Placing 70 percent of its teams in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments and finishing No. 1 in the Ratings Percentage Index for the third consecutive season gave the Big 12 ample talking points in 2016. Maintaining those bragging rights will be a challenge this season.
Of the 15 players selected to last season’s All-Big 12 First, Second and Third Teams, only four return. All five of the first-team selections have moved on. Kansas’s Perry Ellis, Iowa State’s Georges Niang and Oklahoma’s incandescent Buddy Hield, the player of the year, were rare four-year players.
Much like teams that lose key players, the question for the Big 12 is whether it will rebuild or reload.
“These things are cyclical,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said of the Big 12’s overall strength.
“There are a lot of great players, veteran players, who have moved on. There’s a lot of young talent in the league.
“The general consensus nationally is that there will be some regression because of the quality of players that left the league. It’s a young league that can get six in the NCAA Tournament but I think it’s a year away from being as strong as it was last year.”
Critics might say that the RPI as a measuring tool is flawed and archaic, but it does compare all schools with the same metric.
“There’s a value to your currency, it’s like the value of the dollar,” said Mike DeCourcy, columnist and national college basketball writer for the The Sporting News. “If you go through your non-conference schedule and you perform, you establish the value of your currency, what a Big 12 Conference value is worth.”
Unfortunately, the Big 12’s top RPI and 70-percent placement of teams has not translated to great NCAA Tournament success – no national championships and only one Final Four team. Last season’s performance was largely disappointing. West Virginia and Baylor were ambushed in first-round upsets while an inconsistent Texas team lost on a buzzer beater beyond half court.
Kansas, a No. 1 seed, lost to Villanova in an Elite Eight game where the margin was razor thin. Oklahoma reached the Final Four for the first time since 2002, but Hield and the Sooners were eviscerated by Villanova, the eventual national champions.
This season, Kansas is the one Big 12 team that enters the season with lofty expectations. Denied a Final Four trip, the Jayhawks are in position to make a run at the national championship.
The NCAA Tournament run figures to come after the Jayhawks’ 13th consecutive Big 12 title. The amazing streak of 12 consecutive regular-season championships figures to be extended to match UCLA’s current record, which was achieved when the Bruins were coached by John Wooden and the Pacific Eight Conference played a 14-game schedule.
Kansas has to replace Ellis and guard Wayne Selden Jr., who skipped his senior season to enter the NBA Draft. The Jayhawks have one of the nation’s best backcourts in senior Frank Mason III and junior Devontae’ Graham. KU also adds one of the nation’s top freshmen: Josh Jackson, a 6-foot-8 wing who has exceptional all-around skills.
If there is little mystery as to which team finishes on top of the standings, there’s plenty of intrigue regarding the rest of the league.
Three new coaches – Jamie Dixon at TCU, Chris Beard at Texas Tech and Brad Underwood at Oklahoma State – are taking over programs accustomed to second-division status. The Red Raiders, though, are coming off an NCAA Tournament bid and have one of the nation’s oldest teams with a dozen seniors and juniors.
Fraschilla believes that Oklahoma is being overlooked because of losing Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler.
“Those three guys started for the last three seasons, but I think Oklahoma’s young talent is as good as any team in the league,” he said. “They’ve got a good mix of freshmen and sophomores along with two guys who started in the Final Four – Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Latin.”
There are 90 victories and defeats to be distributed in the 18-team round-robin schedule. Outside of Lawrence there figures to be a crowded rush to determine who finishes 2 through 10. If a team like TCU, which won two league games last season, increases its win total, those victories come off another team’s ledger.
In two of the last three seasons which placed seven teams in the NCAA bracket, those teams all finished 9-9 or better in Big 12 play. In 2015, two teams earned at-large bids with 8-10 league records. Parity could make for more bubble teams sweating on Selection Sunday.
“This is my 14th year. (Kansas coach Bill) Self and I came in together, and I can’t remember a year more competitive two through ten,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I think Kansas is a clear favorite. But other than that, it’s a crap shoot. And that’s what makes the league so good.”
Kansas might have to make the Final Four in order for the rest of the nation to appreciate that idea next April.