KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Leading into the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament, we heard and read the coaches’ comments about the league, the teams.
They said the league can flex like Charleston’s Phil Pfister, the former World’s Strongest Man. This season, anyway, they claimed it’s been a collective Thor. Or Goku. Or — dare I even go here? — Silver Surfer.
All the while, yours truly listened. Tournament time is always a hoot. Crazy games are surely in the offing. Am I fired up about this Big 12 event? You bet.
Yet, mentally, I kept pumping the brakes. I’ve seen no powerhouse teams. Not nationally. Not in the Big 12.
Also, as a young cub reporter, I covered the old Big East. There was Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s scowl and Georgetown’s John Thompson wearing a towel. There were stars galore. Heck, I covered some of the league’s games in 1985, when three of the four Final Four teams were from the league. Kids, if you don’t know Rollie Massimino or Ed Pinckney of Villanova, Google them. Patrick Ewing was playing for Georgetown. Chris Mullen of St. John’s was there. It was truly a golden era.
But, as I said, I’ve listened. I heard WVU’s Bob Huggins.
“This league doesn’t have a bottom,” the Mountaineer coach said. “There were five or six teams [in the Big East] you were supposed to beat. … There’s no bottom in this league.”
He was speaking of his more-recent experiences within the Big East compared to the current Big 12 lineup. He was indirectly pointing to the 2018 conference RPI rankings, which have the Big 12 No. 1. He was indirectly pointing to the league’s impressive non-conference success at the beginning of the season.
And he was certainly pointing at the projections that as many as seven, eight or even nine Big 12 teams — with breaks — could make the upcoming NCAA tournament.
“It just shows you the balance of the league. Even Iowa State, if they don’t have the injuries at the end of the year, they might have another win or two in their arsenal,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said recently. “It’s the best league. I’ve done this 39 years, been in the Big Ten when it’s been really good, the Missouri Valley, watched other leagues — it’s the best I’ve ever been part of, one through 10.”
And that’s where I’m now hanging my hat — because of a little research. It’s certainly the best league I’ve covered one through 10.
Again, is this Big 12 league 1985 Big East strong? Not at the top. Not even close. And there have been many conferences — see the ACC — that have had more impressive upper tiers throughout the years.
Yet I vote on the Associated Press All-Big 12 teams and, as followers know, take pride in my research. What I found was surprising.
Indeed, Huggins was right. Weber was correct. Quite clearly, there was no bottom. At least in regard to talent. Which makes this league special indeed.
Just look at the teams that headed into Wednesday night’s first round. Texas has a shot at making the NCAA tournament. Oklahoma, which also has a shot, has Trae Young (you might have heard of him) and entered with 18 wins. Oklahoma State likewise has a shot at the NCAA tournament, entering play with 18 victories.
Then there’s that bottom team. Perhaps Iowa State got crushed Wednesday night. This was written beforehand.
Yet while compiling my All-Big 12 ballot, here’s what I found:
The Cyclones had the league’s No. 7 scorer (and, as ESPN “SportsCenter” Top 10 Plays fans can tell you, a very impressive dunker) in Lindell Wigginton at 16.6 points per game. They’ve had the No. 9 scorer in Donovan Jackson (15.3) and No. 2 free throw shooter (87.5).
Also, ISU had freshman Cameron Lard. He was simply the Big 12’s No. 4 rebounder (8.2), No. 2 field goal percentage player (60.2), No. 3 shot blocker (2.1) and No. 1 offensive rebounder (3.5).
Yet Lard couldn’t make the coaches’ first-, second- or third-team All-Big 12 units. None of those Cyclones did. Tell you something?
Oh, and you might have noticed Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham was the coaches’ pick for Player of the Year. In this league leading the nation in points AND assists, as OU’s Young did, isn’t good enough. In fact, the coaches voted Graham a unanimous selection as POY.
So, in sum, yes, if you followed this Big 12 league in 2017-18, you were watching something special. Those old Big East seasons I watched did, in fact, have bottom tiers. (I checked.) There were always at least three teams one could consider gimmes.
Within the Big 12 this season, meanwhile, there was chaos.
And lots and lots of quality throughout.