Kansas and Oklahoma Carry Burden of Big 12 Reputation

Posted by Chris Stone on January 5th, 2016

Last season’s NCAA Tournament resulted in a huge black mark on the Big 12’s reputation. The conference entered March ranked as KenPom‘s top league in the nation and yet three of its top teams — Baylor, Iowa State, and Kansas — were all eliminated before the second weekend, and no Big 12 school made it past the Sweet Sixteen. At the time, Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star called it a “colossal failure” that would “live with the league for a while.” It was a defensible sentiment. Last year’s postseason collapse was just the most recent example of the Big 12’s failings on college basketball’s biggest stage. It’s now been four seasons since the conference’s last Elite Eight team and Kansas is the only school to make the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend since 2004. To call the Big 12’s recent NCAA Tournament performance underwhelming would be completely accurate.

Kansas and Oklahoma gave us one for the ages on Monday. (Nick Krug/KU Sports)

Kansas and Oklahoma gave us one for the ages on Monday. (Nick Krug/KU Sports)

Is this the season when the Big 12 finally bounces back. Exhibit A of such a shift in fortunes came on Monday night when fans were treated to one of the best college basketball games in recent memory. Kansas head coach Bill Self gave the game his highest praise, calling it “probably the best game I have ever been a part of during the regular season,” and comparing last night’s 109-106 triple-overtime thriller against Oklahoma with Kansas’ final Border War battle against Missouri in 2012 (won by the Jayhawks in overtime, 87-86). The contest had everything we want from a college basketball game. It featured an otherworldly individual performance from All-American Buddy Hield, a 46-point virtuoso performance so sublime that Kansas fans gave him a standing ovation after the game. Allen Fieldhouse was so wild that ESPN commentator Dick Vitale went so far as to call it the loudest game he had called in his 37 years of announcing. But perhaps most importantly, the game featured arguably college basketball’s two best teams taking each other’s hardest punches before countering back with their own.

Although the teams may not be as good as last year’s elite group, the sport still features some excellent teams this season. Michigan State defeated Kansas at the Champions Classic in November and the Spartans have yet to lose with a healthy Denzel Valentine on the floor. Virginia, despite its overlooked loss last night in Blacksburg, boasts one of the country’s best backcourts and most efficient offenses. Villanova has the highest overall efficiency rating on KenPom even after Oklahoma smacked them by 23 points on a neutral floor.

But after last night’s game in Lawrence, it’s tough to ignore the Big 12. Hield is scoring a ridiculous 26.3 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Teammate Jordan Woodard has become one of the best complementary pieces in the nation, currently knocking down 55.2 percent of his three-point attempts. And even though the Sooners do not have the deepest bench in America, their starting five compares well with any team in the nation. On the other hand, Kansas is so deep that its three best NBA prospects — Carlton Bragg, Cheick Diallo, and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk — are all playing fewer than 15 minutes per game. Leading scorer Perry Ellis, best known for jokes about his age, is one of the game’s most consistent performers. Wayne Selden, a junior who has undergone a massive renaissance this season, may be the most improved player in America.

The question now, though, will be whether these two teams can rise to the top in March and carry the Big 12’s reputation with them. Given the league’s recent postseason, that’s a lot of pressure to place on just two schools. But if Monday’s epic battle is any guide, they should be up for it.

Chris Stone (136 Posts)

Chris Stone is a contributor to the Big 12 microsite. You can find him on Twitter @cstonehoops.

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