Best conference ever? Powerful Big 12 has chance to set records for March Madness bids
When the Big East became the first conference to earn three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, Jamie Dixon was the head coach of the Pitt Panthers, who joined the UConn Huskies and Louisville Cardinals at the top of the March Madness 2009 installment.
When the league two years later became the first to place 11 members in the NCAA field — still the only time a conference has earned double-digit tournament berths — Dixon’s Panthers were regular-season champions. .
When Pitt moved to the ACC and Dixon coached there in 2016, the conference advanced four teams to the Elite Eight, which was only accomplished twice. (Yes, Dixon was there the other time too, when Pitt was one of four Big East teams to reach the regional finals in 2009).
And now he coaches TCU, in the Big 12 Conference.
“I tell people my goal is to be in the toughest league in the country every year of my career,” Dixon told The Sporting News with a pained chuckle. “I don’t recommend it to new coaches, but it has been my journey.”
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As great as the leagues Dixon has coached in are, he’s never worked in one like the 2022-23 Big 12. When the conference season began, each team was positioned to compete for NCAA Tournament bids.
“There is no bad team. There are 10 NCAA Tournament teams in the league,” Dixon told TSN. “We beat West Virginia last night, and they’re ranked 25th in the NET. And they’re second to last.
Dixon knows the league won’t have 10 teams on the field. It’s just hard for things to go evenly, especially when teams like Texas, Kansas, Kansas State, and TCU win very frequently. What he describes, however, shows how difficult it is to compete every night in the Big 12. The same goes for the two NCAA Tournament field records – in both areas of the NCAA Tournament bracket that best define the depth and strength of a league – the Big 12 have the opportunity to establish themselves in March.
At the top of the pack, members of the Big 12 can become the first to consume six of 16 “protected seeds” – the top four positions in each of the four regions. The 2011 Big East, which played 11 of its 16 teams in the general draw, had five protected seeds. The 2021 Big Ten also had five protected seeds among its nine tournament entrants, including No. 1 seeds Michigan and Illinois.
The team placement rule in the draw prohibits the selection committee from placing more than one top-four seed in any conference in the same region. For example, if Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, the next three Big 12 teams must be seeded in the West, South, or East regions.
This rule, however, can be ignored when a league is so good that five or, now, six teams earn such major seeds. And it will be broken for the Big 12, almost certainly.
With 10 members, the Big 12 obviously cannot exceed the record of 11 teams placed on the field by the Big East a dozen years ago. But it can set a record for the highest percentage of its members to make March Madness. That mark currently belongs to the 1991 Big East, which signed seven of its nine members from the field, or 77.8%. If the 2023 Big 12 gets eight teams on the pitch, that would obviously be a new mark.
Right now, the consensus of 87 published brackets aggregated on BracketMatrix.com indicates the Big 12 would get eight teams. Bill Bender of The Sporting News has the conference with seven in his field, Oklahoma narrowly missing out on the cup.
The problem for aspiring NCAA Tournament teams Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oklahoma State has been trying to pick up wins over the Big 12’s six powerhouse teams: Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, TCU, Iowa State and current leader Texas.
Power Conference Team Record* Net Ranking* Kansas 18-4 7 Texas 18-4 9 Iowa State 15-6 13 Baylor 16-6 15 TCU 17-5 16 Kansas State 18-4 19 West Virginia 13-9 24 Oklahoma State 13- 9 39 Oklahoma 12-10 58 Texas Tech 12-10 64
* – As of February 2
The bottom four teams have nine combined wins in the Big 12; six of them are against each other. Only Texas Tech and OK State’s wins over Iowa State and West Virginia’s win over TCU broke this pattern. A Monday game illustrated the league’s extraordinary depth. Iowa State was tied for first place and went to last place Texas Tech, which had no wins in the league. Iowa State was only listed as a 1.5 point favorite by FanDuel and lost in overtime.
The top six teams are separated by only two games in the standings, from Texas at 7-2 to Baylor at 5-4. K-State, KU, TCU and Iowa State all sit at 6-3.
In non-conference competition, however, the Big 12 dominated. When the league beat the SEC, 7-3, in its Challenge Series last Saturday, it finished the non-conference game of the regular season 107-22, an .830 winning percentage. The second-place league, the Big Ten, was at .757. That Big 12 winning percentage is the best in any conference since the ACC recorded an .849 save percentage in 2003-04, the last season before its first expansion.
It is possible that this dominance will decrease in March. History suggests that competition in the deepest conferences has not benefited teams that escape into the NCAA Tournament. Leagues that have fielded at least nine teams are 67-54, with a .554 winning percentage. They averaged two Sweet 16 teams, one Elite Eight team, and less than one Final Four team over those years.
“What worried me last year was how they would adapt to the different officials in the NCAA tournament, because the league – the other league I do a lot is the ACC, and those two leagues are officiated very differently,” ESPN analyst Chris Spatola told The Sporting News. “The Big 12 is a defensive league, and they train for it. I don’t necessarily have the impression that the teams are exhausted. It’s another basketball brand.
“The other thing that worries me a bit about the league is: it’s very homogeneous. Whereas in the ACC you can tie up and play against a 2-3 zone, you can play against the Pack Line, you can play against Kevin Keatts and what NC State is doing. There’s a variety of preparation you have in this league. In the Big 12, it’s not really like that.
“For the most part, Iowa State, Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, they sort of play the same variety of defense. So OK, now you have an NCAA tournament where you have to prepare for a Pac-12 team or an ACC team. Now, that didn’t necessarily hurt the Big 12 in last year’s tournament.
The 2021-22 Big 12 has produced defending NCAA champion Kansas, as well as Sweet 16 teams Texas Tech and Iowa State. Thanks in large part to KU’s 6-0 run, the league was 13-5 in March Madness games.
“I think it makes those teams more difficult and there’s scar tissue that those teams benefit from,” Spatola said. “The one thing about the Big 12 this year: It’s very guard-dominated. You need to have very good backs in the Big 12 because you need to be able to handle and handle pressure and lead a team. You don’t have big players doing a lot in the Big 12, and I think it lends itself to postseason play to have a guard game like that.
There are enough young NBA-related talents in the league to push the Big 12 to success this year. Baylor has guard Keyonte George, Kansas has wing Gradey Dick and Texas has wing Dillon Mitchell. And Kansas veteran Jalen Wilson has played himself into a first-round prospect with an All-America season. Championship teams invariably have one or two of these players in their rotations.
For now, however, Big 12 fans still have five weeks to enjoy the fiercest competition in all of college basketball. There’s never the feeling of looking at a schedule and realizing the next game is going to be missed.
“No bad games” is how Spatola put it.
“You hear that from coaches all the time: you can’t overreact. You really can’t dwell. And that’s probably a lesson everyone should take, but in this league in particular, you don’t You really can’t dwell on one game too much. Things can’t drag on. If you dwell on the last game, you’re going to turn around and get beat up and end up with three straight losses in this league.