Top to bottom, the Big 12 was the best college basketball conference in the country this year. Let’s get that out of the way right now.
In fact, when it comes to overall depth, the Big 12 this season may have been one of the strongest leagues in a long time. The conference sent seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament, the first time in 21 years and just the fifth time ever that a league sent 70% or more of its teams to the tourney. And as good as those seven teams were, the league’s eighth and ninth teams may have spoken most to the Big 12’s depth.
West Virginia was a terror at home in Big 12 play, defeating Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State. The Moutaineers even beat Baylor on the road, and only had two losses to teams below 51 in the RPI, both early in the season. Texas Tech also was an unexpected tough out in the Big 12, topping Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State, while also losing just once to a sub-100 RPI team.
(Of course, there also was TCU…but it’s rare to have only one doormat in even the best conferences. The Horned Frogs also had just one truly bad loss all year, though they’ll no doubt be remembered more for going 0-18 in the Big 12 and 22 losses total than a single ugly November ‘L’ against Longwood.)
All that said, some will forever rate conferences not on the regular season but by NCAA Tournament performance. Right or wrong, those folks will question the Big 12’s season. The conference finished 6-7 in the NCAAs, and just two of its seven teams made the Sweet 16. Both were eliminated in the regional semifinals, marking the second straight year all Big 12 teams were home before even the regional finals.
So was the Big 12 overrated? A great conference that disappointed in the postseason? Did it “game” the RPI? (though you never heard that one, as this is apparently something only leagues below the traditional top tier can be guilty of)
The truth is the lack of tourney success shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Big 12 had seven teams that deserved NCAA Tournament bids, but only two (Kansas & Iowa State) true favorites to advance more than a couple rounds. The Jayhawks lost early in disappointing fashion, while the Cyclones’ chances took a big hit when they lost Georges Niang to injury in the tourney.
The final result was a paradox of a season. The Big 12 was still the best overall conference in 2013-14-historically deep, in fact. At the same time, the league still has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to postseason success. And while the No. 1 conference tag is one to brag about, you can bet the league would gladly give that title up for a Final Four team or two next year.
The Big 12’s balance was on full display in its conference tournament. The fourth and seventh seeds (Iowa State and Baylor, respectively) met in the championship game, while top seed Kansas needed overtime to get past a quarterfinal game with No. 8 seed Oklahoma State.
Okie State opened the tourney with an easy 80-62 win over No. 9 Texas Tech. Baylor then struggled to put away hapless No. 10 TCU, allowing the Horned Frogs to whittle down big leads a couple times in the second half before finally prevailing 76-68.
Iowa State opened its tourney run in the quarterfinals with a back-and-forth, entertaining 91-85 win over No. 5 Kansas State, and then Kansas needed 30 from Andrew Wiggins to hold off OSU. One would’ve had a hard time distinguishing who was the No. 2 seed and who the No. 7 in the Oklahoma-Baylor game, as the Bears led by as many as 21 in a 78-73 wire-to-wire win. Third-seeded Texas then closed the quarters with an easy 66-49 win over No. 6 West Virginia that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated.
The first semifinal saw Kansas go down, as Iowa State owned the second half. The Cyclones shot 68% in the final 20 minutes on the way to a 94-83 win. Baylor then continued its run with another dominant performance, hitting 12 three-pointers in an 86-69 win.
Baylor looked ready to ride its hot play right to a Big 12 tourney title before running out of gas in the final 10 minutes of the championship game. Iowa State finished the game on a 33-16 run for a 74-65 win and its first league tourney title since 2000.
Player of the Year: Melvin Ejim, F, Sr., Iowa State
Newcomer of the Year: DeAndre Kane, G, Sr., Iowa State
Freshman of the Year: Andrew Wiggins, G, Fr., Kansas
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid, C, Fr., Kansas
Sixth Man Award: Tyler Neal, F, Sr., Oklahoma & Phil Forte, G, So., Oklahoma State
Coach of the Year: Rick Barnes, Texas
Melvin Ejim, F, Sr., Iowa State
DeAndre Kane, G, Sr., Iowa State
Marcus Smart, G, So., Oklahoma State
Juwan Staten, G, Jr., West Virginia
Andrew Wiggins, G, Fr., Kansas
- Kansas won its 10th consecutive Big 12 regular season title
- The Big 12 ranked first in conference RPI and went 108-34 in non-conference play against NCAA Division I schools
- The Big 12 sent 7 of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament, the first time since 1993 that a conference has sent at least 70% of its teams to the tourney. Its predecessor was the last to accomplish the feat, as the Big 8 sent 6 of 8 teams in 1993.
- Four teams (Iowa State, 9th; Kansas, 10th; Oklahoma, 21st and Baylor, 23rd) finished in the final Associated Press top 25 poll taken before the NCAA tourney, while three (Iowa State, 11th; Kansas, 14th and Baylor, 18th) were ranked in the final USA Today coaches’ poll, taken after the tournament
- Kansas frosh Andrew Wiggins was a John R. Wooden Award first team All-American, while Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim was named a Basketball Times first team All-American as well as a first team Capital One/CoSIDA Academic All-American.
What we expected, and it happened: Kansas was good. Again. The Jayhawks ran their streak of Big 12 regular season titles to ten.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Oklahoma State was a major disappointment in almost every way. The Pokes needed to rally late just to make the NCAA Tournament. OSU was thought to be a darkhorse to make a run in the tourney, but instead never really threatened in a loss to Gonzaga in the first round.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Texas was thought to be in decline, but Rick Barnes and co. put that to rest with a bounce-back season, tying for third in the league and making the NCAA Tournament.
Teams on the rise: Iowa State, Texas Tech. There’s not much else one can say about ISU that hasn’t been already-the only question at this point is how far can Fred Hoiberg take the Cyclones? But watch out for Texas Tech under Tubby Smith. The Red Raiders were a pest in the Big 12 already last year, and should only get more competitive.
Team on the decline: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys did not meet expectations this season, and now they lose Marcus Smart plus Markel Brown.
Next Season Conference Outlook
At this point, it’s foolish to predict anyone else but Kansas to win the Big 12, until proven otherwise. The Jayhawks lose Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but will be back again with another loaded recruiting class.
The challengers should again include Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas. The Cyclones lose a lot, but will load up on transfers again. Similar to KU, Fred Hoiberg has earned the benefit of the doubt. Oklahoma looks like it has reached that place where Lon Kruger teams usually are, as a perennial NCAA tourney contender and sometimes top 25-program that is never an easy out. Texas is going to be one of those fad picks as a top 10 team entering 2014-15, but beware overrating a team based on returning experience. The ’Horns shouldn’t take a drop, but it’s still quite a step from 24-11, round-of-32-team to a national title contender.
The middle of the Big 12 doesn’t look quite as thick as it was this year, and that may result in a lower NCAA tourney bid output. Kansas State looks like a bubble team entering the year, while Baylor, Oklahoma State and West Virginia all have work to do. Texas Tech could move past several of them with continued improvement. TCU has a long way to go.