If you're just now starting to pay attention to college basketball, you may start to hear pundits and fans say that the Big 12 conference is down this year in hoops. But is that really true?
It depends what question you're asking. If the question is whether the Big 12 this season as strong as it has been in many recent seasons, then yes, as of now the conference appears not to be quite as strong as it often has been. But if instead the question is whether the Big 12 is down this year as compared to other top conferences, then no -- absolutely not. On that count, far from being "down," the Big 12 is once again one of the top two or three conferences in the country.
Reputation bias isn't quite as strong in college basketball as it is with football, but I suspect that skewing many people's perception of the Big 12 this year is the fact that Kansas is not an obvious Top 5 team, while KU's top two challengers from last year -- Texas and KSU -- are unranked squads trying to reload. The Wildcats lost the brilliant Jacob Pullen and forward Curtis Kelly, while Texas lost three players to the first round of the NBA Draft for the second consecutive year. Even so, while the next month of non-conference play will tell us more about just how strong it is, as we roll into December the Big 12 is once again one of the deepest and strongest top-to-bottom conferences in the country.
The young Longhorns didn't do themselves or the conference any favors by losing to Oregon State and NC State after leading both games down to the very end, but even Texas is better than many realize, and not only that but there are few teams with as much potential to improve as this young Longhorns squad (like many teams in the Big 12 this season, one of the least experienced in the country). Although Texas finds itself in the unusual position of being unranked heading into December, the Big 12 does have four teams ranked in the AP Top 25 -- No. 6 Baylor, No. 10 Missouri, No. 13 Kansas, and No. 25 Texas A&M.
But let's set aside the polls, which are more or less meaningless reflections of pre-season perception, and focus instead on team ratings based on performance data. Using Ken Pomeroy's ratings, let's take a look at the Big 12's profile as of today, as well as each team's notable remaining non-conference games.
|Rank||Team||W-L||Notable Remaining Non-conference Games|
|Missouri||7-0||at Villanova (54), n-Illinois (39), at Old Dominion (97)|
|Kansas||5-2||Long Beach St (61), Ohio St (1), Davidson (78), at USC (124)|
|Baylor||7-0||at BYU (21), n-St. Mary's (33), n-West Virginia (35), n-Mississippi St. (60)|
|Kansas St.||5-0||n-West Virginia (35), n-Alabama (12)|
|Texas||5-2||Temple (40), at North Carolina (5)|
|Oklahoma St.||5-2||at Missouri St (56), n-Pittsburgh (26), n-New Mexico (37), n-Alabama (12), Virginia Tech (49)|
|Texas A&M||6-1||at Florida (9)|
|Oklahoma||5-1||Oral Roberts (82), Arkansas (76), at Cincinnati (47)|
|Iowa St.||5-3||Iowa (121)|
|Texas Tech||4-3||at Oral Roberts (82)|
Through this past weekend's games, Big 12 teams have an average Pomeroy rating of .8131, second only behind the Big 10 (.8529) and ahead of the Big East (.8011), SEC (.7836), ACC (.7723) and Pac 12 (.7035). So again, as compared against the rest of the country, the Big 12 is far from down, but is one of the two or three strongest conferences, as it consistently has been over the past decade.
As to the whether the Big 12 is down as compared to itself in recent past years, the conference is indeed a bit down, its .8131 average team rating the lowest since 2005-06 (.8104) -- lower than 2010-11 (.8294), 2009-10 (.8980), 2008-09 (.8660), 2007-08 (.9140), and 2006-07 (.8325).
In part this seems likely a reflection of how many Big 12 teams are young and inexperienced. We've already mentioned Texas' freshman-laden squad (324th nationally in terms of experience), but Kansas State (262nd), Oklahoma State (299th), Texas A&M (171st), and Texas Tech (325th) are all among the least experienced major-conference teams. (Only Missouri (12th) and Kansas (57th) have rosters largely comprised of experienced returnees, and in the Jayhawks' case, they're suffering as much from missing talented freshmen who were expected to make it to campus but didn't.) While the high number of Big 12 teams relying heavily on talented young players likely explains part of the reason the conference is a bit down, such teams also would seem to have the most room to improve as the season goes on. I expect the Big 12 to be a substantially tougher conference in February than it is now.
Just keep all this in mind when you hear that the Big 12 is down this year. There's no question that the conference is down from recent years, but while the race for the Big 12 title looks as wide open as any in recent years, that is as much as anything a reflection of the depth of quality teams; excepting Texas Tech, every team in the Big 12 will be a favorite or near-favorite to win their conference games at home.
We'll learn more about the Big 12 conference's relative strength across the coming month of non-conference games, but there's no question that while the conference may be down, the Big 12 is once again one of the best and toughest conferences in college basketball.