How a disappointing March made the Big 12 the sport's most veteran league

Kansas has had eight months to think about how its season ended, with a loss to Wichita State in the NCAA tournament. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The pain of a season's sudden end is often described in grandiose terms: shock, collapse, heartbreak, grief. For the reigning Big 12 player of the year, the prevailing emotion was much more mundane.

"At first, you just get bored," Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield said. "You're not doing anything. You're bored. You miss playing. Then, you're seeing other guys on TV still playing, and then you're thinking about how that should be you."

Only then does the ennui harden.

"That," Hield said, "is when it becomes fuel."

Call him the Big 12's unofficial spokesman. Eight months ago, this conference landed seven of its 10 teams in the NCAA tournament, five as No. 5 seeds or higher. Before the end of the first weekend, five of those teams -- including its regular-season and tournament champions -- were gone. Texas and Oklahoma State limped to first-round losses. Kansas was shown up by Wichita State, its would-be in-state rival. The Cyclones were caught napping by No. 14 UAB. Baylor yielded the final 13 points of a one-point loss to Georgia State.

Besides Oklahoma, only West Virginia escaped to the Sweet 16. It did not go well. Relatively, Hield's team -- which simply caught a hot Michigan State at the worst possible time -- had the least-bitter March finish of any Big 12 school.

Imagine how everyone else feels.

"Coaches remember those losses for a lifetime," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "When hopefully I'm 80 or 90, unfortunately I'll probably still remember that game. At the same time, I think our players that returned … that experience will hopefully motivate us this year."

It seems to be motivating everybody. Take Iowa State's Georges Niang -- who, like Hield, turned down the NBA draft this spring, returning to a veteran-laden top-10 team not only for economic reasons but because he couldn't end college like that.

"Wherever you go, you want to leave a legacy people remember," Niang said. "I wouldn't want to be remembered for leaving after losing to UAB."

Nor does Perry Ellis want to be remembered for losing to the Shockers. So, despite the vast experience and depth of the top-five KU team around him, Ellis has spent his final offseason in Lawrence, Kansas, proofing his body for the storm ahead.

"In the season, when you get tired, it can mentally break you down," Ellis said. "I decided I didn't want that to happen to me anymore."

On Tuesday, Hield, Niang, Ellis and Baylor's Rico Gathers became the first first-team All-Big 12 foursome to be named to the preseason list the following year. It is merely one more metaphor for a 2015-16 Big 12, where old heads abound and everyone wants something more.

"We didn't pull through when we needed to, and that's the stuff -- that's what hurts so bad," Hield said. "But no excuses this year."


Big 12 coordinator of officials Curtis Shaw didn't quite have the wording down, but he wasn't far off.

At the end of his annual media day presentation -- which melded technocratic film study with an evangelist's enthusiasm -- a reporter asked Shaw whether the NCAA's new, strict definitions of illegal contact were, along with the 30-second shot clock, an attempt to increase scoring by "simply eliminating defense."

Shaw disagreed, and rightly so. Under the new rules offensive players are no more allowed to initiate contact than the defense. Illegal screens are arguably the most egregiously common form of illegal contact in the sport; Shaw said 50-60 percent of screens set in the 2015 NCAA tournament were illegal. Most coaches are on board, insisting that they are happy to teach to the new whistle as long as that whistle is uniform. A night spent with an ESPN Classic from the 1980s shows how unrecognizably bogged-down the modern game has become.

Most persuasive of all, though, was Shaw's trump card: Dr. James Naismith himself.

"If you go back and read the original 13 Rules of Basketball, it's pretty amazing," Shaw said. "It says a player shall not push, shove, kick, trip, hold or impede an opponent. Wow. Novel idea."

In fact, the first sentence of Naismith's fifth rule reads: "No shouldering, holding, pushing, striking or tripping in any way of an opponent."

Close enough. The 2015-16 season, with its extended suite of new rules, is the launch of a sustained multi-year effort with the full institutional backing of the NCAA. The goal is not to change the game, but to restore it -- "to get it to where it was originally supposed to be," Shaw said.

Adjusting won't be easy. Expect whistles. Expect the complaints that follow. When you hear these complaints, remind the culprits that every whistle is a step toward a brighter, more free-flowing future. And when that doesn't work, drop some of the good doctor's knowledge.


Shaka Smart's first seven months in Austin, Texas, have been a lot like his VCU teams: in constant, hectic motion. Between assigning motivational adjectives to every day of the week and seeing his new boss ousted in a booster coup, Smart's days have been plenty full. Yet the first -- and still most interesting -- question about the 2015-16 Texas Longhorns remains unanswered: How, exactly, is this team going to play?

Will Smart utilize his glut of guards and wings exclusively to create Havoc 2.0? Will he restrain his own pressing, up-tempo system in deference to the massive bigs Rick Barnes bequeathed him last spring? Does the best answer lie somewhere in the middle? How would that blend look?

"At Texas, we're fortunate in this first year, we have a lot of big guys that we think can be really good players for us and contribute to success," Smart said. "Then we also have a lot of perimeter guys that we can play with, with great depth. So if those guys can buy into the system of playing with great aggressiveness and enthusiasm and togetherness, we have a chance to do some big things."

Let's call that a resounding ... we'll see.