A year ago, the Big 12 became a postseason joke with a losing record and three of its five teams suffering upsets in the NCAA Tournament.
But no Big 12 opponent will be laughing this year.
The Big 12 is poised to send more teams to participate in March Madness — professional prognosticators predict between five and seven Big 12 squads — and a tough regular season will have them ready.
Estimations of the ratings percentage index, which combines wins and losses with strength of schedule, puts the Big 12 No. 1, and entering Saturday, the Big 12 has the best nonconference winning percentage at .790.
No. 8 Kansas (20-6, 11-2 Big 12) is the favorite to win the Big 12 regular season championship and could sweep with a Big 12 tournament title as well. No. 19 Texas (20-6, 9-4) is just two games behind the Jayhawks. Then Iowa State (20-5), Oklahoma (19-7) and Kansas State (18-8) are bunched together at 8-5 in Big 12 play.
Oklahoma State and Baylor, both preseason favorites to compete for the conference championship, have struggled. But thanks to strong nonconference runs and a competitive Big 12, the Cowboys (16-10, 4-9) and Bears (17-9, 5-8) can still earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday’s Texas at Kansas matchup will showcase the Big 12’s top two teams. The Longhorns defeated the Jayhawks 81-69 in Austin on Feb. 1, Kansas’ first conference loss. The Jayhawks were also upset 85-82 on the road against Kansas State in overtime on Feb. 10.
Texas is coming off an 85-76 loss at No. 17 Iowa State on Tuesday but should be ready for another difficult conference road game. Kansas coach Bill Self seemed prepared for a tough matchup against the Longhorns when he addressed the media Thursday.
“I started thinking about all the great games we’ve had with them — and certainly we’ve had some — and we’ve had games that actually meant something toward the league race and things like this, and this is definitely one of those times,” Self said. “Hopefully it’ll be a classic as well after we sit back and look at it for a while.”
The Big 12 has featured instant-classic games seemingly every week this year. More than half of the conference games have been decided by 11 points or fewer, and 34 of those games were decided by nine points or fewer.
After Baylor defeated Oklahoma State 70-64 in overtime on Monday with both teams fighting to make their postseason cases, Baylor coach Scott Drew was asked about his team’s tournament hopes. He used his answer to highlight the Big 12’s toughness this season.
“In this league, you can play well and not win, so we need to control what we can control, play as hard as we can, as well as we can,” Drew said. “This year in the league, RPI-wise, strength-of-schedule-wise, that’s what this league’s about. It gives you a chance to go to the tournament with losses.”
Oklahoma State has lost seven straight, falling to second-to-last place in the Big 12. But the Cowboys have chances to rebound, starting Saturday at home against Texas Tech. Then the Cowboys will play TCU, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State to finish their season.
The Big 12 will stay at the top statistically for the year — No. 1 in strength of schedule, nonconference RPI and nonconference strength of schedule in addition to overall RPI. Big 12 teams are also averaging 76.6 points per game, the highest in the country.
But the final judgment for the Big 12’s 2013-14 class will rest on its postseason performance. Based on the regular season to this point, other conferences should watch out.
Creighton: The No. 11 Bluejays shot up seven spots in the AP poll this week after beating Butler and dominating then-No. 6 Villanova 101-80. Then Creighton won 85-70 on Wednesday at Marquette. Creighton senior Doug McDermott also has taken over the nation’s No. 1 scoring slot with 25.8 points per game.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers, who are still hoping to make the NCAA Tournament, have lost five of their last seven games, including a three-game skid against Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue. And things could get worse. The Gophers play No. 24 Ohio State, No. 15 Iowa and No. 20 Michigan in their next three games.
Games to watch
No. 13 Michigan State at No. 20 Michigan (11 a.m. Sunday, KTVT/11): The Wolverines will have home court as they try to avoid a two-game losing streak after falling to then-No. 21 Wisconsin on Sunday. Bragging rights are also on the line. Michigan is going for a season sweep of the rival Spartans.
No. 1 Syracuse at Maryland (6 p.m. Monday, ESPN): Syracuse flirted with disaster for two games — close wins against Pittsburgh and North Carolina State — before losing its undefeated season with an overtime defeat at home against Boston College on Wednesday night. The Orange has to play Saturday at No. 5 Duke and then take on the Terrapins on Monday in a tough back-to-back. This is a tedious stretch for the Orange, which is hoping for a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Baylor at No. 19 Texas (8 p.m. Wednesday, ESPNU): The Bears, who play Saturday at West Virginia, are fighting to make the NCAA Tournament. A win on the road against a talented Texas team could push Baylor, which has won three straight, over the hump.
Projecting the top seeds
Arizona (West): Two of the 24-2 Wildcats’ last three games have gone into overtime — they won one and lost one — but Arizona easily could win its next five games to close the season and help solidify a top seed.
Syracuse (East): The Orange, 25-1, finally lost this past week, but Syracuse still will retain a top position for now. A loss to Duke could change that.
Wichita State (Midwest): With Syracuse’s fall, Wichita State became the last undefeated team standing, and the Shockers are still going strong at 28-0. They play Drake on Saturday and then close out the season with Bradley and Missouri State.
Florida (South): The No. 2 Gators are picking up steam. Florida, 24-2, topped Kentucky on the road last weekend and is still undefeated in SEC play with five games remaining.
March 16: Selection Sunday
March 18-19: First round (Dayton)
March 20, 22: Second-third rounds (Buffalo, N.Y.; Orlando, Fla.; Milwaukee; Spokane, Wash.)
March 21, 23: Second-third rounds (Raleigh, N.C.; San Antonio; San Diego; St. Louis)
March 27, 29: South Regional (Memphis, Tenn.) and West Regional (Anaheim, Calif.)
March 28, 30: Midwest Regional (Indianapolis) and East Regional (New York)
April 5: National semifinals (Arlington)
April 7: Championship (Arlington)