Big 12 stays a hoops superconference

Jason King

Early Monday evening, Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins sent a text message to basketball coach Bill Self and the rest of the department's staff instructing them not to talk publicly about reports that the Big 12 would stay intact.

Officials in the league's South division apparently issued similar orders. A Texas spokesman said Rick Barnes wasn't doing interviews, and Texas Tech's Pat Knight politely declined to speak via text.

"My school won't let me talk about it until it is finalized," Knight wrote.

Tough to blame the league's basketball coaches for being so cautious. The last thing they want to do is go against orders, hack off a big-wig in a suit and ruin a great situation. And make no mistake: This is a great situation.

Not just for football.

But for the Big 12's basketball programs, too.

"No one wanted change," said Kansas State's Frank Martin, one of the few Big 12 basketball coaches available for comment Monday night. "Change would've been tough on everyone. This league has been so powerful from a success standpoint.

"To think that we were about to push all of that to the side …”

Luckily, it didn't happen.

With Texas and three others on the cusp of bolting to the Pac-10 and Texas A&M prepared to leave for the SEC, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and a coalition came up with a proposal that promised the conference's 10 remaining schools they'd receive approximately $17 million-to-$20 million each year under a new TV contract. The deal will also allow schools to pursue their own networks.

By Monday evening Texas had announced it was staying put. The others – Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State – soon followed.

Coaches couldn't help but be elated as word of Texas' decision spread Monday night. Self had said all along he felt there was a great chance the Big 12 could be saved.

"It's not because I had a magic ball," Self told the Lawrence Journal-World. "It's what we had hoped all along. We though it was the best scenario for us and everybody thought it was the best thing [for Texas] as well.

"We should all understand it's been very fluid. I'm hopeful, as we all are, that this will be finalized. We'll have no further comment until it is."

Texas and Oklahoma have helped the Big 12 establish a reputation as one of the country's top football powers. But the conference's reputation for high-quality basketball is impeccable, as well.

In the past 10 years the Big 12 has sent 16 teams to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. No other conference can claim such a feat. And only one other league (the Big East) has had more teams (27) reach the Sweet 16 than the Big 12 (22) during that same time span.

"After the announcement, [RPI guru] Jerry Palm tweeted right away that the Big 12, with 10 teams, would be the strongest league in the country, top to bottom," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "I agree 100 percent.

"I don't know if there's ever been a time when every team in a league went to the postseason. But with the 10 programs in this league, I could definitely see that happening, if not this year, then in the near future."

That might be hyperbole, but with perennial Big 12 basketball bottom feeders Colorado and Nebraska out of the mix, the Big 12 is actually stronger with fewer teams. Oklahoma and Iowa State will enter next season in rebuilding mode but, other than the Sooners and Cyclones, every league school will enter the season with a legitimate shot to earn a berth in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

"Having a lot of teams doesn't necessarily make you a great league," Martin said. "In basketball right now, we've got 10 teams, and eight of them can legitimately be NCAA tournament teams next year. That's big time. No league in the country can rival that."

One year after spending most of the season ranked No. 1 in RPI, the Big 12 could be at the top of the college basketball world once again in 2010-11.

Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State and Missouri should all enter the 2010-11 season ranked in the Top 15. Ironically, those are four of the five schools that failed to receive invites to the Pac-10, Big Ten or SEC.

Even with all of their recent success, it would have been difficult for those schools to continue to recruit at the same level had they been forced to move to a non-BCS conference. Now it appears their momentum will only increase.

With Colorado leaving for the Pac-10 and Nebraska headed for the Big Ten, the Big 12 will undergo some changes in its conference scheduling. In the past the league was divided into two, six-team divisions, with each school playing members of its own division twice while facing members of the opposite division only once.

Now each team will play two games against the other nine teams. One on the road, one at home.

"That was one of the only things that ever caused any division during our meetings in the past," Martin said. "There was a big gap [between coaches] on this issue. Now anyone that ever complained can't complain anymore. If we're going to be a seeded league and put teams in order [for the Big 12 tournament], then everyone needs to play a balanced schedule."

Drew agrees.

"It's the only true way to determine a champion," he said. "When you have an unbalanced schedule, I don't think you can have a true champ.

"With everyone playing everyone, home and away … that's the way it's supposed to be done."

The new format will mean two less games on the first day of the Big 12 tournament, when the Nos. 7-10 seeds will play for spots in the quarterfinals.

"It's a heck of a league," Martin said. "I'm happy it's going to stay together."