The Big 12 needed a Final Four appearance.
It had been a solid NCAA Tournament for the conference, with three teams reaching the Elite Eight and a fourth in the Sweet 16. But the Big 12 had been here, or nearby, several times in recent years without reaching the biggest stage.
Kansas’ overtime victory over Duke to capture the Midwest Region on Sunday gave the league its second Final Four team in six years.
In four of those years, including 2018, the Big 12 was the top-rated conference by RPI. Only once previously, the Buddy Hield-led Oklahoma Sooners of 2016, did a team reach the Final Four.
Kansas knows the path well, having lost in the region championship game in 2016 and 2017. But this season’s breakthrough turns a very good Big 12 postseason into an excellent one.
And now, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he’s headed to San Antonio feeling greedy.
“What we want to do as a conference is win national championships,” Bowlsby said. “That’s what our schools and our coaches aspire to do.”
To accomplish that, Kansas will have to get through Villanova in the second of Saturday’s two national semifinals — the Wildcats are an early five-point favorite — then the winner of the other semifinal, Michigan or Loyola-Chicago, in Monday’s championship game.
Last week, Bowlsby shuttled between the Midwest Region in Omaha, Neb., and the South Region in Atlanta, where Kansas State reached a regional title game for the first time since 2010. Associate commissioner John Underwood camped at the East Region in Boston to see Texas Tech reach its first region championship game.
The Wildcats and Red Raiders fell short, but the depth of their run, plus West Virginia’s advance to the Sweet 16, confirmed what the league has asserted for years: that its conference-scheduling structure prepares its teams well for the NCAA Tournament.
Some years, the Big 12 falls flat. Not so this time. This postseason ranks among the most successful in the conference’s 22 years. Seven previous Big 12 teams have finished in the Final Four, and Kansas’ 2008 title is the lone crown.
Then there’s this nugget: With Oklahoma’s Rose Bowl appearance, the Big 12 is the only conference represented in the College Football Playoff semifinals and the Final Four. These are good times for a league that only seems to part of the national conversation when the topic is realignment.
Bowlsby makes the point that a 9-9 record in the Big 12 differs from other conferences where teams don’t meet each other twice. And the league gains the top RPI designation by building credentials in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Why is that important? When conference play started, enough Big 12 teams had established postseason credentials that they could only lose by having a dismal January and February.
The Big 12 got seven teams into this year's tourney field, and two of them had losing league records. But Texas had six victories over teams from the top group of opponents as defined by the selection committee (Group 1) and Oklahoma had five. That compared favorably with teams with better records from other conferences.
Kansas is no different than the other teams in the Final Four, having battled through two weeks of top-notch opponents to reach this point. But consider that with only Iowa State missing postseason play from the Big 12, the Jayhawks have met 12 straight opponents that played in the NCAA or NIT ... and won 11 of those games.
“The competitive balance in our league is terrific,” Bowlsby said. “We constantly ask ourselves if we are toughened or tired going in the NCAA Tournament with our double round and conference tournament.”
This year, the Big 12 toughened up.