From Top to Bottom: BIG 12

Discussions can become debates and then become arguments. In these days of “social” media, the conversation can quickly devolve into invective-laced quarrels.
What follows is aimed at avoiding gutter growling or temperamental trolling while generating an even-handed discussion. The topic: Is the Big 12 Conference the best in men’s basketball?
Those readers living in the footprints encompassing the Atlantic Coast, the Big Ten and the Southeastern conferences, Your Humble Correspondent beseeches you to continue reading. Don’t throw a hissy fit. While the Big 12 lays claim to be the best conference, that assertion will undergo considerable vetting.
To start, in its 21 seasons heading into this season, the Big 12 has just a single, lonely national championship in basketball. And Kansas’ 2008 national title grows more stale each season. Since sending five teams to the Final Four during a three-year stretch (2002-04), since then only three teams have reached the last weekend.
(Quick side note, big-picture comment: If the Big 12 fails to win a national championship this season, it will be 10 years without a national title in football or basketball. Since Texas won the football championship in 2005, the Big 12’s foundation has been cracked and shaken by realignment drama and rumors of its ultimate demise. As commissioner Bob Bowlsby has frequently said, the best way to heal the fissures and calm the national speculation is to win in the post-season.)
“For anybody that wins the league this year, it would be the best win that anybody’s had during our entire streak,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think the league is that good.”
For many, the only way to prove that is to have great success in the NCAA Tournament. That is one of several discussion points that will follow to frame the “best conference” debate.
The numbers game
The Big 12 and its coaches are number nerds because the computer rankings tend to favor the conference. The league is again on top of the RPI rankings and has finished either first or second in each of the previous four seasons.
Since 2012, when the Big 12 went to its 18-game round-robin schedule, it’s on top based on a ranking of RPI finishes with other peer conferences.
Jeff Sagarin, whose computer rankings have been a staple in USA Today for the past two decades, also has the Big 12 ranked No. 1 as of the first week of February.
While the computers are programmed with criteria provided by humans, the numbers and rankings produced are cold, hard facts. But the programmers also have opinions on the best conference debate. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com analyzes and parses the RPI to provide NCAA Tournament bracket projections.
“Determining the best conference is a nebulous thing,” Palm says. “Conferences prove themselves by what they do outside the league. Fans generally look at the top teams or number of tournament bids and forget everything else. I personally prefer top-to-bottom strength. Measuring that is very much an eye-of-the-beholder thing, though. For example, I’d pick the SEC over the Big Ten (this season) because of the high number of good to very good teams in that league. The Big Ten’s top two might be better than anyone in the SEC (even though Purdue lost to Tennessee), but once you get past the top four (in the Big Ten), there’s a huge drop off.”
Ken Pomeroy, whose rankings at KenPom.com have become trendy over the past few years, also has the Big 12 on top this season.
“When it comes to deciding the best conference, I think my method is pretty good and it’s one I first saw used by Jeff Sagarin,” Pomeroy says. “It determines how good a team would have to be to go .500 against a round-robin schedule. The challenge is to balance conferences of different sizes. The Big 12 can never match the number of teams that will go to the tournament from larger power conferences, so in effect, they get penalized just for having fewer in teams in the conference when total tournament teams is the criteria.”
Muddled March Madness
Using 2012 as the embarkation point (because that was when the Big 12 went to its current 10-team, 18-game schedule format), the Big 12’s argument of superiority becomes a half full, half empty debate when the NCAA Tournament is used as a measuring stick.
“I think you can measure it by the percentage, not the number, of teams that make the NCAA Tournament,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins says. “And the RPI. But there is no bottom in this conference. It’s the best conference I’ve ever been in.”
Compared to these conferences – ACC, Big Ten, Big East, SEC and Pac-12 – the Big 12 is fourth in winning percentage in NCAA Tournament games over the last six seasons. The Big 12’s 42-31 record also averages to 1.1 victory per team – the worst when compared to other leagues.
Now, here’s where the half full/half empty assessment can be applied. The Big 12, with 38 appearances, has placed 63 percent of its membership in the field since 2012. The only conference that comes close is the Big East at 57.7 percent.
Despite plenty of opportunities, since 2012, the Big 12 has been half empty in terms of deep NCAA runs. Kansas, which has lost in the Elite Eight each of the last two seasons, has three of the Big 12’s regional final appearances over the last six seasons. Only two other league teams have made it that far – Baylor in 2012 and Oklahoma in 2016 (the Sooners reached the Final Four but were eviscerated in the semifinals by eventual national champion Villanova).
“The NCAA Tournament isn’t a good way to determine the best conferences,” says ESPN analyst and former Purdue star Robbie Hummel. “All of those games, it’s about who the best team is on that day. That’s why we love the tournament. And when you’re playing the game, it’s not about your conference, it’s about you and your team and winning that game.”
Not rising to the Challenge
The outcome of the Jan. 27 Big 12-SEC Challenge provided a strong counter argument to the Big 12’s claim of superiority. The SEC won the battle between the two leagues for the first time with a 6-4 record. Considering that the SEC is No. 3 in the RPI, losing the head-to-head battle dropped the Big 12’s reputation a few notches.
Tom Crean, though, disagrees.
“That’s just one day,” says the former Indiana coach who is spending his first season with ESPN as a game and studio analyst. “I watched all those games and it was outstanding. But I don’t think it determined anything other than the six teams that won that day.”
This season, the Big 12 has a losing non-conference record against one league – the SEC (8-10). Otherwise, the Big 12’s 105-22 non-conference record is the best in Division I. The league has winning records against the ACC (6-1), the Big Ten (5-1) and the Pac-12 (4-3). But even the out-of-conference record has an asterisk – the Big 12 is a more pedestrian 25-19 against teams ranked in the RPI’s top 100.
The Big 12-SEC Challenge is also staged in the middle of conference play to attract the most attention. The Big Ten-ACC Challenge, played during the first weekend of December, has a considerably higher profile.
“It’s not just the media and the fans that care about the debate about the best conference,” Hummel says. “I think the players care about it. I think I was a junior the first year the Big Ten ever won it – which is pathetic – but I remember leaving the locker room after we won, talking about how important it was, what the other scores were.
“If you’re going to measure a league, you need to measure top to bottom how that conference fares all season. Something like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, that can be largely dependent on matchups. And it’s not like they put the No. 1 team vs. the No. 1 team, No. 2 vs. No. 2 and so on. The matchups are sometimes based on TV draw or fan bases.”
Its own worst enemy
Those who watch the games on a regular basis come away with the understanding that one through 10, the Big 12 makes a great argument for its strength. The coaches constantly refer to the fact there is “no bottom” in the conference.
As the calendar flipped to February, the Big 12 was the only Division I conference without a team with a non-winning record. The ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC had a total of nine teams with records either .500 or below.
“There are absolutely no guarantees anywhere, home or away,” Self says. “I don’t know if it’s the best. You could make a case for the ACC obviously, but I would say it’s the deepest when you talk about 10 teams.”
The computers also bear that out. The ACC has nine teams in the top 50 in the RPI, but also had three teams ranked 100th or lower. The Big 12 has seven teams in the top five with Iowa State at No. 86 the Big 12’s RPI basement team. Five of the Big Ten’s 14 teams are in the top 50 of the RPI but three are 100-plus.
“I think the bottom of the Big 12 is better than the bottom of the Big Ten,” Hummel says.
The balance and depth has made the Big 12 similar to Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. The 18-game round-robin scheduling format makes for two months of close games often decided on the final possession. Does that make the Big 12 the best? Again, pick your criteria.
“The argument or the debate, depends on which side your on, like politics, sports anything else,” says Jamie Dixon who is in his second season after 12 seasons at Pitt when it competed in the Big East and the ACC. “I’ve been in the good ones and been in what was considered the best. (The Big 12) is the toughest because you don’t have a bad team. You go one through 10 and you’ve got the round-robin schedule.
“Conferences that don’t have the round robin, the champion and the standings are really decided by who you play. It’s clear. I’ve seen champions decided by the schedule. In the ACC, you knew who you were playing twice and who other teams were playing twice. At Pitt, each year we had Syracuse and Louisville. Notre Dame had Boston College and Georgia Tech. It doesn’t take much to figure out who had the tougher two games.”
A debate without an outcome
Heading into the regular-season’s final month, Kansas is chasing a record 14th-consecutive Big 12 title. Oklahoma freshman Trae Young was in position to pull an unprecedented double and lead the nation in scoring and assists. Should Young be named national player of the year, he’ll be the second Sooner in the last three years and third consecutive Big 12 player to be so honored.
All are side dishes to a steak dinner lacking the perfectly cooked filet mignon. While the Big 12 can summon various arguments to back its claims as the best conferences, as previously mentioned there are solid counterpoints to those declarations.
The Jayhawks’ regular-season streak of 13 consecutive outright or shared titles is remarkable regardless of the competition. But especially since 2012 when the Big 12 went to its 18-game round-robin schedule, the pressure and grind has been unique. No doubt under college basketball’s current format and rules, it’s highly unlikely a team will ever reach even double digits in terms of championships in major conferences.
Kansas has given the Big 12 a national brand and flagship program. Kansas’ strangle hold on first place could be used to illustrate that the Big 12 is a one-team league – the Jayhawks and the nine dwarfs. That was certainly the case for the team that shares Kansas’ record for consecutive league titles.
When UCLA won 13 consecutive regular-season titles, the best-conference debate wasn’t a gleam in the eye of any man who fathered a sports talk radio host. The Bruins’ dominance in their conference was overshadowed by their unprecedented success in winning national championships. Even the NCAA Tournament then is not what it is now and neither was the Pac-8. UCLA played 14 league games and in all but its last national championship run under John Wooden needed just four victories to claim the trophy.
What was regional is now national (despite the critics who claim that college basketball is a one-month sport). Debates surrounding who is the best college basketball conference are often waged in the margins of discussions of other knee-jerk hot topics. But it’s a discussion that at least takes place.
The “best conference debate” will be unending and unresolved. The debaters can summon their evidence and criteria to best suit their desire to win the argument. Those in Big 12 country will cling to their claims of superiority. They might be right … or they might be wrong. The discussion will continue.
Perhaps Crean has the best opinion on the discussion.
“I don’t know if I would say the Big 12 is the best conference,” he says. “But I don’t know if there are any conferences that are better.”