The Big 12’s Reality Check

By: Chris O’Brien

It seemed like every college basketball sportscaster was labeling the Big 12 as the best conference in college basketball.

But that might also be because I live in a Big 12 bubble… with a bunch of Big 12 sportscasters. #FranFraschilla

It seemed like a valid argument. At one point Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech were all in the Top 10. Texas looked tough in the PK80; yes they went 1-2 but those two losses were close overtime losses to Duke and Gonzaga. No shame in that.

TCU was undefeated for over a third of the season. Kansas State has looked tough, especially in recent games, they beat Oklahoma, TCU, almost won at Kansas. Baylor almost won at West Virginia and at Kansas. Iowa State won some obscure early season tournament. Oklahoma State won at Florida State and recently beat Oklahoma in a game where Trae Young nearly dropped 50.

But I’ve been burnt by this type of Big 12 inflation before. I’ll roll with all of them to win their first-round game of the NCAA Tournament, take like four to the Sweet 16, two to the Final Four and then watch as that first weekend turns into a bloodbath for my bracket.

Thankfully, the Big 12 has been doing this Big 12 / SEC challenge the last few years at the midway point of conference play. It’s a really nice way to see where we truly rank. Step outside the little Big 12 bubble.

If we’re as elite as we think, we should go 7-3. If we’re really just like any other Power 6 conference (Big 12, Big 10, SEC, Big East, ACC, Pac 12) then we’ll see a 5-5 or 6-4 mark.

And if we’re a little overrated, then it’s 4-6 or less.

So how did the Big 12 fair this year? Well, as you can see from my title, it wasn’t pretty. Here’s a quick analysis on each game.

The Big One – West Virginia vs. Kentucky

Before the loss to Kentucky, West Virginia was still auditioning for a No. 1 seed. They are as elite defensively as Virginia, Cincinnati, Wichita State, or Villanova. Carter will probably be Defensive National Player of the Year and Konate might finish Top 5 in blocked shots. This primetime game against Kentucky was a big opportunity for the Mountaineers to build their No. 1 or No. 2 seed resume. It would pair nicely next to their out-of-conference win against Virginia; the only team that has done so thus far.

And sure Kentucky isn’t having a traditional Kentucky year. It’s the first time they have fallen out of the Top 25 in four years, but it’s still Kentucky. They’re still loaded with NBA talent.

At halftime, West Virginia looked dominant. Up 48-33. Then eerily similar to their collapse against Kansas, everything just fell apart in the second half. West Virginia gave up 50, Kevin Knox finished the night with 34 points, Kentucky wins 83-76.

With the loss, West Virginia is quietly in a bit of a tailspin. Feels weird to say because they were so dominant in the first half against Kansas and Kentucky, they barely lost at Texas Tech, they absolutely murdered Texas (86-51) but toss in the loss at TCU, and the Mountaineers have somewhat quietly lost four out of five.

Look for West Virginia to have a bit of a free fall in the AP Top 25 on Monday. They may drop to No. 16 or No. 17. I still like this team a lot, but I think their fullcourt press is tiring themselves out more than the other team and it’s leading to these poor second halves. They will need to win one of the games @ Kansas or @ Oklahoma to win the Big 12 and restore that shot at a No. 2 seed. I think the No. 1 seed boat has sailed away.

Kansas vs. Texas A&M 

I’ll have more on this in the “Bill Self’s Backup” on Tuesday, but kind of the typical Kansas 2017-18 season type of win: Good, not great.

First half: hurrah, almost up by 20, we’re gonna blow them out. Second half: outplayed, never really gets close enough to be concerned, but goes from a 20-30 point impressive win to just a solid 11-pt win. And, at least right now, Texas A&M is the second to last team in the SEC standings. If Kansas is the top team in the Big 12, and if the Big 12 is the Number 1 conference, you should expect more than an 11-pt margin playing in Allen Fieldhouse.

I’ll be keeping tabs on Texas A&M the rest of the season. I don’t know what’s happened to this team. They’re bigger than any other team out there, the exception being maybe Purdue. And they were Top 5 earlier in the season. Why are they near the bottom of the SEC?

Looking ahead, at least on paper, they should win Arkansas, South Carolina, and Mississippi State home games. Let’s say they split the home games against Alabama and Kentucky. Road games: @ Auburn, @ Missouri, @ Arkansas, @ Vanderbilt, @ Georgia, I’m going optimistic and saying they can go 3-2.

That would put Texas A&M at 20-11, 9-9 in conference. Wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma State, USC, maybe even the @ Penn State are all solid out-of-conference marks. The Aggies would make for an intriguing tournament team because few teams could match their size.

But look at that road again. The margin of error is razor thin. Losses to both Kentucky and Alabama + going 2-3 through that road stretch, that would put them down to 7-11. Under eight wins in conference, any conference, won’t get a team in.

Oklahoma vs. Alabama

I’ll have more on this in “Lottery Guys – Trae Young vs. Colin Sexton” but my main takeaway: Yes, Trae Young is really really good, but don’t shortchange how close Sexton is to that same level. It’s almost reminiscent of Lonzo Ball last year getting all the ESPN hype and then De’Aron Fox winning their individual matchup (and so far having a better NBA career).

Alabama’s the third best team in the SEC, Oklahoma the second or third best team in the Big 12. Playing at Alabama, a game where their crowd was at a football-level hyped for, it shouldn’t have been expected for Oklahoma to come in and easily win. But it’s another dose of reality, Oklahoma and West Virginia lost to their counterparts in the SEC. We didn’t even have to see Auburn who, right now, is their No.1 team.

Texas Tech vs. South Carolina 

The Big 12 needed this one. If our “four Top Ten teams” went 1-3 on Saturday, I might even join in on the overrated chants.

Nothing spectacular here, but one really good sign for Tech was Keenan Evans dropping 31. The last two games he has carried the Red Raiders offensively, establishing himself as an elite Big 12 guard.

Kansas State over Georgia

I hate to even think this, but if Kansas State wins their home game against my beloved Kansas Jayhawks on Monday night, those two teams quietly will have the same overall record (17-5) and conference record (6-3).

Don’t think it, don’t think it, don’t think it. Ah crap, could Kansas State be the team to end the Jayhawks’ consecutive Big 12 streak?!

The Wildcats took care of business against Georgia, 56-51. Wade put up 20, Barry Brown Jr. only had nine.

Alright! Big 12 is at 3-2. Let’s see how the bottom half does.

Texas vs. Ole Miss

Our sixth best team against the SEC’s eighth. Texas gets the win 86-72, four guys in double figures, almost a fifth with Eric Davis Jr.’s nine off the bench.

Mo Bamba went to work showing he’s further along than “project” status. 25 points, 15 rebounds, four blocks.

Quick detour – March Madness is setting up to be fascinating this year because all the star freshmen aren’t also on the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The projected Top 10 of the NBA Draft includes these guys:

Ayton, Bamba, Trae Young, Sexton, Kevin Knox, Bagley, Wendell Carter, Jaren Jackson, Michael Porter.

Alabama, Kentucky, Texas each have a Top 10 NBA Draft pick but are currently unranked. If you’re a No. 1 or No. 2 seed planning for Texas or Alabama in the Round of 32, or Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you’re going into a game where your opponent might have the best player on the court. Keep an eye on those three for upset runs.

Reality check? Big 12 is up 4-2. What’s the fuss about?

That’s the last win we would get…

Florida vs. Baylor

Didn’t expect Baylor to have a chance here, but was hoping they would have a showing like they did @ Kansas or @ West Virginia; if nothing else to make Kansas’ resume look better.

The bigger takeaway here is Florida looks back to their pre-season/early season Final Four contender level. Chiozza is great, the Gators shoot the three well, and have a ton of athletes.

That three-game skid in late November/early December dropped them out of the Top 25, they were 5-3 and I honestly forgot about them a little bit.

Now at 15-6, 6-2 in conference, with strong overall resume wins over Cincinnati, Gonzaga, and @ Kentucky, Florida is restoring a case that could put them in the running for a No. 2 seed.

Iowa State vs. Tennessee

Not a lot to say here, Iowa State got crushed by Tennessee, 68-45. On their home floor!

The only real damage this does is now Texas Tech’s 18-pt loss @ Iowa State or Baylor’s 10-pt loss in Aimes can’t be attributed to, “Well, Iowa State is under the radar pretty good, even though they are at the bottom.” Now any team that loses to the Cyclones it’s, “Didn’t Tennessee almost beat them by 30?”

Oklahoma State vs. Arkansas

Nothing wrong with this one, came down to the wire, Oklahoma State losing on the road 66-65. Would have been a nice win to pair with their Florida State out-of-conference victory, probably could have given them the leeway to finish 8-10 in conference and still have a chance at the NCAA Tournament.

Now I think it’s 9-9 or NIT.

TCU vs. Vanderbilt

Down 5-4, so we’re not going to win the Big 12/SEC challenge but we can at least tie it, right? Especially with TCU playing the bottom team in the SEC.

Right?

Oof. 81-78

TCU still has a solid record (15-6), and KenPom surprisingly has them still hovering around the Top 25 (No. 26). They have nice out-of-conference wins over top mid-majors (Belmont and Nevada) which are good, but wouldn’t be enough to save them if say they end up 7-11 in conference.

But this Vanderbilt loss has me questioning TCU as a tournament lock. Especially with starting point guard Jaylen Fisher out for the year, I’m having a hard time picturing five more wins to get them to that still shaky ground of 8-10 in conference.

Reality Check

4-6. A disappointing performance by what was being considered the No. 1 conference in college basketball.

How does this impact number of teams in for the Big Dance? Who fell onto the bubble? Who fell off the bubble? Tune in for “Life on the Bubble: Big 12 Edition” that will be up in like 2 hours.

 

 

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