It happens every mid-March. College basketball coaches across America talk up the strength of their conferences often in hopes that their subliminal messages will lodge in the brains of NCAA Tournament selection committee members dispensing the berths and seeds.
Such talk usually sounds contrived. Not this year in the Big 12. Coaches don’t need to oversell because it’s obvious the league is loaded, so much better than it looked during the nonconference season.
To appreciate the strength of the league, reflect back on the play in which Baylor’s Pierre Jackson used a cross-over dribble to get around Elijah Johnson in the lane and finish with a dunk. Jackson busted that highlight move Saturday in an 81-58 rout of Kansas on his way to 28 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. He made 11 of 13 shots from the field, including two of three three-pointers.
Jackson was named the Big 12’s preseason player of the year. He led the conference in scoring and assists, so it can’t be said he had a disappointing season. He met expectations, but the elite-talent pool in the Big 12 was deeper than anybody could have imagined.
How deep? So deep that the Big 12 coaches didn’t vote Jackson onto the five-man first team. Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey of Kansas, Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder and Oklahoma’s Romero Osby beat out Jackson. (The media gave Jackson the nod over Osby).
A check of two websites — NBAdraft.net and ESPN.com — that chart top draft prospects reveals that when Oklahoma State and Baylor meet, five players who are ranked among the top 40 prospects on one or both lists will share the floor. Again, Jackson is not one of them. Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash of Oklahoma State and Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson of Baylor are listed ahead of Jackson.
When that much talent is on the same floor, it usually means it’s a semifinal or final of conference tournament. In the Big 12 tourney, the schools meet in a quarterfinal game.
“The Big 12 conference is a league that has gotten much better as the year has gone on,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said when asked about his team’s chances of getting a bid with a 9-9 conference record. “There were several teams that were younger putting teams together. The Big 12 is as tough as it gets this year. Our nonconference record might not have reflected that.”
Drew also pointed to a victory at Kentucky early in the season as a point in favor of the Bears, the No. 6 seed in the conference championship that gets under way Wednesday in the Sprint Center for the bottom four seeds, Thursday for the top six.
“Personally, I’ve never seen the league better with more teams that can win our league tournament than we have right now,” 10th-year Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You go into the tournament in the past and you could say, ‘You know what? This team could win a couple of games,’ or, ‘This team could do well,’ or, “This could be an upset,’ but not very often do you go in and say, ‘I think that team could positively win three games in a row.’ And there are six teams that could win three games in row.”
Self added that he thinks Myck Kabongo’s return has made Texas a much better team and that West Virginia and Texas Tech are playing better. And he noted that TCU’s two conference victories (Kansas and Oklahoma) came against NCAA Tournament teams.
It’s a stretch to think any of the bottom four teams could win the four in a row required to make the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma doesn’t quite have as much talent as any of the other five teams that earned a first-round bye, but this is a wide-open conference tournament that should result in several close games.