Kansas coach Bill Self has noticed the difference.
In other seasons, there seemed to be a soft opponent or two in each Big 12 schedule. Not so this year, when seven of Kansas’ nine conference victories have been by single digits.
“I think sometimes fans equate parity or closeness to not playing well, and that’s not been the case at all,” Self said. “I think any win is a good win regardless of where you play.”
Self’s belief that the Big 12 is especially strong this year appears to be backed by the numbers.
And the league might even be better than most people believe.
According to the advanced stats at KenPom.com, this year’s Big 12 is the strongest conference in more than a decade. And while site founder Ken Pomeroy is quick to point out that numbers don’t always provide complete answers, he has no issue standing behind the claim that this year’s Big 12 is one of the best in recent memory.
“It’s an incredibly strong conference from top to bottom,” Pomeroy said. “When Oklahoma or Texas is your worst team … I don’t think there’s a team in the Big 12 that can go on the road to those locations this year and feel like they can overlook those teams and still get a win.”
The Big 12 is both top-heavy and deep. West Virginia, Baylor and Kansas all rank in the top 10 in Pomeroy’s rankings, while the bottom two teams, Texas and Oklahoma, are both in the 70s.
“You don’t find too many cases like that going back in the past,” Pomeroy said.
It’s admittedly difficult to rank leagues, something that Pomeroy has grappled with over the years. He made an adjustment to his conference rankings in October, changing it to a number indicating the strength of team that would finish .500 against a round-robin schedule in a particular conference. As it stands now, the Big 12’s mark of +19.32 means a team would have to be roughly 28th in his rankings to go 9-9 in this year’s Big 12. The ACC is second at +16.98, which Pomeroy calls a “massive difference.”
“There really is no legitimate discussion about which conference is best,” Pomeroy said. “If you think the ACC is the best, I just feel like the defense for that largely is grounded in preseason expectations.”
These numbers also give us a basis for comparing this Big 12 to the past. Pomeroy admits it’s not perfect to gauge these rankings against each other over time — previous years had fewer teams in power conferences and also in Division I as a whole — but accept those caveats, and the Big 12 ranks as the best conference since the 2003-04 ACC.
The league’s strength could potentially help Big 12 teams on the bubble. An example: The latest ESPN Bracketology has Oklahoma State (21st in KenPom’s rankings) safely in the NCAA Tournament as an eight seed even with a 15-9 record and 4-7 mark in league.
“It’s not really Oklahoma State’s fault that they’re in a really tough conference,” Pomeroy said. “You can cast some blame on them for maybe not closing out games or winning games they should, but a bubble team playing in the Big 12 is going to end up with a sub-.500 conference record most of the time.”
These circumstances also might explain some of KU’s inability to put away opponents this season.
Part of that could be team strength, as the Jayhawks’ No. 9 KenPom ranking indicates they aren’t as dominant as some years past.
Still … the Big 12 isn’t making it easy on KU either.
“It’s not due necessarily to them being a mediocre team as much as it is every game is difficult,” Pomeroy said. “There’s very few teams you’re going to blow out in this league.”