Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, whose league landed more teams (seven) in the NCAA Tournament than any conference, envisions using results in the 68-team tournament as proof to back statistics that suggest the Big 12 is the nation’s strongest basketball league this season.“I know the Big Ten will lay claim to being the best league. We’ll lay claim to it, too,” said Bowlsby, whose 10-team league has the highest percentage of members in the field (70 percent) and also ranks first among conferences in league-wide RPI and strength of schedule.The Big 12’s winning percentage in nonconference play (.797), based on a 102-26 record in intersectional matchups, also is the nation’s best this season.“The holy grail for any conference is, first, getting teams into the tournament. And then getting to the Final Four,” Bowlsby said during Monday’s Big 12 teleconference with league coaches. “We have a number of teams with the potential to play at that level if they get hot and stay healthy. I like our chances.”So does Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team won the Big 12 regular-season championship and received the highest seed of any participating school (No. 2 seed, South Regional). Self said league coaches and fans should be rooting for one another to back up the Big 12’s stellar statistics with victories as March Madness unfolds.“We all benefit from that, from recruiting to finances,” Self said. “If we advance, it does help validate” the perception that the Big 12 is the nation’s best basketball league this season.Embiid still doubtfulSelf said injured center Joel Embiid (back) is “progressing nicely” but remains unlikely to participate in this week’s games at the NCAA Tournament. Kansas officials have targeted Embiid, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, for a likely return if the Jayhawks (24-9) win two games and reach the Sweet 16. But not earlier.Kansas opens play Friday against Eastern Kentucky at 3:10 p.m. in St. Louis.“We feel good about where [Embiid] is. But there is no update on a time frame,” Self said Monday.Barnes reunionTexas’ game against Arizona State (8:40 p.m., Thursday) in the Midwest Regional marks a coaching matchup between former co-workers. Arizona State coach Herb Sendek served on Texas coach Rick Barnes’ staff when both were at Providence in 1988-89, Barnes’ first year at the school.“Rick Barnes is somebody who I consider a great friend,” Sendek said. “Somebody who is not only a great basketball coach, but even a better person. What he’s been able to do at Texas over the years is incredible.”Barnes said he met Sendek in 1978, when both were working at a summer camp in Pittsburgh. In regard to their time together at Providence, Barnes said: “Herb worked around the clock and was very loyal. I have nothing but wonderful thoughts about Herb.”Tight quartersWest Virginia (17-15) missed out on an NCAA berth despite a 9-9 record in league play. But the Mountaineers will face a familiar foe in tonight’s first round of the NIT. West Virginia meets Georgetown, a former Big East rival, but will play the contest in the Hoyas’ McDonough Arena, which has a seating capacity of 2,500. Georgetown’s home arena, the Horizon Center, is being used for a circus this week.“I’ve never played there. I expect the atmosphere will be wild,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who hopes to use the NIT as a springboard to a strong 2014-15 campaign for a team slated to return all five starters next season.“I know that has happened for other people,” Huggins said. “Any time you get more practices with your guys and more game experience, it’s going to help.”Hidden challengeIowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team is the No. 3 seed in the East Regional, expects to be pushed in Friday’s NCAA opener by No. 14 North Carolina Central (8:50 p.m., San Antonio) despite the seed disparity.The Eagles (28-5) enter with a 20-game winning streak and upset North Carolina State, a fellow NCAA team, during the regular season. Hoiberg said the Eagles’ leading scorer, Jeremy Ingram (20.6 points per game), will be “one of the better guards we play against this year. He’s a really solid, all-around player who can flat-out score. I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen on film from him and the entire team.”Ingram scored a season-high 37 points in the team’s 77-66 loss to undefeated Wichita State (34-0).
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch