MINNEAPOLIS — Time and again this week, Tom Izzo was asked to account for the Big Ten. It’s been 20 years since the conference’s last national championship, if you hadn’t heard. That drought has come to define the conference in the postseason regardless of whatever success it has prior to that season’s final Monday night.
It’s a streak that continued to gain stream and a narrative that stayed alive when the Spartans fell Saturday night. The question becomes more frequent, with its asking louder every year.
What’s wrong with the Big Ten?
The Pac-12 doesn’t get that question because we all know why it hasn’t produced a title since Arizona’s in 1997 – it’s a league that produces a whole lot of bad basketball. On the cheap, too. Look no further than UCLA’s coaching search to see that league’s issues on full display.
That doesn’t explain, though, why the Big 12 has escaped much of the same scrutiny as the Big Ten. Yes, the Big 12 has a more recent title winner thanks to Derrick Rose’s missed free throws and Mario Chalmers’ answered prayer, but it’s been more than a decade since Bill Self cut down the nets at the Alamodome.
Deeper than that, the league’s national success outside the Jayhawks is nearly nonexistent. Long and loudly has it been discussed about Kansas’ 14-year domination of the Big 12, but Monday night’s game between Texas Tech and Virginia will be the league’s first non-Kansas title game appearance ever.
“Many, many good teams have never won a championship,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told NBCSports.com. “It’s very hard to do, and what Kansas has done in our league, as good as our conference has been from top to bottom for a very long time, for them to win consecutive championships like they have is astonishingly difficult.
“Being able to claim a national championship is an important marker for the conference and a great thing for Texas Tech. It’s enormously difficult to do.”
The Big 12’s reliance on Kansas for national relevancy extends just beyond the conference’s 23 years of existence. The forebears of the Big 12 – the Big 8 and Southwest Conference – don’t have a national champion among them, either. Oklahoma State won titles for the Missouri Valley Conference in 1945 and 1946, but the NIT was still the preeminent tournament and Oklahoma State wasn’t even Oklahoma State – it was known as Oklahoma A&M.
The last time the conference or its previous incarnations had a team other than Kansas in the title game was Oklahoma in 1988.
The Sooners, fittingly, lost to Larry Brown’s Kansas team in that title game.
This season, though, looks as perhaps teams are ready to step up and finally provide a counterweight to the Jayhawks.
Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the regular season title to end the Jayhawks’ vaunted streak, Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament for the fourth time in six years and the Red Raiders, of course, can win a national championship at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Our expectations were to try to compete for championships and to have the resources and the mindset and the vision to do so,” third-year Red Raiders coach Chris Beard said. “Our goal has never been to make a tournament. It’s been to win the tournament. It’s easy to talk about, and really, really hard to do. But that’s where we started this whole thing, was just trying to have the expectations and the vision where we could be relative.”
Perhaps most maddening for the Big 12 has been this title drought amid being nearly universally praised as the best conference in basketball. It’s been the top-rated league by KenPom for six years running, and it’s double round-robin is recognized as the most difficult conference schedule in the country.
“I think the Big 12 has been competitive for years. Kansas has just had that magic,” Texas Tech assistant Glynn Cyprien, who previously spent four years at Oklahoma State, told NBCSports.com. “You look at it, there have been numerous teams that could have gotten to this point. They’ve been talented enough. They’ve played at high levels, but just haven’t made it for whatever reason.
“From top to bottom, the coaching is unbelievable. The best in the country. I think the game preparation among the coaches and staffs in this league is at another level. Overall, there are no easy teams, there are no easy wins in this league, unlike some leagues where you can steal some games at home or on the road. It’s hard to do in this league.”
That strength hasn’t translated into pinnacle postseason success for 11 years, though, and never for teams outside Lawrence.
“Oklahoma was a Final Four team a few years ago and didn’t make it to the final, but they were a team that had been highly ranked all year,” Bowlsby said. “We’ve been the highest-ranked in the RPI for five or six years in a row. If you get through our league and earn the championship, you’re a team that is almost certainly competitive at the national level.”
The title dearth since the George W. Bush administration and the failure of any program other than Kansas to make it to the season’s final day for more than 30 years makes the Big 12’s regular-season accolades ring a little hollow.
“If you’re going to try to call yourself the best,” Bowlsby said, “you have to win championships.”
Texas Tech, for the first time in school history, has a chance to do just that.
“I’ve been telling people my whole life, I think we can win championships and play on the last night of the season,” Beard said.
Beard’s proven his point correct. Now he can help the Big 12 win the argument that it truly is as good as it and everyone says.