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Bad start to tournament for Big 12

There is usually an argument. Not this season.

From October on, agreement was universal: The Big 12 was the best conference in college basketball. Maybe the ACC had one or two more national title contenders, but it was awful at the bottom. The Big Ten had Wisconsin; the SEC had Kentucky.

But the Big 12 was the nation's best all-around, pound-for-pound group, an unyielding grind of tough outs at home and uphill climbs on the road. It had the fairest schedule format -- a true, balanced round-robin. It had the most interesting title chase, an army of high-single-digit seeds -- Iowa State, Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia -- scrapping and clawing to keep Kansas from winning its unheard-of 11th straight regular-season title. It had the most thrilling conference tournament, won on a series of death-defying comebacks by an Iowa State team that steadfastly refused to sweat.

You put the Cyclones in your Final Four? No disagreement here. Iowa State's penchant for late heroics would be just what the NCAA tournament required. Or: Baylor's immense offensive rebounding would keep it mostly immune from upset. The Big 12 would thrive in the NCAA tournament, just as it did in the months that preceded it.

Yeah. Never mind.

If you needed a reminder of why the NCAA tournament is the greatest competition on earth -- and why literally nothing about its early rounds can be taken for granted -- well, first of all, no, you didn't. But you got one anyway. And it took less than five hours for the message to be delivered.

On Thursday afternoon, No. 3 seed Iowa State was dropped by No. 14 UAB. An hour later, No. 3 Baylor fell to No. 14 Georgia State. It was the first time since 1995 that two No. 14 seeds had won in the same tournament. That those two historic upsets came in such quick succession, and victimized two of the Big 12's best, made it all the more dizzying.

Indeed, it's hard to pick which upset was more unlikely. Iowa State entered the tournament having won its past five games -- including three in as many days in the conference tournament, over Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas -- despite trailing by a combined 75 points. On Thursday, UAB refused to wilt even deep into the second half, crossing that classic NCAA tournament threshold of "yeah, they'll pull away" to "whoa, they might actually lose this" in nearly record time, and yet the Cyclones still evinced that trademark Fred Hoiberg cool. They were smiling, still playing loose, still shrugging off mistakes. We got this.

Only this time, the confidence was misplaced. This time, someone found a way to stop Iowa State's previously unstoppable offense. The youngest team in the NCAA tournament -- one that finished fourth in Conference USA before riding a home Birmingham crowd to the C-USA title -- guarded like old pros. The Blazers harassed forward Georges Niang, one of the nation's most versatile offensive players, into a 3-for-11 shooting performance. They switched and helped and always found a way to come up with a stop. The biggest of the game -- when Niang spun baseline with 13 seconds left to play and promptly ran into a perfectly timed double-team -- was also the best.

William Lee erased Niang on that possession. A few seconds earlier, he drained a double-clutch, no-dribble jumper -- half-hesitant, half-Kobe Bryant kill shot. A few seconds later, he would ice it with the game-winning free throws. Bam: one upset down.

That would have been enough for one day. For a stretch, it looked like it would be. Sure, Georgia State played Baylor tough through the first half, but the Bears got it going early in the second. It was all there, the things that made this one of Scott Drew's most impressive coaching performances: immense offensive rebounding; unselfish passing; open 3-pointers splashed atop the heads of scrambling, disjointed defenses.

But Panthers coach Ron Hunter had one card left to play: his son.

R.J. Hunter, a potential first-round NBA draft pick and the best of an unusually pedigreed core of Sun Belt Conference guards -- including former Louisville transfer Kevin Ware and former Kentucky starting point guard Ryan Harrow -- spent Thursday's first 37 minutes looking far inferior to his hype. At the 2:39 mark in the second half, Hunter had scored just four points. Baylor led by 12.

And then the Hunter scion went crazy. With 1:36 left to play, Hunter hit his first 3-pointer of the day. Baylor turned it over. Eight seconds later, Hunter finished a layup. Baylor turned it over again. Hunter read an inbound play so well it looked like the pass was intended for him; he immediately finished a layup. Just like that, 56-44 was 56-53.

Baylor had one more contribution to its own demise: After a timeout, the Bears pushed the ball up the floor -- inexplicably, given the situation -- and Rico Gathers watched as what could have been a game-sealing dunk caromed off the rim instead. After Isaiah Dennis went 1-for-2 at the line, Baylor guard Kenny Cherry whiffed on the front end of a one-and-one. And then it happened.

Come on. You've seen it already. You've looped the highlight a hundred times by now. You don't need us to describe it to you, right?

Here it is one more time.

Hunter's parking-lot 3 not only knocked his father -- newly recovering from a torn Achilles suffered while celebrating the Panthers' bid just last week -- off his chair, inadvertently giving the 2015 NCAA tournament, barely four hours in at this point, its defining, shining moment. It also sealed the Big 12's first-day collapse.

OK, OK. Not officially. There was still Texas, after all. The 11-seeded Longhorns were a fairly popular pick to win over sixth-seeded Butler. Butler coach Chris Holtmann noted as much at his news conference Wednesday, bristling at President Barack Obama's Texas pick and vowing not to vote for Obama in the future. (Coach, just a heads up here: The president isn't up for re-election.)

If you've paid any attention to college hoops this season, you can guess how this one went: Texas was the bigger, more talented team. Texas displayed its talent routinely. Texas was questionably coached (including a move to a 1-4 clearout for guard Isaiah Taylor that worked for a few possessions before Butler wisely adjusted). Texas made a series of maddening mistakes at key moments in the game (including Cameron Ridley leaving his feet to try to block Butler guard Kellen Dunham, who is not exactly known for his hops). And Texas lost 56-48, turning the Big 12's double-digit-seed woe on its head.

And then it was official. The best conference in the country, 0-3 in the NCAA tournament, victim to a two-decade-old historical footnote in the matter of just a few hours.

There is, believe it or not, some good news.

For starters: Postseason play doesn't wipe out everything that preceded it. It doesn't change Iowa State's Big 12 conference tournament title. It doesn't erase the moments of sheer joy -- such as that rousing 86-81 Hilton Magic win over Kansas -- the once-long-suffering Cyclones fan base now regularly experiences with chosen son Hoiberg at the helm. Thursday's 21-turnover collapse can't take away from the job Drew did to get Baylor here in the first place, can't lessen the deep satisfaction he and his assistant coaches and his players derived from their five months growing smarter, better and more cohesive.

The other good news? The league has four more teams in action Friday: No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 5 West Virginia, No. 9 Oklahoma State. The upside of being the nation's undisputed best league, and getting 70 percent of your teams in the NCAA tournament, is an inherent hedge against risk. The Big 12 won't end the first weekend winless.

Or, well, it probably won't. As Thursday gleefully reminded us, nothing in the NCAA tournament -- not even the best conference in college basketball, a conference so good that for four months no one even tried to argue otherwise -- can be taken for granted.

Your bracket will be busted. Ron Hunter will end up writhing on the floor. Come March, the only sure thing is that there's no such thing as a sure thing.

Lesson learned. Again.