From 2013-2019, the Big 12 rated as college hoops' top conference. That factoid comes courtesy of KenPom.com, which tracks league-to-league performance dating back to the late 1990s.
The lobotomized 2019-20 season saw the Big 12 take a small step back, to No. 2, behind the resurgent Big Ten.
It looks like that's going to be a one-off.
In scanning this unprecedented offseason and looking off to the cautiously hopeful horizon of next season -- whenever it may be permitted to be begin -- it sure seems like the Big 12 is going to retake college basketball's conference-elitist throne. You could argue that the league hasn't been given its full due for how reliably excellent it's been since 2013. If we can have something of a normal season with nonconference games played the Big 12 should again have a chance to state its case as the most durable league.
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Our first indications of this can be found by scanning Gary Parrish's Top 25 And 1. (It was updated yet again this week after Gonzaga lost Filip Petrusev to a pro career.) Parrish's opinion alone doesn't justify the merits of the Big 12, but consider that his three highest-ranked teams (Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia) finished in the top 10 in multiple advanced metrics in March. Know that those teams bring back important personnel on their rosters, in addition to valuable freshmen and eligible transfers.
The Top 25 And 1 has two Big 12 teams in the top six, three in the top 12 and five in the top 18. Here's where they land:
- No. 2 Baylor
- No. 6 Kansas
- No. 12 West Virginia
- No. 17 Texas
- No. 18 Texas Tech
Five top-20 teams? That's SEC-football territory. In college basketball, the feat is uncommon but not impossible. In the past two decades, only three times has a league boasted five of the 20 best teams at KenPom by season's end: the Big East in 2005-06, the Big Ten in 2009-10 and the Big 12 in 2012-13.
Based on returning talent and incoming help, Baylor, Kansas, TTU, WVU and Texas all have realistically lofty ceilings. Chances are healthy that those five will find themselves inside the top 25 of most metrics and preseason polls. And because of that, the Big 12 might well wind up with four or five Final Four hopefuls.
Interestingly enough, Baylor is driving this Big 12 train now. Scott Drew's program is:
a) arguably coming off its best season ever
b) expected to return most of the roster and have a Final Four-type team again
c) is building toward yet another very good/talented team for 2021-22
That last part popped in recent days as the Bears have suddenly put together the No. 1-rated class for 2021, giving the program arguably its best haul in history. The big get was Langston Love, who represents BU's first five-star commitment in nine recruiting classes. (Isaiah Austin, in 2012, was the last one.) On Monday, five-star guard Kendall Brown joined Love and Jeremy Sochan, putting Baylor in position to have a foothold atop the league in the near-term.
Kansas is Kansas, and even with the threat of NCAA sanctions looming, it's unlikely any damage will be inflicted on the program before next season. West Virginia has been settled in for a while now: it got the benefit early of knowing that Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver weren't even testing professional options. Tshiebwe was a top-15 freshman last season and could be a monster as a sophomore. Plus, WVU has Miles McBride ready to break out.
Elsewhere in Texas, you have the Red Raiders and Longhorns. Chris Beard's team awaits a waiver ruling on Georgetown transfer Mac McClung. Even if he's not given a waiver, VCU grad transfer Marcus Santos-Silva was a top-10 addition among all teams this offseason, and Nimari Burnett is a top-35 prospect who will excel at combo guard. Shaka Smart's Longhorns squad has a dynamite freshman and for-sure one-and-doner in Greg Brown, who will help fortify what could become the best frontcourt in the Big 12 alongside Jericho Sims and Will Baker.
Beyond the projected top half of the conference, there's still the big-ticket attraction in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Cade Cunningham could easily wind up as the conference's best player -- if not the nation's top talent -- and his devotion to Oklahoma State will give the Cowboys credibility from the jump. One Big 12 head coach told me this week, "Cunningham is the best player in college currently." Mike Boynton's team did not suffer a mass exodus despite being given a 2021 postseason ban, a sanction from the Committee on Infractions that the school is going to fight and has a glimmer of hope it can win on appeal.
Even if it doesn't, Oklahoma State's credibility as a team won't be impacted by whether or not it will be allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. If they're good, they're good. I think they'll be pretty good because Cunningham is wondrous and he'll guide the offense.
Then there's Oklahoma, which was a top-40 team last season and figures to be better because it's getting older and Lon Kruger's teams almost never miss back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. That's seven out of 10 Big 12 teams with NCAA Tournament DNA.
Tour the league, and here's my eval on the best players returning. Those with an asterisk still haven't officially decided whether to stay in the draft or return to school:
- Jared Butler, Baylor*
- Oscar Tshiebwe, West Virginia
- Marcus Garrett, Kansas
- MaCio Teague, Baylor*
- Derek Culver, West Virginia
- Mark Vital, Baylor
- Austin Reaves, Oklahoma
- Terrence Shannon, Texas Tech
- Brady Manek, Oklahoma
- Matt Coleman, Texas
And that's just returning players, not freshmen or eligible transfers. The coaching is also exceedingly familiar. Did you know: The Big 12 has gone longer than any other conference besides the Ivy League without a coaching change? The last move didn't even happen via a firing; Brad Underwood left Oklahoma State after one season and one NCAA Tournament appearance to take a raise at Illinois in 2017. That's when Boynton was promoted from within.
Six of the league's 10 coaches have made it to a Final Four, while three others who haven't own pretty terrific accomplishments on their resumes. Iowa State's Steve Prohm coached Murray State to its best season in school history with a 31-2 record in 2011-12. TCU's Jamie Dixon made it to the Elite Eight at Pitt and is the best coach in that program's history. Scott Drew's been to a pair of Elite Eights and is overseeing arguably the greatest program build in men's D-I history.
The average tenure of a current Big 12 coach: 8.5 seasons. That's sturdy.
Questions linger with TCU, Iowa State and Kansas State, but even if those three can't crack to the top six in the league they may wind up being better than most other teams slotted eighth, ninth and 10th in the their leagues. Between coaching, veterans, NCAA gossip and incoming flashy talent (seriously, wait until you see what Greg Brown can do at Texas), the Big 12 is as promising and enticing as any league in the country.
This needs to stop being viewed a surprising situation because it's more of an expectation on a near-annual basis.