Is this as good as it has ever been for the Big 12?
Quite possibly — and that’s saying something, considering how things have gone since the league hit its stride as a 10-team entity in the past decade.
It still feels too early to make a definitive statement about nearly anything in the sport outside of the dominance of No. 1 Gonzaga’s offense, but the Big 12 has delivered plenty of entertainment value. No. 6 Kansas won at Texas Tech by a point. The Red Raiders picked off Texas by two in Austin. The Longhorns collected a two-point win at No. 13 West Virginia, which won at Oklahoma State by three.
Texas also drilled Kansas by 25 on the road, tying the record for the largest margin of victory over the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse. They can’t all be classics, but half of the league’s 28 conference games have been decided by five points or less.
Oh, and here’s another thing: None of this has even mentioned No. 2 Baylor (11-0, 4-0), which visits Texas Tech on Saturday in its first game against the conference’s upper crust this season.
The Bears have won all of their outings by double figures, and if they cruise past Texas Tech and Kansas over the next three days, maybe they emerge as a clear-cut favorite and establish some order in the conference. Yet with Kansas, Texas and Texas Tech proving immensely capable, it’s possible the Big 12 produces four teams with a No. 4 seed or better in March.
That has happened just twice since the league’s first season in 1997: in 2015, when No. 2 seed Kansas was followed by three No. 3 seeds; and in 2016, when the Jayhawks were the South Region’s top seed and Oklahoma was a Final Four team out of the West Region.
That’s arguably the year the Big 12 was as deep as it has ever been, with all seven of its tournament teams earning a No. 8 seed or better. There’s also a case to be made the Big 12 was as strong top to bottom in 2018, when Kansas (a Final Four team) was one of seven programs to earn NCAA bids, with Baylor (a No. 1 seed in the NIT) and Oklahoma State (a No. 2 seed in the NIT) nearly getting in as well.
There’s depth this year, too, with Oklahoma State (9-3, 3-3) already owning victories over Kansas and Texas Tech behind star freshman Cade Cunningham, and West Virginia (9-4, 2-3) an obvious threat thanks to an offense that has substantially cut down on turnovers.
The Big 12’s double round-robin schedule, a happy byproduct of conference realignment, means depth will be tested repeatedly over the next two months. Based on how things have started, it could be on its way to a season memorable for something other than playing in largely empty arenas.
A rare pandemic plus
The NCAA announced Friday it will not take geography into account when bracketing this year’s tournament field, a sensible byproduct of the entire tournament taking place within driving distance of Indianapolis.
It’s also what should happen every year. In normal seasons, the No. 1 seeds should be allocated regional weekend sites either as close to their campuses as possible or matching their preferences, and the pod system of slotting the top 16 teams in opening weekend sites based on geography (which started in 2002) is a good thing.
But placing the No. 1 and No. 6 teams in the field in the same regional because of the No. 6 team’s proximity to the regional site is something that shouldn’t happen in the NCAA’s showcase (read: primary moneymaking) event.
Yet it did in 2019, when Duke (the No. 1 team) and Michigan State (No. 6) ended up in the same bracket. Those two produced a great regional final (a 68-67 Spartans victory), but it was not a competitively equitable pairing.
The NCAA claims it attempts to keep teams as close to home as possible so more fans can travel to see their teams. It has the side benefit of trimming travel costs. Neither of those is a good reason to disrupt the competitive balance of the NCAA tournament. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to avoid that problem.
Six to watch this weekend
No. 21 Ohio State at No. 14 Illinois (Saturday, noon, Fox): The Illini (9-4, 5-2 Big Ten) haven’t played since their upset loss at home to Maryland on Sunday, and Duane Washington Jr. is coming off a career-high 23 points against Northwestern for the Buckeyes (10-3, 4-3).
San Diego State at Utah State (Saturday, 1:30, CBS): Two credible at-large contenders meet as the teams that played in the past two Mountain West title games wrap up a two-game set. The host Aggies (10-3, 7-0) stymied the Aztecs (9-3, 3-2) in a 57-45 triumph Thursday.
No. 7 Michigan at No. 23 Minnesota (Saturday, 2, ESPN2): The Wolverines (11-0, 6-0 Big Ten) throttled the Golden Gophers (10-4, 3-4) by 25 points just 10 days ago in Ann Arbor. Minnesota has picked off Saint Louis, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State at the Barn this season.
Arkansas at Alabama (Saturday, 3:30, SEC Network): Fresh off its most lopsided victory at Kentucky since 1974, the Crimson Tide (10-3, 5-0 SEC) will try to add to the miseries of the Razorbacks (10-3, 2-3), who have sputtered since a 9-0 start.
No. 2 Baylor at No. 15 Texas Tech (Saturday, 4, ESPN): The first of two regular season meetings between the in-state rivals, Baylor (11-0, 4-0 Big 12) swept last year’s season series, while Texas Tech (11-3, 4-2) is fresh off back-to-back road victories.
No. 18 Virginia at No. 12 Clemson (Saturday, 6, ESPN): One of the country’s more underappreciated teams, Clemson (9-1, 3-1 ACC) comes off a covid pause for its first game in 11 days as Virginia (8-2, 4-0) rolls into Littlejohn Coliseum. The Cavaliers have won their league games by an average of 10 points, but their opponents in those contests have combined for one ACC victory to date.
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