Maybe the Big 12 is turning the corner.
After a miserable start to the NCAA Tournament, a 3-4 record by seven teams with better seeds than their opponents, the league came away with two resounding victories on Saturday and has a chance to take a three-game winning streak into the Sweet 16 next week.
Iowa State got things started with a runaway 78-61 victory over Arkansas-Little Rock in Denver, a game that played well to the Cyclones fans who were taking in the action at Wells Fargo Arena. In the concourse, fans from Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky and Connecticut had to maneuver around the Iowa State fans clustered around television monitors.
When Iowa State’s 17-point victory was announced in the arena, Kansas fans supplemented the cheers of the Cyclones.
But their own team gave the Jayhawks plenty of cheering material, taking a 20-point halftime lead on UConn and rolling to a 73-61 victory.
The Jayhawks chased away those second-round blues and now head to Louisville, Ky., for a Sweet 16 meeting Thursday with either Maryland and former Jayhawks guard and assistant coach Mark Turgeon or Hawaii.
Saturday was one of the better days for the Big 12 in the NCAA Tournament since 2012. That was the last year the league advanced a team past the Sweet 16, when Kansas played for the national title.
Since then, the Big 12 had been to the second weekend five times over a three-year period. If that doesn’t sound deficient, consider the conference was presented with 19 opportunities.
That many chances, and no Big 12 team finished better than 2-1. Twice as many went 0-1. It’s been the worst three-year stretch since the league was formed 20 years ago.
And things looked bleak during the first two days of this year’s tournament. More March sadness for the Big 12. Texas Tech caught a bad matchup in Butler. Baylor players argued during a huddle in their loss to Yale, and West Virginia melted down against Stephen F. Austin.
Then, Northern Iowa threw in a half-court shot to beat Texas. Skill and luck were working against the league.
All the Big 12 had to show for the first round were the Jayhawks’ blowout of No. 16 seed Austin Peay, Oklahoma’s pulling away from No. 15 Cal State Bakersfield and Iowa State’s solid victory over No. 13 seed Iona.
Maybe it was time to strongly consider the difficulty of the complete round-robin scheduling. Other leagues play 18 games like the Big 12. None play all of their conference foes twice. For the NCAA Tournament teams, that meant a dozen games against the nation’s elite in addition to the ambitious non-conference scheduling of most teams and the league tournament.
If that sounds whiny, it probably is. But nobody can seem to fully grasp why teams that have seemingly been strong from November until March wilt in the games that matter most.
Kansas assistant Norm Roberts has been on both ends of the surprises. As a Tulsa assistant to Bill Self in 2000, the Golden Hurricane unexpectedly reached the Elite Eight. He remembers the chip-on-the-shoulder feeling his team took into the tournament that doesn’t necessarily exist from the better-seeded teams that expect annual inclusion.
“In the NCAA Tournament, every game is a war, and you’re going to play a good team no matter what seed they are,” Roberts said. “They’re a winning team. They either won their tournament or won the conference. They have a winning mentality and a winning attitude.
“When you’re the higher (better) seed, you feel the pressure is on you. Upsets can happen to anybody.”
For the first time in four years, the Big 12 looks like a conference that could reverse its fortunes in the tournament. Saturday was a good day for the league, and Sunday, when favored Oklahoma, the No. 2 seed in the West Region takes on No. 10 VCU in Oklahoma City, could make it three teams in the Sweet 16, and put the Big 12 on the edge of living up to its regular-season reputation.