Heading into the season, many commentators characterized the Big 12 as embarking on a "down year." If you listened more carefully, however, what they really seemed to be saying was, "Kansas will be down this year." And of course if someone other than the Jayhawks is going to win the conference title, how good can the Big 12 really be?
To be fair, with Kansas having won at least a share of each of the last seven conference titles, it's perhaps understandable that some perceive the Big 12 as "Kansas and everyone else." Moreover, after Texas lost three starters to the first round of the NBA draft for the second straight season, the only team that has consistently challenged the Jayhawks during their remarkable run looked to be facing a transition year of its own, opening the season without a single returning starter while preparing to rely on six true freshmen.
Nevertheless, to those who follow the Big 12 more closely, not only did the reasoning behind such "down year" forecasts seem flimsy, but top-to-bottom the conference looked likely to be at least as strong as a season ago and once again among the top two or three leagues in the country. And while some were singularly fixated on Kansas' perceived vulnerability as a barometer of the conference's strength, Big 12 hoops junkies were gearing up for perhaps the most highly anticipated conference season in the league's 16-year history.
Down year? What down year?
Even if it was fair to project Kansas as a "very good" team, rather than its usual "great," the Big 12 was still a strong bet to again be one of the nation's strongest top-to-bottom conferences in 2011-12. Baylor was entering the season sporting a roster so talented and athletic that John Calipari wouldn't look out of place strolling the sidelines in Waco. Missouri returned one of the strongest blends of talent and experience of any team in the country, featuring an abundance of shooters and a pure point guard ideally suited to facilitate the Tigers' open-court style of play. And following the "loss" of hoops mediocrities Colorado and Nebraska, the Big 12 looked to be lacking in weak teams. Kansas, Texas, Kansas State, and Texas A&M formed a strong second tier, the preseason thinking went, and even Oklahoma (with promising young talent and a savvy hire of Lon Kreuger) and Iowa State (benefactors of blue-chipper Royce White's transfer) were poised to be competitive.
If you've been following the Big 12 closely in recent years, you wouldn't make the mistake of confusing the potential opening at the top as a sign of overall weakness. Even with Nebraska and Colorado dragging down its averages, the Big 12 has been the nation's strongest top-to-bottom conference since 2007-08 as measured by the average Pomeroy rating:
Kansas may be on a dominant run in the title department, but the Jayhawks haven't been a giant overrunning a weak field, a la Gonzaga's recent run through the WCC. Year in and out, the Big 12 has largely been deep and competitive, typically featuring two or three elite squads, five to seven teams who receive NCAA tournament bids, and relatively few pushovers.
And wouldn't you know it, as the 2011-12 season moves in to February, the Big 12 features three teams ranked in the AP Top 10, six teams ranked No. 36 or better in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, and the Big 12's average Pomeroy rating of .8319 is -- as many of us predicted -- up from last year and ranks second-best in the country, closer to the top average held by the Big Ten (.8592) than the third-best mark of the top-heavy Big East (.7901).
Down year? Good luck telling that to Rick Barnes and Texas, who recently completed the nastiest six-game stretch that any team in college basketball will face this season: at Missouri (Pomeroy No. 7), at Kansas State (No. 22), vs Iowa State (No. 36), vs Kansas (No. 3), at Baylor (No. 12), and vs Missouri (No. 7). The Longhorns took the games at K-State, vs Kansas, at Baylor, and vs Missouri down to the wire, but ultimately managed only a home win vs Iowa State, and when the six-game stretch mercifully ended last Monday, Texas had gone just 1-5, seen their overall record drop to 13-9, sunk to 3-6 in the Big 12 standings... and risen in the Pomeroy ratings, from No. 27 up to No. 20.
Liberty, Equality...Round Robin
Sans perennially mediocre Colorado and Nebraska, the Big 12 this season is in the midst of one of its most balanced and competitive seasons ever, with three elite squads at the top (KU, Mizzou, Baylor), three more top-35 teams right behind them (Texas, K-State, Iowa State), and three top-100 teams (Oklahoma, A&M, Oklahoma State) who can win on their home floor (as when Oklahoma thumped K-State in Norman, and Oklahoma State trumped Missouri in Stillwater), with a lone pushover -- wretched Texas Tech, who is spending the year completely rebuilding under Billy Gillispie.
But far and away the best part about dropping to 10 teams was the opportunity for the Big 12 to begin playing a round robin conference schedule. For the first 15 years of its history, the 12-team conference was split into North and South divisions, with each team playing the other five members of its division twice and the opponents in the opposite division once (alternating years as the home team). And too often, the imbalanced schedule and relative strength of the divisions impacted the conference competition.
Although no one disputes Kansas has been the clear top team overall, on the whole the Jayhawks benefited from playing in the Big 12 North, which in many years provided Kansas with extra games against weaker teams in the conference. Between 2003-11, Kansas (North) and Texas (South) -- the top two teams in the Big 12 -- squared off 9 times in the regular season, playing 5 games in Lawrence and 4 in Austin. The home team won each of the first seven contests, before the two teams traded road victories in 2010 and 2011. Final head-to-head tally: Kansas 5, Texas 4.
But as evenly as the two teams played each other straight up, and as close as Texas (102-38) came to matching Kansas' 111-23 conference record across that span, the Jayhawks racked up at least a share of eight of those nine conference titles, while Texas managed a share of just two conference championships. What explains the disparity? The only teams other than Kansas or Texas to win a share of the Big 12 title were South Division members Oklahoma State (2004, outright) and Oklahoma (2005, tied with Kansas), and in seven of the nine seasons the average Pomeroy rating of the five South Division teams Texas had to face twice was superior -- often substantially so -- to the average rating of the five North Division teams that Kansas played twice. In other words, if there's no disputing Kansas as the Big 12's clear top team over the past nine season -- they won five of the nine Big 12 Tournaments, after all, including four wins against one loss head-to-head with Texas -- the gap between the Jayhawks and the second-best Longhorns was closer than Kansas' 8-to-2 edge in conference titles would suggest.
Naturally, the Big 12's new round robin format arrives in the season Kansas' former North Division members are the strongest they've been in years, while the four weakest teams are all former South Division residents. So it goes, and in the long run the new conference schedule benefits everyone. And never mind the long run: if the back half of this Big 12 season is as entertaining and competitive as the first half, fans are in for a fantastic finish to February.
Sizing up the remaining race
Following Saturday's slate of games, the Big 12 standings set up a tight and exciting sprint for the conference championship, as Kansas, Baylor, and Missouri are locked up at the top with identical 8-2 records, while Iowa State -- surging to 7-3 behind a three-game win streak over Kansas, K-State, and at Oklahoma -- trails by just a single game.
Those who closely follow Big 12 hoops instinctively know that the home court advantage in conference games is meaningful, but it was nevertheless enlightening to see supporting data for that conclusion in a recent recent study. Beyond the Bets reports that since 2006-07 Big 12 home teams are 227-184-8 (.552) against the spread in conference games, far ahead of every other conference, with only home teams in the Big Ten (.503) and ACC (.501) cracking the break-even mark over that same time.
Setting aside that against-the-spread data, a look back at the last three Big 12 seasons provides other useful insight into home team performance. Between 2009-11, Big 12 home teams went 192-96 (.667), right in line with home teams' 32-18 record (.640) in Big 12 games so far this season. And if we narrow our focus to the home and road records of just the conference's top four teams from each of the last three seasons? Over the last three seasons, the Big 12's top four teams dominated conference home games to the tune of 83 wins against just 13 losses (.865), and while they substantially outperformed the rest of the league in terms of road performance, they were still far more vulnerable when playing away from home, where they compiled a 60-36 record (.625).
Turning to this year's race between Kansas, Baylor, Missouri, and Iowa State, if we look strictly at the home-road splits over the remaining schedule, the Bears hold the advantage, with 5 of their 8 remaining contests to be played in Waco, while the others will play 4 home and 4 away. But if we look at the individual opponents remaining on each team's schedule, Baylor's advantage is not so clear:
||Remaining Home Games
||Remaining Road Games
||Baylor, Oklahoma St, K-State, Iowa St
||Oklahoma, A&M, Kansas, Tech
||Oklahoma St, Tech, Missouri, Texas
||Baylor, K-State, A&M, Oklahoma St
||Kansas, Iowa St, K-State, Oklahoma, Tech
||Missouri, Texas, Iowa St
||A&M, Oklahoma, Tech, Baylor
||Oklahoma St, Baylor, K-State, Missouri
Iowa State is a huge longshot, already trailing by a game and facing three road battles in which they'll be underdogs. As for Baylor, they may have the most remaining home games and they may be the most talented team in the Big 12 this season... but they've not been especially impressive across their first 10 conference games (particularly on defense), they already lost to Missouri in Waco, and the Bears were thrashed in Lawrence. Plus it's still the regular season, which has tended not to be Scott Drew's, um, time to shine.
As for Missouri, although emerging from Allen Fieldhouse victorious will be a tall order, the Tigers are capable of winning each of their other three road games, and they've been untouchable in Columbia this season. If that trend holds, they're a strong bet to share or win the title, barring a clean sweep on the road by Kansas. The Jayhawks are capable of pulling that off, of course, but Baylor won't be easy to knock off in Waco and Kansas is 2-2 across its last four at Bramlage, with one of the wins coming in overtime. The odds are Kansas drops at least one road game, but if it's just one and if they win the rematch with Mizzou in Lawrence, it's certainly plausible both the Tigers and Jayhawks could share the title at 15-3, giving Missouri its first Big 12 championship in its very last season in the conference.
And for Kansas, well... divisions, round robins, high expectations, "down year" forecasts... it's nothing new. Whoever could have predicted?
Along with contributing to Basketball Prospectus, Peter Bean is the manager of the NCAA Network for SB Nation and editor of the Texas Longhorns blog Burnt Orange Nation. Follow Peter on Twitter: @PB_at_BON.
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