Selection Sunday is full of lies.
This is true of the people who care enough about college basketball to read (and write!) columns like this pretending we know which bracket is the toughest, or who got an easy draw. This is also true of the people who know and care nothing about the sport, and will spend this week telling you they have no chance of winning the office bracket pool.
Liars. All of them.
Actually, the truest thing said about the NCAA Tournament came last week, from the mouth of Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of a Big 12 Conference that’s been described all year as the best in the country.
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“It’s hard to call yourself the best conference if you don’t go far into March,” he said.
Bowlsby is a respected leader, for a lot of reasons — even if his job comes with unique challenges. His words here are a strong combination of truth and self-evaluation, with a well-founded challenge mixed in.
Because now comes the hard part for the Big 12. The league was the consensus best in the country this year, riding Buddy Hield’s brilliance and Kansas’ strength and an unnaturally deep field.
The conference gripped the sport’s attention with that epic KU-Oklahoma triple-overtime game on the season’s first Big Monday, and held onto seven bids to the NCAA Tournament. No league has more teams in the field. And only the Pac-12 (with two more teams) and the Big Ten (four more) have seven.
But unless recent history flips, all of that is going to be a cruel setup for the jokes and (fair) criticism about the league being an overrated paper tiger.
Unlike a lot of labels in sports, the Big 12’s reputation as a March failure is well earned. In fact, it is the worst-performing major conference in the country over the last decade. The NCAA Tournament is defined by surprises, and surprises can cloud small sample sizes, but this is more than a one-year fluke or three-year trend.
Since 2006, the Big 12 is dead last in NCAA Tournament winning percentage and Final Four teams when compared with the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences. The league has more total wins than the Pac-12 but trails each of the other four leagues.
In the last five years — a college sports election cycle, if you will — the numbers are even worse.
Over that time, the Big 12 is 29-30. Each of the other leagues is at least seven games over .500. The ACC (43-24), Big Ten (54-33) and SEC (39-19) are lapping the Big 12. Since the Big 12’s most recent Final Four team (Kansas in 2012), the Big Ten has had four, the SEC three, the Big East two and the ACC one.
The Big 12 has lost more games than it has won in each of the last three tournaments. In the last 10 years, no major conference has more than two such tournaments. The ACC has had none, and the Big Ten just one, back in 2006.
Much of the talk about the Big 12’s strength this season has focused on depth. Seven of 10 teams in the field is hard to do, and having them all seeded eighth or higher is even harder. But the league’s middle class is actually what’s let it down the most, even considering three consecutive early losses by Kansas.
Take away the top programs — for our purposes here, that’s Kansas, Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke — and the Big 12 is even worse off. Its record in the last five years drops to 17-25. The ACC drops to 32-20, the Big Ten to 43-28, and the SEC to 20-16. At this point, there really isn’t a glamor program in the Pac-12, so it stays at 28-21.
The league’s general failures sting more than they otherwise might, and not just because of its institutional insecurity. Big 12 marketing centers largely on its double-round robin schedule being the nation’s toughest.
Coaches often talk about how the conference’s diverse styles — from Press Virginia’s intensity to Kansas’ size and defense to Baylor’s amoeba zone to the wide-open offenses of Oklahoma and Iowa State — are particularly good preparation for the postseason.
That sounds logical. But the results aren’t there.
Any excuses this year will be met with deserved derision. The league’s depth and strength has been among the sport’s most popular talking points, and what’s more, the Big 12’s best teams are generally led by experienced players.
Reasonable minds can disagree on this — and, actually, reasonable minds should agree we’re all guessing on this — but the league’s draws are fair. No team is dealing with particularly devastating injuries.
If the field is as wide open as so many have been saying, the Big 12’s depth of strength should be able to shine.
It’s all there for the league, finally.
Fail now — fail again — and the response will be nasty.