Quick: Off the top of your head, what are the current ACC standings? Where, exactly, does the Pac-12 race stand today? Who won the Big Ten title three years ago?
Things are different in the Big 12. It's not because the conference is always better, though it is this season. It's not because of profile, or geography, or tradition or money. It's not about any of the other things that ostensibly factor into the perception of a league.
It's about Kansas. It's about 10 straight regular-season conference titles. It's about a run of success in a power conference unmatched in the modern history of the sport -- a decade spent ruling over one of the college game's most competitive associations, with no down seasons, no rebuilding years -- and about the rest of that league's desperate attempt to to intercede before title No. 11.
On Wednesday night, No. 19 Baylor won 79-70 at No. 12 Iowa State. In doing so, the Bears handed ISU its first home loss of the season. They solidified their own status as one of the most surprising, impressive and constantly improving teams in the country. They shot the lights out from 3, which is less a noteworthy statistical aberration than an indicator of their chief offensive strength. And the Bears -- however unwittingly -- made it all the more likely Kansas will end the 2014-15 regular season alone atop the Big 12 standings.
Baylor's road win was just the latest twist in a Big 12 race that began, in January, as a referendum on Kansas itself. If ever there was a season the Jayhawks would lose their throne, it would be the one in which they lost two unicorn-rare nonconference blowouts (to Kentucky by 32 and Temple by 25) before facing the best, deepest version of their league in recent memory. Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas all presented obvious challenges. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor would be tough outs. Even TCU -- albeit against a paper-tiger schedule -- went unbeaten in November and December. No league would be tougher on a nightly basis; no league would offer fewer breathers over the final months of the season.
And then, naturally, Kansas began 3-0 in league play. The Jayhawks took a tough but hard-fought loss at Iowa State on Jan. 17. From there, they rolled: five straight wins, big efficiency margins, improved depth, greater contributions from the entire roster, more cohesion between those once-disparate pieces. On Feb. 2, they hosted Iowa State, and the game was never really close. Kansas had been alone atop the Big 12 since.
Until Monday. Until Kansas State. The Wildcats are an unreliable boyfriend in hoops form: They never call, they never show they care, and then, just when you're sure you're done, they make a grand gesture you can't help but fall for. After a 69-42 loss at Baylor, starting center Thomas Gipson predicted his team would suffer a 27-point implosion against Kansas, too. Instead, they won. The court storm got rowdy. And suddenly, Kansas had been pulled back to the rest of the Big 12 pack, just a half-game ahead of the Iowa State team it was supposed to have separated itself from weeks ago.
Of the two, Iowa State's four remaining games looked slightly more favorable. The Cyclones' two toughest opponents -- Baylor and Oklahoma -- both had to come to Hilton Coliseum, where the Cyclones almost never lose in the Fred Hoiberg era (and were 14-0 this season). Kansas would close its season with a trip to Oklahoma, which might yet be the second-best team in the Big 12 (and is certainly its best defensive group). For Iowa State, a tie was totally within reach. Its own outright title wasn't out of the question, which meant that Oklahoma and West Virginia -- a suddenly energized team that upset the Jayhawks a week before K-State took its turn -- were both in play, too.
That's still technically the case, of course, but on a night that offered Iowa State a chance to draw even with the Jayhawks with just three games to play, Baylor's road win reordered the Big 12 back into its familiar tiers: Kansas, and then everybody else.
Implications aside, Baylor was superb. Early in the season, Baylor seemed a one-note outfit. The Bears -- specifically the nation's best rebounder, Rico Gathers -- had to rebound their own misses to make up for other offensive flaws. Since January, however, Scott Drew's team has quietly grown more multifaceted and dangerous on the offensive end, namely by shooting nearly 39 percent from 3 as a team. Grabbing your own misses isn't helpful if you can't make a shot soon thereafter; Baylor has morphed into a team that punishes opponents with one of the deadliest, most difficult-to-defend plays in college basketball: the rebound-kickout 3.
On Wednesday, Baylor didn't even need to dominate the offensive boards. It grabbed 29 percent of its misses, far below its top-ranked 42.3 percent offensive rebounding rate. Instead, it just made the 3s from the start, finishing a torrid 14-of-26 from beyond the arc and blitzing the Cyclones with a 25-point outburst in the final 10 minutes of the game. The Bears don't always shoot it that well, but most of the time, they don't need to. And if you needed another testament to how much this Big 12 has indeed lived up to qualitative expectations, here you go: K-State is under .500 and formerly top-10 Texas is fighting to stay in the NCAA tournament field, and Baylor's stellar performance has more than made up for the both.
The conference might not have two national title contenders like the ACC. Relative to Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Villanova, Arizona and Kentucky, Kansas might not even qualify as one. But what the Big 12 does have is genuine, long-term, legacy-level intrigue surrounding its regular-season conference title. That it is also the best league in the country, and one still collectively chasing the Jayhawks, is merely a bonus. In most leagues, in most seasons, the regular-season conference title is just a thing. In the Big 12, it's everything. Nowhere else are the stakes so high.