Big 12 basketball coaches finally get break from rigors of league play with NCAA Tournament

Head coach Scott Drew yells toward his team during a Big 12/SEC Challenge game against the University of Arkansas on Jan. 29 in the Ferrell Center. Kenneth Prabhakar | Photo Editor

By Michael Haag | Sports Editor

Go ahead and exhale. The gauntlet is finally over.

No. 11 and third-seeded Baylor men’s basketball, along with every other member of the Big 12 that made the NCAA Tournament, can finally take a deep breath in knowing that its next opponent isn’t a Quad 1 conference foe for the 20th-straight game.

Each game was a heavyweight slugfest, and the Big 12 is often regarded as the best men’s basketball conference in the country.

“Analytically, you just go to the numbers, because facts don’t lie,” head coach Scott Drew said. “[ESPN Sportscaster] Dick Vitale says it’s the toughest conference he’s seen in 20 years. But I think KenPom [advanced] analytics backs up all that stuff.”

No. 3 and top-seeded University of Kansas won its outright Big 12 regular season title this season with a conference record of 13-5. Since 1996-97, the team that wins the Big 12 has only totaled five losses in conference action two other times (Kansas, 2014-15 and Kansas, 2017-19).

The Jayhawks even went on a three-game losing streak at one point during league play this year.

“I mean it’s [an] unbelievable league,” Iowa State University men’s basketball head coach TJ Otzelberger said. “Obviously, anybody can beat anybody. I mean, whoever at the time is toward the bottom of the standings can beat the teams at the top. There’s no other league in America that has as good of coaches, as good of players, as good of programs. And so, you have to be at your best every single game. There’s no night off. There’s no time to catch your breath.”

Before the Big 12 Tournament, Drew said the seeding for all ten teams really wasn’t of any significance in terms of a tier system, since everyone is capable of beating each other.

“You look at it, and you can see a one by a name, you can see a 10 by a name, and us coaches know that there isn’t that big a margin,” Drew said. “And the players understand it in the Big 12 because they’ve seen it first and up close how good everybody is and how competitive it is and how physical and tough it is.”

Following Selection Sunday, the Big 12 ended up with a nation-high 70% of its teams in the March Madness field. Historically, the conference has lived up to the hype, as the seven selections marked the seventh season since 2010 in which that many teams made the field, including six of the last nine tournaments conducted.

Additionally, the Big 12 has had six or more NCAA Championship teams in 19 of 26 years, including 10 seasons since 2012. From 2014-23, the conference had 60 selections, the third-best total among all conferences.

The league has also captured the last two national championships with Baylor owning the 2021 title and KU having just hoisted the 2022 trophy. Big 12 teams have taken part in the last four Final Fours and the past three national championship games. 60% of Big 12 institutions have made their way to the Final Four since 2022, the highest percentage among conferences.

“I think our league could take everybody [to the Big Dance],” Otzelberger said. “I know that’s not what the metrics say, and I know that’s not where things stand right now. But we’ve been on the court with the nine other teams and we know what they can be on their best night. And that’s a team that can go and win not only a game, but win two games [in the tournament].”

On the women’s side, the Big 12 had a nation-best 60% of its members punch its ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The percentage of programs was the highest of any Division I conference. The conference secured six bids for the second-consecutive season and has had at least five selections for the 22nd time in 26 tournaments.

When Baylor women’s basketball’s junior guard Jana Van Gytenbeek got through the rigors of Big 12 play for the first time, she said it was eye-opening. Gytenbeek transferred to Baylor from Stanford University, where she was a part of the 2021 national championship squad.

“I would say the competitiveness of the conference was shocking to me,” Gytenbeek said. “I had heard that everybody can beat everyone in it. And that’s true. And I really didn’t know that, because in the Pac-12 there’s kind of a hierarchy. You have to go in with the right mindset.”

Baylor women’s basketball head coach Nicki Collen said the Big 12 is “a really deep league” and the field should have a majority of the league’s teams. But Collen said she knows the women’s side hasn’t lived up to the men’s side historically.

“They can all beat each other up and still be on the two lines and the three lines,” Collen said. “With us, we’re beating each other up and they’re saying we’re on the six and eight and nine lines.”

Collen said she understands why it’s like that, but she believes the women’s side is on a trajectory to change public opinion and be mentioned as the top Power Five conference like the men.

“We don’t have the respect that the Big 12 men do, but we’re going to get there because I don’t think there’s that much of a difference,” Collen said. “I just think it’s the outside perception.”