College Sports

A rough start to NCAA Tournament for Big 12. Here’s why

Bill Self on KU’s future and how Auburn ran away with NCAA Tournament win

Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self looked ahead to next season and explained KU's breakdowns in an 89-75 loss to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City.
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Kansas Jayhawks basketball coach Bill Self looked ahead to next season and explained KU's breakdowns in an 89-75 loss to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City.

By seeding, the Big 12 should have three teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament. But only Texas Tech plays on.

It’s the worst first-week showing for the Big 12 in terms of Sweet 16 advancement since 2013.

Kansas State’s first-round loss to UC Irvine was the big stunner. Iowa State couldn’t maintain momentum gained by winning the Big 12 tournament in falling to Ohio State. And Kansas’ lopsided loss to Auburn in the second round was perhaps the league’s most bitter moment. K-State and KU were No. 4 seeds, Iowa State a No. 6.

But expecting much more from the Big 12 in this tournament would have been wishful thinking.

Yes, the Big 12 completed the regular season with its usual bragging points about overall strength, finishing with the best NET ranking and RPI, along with the top winning percentage in games against the five other power conferences.

So how does a league that ranks so highly take such a pratfall in March? For starters, the conference was probably was overrated.

Conferences build credentials on outside competition and the Big 12 was solid here. Its teams had regular-season victories over Sweet 16 opponents North Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan State and Oregon.

Over the years, the Big 12 has amassed solid non-conference records, in the preseason and in league challenge series. By now, in March, NCAA Tournament results suggest whatever edge the Big 12 gained early in the season has disappeared. Could it be the league’s grueling double-round robin schedule?

Maybe it’s as simple as other tournament teams needing more time to form an identity and catch up. The top four recruiting classes according to heading into this season belonged to Duke, Kentucky, LSU and Oregon. All are in the Sweet 16.

Sometimes, power ratings prove true. The Big 12 had an outstanding 2018 postseason, becoming the only conference to advance three teams to the Elite Eight. Its 12 NCAA victories matched the ACC’s total, and the Big 12 had two fewer teams in the field.

There were three Big 12 teams in the Sweet 16 in 2017 and two in the Elite Eight in 2016 — including the Buddy Hield-led Oklahoma team that reached the Final Four.

Where the Big 12 usually comes up short is the Final Four. Since 2012, the Big 12’s three Final Four appearances top only the Pac-12. And there’s been only one national champion — Kansas in 2008 — in league history. The Big Ten and Pac-12 also have won only one NCAA title in that span, a period dominated by champions from the ACC and Big East, with seven each.

This also shaped up as a transition year for the Big 12. Of the 15 players who were named to one of the three 2018 All-Big 12 teams, four returned. Two, Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike and West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate, each played fewer than 10 games because of injuries, and Kansas State’s Dean Wade missed the postseason with a foot injury.

The league won’t have a consensus first-team All-America this year after having at least one in each of the previous three years, including two national players of the year, in Hield and Kansas’ Frank Mason.

As for the NBA Draft, two first-rounders are projected out of the conference: Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver and Texas’ Jaxson Hayes. But it could be quiet draft night for the league, which has had six players selected in the two rounds in each of the past three years.

So, the overall talent level may have dipped this year. And injuries to returning stars on teams expected to have excellent seasons had an impact, too.

As for a bounce-back 2019-20 season, much will depend on the draft decisions of players like Azubuike and fellow Kansas stars Dedric Lawson and Quentin Grimes, as well as Konate, Talen Horton-Tucker and Lindell Wigginton from Iowa State.

Work remains in recruiting, but Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Texas and TCU have recorded top 25 classes, and Kansas usually finishes strong.

Who knows. Maybe Texas Tech, which plays Michigan on Thursday in the West Region, will make a run and reach the Final Four to salvage some Big 12 pride.

Big 12 record in NCAA Tournament since 2013

2019 5-5 (1 in Sweet 16)

2018 12-7 (4)

2017 9-6 (3)

2016 9-7 (3)

2015 5-7 (2)

2014 6-7 (2)

2013 3-5 (1)