Big 12 basketball has to get this right. The famous coaches and talented players who have been behind one of the most talked-about seasons in the league’s history have to back it up. Chances like this don’t come every year.
Referencing themselves as “the No. 1 RPI league in the country” has become a primary talking point by the coaches, but it will be used as fair criticism if history repeats itself this month.
This is about success, but it is also about perception. So much of college sports is about perception, which means a problem here can grow tentacles that reach fundamental parts of the business like recruiting and television exposure and NCAA Tournament seeding.
So, perception is important. Perception can be a problem. And right now, as Big 12 men’s teams head toward Kansas City for this week’s conference tournament, they know that they have to get this right:
The No. 1 RPI league in the country has to validate itself now that college basketball is in its most important part of the season.
“What ESPN has done as far as promoting our league, talking about how strong it is, I think it’s been very favorable this year,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “But still, we’re in fly-over states, and we still don’t get same attention as the ACC or Big Ten gets.”
Self doesn’t say this, and he shouldn’t, but the Big 12 has done a rotten job over the years making people take notice. This is on those programs, not geography. This is on the millionaire coaches, not any national media bias.
Because Self is right. The national perception of Big 12 basketball this year is pretty good.
The problem is that over the years, perception has probably been better than reality.
The Big 12 likes to brag about its coaches, and it is an impressive group. Self is wildly successful, one of the best three or so coaches in the country. Fred Hoiberg has put Iowa State back to national prominence, getting the best out of talented transfers with a devastating offensive system. Scott Drew has guided one of the sport’s all-time program turnarounds at Baylor.
Half of the league’s coaches have won more than 500 games, and six have made a Final Four.
That’s all great. What’s not as great is that only Self and Rick Barnes have made Final Fours in the Big 12, and Barnes could be fired after this season.
So if this really is the best the Big 12 has been in years, for anyone to notice, the league’s coaches have to guide their teams deep into the NCAA Tournament. Because so far, that’s been a problem.
The league usually does fine in RPI rankings — its average rank over the last decade is within a few decimal points of the Atlantic Coast Conference, for instance — but college basketball is about the NCAA Tournament, and by that measure the Big 12 has struggled.
The league likes to compare itself to the nation’s best conferences, but the truth is that over the last decade it is closer to the bottom than the top of power leagues in terms of performing in the sport’s showcase event:
Since 2005, the Big 12 is tied for fourth in NCAA Tournament wins, tied for fifth in Sweet 16s and tied for fourth in Final Fours.
Maybe you think that’s partly because the Big 12 now has fewer teams than the other major leagues, but on average Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament have won fewer games than those from the ACC, Big Ten, Big East, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference. In the last decade, 17 teams from the Big 12 have underperformed their seeding while just 12 have outperformed.
All of which is a more in-depth way of saying the Big 12 has to get this right.
Because bragging on your conference’s RPI is all good, but it does invite spotlight and criticism if the results don’t match. And, over the last decade, the Big 12’s results have not matched.
Every now and then, Self mentions that it bothers him when he hears his program’s absurd streak of 11 league regular-season championships diminished with shots against the quality of the Big 12.
It is true that Kansas would not have this streak in a make-believe world where it played in the ACC, for instance, just as it is true that this is one of those irrelevant debates that make sports fun.
Self should be bothered when the streak is slighted. It’s a remarkable accomplishment. Only four other programs have even been to the NCAA Tournament for 11 straight years, and of the three that play in power leagues (Duke, Michigan State and Wisconsin) each has finished fourth or worse in its conference over that time.
Self hasn’t finished lower than third in the 18 seasons he’s coached in a league, and, besides, the Pac-12 has been significantly worse than the Big 12 over the last decade, and the longest streak of league titles there during KU’s run is three by UCLA.
But the truth is that appreciating KU’s streak and recognizing that Big 12 basketball has underperformed are not mutually exclusive.
The Big 12 has positioned itself as one of the nation’s strongest conferences this year. The league could get as many as seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the kind of thing that makes for a good conference RPI, but also ripe material for a March underperformance.
Kansas and Oklahoma are the league’s best teams and the ones most likely to have NCAA Tournament success.
But all year, the Big 12 has been a league with more depth than strength at the top. That means putting three or even four teams into the Sweet 16 to back up a strong regular season.
Otherwise, a history of underperformance continues, and all those famous coaches and nice RPI rankings are viewed much differently.