Someone Please Save Big 12 Basketball!
3:28 PM EST on February 19, 2023
I promise I'm not going to fall into a nostalgia trap here. I understand that college sports has always been a bloodless business, that conferences themselves only exist to maximize TV rights fees, and that mourning the loss of something that's only been around for a decade in its current form would probably seem pretty silly to those who grew up with the Southwest Conference and the Big Eight.
But even with those caveats, whenever I've watched a Big 12 men's basketball game this season, I've found myself wishing it could stay like this forever. This is without argument the strongest conference in the sport, where teams boast rosters saturated with experienced upperclassmen and even the dregs of its standings pose a real threat to Final Four contenders. Every game has the potential to be a classic, and the slate on Saturday hammered home the impressive state of the Big 12 even further, as four of its five games featured thrilling changes of momentum and unpredictable drama.
We'll ignore the laugher that was TCU over Oklahoma State and just focus on the rest. In Morgantown, Texas Tech and West Virginia traded 11-0 runs in the second half before the Raiders pulled away in the final moments with a 78-72 win. In Austin, 3-10 Oklahoma pushed No. 6 Texas to the brink with a clutch three by Grant Sherfield before ultimately falling in overtime. In the Big Apple—Manhattan, Kansas—K-State overcame an eight-point halftime deficit and rallied to beat Iowa State in a battle of ranked foes. And in the headliner matchup, No. 5 Kansas absorbed an early shock against No. 9 Baylor but recovered from a 17-point hole to eventually blow the Bears out of Lawrence.
With four games left, seven of the conference's 10 teams (yeah, I know) remain alive for a regular season championship, and the conference tourney in Kansas City is shaping up to be a big cloud of dust with the occasional limb poking out. Looming over all the action, however, is the Big 12's massive impending transformation. In July 2024, Oklahoma and Texas will leave for the SEC, and their spurned conference will try to combat that loss by adding BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston. From a men's basketball standpoint, Houston could be a very strong new member, but the other three programs as currently constructed would likely struggle to even hit .500 in this conference.
As a product, the negatives are twofold, at least through the lens I enjoy college basketball. What's so great about the Big 12 at this moment is that everyone's a threat and everyone knows each other well. Each team hosts and travels to every other school over the course of a season, and none of their 18 games can be coasted through as a night off. No conference has a higher batting average than the Big 12—it's not even close—but even if that feature makes it the best outlet for a fan's time or money, quantity beats quality in the TV rights game. Texas and Oklahoma take their gigantic fanbases and join an SEC where they ultimately add to the clutter about as much as they sharpen it, while their old home will be diluted when BYU at home becomes an easy win and a UCF-Cincinnati game barely feels like it's on the same planet. This is just an extreme speed boost in the direction everything's been moving since before I was born (is TCU-West Virginia any less weird?), but it still makes me sad to see these once-tight schedules distorted until each opponent feels like a second cousin you only see every other Christmas.
Someone should do something about it! I thought for a while that maybe we could get Big 12 basketball designated as a National Historic Landmark—if absolutely nothing else, it is "associated importantly with the lives of persons nationally significant in the history of the United States" (Raef LaFrentz, Marcus Fizer) and "represent(s) some great idea or ideal of the American people" (labor exploitation). But apparently, I've since discovered, national landmark status is not actually a permanent safeguard against change, and designated landmarks can still be demolished. I then decided I could gather a group of protesters who would wear Tony Allen Oklahoma State jerseys and peacefully picket outside the offices of U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, but then I learned that the bastards killing the Big 12 have already made it so you can't even buy Tony Allen Oklahoma State jerseys.
So I'm out of ideas. I would love to hear yours, but I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that, as a fan, I will simply have to adapt to the awkward and internally inconsistent Big Ten and SEC monoliths just like I've adapted to every other greedy and annoying change I've seen in sports. That said, I'm confident that there will remain a niche for a dominant basketball conference where every single team is dangerous, and each school legitimately contributes something to the whole beyond the wallets of their alumni. Maybe these buffoons will figure that out a decade from now.
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