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Monday, June 28, 2010
Coaches: Big 12 will be smaller but tougher

By Dana O'Neil

With conference realignment in the rear window -- or at least for now -- Big 12 basketball coaches are sighing in relief.

And simultaneously prepping for the next seismic shift in their landscape.

When Colorado and Nebraska bolt for their new conference addresses, the 10-member Big 12 will likely play a full 18-game round-robin schedule.

That means two more conference games than in years' past, and with the bottom of the Big 12 barrel headed to the Pac-10 and Big Ten, most likely two really tough games.

Imagine, for example, you’re Jeff Capel and you’re trying to put Oklahoma back together after a tumultuous offseason and disappointing on-court season. Instead of visits from the Buffs and the Cornhuskers, you’ve got, say Kansas and Kansas State, coming to your gym.

Not exactly a fair trade.

And not everyone is thrilled.

“Well I’ve always been a strong advocate to play 16 conference games,’’ Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Those two extra games do make a big difference. Those are two potential losses where you could go buy two games in nonconference. I think 14-4 is going to be your conference champion. We’re all just going to beat up on each other.’’

Echoed Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon: “I’d much rather play 16. It’s great for fans to play 18, but it’s tough on coaches.’’

That sound you hear is the strains of empathetic violins from the Big East, where We Beat Each Other Up has become the league motto.

But as Big 12 coaches contemplate watering down their nonconference schedules -- “We’re going to have to sit down at the table and figure out what the best scenario is as this unfolds next year,’’ Missouri’s Mike Anderson said -- they might want to look at how the Big (B)East has fared since expanding to its gargantuan size.

Two years ago, a record three Big East teams earned No. 1 seeds and seven squads made the NCAA tournament. Four of them went to the Elite Eight.

Last season, when the conference was more muddled rather than top-heavy, eight earned tickets.

More games might be more brutal for Big 12 win-loss columns, but it’s not necessarily a death knell for success.

“What hurts, from my perspective of being in the conference for a year for a league like the Big East is they have so many teams; for us, we have fewer teams and it shouldn’t hurt us so much,’’ said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, who spent two years at Cincinnati. “Our RPI should stay rock solid. Assuming teams win a share of games, their home games, the team RPI should be very good and for us, that’s beneficial to us.’’

Therein lies the rub.

That RPI, of course, is contingent on coaches not getting soft on their scheduling.

Yet more than one coach on Monday’s summer teleconference said he would consider dumbing down the nonconference slate to compensate for the additional Big 12 games. That could become a case of borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

“We’re not looking to back down from our schedule,’’ Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “And I think it’s important for our league to continue to schedule the way we do.’’

Barnes is right. The Big 12 (or whatever it’s going to be called down the road) is at a very unique crossroads. Left for dead a month ago, it’s basketball treated like an ugly stepchild to King Football, it could emerge as the strongest basketball conference in the country from top to bottom if it takes care of its product.

If the coaches embrace the 18-game round robin and understand in its inherent difficulty is the gain for the members; if they keep the quality of their non-league opponents somewhere above laughable, the conference once seen as the biggest loser could instead become the biggest winner.

“Any Big 12 game is a grind, so definitely two more makes this that much harder,’’ said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “At the same time, you can look at the glass half full or half empty. We’re half-full people. The rivalries are going to be that much tougher and fans certainly prefer Big 12 games. Players prefer to play in big games. Yes, it’s going to be tough but that’s what we want -- toughness.’’