In recent years, the Big Ten has been -- arguably -- college basketball’s best conference.
But the Big 12 fought for that perch in 2013-14. The league featured an impressive lineup, one that only the Big Ten rivaled. Realignment’s winds took more from the league (Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri) than they added (West Virginia) in recent years. Seven squads from the conference, however, earned invites to this year’s NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a conference’s success. There are only 10 teams in the Big 12, so you can definitely call it college basketball’s pound-for-pound king this past season.
Kansas competed for a top seed in the tourney and probably would have seized one had Joel Embiid remained healthy down the stretch. Iowa State won the conference tourney title and made a run to the Sweet 16, where it lost to eventual national champ Connecticut. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State (just the second team since tourney expansion in 1985 to secure an at-large berth after enduring a seven-game losing streak during its season), Kansas State, Baylor and Texas were all in the field, too.
Few thrived, though. Iowa State and Baylor were the only Big 12 teams in the Sweet 16, and neither advanced beyond that stage. However, the 2013-14 campaign was still a strong one for the league, excluding its lukewarm results in the tournament. The latter shouldn’t be -- can’t be -- ignored in the final assessment of the conference, but it’ll be back in 2014-15.
The Big 12 hit the reset button. An influx of top recruits and transfers is coming, so next year might be even better.
What we saw this season: In 2004, the iPhone hadn’t been introduced to the public yet. Dwight Howard was an NBA rookie. And Georgia Tech -- yes, Georgia Tech -- lost to Connecticut in the national championship.
That was also the last time Bill Self failed to win a Big 12 title (the Jayhawks finished second) during his time at Kansas. It was his first season. His reign continued last season, when he led the Jayhawks to their 10th consecutive conference crown following a rocky nonconference season. Andrew Wiggins wasn’t LeBron James, but he didn’t have to be. The freshman’s numbers -- 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 1.2 steals per game -- were as remarkable as the poise he displayed while he dealt with intense scrutiny throughout the season. His team’s round of 32 loss to Stanford in the Big Dance was a stunner, but Embiid’s late-season back injury certainly affected the program.
DeAndre Kane was able to lead Iowa State to wins over opponents such as Michigan, Iowa, Baylor and Kansas. Melvin Ejim, however, was the league’s player of the year. Georges Niang's foot injury suffered during the NCAA tournament was an unfortunate development for the program, but Fred Hoiberg proved again that it’s possible to add new pieces each season and develop chemistry. His formula works.
Marcus Smart's most memorable matchup had nothing to do with basketball. That shoving incident in Lubbock, Texas, prompted a three-game suspension, the worst of a series of lows for Travis Ford’s team. Everything that could go wrong for Oklahoma State went wrong. Season-ending injuries. Arrests. Suspensions. But Smart and the Pokes recovered to make a run to the Big Dance. Baylor found similar magic late. Cory Jefferson and Co. started 2-8 in league play but finished with a furious push that ended in the Sweet 16.
Oklahoma and Texas had successful stretches, too. But neither could maintain that mojo. The Sooners and Longhorns, however, made the Big 12 gauntlet even tougher.
Tubby Smith couldn’t get Texas Tech out of the conference’s lower tier even after a 5-3 midseason spurt -- ultimately an anomaly -- that included wins over Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia couldn’t find the quality wins necessary to be considered for an at-large slot on Selection Sunday, and a lopsided loss to Texas in the first round of the Big 12 tourney didn’t help. But the Mountaineers were the eighth Big 12 squad that finished in the RPI’s top 100.
Meanwhile, coach Trent Johnson has to be on the hot seat after TCU finished 0-18 in conference play.
Still, the Big 12 had a big season. Everything that preceded March suggested the league would have a solid showing in the Big Dance. That didn’t happen. And that took some of the luster off the regular season.
What we expect to see next season: Even if Myles Turner, the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, chooses another school, Kansas will still be stacked. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe return. Plus, Cliff Alexander (the top power forward in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, and fellow McDonald’s All American Kelly Oubre are on their way to Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks should contend for their 11th consecutive Big 12 crown under Self.
But it won’t be easy.
Hoiberg won’t stop. Niang will recover from the foot injury. Monte Morris, Dustin Hogue and Naz Long are back, too. Former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay will be eligible next season, and Hoiberg just landed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones. And there’s always a chance that he’ll add another top transfer before next season.
Oklahoma returns four standouts from last year’s NCAA tourney team. Losing Smart and Markel Brown hurts Oklahoma State, and Le'Bryan Nash could leave, too. But Phil Forte, Brian Williams, Kamari Murphy and Michael Cobbins (once healthy) will help the Cowboys compete for a berth in the tourney. A pair of ESPN 100 recruits (Joe Burton and Jared Terrell) will also be in the mix.
Kansas State youngster Marcus Foster will be the Big 12 player of the year in 2014-15. And overall, four of Kansas State’s top six scorers from last season will return next year.
Baylor is somewhat of a mystery. No great recruiting class. Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin were seniors, and Isaiah Austin is likely to enter the draft. So there will be a lot of pressure on Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale next season. How will they handle that?
There's good news in Morgantown. Bob Huggins didn’t have one senior on his roster last season. Juwan Staten (18.1 points per game) and Co. are talented enough to compete with Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma for the conference crown.
Texas will contend, too. Rick Barnes’ starters from last year, including underrated standout Jonathan Holmes, will return. And Jordan Barnett, ranked No. 86 in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation, will add more depth.
Texas Tech and TCU will have a hard time emerging from the basement in this tough field.
The Big 12 could end 2014-15 as the best conference in America. Again.