OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The Big 12 spent all season puffing out its chest. The league pointed to its RPI, that mercurial number that only seems to take on meaning in March, and the number of teams it had in the Top 25 as evidence of its superiority.
Then, Black Thursday came along.
Its conference tournament champ, Iowa State, was first to go down on the first full day of the NCAA Tournament. Fellow third-seed Baylor was ousted minutes later. No. 11 seed Texas capped the historically bad day for the league when it flamed out against Butler.
The good news? The Big 12’s other four teams don’t play until Friday.
“It’s been a rough day,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, whose ninth-seeded Cowboys will attempt to change the narrative when they play eighth-seeded Oregon in the West Region.
“I fielded a lot of questions the last two or three days about how the Big 12 has been the best league in America all year long. All the numbers say it,” Ford said. “And the popular question was, ‘Well, what if you don’t do so good?’ And I said, ‘That doesn’t matter.’ I’m not going to base anything on one day or three weeks.”
The problem is just about everybody else will.
The Big 12 has had seven teams dancing each of the past two seasons, equaling the conference record. But the results have been humbling at best, humiliating at worst.
Last year, just two teams reached the Sweet 16. One made it the year before that. With the exception of Kansas, which won the championship in 2008 and returned to the Final Four in 2012, no Big 12 school had made the national semifinals since Oklahoma State in 2004.
“I’m very surprised,” said Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, whose team plays Albany on Friday.
He should be very worried: Like Iowa State and Baylor, the Sooners are a No. 3 seed.
“That’s the nature of the NCAA Tournament, I guess. Two great teams that had great years and outstanding players,” he said. “It’s surprising anytime it happens, but it’s happened before.”
Black Thursday marked just the third time that two No. 3 seeds were defeated in their opening games — and the first time the losers came from the same league.
“I think it helps us,” Sooners forward Ryan Spangler said. “It shows us that anybody can beat anybody when it comes to March. And we’ll be thinking about those two losses tonight — see what went wrong, and try not to let it happen to us tomorrow.”
There’s a good chance the Big 12 can right its capsized postseason on Friday.
The Cowboys are in a toss-up game with the Ducks, and fifth-seeded West Virginia is a slight favorite against No. 12 seed Buffalo. But the Sooners are heavy favorites, as are the No. 2 seed Jayhawks, who open the tournament against No. 15 seed New Mexico State.
“We did go 0-3, but that’s out of our control,” Oklahoma State sharpshooter Phil Forte III said. “We can’t go out there and play those games for other teams.”
Make no mistake: Forte and the Cowboys were paying attention, though.
They were fully aware that Iowa State, which beat them twice this season, was unable to hold a 55-51 lead with 3:13 left in its 60-59 loss to UAB. They had TVs on in their locker room in Omaha while Baylor was blowing a 12-point lead in a 57-56 loss to Georgia State.
The Longhorns’ loss was the least unlikely, but could prove to be the most costly.
Texas coach Rick Barnes was already on the hot seat after his underachieving team, once ranked sixth in the nation, barely got into the NCAA Tournament. After a listless 56-48 loss to Butler, Texas athletic director Steve Patterson offered no comment on his future.
“I’m not going to make excuses for any of it,” Barnes said, summing up the season. “It is what it is. We finished, what, 20-14? Disappointing, but yet we don’t ever take getting into this tournament for granted, which I think some people think it’s just a given. It’s not a given. But we will never be just satisfied being in it because we want to win it all.”
Right now, the Big 12 would take winning a game.
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