OKLAHOMA CITY -- When the Big 12 was formed some 15 years ago, the baseball was so strong that it was easier to make an NCAA regional than it was the Big 12 tournament.
Oklahoma State and Texas were national powers. Oklahoma had recently won a national championship (1994). Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Missouri and Baylor were stout, too.
Times, however, have changed.
For the first time since 1997, only four Big 12 teams will participate in NCAA regionals. And had Missouri not secured an automatic berth by winning the Big 12 tournament, that number could have easily been three.
Big 12 regular-season champion Baylor is one of the eight national seeds. Texas A&M also earned the right to host a regional. And Oklahoma, which lost to Missouri in the conference tournament title game, also advanced to the postseason thanks to its late-season surge.
But the rest of the league will watch the regionals from home, including the Cowboys and Longhorns, who both went two-and-out in the Big 12 tournament to seal their exclusion.
Now it's up to the four in the regionals to prove the Big 12 is still one of college baseball's top conferences.
"It's pretty disappointing to think that the perception is that our league is down," Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said. "We have the same members, except for Nebraska, and they hadn't made the [Big 12] tournament the last two years, so they couldn't have really helped our RPIs."
Nebraska, which made three College World Series appearances in the 2000s, had fallen on hard times before heading off to the Big Ten last summer. It's true the Cornhuskers, who missed out on a regional again this year, probably wouldn't have helped the Big 12's RPI. But Nebraska's departure certainly hurt it, as programs around the Big 12 were forced to fill the void on their schedules with low RPI opponents. As a result, the Big 12 ended up just the fourth-best conference according to the RPI, behind the ACC, SEC and Pac-12.
"We need to do something to rectify that problem because this league's too good to not get but three or four people in," said former Oklahoma State coach Frank Anderson, who was fired after his Cowboys missed out on a regional for the second time in three years. "It shouldn't happen."
There were other factors, however, for the Big 12's fall in status. Baylor's domination of the league kept everyone other than Oklahoma, which handed the Bears five of their six Big 12 losses, from gaining any traction.
"Nobody really gained a lot by playing us this year," Baylor coach Steve Smith said, "because we didn't lose any to them."
League teams also posted few marquee nonconference victories, and got off to a sloppy start. Oklahoma State was swept by Cal-Poly to open the season. The Longhorns lost all three games in their series with Stanford.
Texas coach Augie Garrido also pointed out that the league has fewer top prospects than usual, which had already chipped away at the Big 12's preseason standing among the Baseball America publications of the world.
"Maybe we don't have the highest number of prospects in the conferences," said Garrido, whose Longhorns missed out on a regional for the first time since 1998 despite finishing third in the Big 12 standings. "But you don't have to have prospects to have good teams."
Ironically, though, two of the four programs that will be carrying the Big 12 banner this postseason are leaving, as Missouri and Texas A&M will be joining the SEC. That won't enhance the reputation of the conference. To replace them the Big 12 will bring in TCU and West Virginia. The Horned Frogs have now been to nine straight regionals and reached the 2010 College World Series. But the Mountaineers have virtually no baseball tradition and are scrambling to renovate Hawley Field, which at the moment is nothing more than a glorified high school diamond.
"We'll definitely carry the Big 12 flag with pride as long as we can," Texas A&M coach Rob Childress said. "Until somebody knocks us out."
But even with only four teams, the Big 12 could still be a tough out this postseason. Baylor holds the longest active home winning streak in the country and won't have to leave Waco for the first two rounds after earning the No. 4 national seed.
Texas A&M and Oklahoma, meanwhile, have the pitching to make deep runs, too. Starters Michael Wacha (2.21 ERA) and Ross Stripling (2.90) give the Aggies a formidable one-two punch on the mound. Oklahoma left-handed starters Jordan John (2.30) and Dillon Overton (3.24) and closer Steven Okert (2.92) have been dominant down the stretch, as the Sooners played their way from a bubble team to a No. 2 seed the final three weeks of the season.
"I will tell you this: It will be an end result," Golloway said. "I can't bet because of NCAA [rules], but I'm willing to say that I think we'll have two teams go really deep, if not all the way to Omaha, out of our league. I really believe that."