It’s frankly unpleasant to have to feel sorry for Iowa State, but it appears the sentiment has wound up misplaced anyway. As the Big 12 ended its months of fracas and inconvenient familiarity with its bubble teams failing to menace and leaving a fine tournament final between Kansas and West Virginia — with Kansas winning, 81-70, here Saturday night — the bracket professors in this weird land seem to grant the Big 12 around seven potential bids.
While that would be merely outstanding rather than landmark, three sentiments seem to prevail here:
●The league has never seemed any better than this.
●Its member teams are uncommonly tired of each other.
●They do need to eyeball their NCAA tournament showings of recent years and upgrade the thing generally.
With his unmistakable ownership of a thick skin and a tough hide, Kansas Coach Bill Self went right along with the melody of a question about the conference and its reputation among its vicious brethren around the country. “I think our league has played out this year to probably be as tough as it’s ever been, and three of the last four years I think we were number one, thought of, in the RPI, and usually that should translate to more success in the postseason,” he said. “So I think it’s important.”
That paragon of bluntness, West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins, said that as the NCAA tournament will be “all you hear about, see, read, whatever, for a month,” so “it’s pretty important” for a conference to flourish in it, he also said, “I’ve never heard that [about the reputation], so I don’t think it has” that reputation.
Of course, it could be that nobody has mentioned it to him because nobody wanted to withstand any potential reaction.
Between 2002 and 2004, the Big 12 had a Final Four heyday, hoarding five of the 12 available spots. Since then, it has landed only three across 13 springs, and the last of those came when Oklahoma ventured into Houston in 2016 and stomached the worst loss the Final Four ever witnessed, to Villanova by 1,000,000-51 (but actually 95-51). That’s the only Big 12 Final Four spot since 2012, when Kansas reached the final and the Big 12 finished second among conferences with a 10-6 NCAA tournament record in the furious annual craving for victory, brand recognition and money-money-money.
In the five bygone tournaments beginning in 2013, the Big 12 has landed in ninth (3-5), sixth (6-7), sixth (5-7), third (9-7 while the ACC went an absurd 19-7) and fifth (9-6).
In the search to surge from that, the league this time will submit an auspicious bunch, however that bunch formulates in the brackets. Iowa State does figure to get company among omissions, the most likely being Oklahoma State (19-14) and/or Baylor (18-14), with Texas (19-14) and Oklahoma (18-14) perhaps facing labored respiration come Sunday early evening.
As the coach of both the regular season champion and the tournament champion yet with seven losses, Self said: “I don’t think our league is top-heavy. I think our league is really middle-heavy. I mean, there’s no poor teams, and whenever you went to your conference tournament with nine teams out of 10, 90 percent of teams all can make a legitimate case for being an at-large team, I think that speaks volumes for the depth of it.”
Asked to play tour guide for outsiders, Baylor Coach Scott Drew spoke from the perch of a 15th season in the league and said: “First of all, you look at the tournaments we all won in the nonconference. It’s hard to win tournaments, and we had a lot of teams win tournaments in the nonconference.
“Normally every other game you’re facing a great player or two great players, and in this league it starts with point guards, and to me it’s never been better top to bottom with point guards,” he continued. “If you have great point guards, you’ve got a great chance to win any game. Then you look at shot blockers. It’s the best the league has ever been with shot blockers, and then you fill it in with everything else, and you’re like, ‘This is a really tough league.’
“I don’t know how many NBA players we’ll have, but I know we have a lot of really, really good players in this league that when you game-plan, you’re like, ‘That’s a problem.’ ”
Further, they engage each other in a way other conferences don’t, with that round-robin, home-and-home, play-everybody scheduling that enabled Huggins to look around and have a fair sneer.
“I don’t understand why we have four on the bubble,” he said. “We have been, all year long, the best conference in the country. When you play in this league and you play everybody twice, it’s not like — we’re not one of those leagues where they play the best team like once every three years, you know? We play everybody twice. Familiarity, this league has great coaching, not good, but great coaching and we’ve got really good players. So I don’t understand that. You put any of those other people in here that are so-called ‘bubble teams’ and see what they do playing 18 games in this league.”
That brotherly grind, unprecedented in its unforgivingness to some of the league’s longtime coaches, has ended now, and coaches seem to share a word for that:
“I do feel it’s time for everybody to go play somebody else,” Self said. “You know, by now, we run quite a few sets. The sets don’t work. Everybody knows your stuff. . . . But playing against somebody where they’ll be not as comfortable with you maybe can allow you sometimes to look better. But on the flip side, they can look better, too. I do think playing against the same grind night in and night out, it’s going to be a grind in the NCAA tournament.
“But we’re tired of each other.”
So here they go, the lot of them, again, if stronger, into the big woods.