride was salvaged on Sunday. Oklahoma and West Virginia pushed through to Sweet 16 appearances, and the conference avoided the embarrassment of having its postseason end without a regional semifinalist for the second time in 19 years.
Still, nothing says program and conference underachievement like teams explaining unexpected losses with mumbled responses and puffy eyes, and the Big 12 produced another sad locker room on Sunday with second-seeded Kansas’ stunning loss to seventh-seeded Wichita State.
The defeat wasn’t a surprise. The Shockers’ second-half dominance was, and it amplifies the doubts about the Big 12 that started to creep in from the opening hours of the tournament, when Iowa State and Baylor fell as No. 3 seeds.
How good was this league anyway?
By seed, four of the seven teams were slotted for advancement. Half made it, and three of the league’s top four ranked teams have been eliminated.
The Big 12 isn’t alone in its underachievement. The Big East lost five of its six teams, including No. 1 seed Villanova. The Big Ten is down to a pair, like the Big 12.
But neither of those conferences spent the year as the nation’s top-rated conference.
The Big 12 did and has to own this postseason pratfall, which Jayhawks coach Bill Self did.
“The league was great; nobody can knock that,” Self said. “But let’s be real. We had a chance to validate how good our league was and we didn’t do that. The reality is in the numbers, and the numbers say we haven’t performed very well.”
A closer look at those numbers may provide some explanations.
The Big 12 had phenomenal success in nonconference games, winning 82.7 percent of its games, the best of any league since 2004-05. But a closer looks finds that against the best teams, the league fared poorly.
Against teams seeded on the top four lines in the NCAA Tournament, the league went 1-6, with the Jayhawks’ victory at Georgetown preventing the shutout.
As good as its two highest ranked teams, Kansas and Iowa State, were this season, the teams also showed a flat side: The Jayhawks got drubbed at Temple and the Cyclones lost to South Carolina and Texas Tech.
The Big 12 built a strong resume by not losing to as many average-to-bad teams as other conferences. But no team supplied a signature victory.
As for talent, in all but one year of the league’s existence, there’s been at least one player named a consensus first- or second-team All-American. To achieve that, the player had to appear on two of the teams announced by four sources: Sporting News, Associated Press, the United States Basketball Writers Association and the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
Two of the teams have been announced and so far, no Big 12 player, including player of the year Buddy Hield of Oklahoma, has made a team.
The Big 12 was competitive, even ferocious at times, and the double round-robin schedule only intensifies the action. But Big 12 credentials were built on teams at the bottom improving. Those at the top did not.
This year’s Jayhawks might not rank in the top half of Self’s best teams in Lawrence, and they won the league outright.
Turned out, the most top-heavy conference, the ACC, is having the greatest postseason success, with four teams advancing to the Sweet 16, and a fifth, Louisville, with an opportunity late Sunday night.
The Pac-12 has been the biggest surprise. Arizona’s roll through the first weekend was expected. Utah and UCLA also are through.
The Big 12? Unless the year ends with a team in the Final Four, it will be remembered as one of the most disappointing postseasons in league history.