Sam Mellinger

Soft at the top, bulging in the middle: Big 12’s challenge entering the NCAA Tournament

Jayhawks leave the floor after 78-66 loss to Iowa State in Big 12 Championship

The Kansas Jayhawks leave the floor after losing 78-66 to the Iowa State Cyclones in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday, March 16, 2019.
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The Kansas Jayhawks leave the floor after losing 78-66 to the Iowa State Cyclones in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday, March 16, 2019.

The Big 12 Conference has often been the darling of computers and forgotten in March, and those facts will be tested double now.

For the second time in its 23-year history, the Big 12 will not have a No. 1 or No. 2 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed on Sunday. The league might not have a No. 3 seed, either.

Either way, it will be the worst group of Big 12 seeds since 1999 — a year before Kansas freshman Ochai Agbaji was born.

Even so, the computers love the Big 12. Kansas has the nation’s No. 1-ranked strength of schedule. Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State are also in the top seven. The league is ranked first in the country by RPI, and second by KenPom (behind the Big 10).

Insert eye-roll emoji here if you want, but those are the formulas, so if this whole “we beat up on each other all year long” thing is true, we should see four or so teams play into the second weekend of March Madness.

Your move, Big 12.

“Our league is plenty good enough to have teams in the tournament that have multiple wins,” KU coach Bill Self said.

Quantifying the Big 12’s performance in the NCAA Tournament is complicated. A year ago, it tied the ACC with the most tournament wins. But over the last 10 years, the Big 12 (79) trails the ACC (103), Big 10 (97) and Big East (96) in tournament wins.

In Final Fours, the Big 12 trails the Big East, Big 10, SEC, and ACC over the same time.

The pattern has repeated. During the season, Big 12 coaches and administrators brag on the computer rankings and the league’s collective strength before suffering more letdowns than successes in the NCAA Tournament.

A few disclaimers are worth mentioning here. The Big 12 is often deeper than most conferences and devoid of the noncompetitive programs that can be found in the ACC and others. Also, the NCAA Tournament is the most unpredictable playoff in major American sports. It’s an imperfect measurement.

That’s all true. So is are these things: The NCAA Tournament is where college reputations are made, a 10-year look is enough to account for upsets and the Big 12 has underperformed.

“This is as good of a league as there is in the country,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “When you are in there as a younger coach and you listen to the Hall of Famer guys talk about how good this league is, when I first got here, that’s when it really resonates.”

The league could get as many as eight of its 10 teams in, which likely would not have a match anywhere. The group will collectively represent an exaggeration of the Big 12 stereotype — even less at the top, and even more in the middle.

Regular-season co-champions Kansas State and Texas Tech are each generally projected to be No. 4 seeds. Kansas may have been able to climb up to a No. 3 seed with a tournament title but lost to Iowa State, which projects to a No. 5 or so. Baylor and Oklahoma will also make the field. TCU and Texas could go either way.

But it’s hard to picture which teams can play into the second weekend and which might go beyond that to carry the Big 12’s flag nationally.

Texas Tech is the Big 12’s best team and can beat virtually anyone with defense and Jarrett Culver. But the Red Raiders also lost their quarterfinal game to West Virginia, who is on nobody’s bubble, and carry a 7-5 record in the all-important Quadrant 1.

K-State has an intriguing mix of talent and experience, but will again need to play around a Dean Wade foot injury.

Kansas has flashes that look promising but also too many problems scoring and not enough defense to always make up for it.

Iowa State can beat anyone with its shooting; it can also lose by 12 in the first round with its shooting.

To be fair, outside of Duke the sport generally lacks the high-level talent and dominant teams of past years. Gonzaga is 4-3 in Quadrant 1 games (including a win over Duke on a neutral floor November) and will likely be a No. 1 seed.

So the bracket is open.

Most years, that would be reason to love the Big 12’s depth.

This year, the question persists — is the league good enough to take advantage?

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