The old joke that the Big 12 is Kansas and nine other schools in football and men’s basketball isn’t so funny anymore. Not when it comes to basketball, anyway.
KU’s run of dominance has long passed the point of being historical, and it remains one of the incredible stories of both college basketball and Kansas City sports over the last decade. The Jayhawks own basketball in this league like they’re charging rent, and if there was any doubt, they just beat co-regular season champion K-State for a third time — 70-54 for the conference tournament championship at Sprint Center on Saturday.
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K-State won its first regular-season conference title in 36 years, and that’s a terrific accomplishment. They’ll put this on a banner at Bramlage Coliseum. But in other places, this will be another team that couldn’t beat Kansas — the last two losses by a combined 37 points.
“Oh, there’s no doubt,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said when asked about the importance of beating KU. “It’s a big rivalry, but it’s not a rivalry until we make it a rivalry. And that means beat them somewhere.”
Weber said those words from the interview room at Sprint Center, and coincidentally, in the middle of the answer came a roar from the other side of the wall. It was the KU basketball team, celebrating, again. A fact: there have been more presidential elections (five) since 1994 than K-State wins over KU (three).
The numbers are preposterous. KU has now won 47 of the last 50 against K-State. The losses are so rare they stand out naturally: Jacob Pullen’s 38 points in 2011, Michael Beasley backing up his bizarre prediction that K-State could beat KU in “Africa” in 2008, and K-State breaking KU’s 31-game winning streak against the Wildcats in 2006.
Other than that, nothing. KU’s wins over K-State come so often they should be shown in syndication.
And while this is obviously a point of pride for Kansas — KU senior Travis Releford talked of especially wanting to beat K-State — it’s also bad for the program. Honest. Take it from Jayhawks coach Bill Self.
“We need (K-State) to be good because that brings interest,” he said. “I’ve said this many times: even when Missouri was in our league, it helped us when K-State and Missouri were both good because it raised our level. We want our league to be great. We want our league to be like the Big Ten was this year. Because it raises everybody else’s level.”
We are obviously dealing with small sample sizes here, but when KU won the national title in 2008 it was the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament after losing at Texas. And when the Jayhawks went to the final game last year, they were pushed by Missouri (KU won the league by two games, but split two classics against the Tigers during the regular season). The 1997 team won the league by four games and could’ve been one of the modern era’s great teams but lost to Arizona in the Sweet 16.
This isn’t a rule without exceptions, of course, but it is one that coaches feel applies more times than not. So those
chants are historically accurate, but the big picture for both KU and the Big 12 would be better in a more balanced world.
In other words, basketball in the new Big 12 has an opening for a program that can knock KU off this pedestal. Mizzou is gone, Texas is bad, Oklahoma State isn’t there quite yet, and K-State appears to have a mental block against its natural rival.
This isn’t just about a sparring partner for KU, either. Perception matters in college basketball. It matters for recruiting, for donations, for rankings, and for NCAA Tournament seeds.
And the perception is that other than KU, Big 12 basketball stinks. That’s largely a myth created by KU’s dominance. The league was mediocre this year, but in the five previous seasons it ranked third, third, first, third and second among all conferences in RPI. Between five and seven teams made the NCAA Tournament each of those seasons.
Over the last nine years, only the ACC (.631) has a higher winning percentage than the Big 12 (.608) in the NCAA Tournament. And only the ACC (77-45) and Big East (100-67) have more wins.
But that’s not the way it’s often seen nationally, or by some recruits. That line about the league being Kansas and nine other schools has a way of sticking. It wasn’t like that when Texas made the Final Four, or Oklahoma. And it won’t be like in the future, if Weber can push K-State, or Texas rebounds, or Oklahoma State continues to rise.
Until then, the league will be seen by many as something less than it is. By extension, the accomplishments of any school inside the league carry less weight. KU’s dominance is a remarkable story, but it’d be better for the Big 12 if a serious contender emerged.