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For the Big 12, coming out on top again will be a challenge in 2016-17

October 21, 2016 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

In recent years, when the subject of the best basketball conferences has come up, how good the ACC and Big Ten are has often been at the center. Previously, it centered on the Big East before it broke up, including in 2011 when 11 of its 16 teams made the NCAA Tournament, while last year, the ACC set a record for NCAA Tournament wins by its members with 19. (And that was a year after the ACC came up one short of the previous record of 18 by the 1985 Big East.) The Pac-12 grabbed a bit of the conversation as well since it was very deep and intensely competitive. All the while, the Big 12 has been on quite a run, and has arguably been the best conference of late.

Continuing that run, however, will be a different challenge this season.

Last year, the Big 12 really proved its mettle in non-conference play, where member schools went 114-30, their second-best winning percentage ever (they went 153-39 in 2009-10). They were the top conference in RPI, the fourth time in seven years they accomplished that feat. Included was a 31-19 mark against teams from the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. They led all conferences in wins over top 50 RPI teams, even with just ten teams (only the ten-team Big East has fewer than 12 teams of those give conferences).

Oklahoma made the Final Four, and Kansas reached the Elite Eight. Both ran into the buzzsaw known as Villanova, the eventual national champions.

It was quite a season. But this year will be different, and a real challenge to maintain.

In this era of young players leaving quickly for the NBA Draft, the power conferences are used to having to replace a lot of departed talent. But in the case of the Big 12 this time around, it isn’t just that. Sure, of the 15 All-Big 12 selections a year ago, only four return this year, but of the other 11, eight were seniors. The top four scorers and ten of the top 12 rebounders were seniors last season. That means the conference loses a lot of experience from last season, not just talent. And the losses go beyond the elite players and teams, as Kansas State lost leading scorer Justin Edwards and Oklahoma State lost two top shot-blockers to graduation.

2015-16 was the Year of the Senior in college basketball, and the Big 12 was the center of that universe. This year will be the year of the freshman once again, in sharp contrast, and that brings with it lots of uncertainty, no matter how talented any of them might be.

This recent run of success by the conference also makes Kansas’ run of 12 straight regular season titles even more remarkable. It tells you that the conference has remarkable depth, that it hasn’t been Kansas and everybody else all this time – the Jayhawks have had to beat a lot of good teams to win these titles. Last year, they twice beat an Oklahoma team that looked every bit their equal coming into Big 12 play, and indeed, in their first meeting they were quite equal since that game was an instant classic that took three overtimes.

The Jayhawks still figure to be very good this season, and until someone else knocks them off, they should be the pick to win the conference. Who comes after them is where the debate is. West Virginia lost Devin Williams early to the NBA Draft, but return a lot and Bob Huggins appears to have another team that fits his style. Texas lost some good experience and their floor leader, but they should be an NCAA Tournament team in Shaka Smart’s second season at the helm. Baylor and Iowa State still return some talent and experience, while Oklahoma now has to build around Jordan Woodard and Khadeem Lattin, the latter of who led the conference in blocked shots a year ago. The Sooners will almost certainly take a step back.

None of the other teams look like serious contenders to topple Kansas, but Texas Tech has talent for new head coach Chris Beard, Kansas State is in a key season for Bruce Weber, Oklahoma State will try to get going with Brad Underwood at the helm, and TCU hopes to see better days with alum Jamie Dixon now running his alma mater. If they do well, though, it only helps the conference as a whole to keep on this run.

Even a good non-conference performance by the conference’s bottom teams help. It means the teams at the top aren’t beating up on bad teams while finishing high in the standings. So when Kansas swept arch-rival Kansas State last season, for example, the Jayhawks scored three top 100 wins. Oklahoma State and TCU were the laggards at 180 and 181 respectively.

There are plenty of questions about whether or not the Big 12 can stay on top this season. There is much talk about whether or not the ACC could see 11 of its 15 teams reach the NCAA Tournament. Other conferences may have overshadowed the Big 12 in attention before, but the results on the hardwood have told the story. This time around, it would be nothing new.

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