Through the halfway point of the college basketball season, no conference in the country has looked stronger than the Big 12. The Big 12 has the No. 1 team in the country (Oklahoma), a former No. 1 still in the Top 10 (Kansas) and three more teams in the Top 15. In most of the bracket projections floating around the internet, all five of those teams are in line for Top 4 seeds. There’s no reason why the Big 12 couldn’t have multiple teams in the Final Four.
Of course, you could have said the same thing last season, when the conference went into the NCAA Tournament with a 2 seed, three 3 seeds and a 5 seed. Instead, after a regular season filled with stirring games between nationally ranked teams, the Big 12 face planted on the biggest stage of the sport. Iowa State (3) and Baylor (3) were shocked by 14 seeds in the first round while Kansas (2) lost to in-state rival Wichita State in the second. West Virginia (5) made it to the Sweet 16 only to lose by 39 points and no Big 12 team made it to the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four. The conference as a whole had a record of 5-7 last March.
There are two ways to look at it. One is that you can’t really discern any broader pattern from a series of one-off games on neutral floors. The whole appeal of the NCAA Tournament is that anything can happen and the Big 12 was the victim of nothing more than a series of unlucky breaks. Baylor and Iowa State both lost by one point, with Baylor falling victim to one of the greatest shots in the recent history of March Madness. For all the conference’s depth, they didn’t have a team on the same level as true juggernauts like Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin, none of whom are nearly as strong this season.
The other way is to wonder whether there’s something in the way the conference is set up that makes it underachieve in March. Forget the Final Four - the Big 12 hasn’t had a team in the Elite Eight since 2012. In the 20-year history of the conference, only once - Kansas in 2008 - has a team won six games in a row and cut down the nets. It makes you wonder whether Bill Self winning 11 straight conference titles at Kansas says as much about the lack of another traditional blue-blood program in the conference as his own coaching ability.
Even if you want to throw out broader historical patterns that go back to when before today’s current players were even born, what has to concern fans of the conference is how little has changed from the season before in terms of the makeup of the top teams. Kansas, OU, Iowa State, Baylor and West Virginia have returned basically the same teams, which gave them a huge leg up in terms of continuity and experience and getting out to strong starts in non-conference play, but might leave them vulnerable to the same factors that caused them to get knocked out early in 2015.
If there’s a common theme for the top teams in the Big 12, it’s the lack of high quality big men who can dominate a game on both sides of the ball. It’s hard to see the importance of that in conference play, when they are all playing each other and the games becomes high-scoring free-for-alls based around spreading the court, pushing the pace and hoisting 3’s, like what happened in the 3OT classic between Kansas and OU in January and what happens in basically every game Iowa State plays. When the game slows down and they face the elite teams from around the country in March, though, that lack of size often rears its ugly head.
Oklahoma - OU is the No. 1 team in the country thanks mainly to their three-headed monster of experienced guards on the perimeter - Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. All three can shoot 3’s off the dribble, take the ball to the rim and create shots for their teammates, which makes them almost impossible to guard. The problem is that OU lacks great size upfront, as neither Ryan Spangler (6’8 235) or Khadeem Lattin (6’9 210) has the size to bang with the biggest front-lines in the country or the post game to dominate smaller front-lines.
Kansas - Kansas has traditionally been around their frontcourt under Bill Self, who has sent a long line of big men to the NBA. However, ever since Joel Embiid went down with an injury towards the end of the 2013 season, the Jayhawks haven’t had much of an edge upfront, which is why they have lost in the second round in each of the last two seasons. Perry Ellis (6’8 225) is a combo forward without high-level size or athleticism while none of the phalanx of older big men around him - Jamari Traylor, Hunter Mikkelson and Landen Lucas - have impressed all that much. The ceiling of this team depends on how much freshmen big men Cheikh Diallo and Carlton Bragg can give them and it’s still unclear how much Self will trust such young and inexperienced players in the biggest games.
Iowa State - Iowa State is the archetypal example of the paper tiger Big 12 team with huge offensive numbers that underperforms in March. They got absolutely bullied by UAB in their loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament - they were out-rebounded by 15 and gave up 19 offensive rebounds - and they have the same team back except without their biggest and most athletic wing (Bryce Dejean-Jones). Their only real addition is Deonte Burton, a 6’4 250 bowling ball of a combo forward, and he may not be tall enough to really swing things back their way against a bigger and more athletic team.
West Virginia and Baylor - The story is a little different in the middle of the conference, where both West Virginia and Baylor have interesting big men but there might be a ceiling on how far they can advance in the Tournament because of their unique styles of play. Bob Huggins has rode “Press Virginia”, a full-court 48 minute press backed by an 11+ man bench, back to national prominence. Scott Drew, meanwhile, has faithfully stuck to his 1-3-1 zone for years, despite the relative ease at which opposing teams can create easy shots against it. Both teams present unique match-up challenges to opposing teams, but their unorthodox styles leave them vulnerable to talented and well coached teams who can exploit the inherent structural weaknesses inherent in the way they play. There’s a reason no team in the NBA runs a full-court press or a trapping zone.
Texas - If there’s a sleeper in the Big 12, it’s Texas under first-year coach Shaka Smart. The Longhorns have long been a sleeping giant in the conference, as the program consistently underperformed their talent level under Rick Barnes. Shaka has already done more with Barnes players this season than he had in the last half-dozen years and he has them competing for a Big 12 title despite losing star big man Cameron Ridley to a foot injury. If they can re-integrate Ridley back into the fold when he comes back, Texas has the size and the guard play to be a dangerous team in March.
Since the Big 12 has only 10 teams, almost every one of its conference games matter while their team’s RPI’s aren’t dragged down by nearly as many bottom-feeders as happens in 15-team mega conferences like the ACC. However, when you look at the conference as a whole, you see guard-heavy teams without great big men and teams with great big men whose style of play can be exploited by well-coached teams. Put it all together and you have the formula for a conference that looks great when they are playing each other in January and February, but is prone to being upset when they take their act nationwide in March.