The Big 12 has been on one heck of a run over the last three years, but it is undeniable the league took its game up even another notch in 2015-16.
Three straight years now, the Big 12 has finished first in conference RPI (some RPI measures had it second in 2013-14), kept a steady presence in top 25 polls all year (it finished the season with an incredible streak of 38 consecutive weeks with at least five teams in the polls) and in all three years put 70% (seven) of its teams in the NCAA Tournament, a feat accomplished just seven times total by any conference and by none in 21 years before the Big 12 did in 2014.
Unfortunately, the similarities also have held in that the Big 12’s NCAA Tournament performance has not always matched its regular season proficiency. The league was a disappointing 6-7 in the tourney in 2014, and even worse (5-7) last year, and in neither year did the league get a team as far as the Elite Eight.
Indeed, this year’s NCAA showing wasn’t much better-a 9-7 record, including four teams losing in their first games. This year was different, though, because of three things that marked the Big 12’s season overall: Kansas, Oklahoma and Buddy Hield.
The Jayhawks and Sooners put on two terrific regular season games, the type that remind us just how wrong some are when they complain about the college hoops regular season being “meaningless.” Kansas won both-one in triple overtime, the other by four points-and went on to win its 12th straight Big 12 regular season title, the continuation of one of the great current streaks in sports.
In the NCAAs, both advanced to regional final games. Kansas lost one of the best games of the tourney to eventual champion Villanova, but OU broke through and easily handled West top-seed Oregon to advance to the Final Four. The Sooners were led by Hield, the consensus player of the year, the best player in a true Year of the Senior in the Big 12 and in the sport.
Along with another frenetic and successful year at West Virginia, Shaka Smart slaying biggies repeatedly in his debut at Texas, plus a surprising surge from Texas Tech, the Big 12 was full of storylines to complement its strength, though the league’s bottom two teams (Oklahoma State and TCU) were not as strong as they’ve been in recent years. For anyone who doubts the meat of the Big 12’s conference ranking, though, it should be noted the league went 31-19 against the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC in the regular season.
The Big 12 tournament returned to Kansas City for the seventh straight year and was again well-attended, leading the country with an average of 18,987 fans per game in the nine-game event. K.C.’s unofficial home team also reigned again, as top-seeded Kansas took over after a close first half to top 3 seed West Virginia 81-71 for its seventh league title in 11 years. The Jayhawks trailed by a point at half but went on an 18-5 run to start the second half and withstood a late rally after the Mountaineers rallied to within four with just over four minutes left. Devonte Graham scored 27 points to win Most Outstanding Player honors, and KU survived a showstopping performance by Devin Williams (31 points, 10 rebounds).
Kansas’s path to the title also included disposing of in-state rival eighth-seeded Kansas State 85-63 in the quarterfinals and a 70-66 win over 5 seed Baylor in the semifinals in a game where the Jayhawks led by 16 with two minutes left before the Bears made a frantic final rally. West Virginia also weathered a rally by second seed Oklahoma in the semis, as the Sooners fought back from 12 down with seven minutes left to lead by three with less than two minutes left. Jaysean Paige rallied WVU with two free throws and then the go-ahead jumper with 11 seconds left as the Mountaineers went on to win 69-67.
The lone competitive quarterfinal game was the 3/6 matchup between Oklahoma and Iowa State, and even the Sooners held a comfortable working margin most of the second half in their 79-76 win. West Virginia also drilled 10th-seeded TCU 86-66, after the Horned Frogs had surprised No. 7 Texas Tech 67-62 in the first round, while Baylor handled 4 seed Texas 75-61. The other first round game saw Kansas State in control against No. 9 Oklahoma State, building an 18-point lead and cruising past the Cowboys 75-71.
Player of the Year: Buddy Hield, G, Sr., Oklahoma
Newcomer of the Year: Deonte Burton, G, Jr., Iowa State
Freshman of the Year: Jawun Evans, G, Oklahoma State
Defensive Player of the Year: Prince Ibeh, C, Sr., Texas
Sixth Man of the Year: Jaysean Paige, G, Sr., West Virginia
Coach of the Year: Tubby Smith, Texas Tech
Perry Ellis, F, Sr., Kansas
Buddy Hield, G, Sr., Oklahoma
Georges Niang, F, Sr., Iowa State
Taurean Prince, F, Sr., Baylor
Isaiah Taylor, G, Jr., Texas
- Kansas won its 12th consecutive Big 12 regular season title. Not since Oklahoma State in the 2003-04 season has another league school kept the Jayhawks from at least a share of the crown.
- The Big 12 ranked tops in conference RPI for the second straight year and sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. The league posted a 114-30 mark in non-conference play.
- Oklahoma advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 2002 and was the first Big 12 team to get that far in five years.
- OU’s Buddy Hield finished second in Division I in scoring, averaging 25.0 points per game. Hield also led the country with 3.97 three-pointers/game and won most of the national player of the year awards, including the Naismith, Oscar Robertson and John R. Wooden awards.
- Kansas and Oklahoma also played what will go down as one of the best regular season games in college basketball history, a triple-overtime thriller in January won by the Jayhawks 109-106 despite 46 points from Hield. Both teams entered the game ranked No. 1, with KU first in the Associated Press poll and Oklahoma in the Coaches’ Poll.
- Texas Tech was one of the nation’s more pleasant surprises, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.
What we expected, and it happened: Kansas was a rock yet again. West Virginia again pressed more relentlessly than any team in the country. And the Big 12 was generally as deep as almost any league in the country from top to bottom.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We issued caution with Iowa State, but many put expectations on the Cyclones as a top 10 team and maybe even national title threat. ISU did take advantage of a fortuitous draw to get to the Sweet 16, but overall was considered a disappointment in some circles, though more fault in that probably lies with those who were disappointed than with a team that was thin even before Naz Mitrou-Long went down with a season-ending injury.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Not a whole lot-even Texas’s first year under Shaka Smart wasn’t really that surprising, and we were high on Texas Tech’s chances for a breakthrough too-but it was strange seeing Oklahoma State take a dive all the way to 3-15 in the Big 12 and losing to the likes of George Mason and Missouri State out of conference.
Team on the rise: Texas Tech. No, we’re not going with TCU, a chic pick but likely a year or two away. The Red Raiders might’ve been fitted for the other category after Smith left, but then they hired Chris Beard, who worked wonders in his one year at Arkansas-Little Rock and truly wants to be at Tech.
Team on the decline: Oklahoma. It would be fairer to call them a ‘Team Reloading,’ but there’s little doubt the Sooners will have a different look next year without Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. Lon Kruger also has to replace all three assistant coaches, and while one never bets against Kruger getting a team to the NCAAs, it would be a stunner if OU next year is near the heights it achieved this year.
2016-17 Big 12 Outlook
Last season truly was the Year of the Senior in college basketball but especially in the Big 12, and as a result, the league will have a much different look next year. They say conference strength is often cyclical, and it’s possible the Big 12 will take a dip next year. All five members of the league’s all-conference first team (four of them seniors) will depart, and in all 10 of the 15 players on the all-Big 12 first, second and third teams are on to life after college basketball.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean all is lost, not when you’re still one of the premier moneymaker conferences in college sports. Kansas will be Kansas, still the standard in the Big 12 and bringing in another monster recruiting class. West Virginia shouldn’t change much, either, and another 25-win season and high NCAA Tournament seed should be in the cards for the Mountaineers.
The uncertainty comes after that, as Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas are all reloading. Baylor and Oklahoma especially will look mighty different with the loss of all-league honorees like Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler, Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince, while the Cyclones and Longhorns also lose their leaders with the departures of Georges Niang and Isaiah Taylor. It’s still entirely possible that all four make the 2017 NCAA Tournament, but it won’t be done without significant contributions from newcomers.
Texas Tech is another team that must replace its top two scorers, while Kansas State may be equipped to make a major leap in the standings if its young talent continues to improve. Also, keep an eye on new coaches at Oklahoma State (former Stephen F. Austin head man Brad Underwood) and TCU (Frogs alum and former Pitt coach Jamie Dixon) possibly getting their teams up to speed quicker than expected.