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  • Writer's pictureWendell Barnhouse

BIG 12: Loaded And Legendary

Consider Bob Huggins an OG. In this case that means an Original Great.

In his 39th season, the West Virginia coach is third among active coaches in victories. He’s 68 years old and is a handful of successful seasons from compiling 1,000 victories. This season he’ll surpass 1,300 games coached.

He’s known for blunt-force honesty. When he talks about Big 12 Conference basketball, “Huggs” wraps the league in a Downy-soft embrace.

“It’s a great players’ league and an even better coaches’ league,” Huggins said at last October’s conference media days. “I’ve been in leagues where you look down there and you think you can outsmart the guy sitting down there. I’ve never felt that way in this league.”

The start of full-on conference play in the 2021-22 season – five months on the calendar that were supposed to be a return to hoops normalcy - is fraught with uncertainty. Omicron, the third phase of a pandemic that wiped out the 2020 NCAA Tournament, has littered schedules with cancellations and postponements. In December, at least 100 Division I schools “paused” due to COVID outbreaks. The unknown lurks like a heavy fog.

If there was one power conference equipped to handle suspense and drama, it’s the Big 12. Defending national champion Baylor bid adieu to four starters. Forty percent of its schools changed coaches. And 20 percent of its members ran a sneaky, secretive back-door play.

In July, Texas and Oklahoma announced they were joining the Southeastern Conference as of July 1, 2025 … but probably earlier. The migration was made to appease King Football - a sport with no back-door plays but plenty of cash grabbing and backstabbing.

For the third time in a decade, the Big 12 faced a survival crisis because of those brand-name departures. The trepidation was short-lived. In September, the conference announced it would return to a numerically accurate membership by adding Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and Central Florida.

Big 12 basketball was impervious to distractions.

As 2022 began, Baylor was undefeated and a unanimous No. 1.’s analytics had the Big 12 ranked as Division I’s top conference with all 10 teams ranked in its Top 100.

Andy Katz, a multi-platformed journalist and a veteran college basketball observer, broke down this season’s top conferences heading into 2022.

“In Tier One, I’ve got one conference – the Big 12. They’ve got two teams (Baylor and Kansas) in my top five,” he said on Fox Sports. “Iowa State won its first 12 games and don’t sleep on Texas.”

Barstool debates have been replaced by social media arguments. No matter the platform for discussion, the deliberation regarding “best conference” always must include the Big 12. The cold, hard facts: The conference has finished No. 1 or No. 2 in eight of the past nine years in the annual conference efficiency ratings. Over the past five years, four different Big 12 teams have reached the Final Four with Texas Tech and Baylor playing in the past two national championship games.

Debating which conference has the best coaches also must include the Big 12. When Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger retired and Shaka Smart left Texas for Marquette, the Big 12 lost two of its six coaches who have coached in a Final Four. It still has half a dozen in that category. Chris Beard moved from Lubbock to Austin to replace Smart. The Sooners hired Porter Moser and Baylor’s Scott Drew joined the club last April.

“Elite, elite coaching in the Big 12,” said Moser, who left Loyola of Chicago to replace Kruger. “That was one of the lures to come to Oklahoma. The league is revered for being one of the best in the country.”

The first Saturday of January displayed the Big 12’s coaching depth. Top-ranked Baylor played at Iowa State, and it was an unforeseen contest between Top 10 teams. First-year coach T.J. Otzelberger, a former Cyclones’ assistant, took over a team that went 2-2 2and 0-18 in league play. Iowa State started 12-0, with victories over Xavier, Memphis, Creighton and Iowa, to move into the Top 10.

That Baylor visited Ames ranked No. 1 wasn’t as surprising as Iowa State’s unexpected start. But it was close. No one expected the Bears to enter hibernation, but they have plugged and played a lineup that has been as dominating as last year’s champs.

Baylor’s dozen non-conference victories – the closest was eight points - included wins over Stanford, Arizona State, Michigan State, Villanova and Oregon. Any observers who don’t believe Drew is a master craftsman aren’t paying attention.

“Drew has a legitimate chance to win back-to-back titles,” CBS’s Gary Parrish said late last month. “It’s not crazy to think Baylor’s the best team in the country. I assumed they’d be good again, but they lost four starters from last season's team, including two NBA guards... (and) They're great again."

As 2021 ended, another first-year Big 12 coach had his team ranked No. 25. When Beard left for Texas, Texas Tech promoted top assistant Mark Adams. At 61, Adams is a D-I coaching rookie, but he had 554 victories in the sport’s lower levels. The defensive guru under Beard, Adams added six Division I transfers and has the Red Raiders trending as one of the nation’s top defensive teams.

Big 12 coaches do more with less. Based on the recruiting rankings compiled by, the conference’s success is not based on star quality.

Based on the Top 50 signees (5 and 4-stars) for the past six recruiting classes (from 2016-2021), the Big 12 has signed the fewest with 29. By comparison, Kentucky signed 29 of the Top 300 recruits during that six-year span while Duke signed 26.

“It’s a great coaches league and I think the players are underrated,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, who has signed nine of the 29 top-ranked Big 12 recruits since 2016. “The league doesn’t get as many of the 5-star recruits like some of the other leagues, but I think the players we do get turn out to be pretty good. The Big 12 and the coaches have done a really good job of developing players that have stayed for three to four years.”

The next two months will prove if the Big 12 deserves the praise and accolades it has collected. The long-term future will be determined by what the four new schools bring to the basketball table. Football was — and is — the driving force. Returning to a dozen members means the return of six-team divisions in that sport.

Since the 2012-13 season, the 10-team Big 12 has featured an 18-game home-and-home basketball schedule that has best resembled a rock fight. That will revert to a 16-game schedule when the membership returns to 12 teams. That will likely be a minor adjustment, but coaches who made the NCAA Tournament often credited surviving the 18-game grind as one of the reasons their team was steeped in preparation.

“Well, definitely it’s four schools with tradition,” Drew said of the newcomers during media day. “When you join the Big 12, I think they’re just going to get stronger. This is my 19th season in the Big 12; there’s a lot of pride and accomplishment just what we’ve accomplished as far as programs being as consistent as we’ve been. Again, the nation can see just what great basketball the Big 12 has.”

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