- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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A league should be judged according to its depth, not its best.
Florida can’t mask the SEC’s flaws. And San Diego State’s excellent season doesn’t change the decline of the Mountain West.
Depth is the barometer.
And if that’s the universal yardstick, then West Virginia’s 102-77 win over No. 11 Iowa State on Monday was a statement about the Big 12. Kansas State’s 85-82 victory over No. 7 Kansas a few hours later was pivotal to the league’s image, too. This conference is stacked. And you only had to watch a pair of Big Monday games to see it.
Yes, some of the league’s expected contenders have stumbled in recent weeks. Baylor is struggling. Oklahoma State was sliding before Marcus Smart shoved a fan and earned a three-game suspension. Texas just suffered a lopsided loss to Kansas State over the weekend.
That’s one way to look at the conference. But it’s also important to note that Texas Tech secured its second top-25 win of the season Saturday in Tubby Smith’s first year. Oklahoma has fallen out of the Associated Press top 25 rankings, but the Sooners shouldn’t be ashamed of recent road losses to Iowa State and West Virginia.
Maybe the recent tumult within the Big 12 is the result of day-to-day competition in what might be America’s best league pound-for-pound.
The Big Ten has a strong case for that claim. Northwestern and Nebraska have defeated teams that have been in the top-third of the league at some point this season. So when coaches in that conference say, “There are no easy games” in the Big Ten, they’re not lying.
The Big 12, however, is a gauntlet, too. Sure, a matchup against TCU (0-10 in the Big 12) means a probable victory. But where are the other “easy” wins in this conference?
Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology report features six Big 12 teams. And West Virginia is mentioned on his “Next Four Out” list -- pre-Monday night, of course. Even Baylor (63 BPI) could get back into the mix with a rally down the stretch. There were seven Big 12 squads among the BPI’s top 50 entering Monday.
Even a game against Baylor still involves a matchup against a team full of elite athletes. Iowa State has seen better days but the Cyclones still have wins over Big Ten contenders Michigan and Iowa. Bruce Weber’s Kansas State program is clearly a handful for any squad in the conference. And Kansas is the best team in the league although the Jayhawks have been vulnerable, as Monday proved. But it’ll never be easy to face a team that might have the top two picks in this summer’s NBA draft.
And then there’s West Virginia, one of the key orchestrators of this Big 12 chaos. Some preseason publications listed the Mountaineers as the ninth-best team in the league, which seemed reasonable.
They won just 13 games last season and missed the postseason. Aaric Murray, Jabarie Hinds and Deniz Kilicli all departed. But Juwan Staten (18.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.3 SPG) has been unstoppable. If he wore a Kansas or Kentucky jersey, he’d be more popular. His numbers, however, show the college basketball world that he’s one of the best players in the game.
Their 4-1 record in their past five games (wins over Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Iowa State) is no fluke.
Kansas State is legit, too. Weber is making a run at Big 12 coach of the year. He lost his top scorer (Rodney McGruder) and point guard (Angel Rodriguez) from last season, but he has positioned the Wildcats to make another trip to the NCAA tournament. Monday night’s victory will certainly help.
The narrative within the Big Ten has been that prominent members, such as Wisconsin and Ohio State, have endured bad stretches in part because the league is just that tough.
Well, the Big 12 boasts the same storyline.
On one night, West Virginia beat a top-25 team by 25 points and Weber’s squad upset the Jayhawks, a team that has looked Final Four-good at times in recent weeks. Now, Kansas State is just two games behind Kansas for first place. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are both 4-6 in league play. Oklahoma, Iowa State and Texas are obviously tough. Baylor isn’t completely dead.
If you put the Big 12 and Big Ten in one gym, I don’t know which league would be left standing. But I’m certain that the Big 12 would put up a fight.