It’s basically accepted fact that the Big 12 is the best conference in the country this season. Four of the league’s 10 teams are ranked in the top 15 in The Associated Press poll this week and five are ranked in the top-25 at KenPom. The conference’s round-robin schedule is an absolute grinder.
But after the league’s lackluster performance over the weekend against the SEC and Kansas’ 70-56 manhandling of Kansas State in Manhattan on Monday, is it fair to wonder if the conference, while maybe the country’s best, may not be exactly the juggernaut it’s been thought to be?
The Big 12 has plenty of very good teams. The top of the league looks competitive and the middle is strong.
There are emerging signs, though, of the conference’s weaknesses.
Start with the game in Manhattan on Monday. A team like Kansas State being good – like top-25, fringe conference title contender good – is the crux on what the Big 12’s stated strength is built on. The Wildcats entered the night 5-3 in the conference, a game behind the Jayhawks in a four-way tie for second. If the Big 12 is an unmanageable buzzsaw, causing chaos with its high-level parity, Kansas State should be able to go toe-to-toe with Kansas, especially on its home floor.
Instead, Kansas had little issue in a 14-point win. The Wildcats shot 32.3 percent from the field on their homecourt, and made just 22.2 percent of their 3s. Kansas didn’t shoot the lights out, connecting at 45.7 percent overall, but did hit nine 3s. The Jayhawks even turned the ball over 16 times, and that wasn’t enough to propel K-State to threaten Kansas in front of a raucous crowd at the Octagon of Doom.
Kansas State was just leagues behind their in-state rivals. Which does not bode well for the strength of the Big 12. Conferences are often judged by their top and their bottom, the best and worst they have to offer, but often the true tale is told in the middle. When a conference’s average team is above-average, that’s when a conference really has something.
Kansas State is a pretty good stand-in for that average team. If the Wildcats can get got on their home court by 14 by the league’s best, that’s not a great sign. And are they really all that different than the likes of Texas or TCU?
So the middle of the league doesn’t look as daunting as once thought, and suddenly the floor of the conference looks to be lowering as well. Iowa State entered conference play looking like an NCAA tournament hopeful with nine-straight wins, but the Cyclones are now 2-6 in the conference and got blown out at home by Tennessee over the weekend. Baylor was thought to be a dark horse Big 12 contender, but the Bears are tied for last with Iowa State and have lost five of their last six. Oklahoma State has been scrappier than expected, but will enter February without a road win.
Part of the argument for the Big 12’s supremacy has been that there are No Nights Off. That thought is looking less airtight at the moment.
As for the top of the conference, the SEC Challenge did no favors for the Big 12. West Virginia lost at home to Kentucky and Oklahoma lost at Alabama. Texas Tech picked up a nice win at South Carolina, but the Red Raiders still look a little wobbly after losing three of four and needing to escape with a win at home against the Cowboys in recent weeks.
Kansas is clearly the toast of the league – surprise, surprise – but the Jayhawks aren’t typically discussed as legit national championship contenders due to a roster that appears to have just too many vulnerabilities.
The Big 12 is still probably the best conference in the country, but it’s probably a little overrated, too. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.