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Big Disappointment

December 19, 2002 Columns No Comments

The Not-So Big 12

by Mitch Schneider

Let’s take a trip back to October of the present year.

Pearl Jam was preparing to release its seventh studio album “Riot Act.” Actress Winona Ryder was still reeling from her “illicit shopping spree” at Saks Fifth Avenue. And President Bush masks were flying off the shelves in time for Halloween.

Oh . . . and the Big 12 was, by far, everyone’s pick as the deepest and most talented conference, thanks to three teams ranked within the top-five of most preseason polls.

Yes, the month of October was a good time to be associated with the Big 12.

But unfortunately for the Big 12 brass, times have changed.

Those three preseason top-five teams – No. 2 Kansas, No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas – have collectively plunged in the polls. According to the latest Hoopville rankings, the Sooners (5-1) and Longhorns (5-2) have dropped to Nos. 7 and 10, respectively, while the Jayhawks (5-3) have nose-dived to No. 17.

Kansas’ sudden fall from grace has been the most shocking as Roy Williams’ squad is just one loss away from matching KU’s entire defeat total of last year.

On top of the recent demise of the Big 12’s big guns, several other schools in the conference have notched embarrassing losses to average competition. Those teams include:

Baylor: 72-64 loss to TCU.

Colorado: 75-71 loss to New Mexico St.

Kansas State: 58-50 loss to Toledo.

Nebraska: 64-61 loss to Alaska-Fairbanks (Division II).

It’s clear the Big 12 conference has stumbled out of the starting blocks this basketball season. And though the Big 12’s win-loss record total (62-21, 75%) is relatively high, the luster that once surrounded this conference has faded away like a Kareem Rush jumper.

The million-dollar question: What’s wrong with the Big 12 this season?

Here are three potential answers:

Parity among the elites:

The Big 12 does not have a single team this season that stands out among the rest. Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are all good teams, but all three could be beaten on any given night. Throw in Missouri (6-0), Iowa State (7-1) and Texas Tech (5-1) into the mix and you have quite a logjam of talent, but no true shining star. While this bodes well for fans of uniformity, this lack of disparity will hurt the Big 12 when the NCAA hands out No. 1 seeds for next year’s March Madness tournament.

Also, as good as the Jayhawks, Sooners and Longhorns are, there are several other schools around the country that are just as talented, if not better. Arizona, Alabama, Duke, Pittsburgh and Indiana are just a few of the many teams that could slap around the Big 12’s best, and I’m not even going to mention the likes of Florida, Oregon, Notre Dame and North Carolina.

The Big 12 needs a heavyweight contender to emerge in order to re-establish the mighty reputation this conference once boasted. While Kansas has opted out of the spotlight, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri could fill this void if one of these schools manages to beat up on one of the nation’s best any time soon.

Big men aren’t producing:

The Big 12 has always had a reputation based on power and strength. And while Big 12 teams won’t necessarily shoot the lights out, they will bump and grind for 40-plus minutes every single night.

This conference has produced some wonderful forwards (Drew Gooden, Paul Pierce) and centers (Tony Battie, Raef LaFrentz) that successfully combined size with skill. If you need to find a competent center or capable forward, look no further than the Big 12 (or at least Kansas).

That being said, the Big 12’s big men have not asserted themselves enough in the early going of this year’s basketball season. Only two Big 12 centers (Missouri’s Arthur Johnson and Colorado’s David Harrison) rank within the top-20 for scoring in the conference, and only Harrison leads his own team in points per game.

Kansas has struggled without the services of a true center. Texas has had problems battling without a starter over 6-8. And Oklahoma has relied heavily on its three-guard lineup to score. Not many big men have proven to be a force in this year’s Big 12, and as a result, opposing teams have taken command of the paint and the boards.

Can’t win the big ones:

By my count, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas have each failed to win the biggest game of their respective seasons. Kansas lost to Oregon 84-78. Oklahoma lost to Alabama 68-62. And Texas recently lost to Arizona 73-70. Those three contests all involved top-ten teams, and the Big 12 dropped each one.

Had the Big 12 won two or even one of those marquee match-ups, the conference would be riding higher altogether. Unfortunately, the big three couldn’t convert, and the Big 12’s biggest win to date may be Oklahoma State’s 64-61 victory over No. 9 Michigan State… not exactly a landmark triumph.

In summation, the Big 12 has mightily struggled in the early stages of this season. Sure, the conference has four teams ranked in the top-20, and not one school has a losing record. But clearly, the Big 12 is not the conference everybody thought it was earlier this year.

The Pac-10, ACC, SEC and other conferences have already sent word that the Big 12 is no longer top dog of the land. Heck, even the Great Northwest Athletic Conference had its way with the Big 12 back in November (see Nebraska loss above).

But there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. And if the Big 12’s finest get a win here and a win there, the conference will be right back in the thick of things.

If not, the Big 12 will prove a Big Disappointment.

Hoopville Senior writer Bill Thayer has a differing viewpoint.


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