KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Hey, where’s the hopeless? Don’t conference tournaments always include the hopeless? Don’t they all have at least one team that arrives so hopeless that just looking at its record sends the brain straight to forlorn? Don’t they have one or two teams whose little clots of fans feature only next of kin?
Here, nobody arrived hopeless. As West Virginia guard and leader Kedrian Johnson put it about the Big 12 while sitting at his locker in downtown Kansas City: “Yeah, this is a very bottomless league. There’s no bottom in my eyes.” As Oklahoma Coach Porter Moser put it later down the hallway at the interview dais, “There’s no bottom to the league.”
Greetings from the Big 12, the country’s best league by consensus of every desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, watch, permutation and maybe even human American. It’s “ridiculous, statistically speaking,” as Oklahoma’s departing leader, Tanner Groves, said. Its roughhousing season left Oklahoma with the lowest tournament seeding at No. 10, but as Groves said after the Sooners exited to Oklahoma State, “So I think if we were in another league, we’d be dancing.”
They won’t be dancing, but wait, it’s college sports in the 21st century, so soon they will be in another league!
Around here, new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark stopped by a dais and a microphone Wednesday to remind that here comes Houston soon, into the league, its present-day national ranking at 1. Basketball-wise, that ought to salve the fumbling of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC come 2024.
On that same dais later on, interim Texas Tech coach Corey Williams, who assisted Mark Adams all season until Adams stepped down after using a Bible verse about slavery as a coaching tool, said the Big 12 conference season was “not for the faint of heart.”
Down the hallway in the West Virginia locker room, Erik Stevenson, who has seen a few conferences while playing for Wichita State, Washington, South Carolina and West Virginia, said, “This league, man, it’s not for the faint of heart, I’ll tell you that.”
Maybe they have a league slogan there, Not for the Faint of Heart, which lacks the self-owning strains of It Just Means More.
When your No. 8 seed out of 10 — that’s West Virginia — has a Pomeroy national ranking of No. 17, a Sagarin of No. 16 and a NET of No. 19, plus an ironclad invitation waiting for the NCAA tournament, you know you’re a roughhousing bunch. When you have seven or eight teams Madness-bound yet no team with fewer than five conference losses, that tells of a winter of glum plane rides home. Stevenson, who lately had a five-game streak of 23 points or more, then had 18 on Wednesday in a tournament-opening win over Texas Tech, explained the details of the day-to-day.
“Every possession is a battle,” he said. “Every cut is a battle. Even passing the ball is a battle. You know, I mean, you’ve got to fight to get the ball to your teammate, you know, because everything is denied, everything’s physical, everything’s fast. And you see that for, I think it’s, what, 18 straight games, and then you go in the Big 12 tournament and you can possibly see it for four more.”
He concluded, “If you take a day off, you’re going to get popped, no question.”
Most conferences have an opening round through which all can sleep save for the aforementioned next of kin and the unreconstructed geeks. Here on Wednesday night, they kicked it off with four teams whose records told of stress and strife: No. 10 seed Oklahoma as the “worst” coming in at 15-16, No. 9 seed Texas Tech at 16-15, No. 8 seed West Virginia at 18-13, and No. 7 seed Oklahoma State at 17-14.
You can almost feel the elbows in those numerals.
“Here we are Wednesday night, a play-in game,” Moser said, “and you had one team beat the ACC champion by 30. You had another team beat the SEC champion by 20. And we’re in the play-in game. It’s — it’s something that the physicality, the talent level, the teams, there’s just no — there’s just no bottom. There’s no nights off. And it’s unprecedented this year.”
He might have been a little off — his Oklahoma did blast SEC champion Alabama by 93-69, while he seemed to refer also to West Virginia’s 81-56 mauling of Pitt, which finished one game out of the ACC lead — but he had the gist.
“I don’t know this to be a fact,” Oklahoma State Coach Mike Boynton said, “but I would find it hard to believe that there’s any other Power Five conference where every team lost at least three games in a row at some point during conference play. And I think that shows two things, the strength of the league and the grind of this league. I mean, because the best team in our league also went through a three-game losing streak at some point and still won the league.”
Among all these Madness-bound teams, Kansas did lose three in a row (to Kansas State, TCU and Baylor), as did Baylor (to Iowa State, TCU and Kansas State), while Iowa State once lost four (to Kansas State, Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia), and West Virginia dropped five (to Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Baylor and Oklahoma). Technically, Kansas State lost four of five (to Kansas, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma) while Texas lost two straight (to Baylor and TCU) but had to beat Oklahoma in overtime at home to avoid losing three of four, but Boynton had the gist.
Oklahoma State lost three straight once and five straight another time while managing to refrain from hopelessness, as Boynton outlined: “You’re going to have those moments during the season, and what you’ve got to do is be able to hold your kids’ attention enough that they don’t get so distracted by the outside noise that they can still believe in what you’re doing. I give all the credit to our staff but also to having good kids. If you don’t have good kids in your program, you can’t do what we’ve done. You can’t lose five games in a row, still believe you have a chance to do some special things and find a way to just keep fighting.”
It made Texas Tech’s Williams, who played for Oklahoma State and for Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, among other teams in life, talk of strains on sleeping and waking.
“Well, first of all, I mean, you don’t get very much sleep at night knowing that you don’t have a dull game that you can look forward to that you feel like you can win,” he said. “Every game, every team is extremely competitive. And if you don’t rise to the occasion, you get your butt beat by anybody. But on the flip side, if you play well and your team plays well, you can beat anybody in this league as well, but this is an extremely competitive league, and it’s not for the faint of heart. And certainly you wish you had more teams that you could wake up in the morning feeling like you could get a W on, but that’s not this league.”
As they wrestle on to Saturday here, with most of them to wrestle beyond Saturday, West Virginia’s Johnson said, “I feel like if they let every team in this league into March Madness, one of these teams will win the national championship, no doubt about it.” And Stevenson looked at even Texas Tech, 16-16 and finished, and maybe even happy to be finished, with a wrenching late-season scandal Williams sensed as impacting performance, and with Canadian big man Fardaws Aimaq already hitting the transfer portal by Wednesday night.
“No, that team could be [viable] in the tournament,” Stevenson said. “That team could be [viable] in the tournament, no question.”