It’s no surprise where the Big 12 finds itself heading into the Sweet 16.
The NCAA Tournament has been turned upside down after a stunning start. Nine of the top 16 seeds already have been eliminated.
Five of the nine teams s elected by ESPN.com as its top choices to cut the nets in San Antonio were eliminated in the first weekend of the tournament.
The Big 12 has been largely immune from this form of “March Madness,” a trend befitting a conference that was judged as the nation’s toughest during the regular season.
Four of the conference’s teams remain alive in the tournament. It’s tied with the ACC for the most remaining programs from a conference. And the Big 12’s 40 percent ratio by far is the best of any conference.
And perhaps most notably, the Big 12’s four best teams during the regular season are the ones still alive in the tournament. No conference can make that claim.
The Big 12 has tied its conference record for the most Sweet 16 participants. It also had four teams in 2003, a season where it sent two teams to the Final Four.
So far, the main reason for the Big 12’s success is its experience.
Senior senior guard play is a common thread that binds most successful tournament teams. It has so far this season for successful Big 12 teams.
Big 12 guards have been a revelation
It’s certainly been the case for the remaining Big 12 teams, keyed by standouts like Jevon Carter of West Virginia, Devonte’ Graham of Kansas, Keenan Evans of Texas Tech and Kansas State’s Barry Brown.
That foundation has helped the conference avoid the pitfalls that have tripped others.
Kansas has played well enough to advance, although it faced inspired challenges from both Penn and Seton Hall and Penn in its first two tournament games.
The Jayhawks’ play against Seton Hall provides a template why they could advance to San Antonio.
Udoka Azubuike’s return has been critical for Kansas
The return of Udoka Azubuike to their rotation provides an inside presence that has been missing for the last couple of weeks.
Azubuike had a rocky return at times against Seton Hall and Angel Delgado. He still looks unsteady as he recovers from his knee injury. But just having him in the lineup provides depth for a struggling rebounding team like the Jayhawks.
And even as Graham clanked through a miserable 1-for-7 shooting night with 5 turnovers against Seton Hall, the Jayhawks still had enough left to win.
Azubuike must play better for longer stretches if the Jayhawks advances. Duke limits tournament opponents to 64.5 points per game and outrebounding opponents by 9 per game. The Blue Devils’ strong early play has made them the fashionable choice to emerge from the Midwest despite being seeded lower than Kansas.
Omaha is less than 100 miles from the Kansas line. The Jayhawks should be a clear fan favorite in a regional final that will also include Syracuse, Clemson and the Blue Devils.
West Virginia humming like early in season
The Big 12 team that is playing the best in the tournament so far is West Virginia. Their “Press Virginia” defense is made to order for single-elimination tournaments. It explains why the Mountainers have limited opponents to 40.2 percent field-goal shooting so far. The Mountaineers have forced 34 turnovers they turned into 44 points.
Senior guard Jevon Carter averages 24.5 points per game. And a balanced scoring attack has featured four scorers in double figures in both games. West Virginia has at least four double-figure scorers this season, it is 20-2.
But Villanova, the top ranked team still standing in the tournament, has played efficiently so far. The Wildcats had 38 assists on its 56 field goals in its first two tournament games. Villanova sank 31 3-pointers and hit 45.6 percent behind the arc in the tournament.
And the Wildcats have some institutional knowledge of Huggins’ switching array of zone defense stemming from their history together in the Big East.
Texas Tech has been a revelation as well. The Red Raiders needed a gritty comeback to turn back Stephen F. Austin in the first round. And the Red Raiders dodged two major bullets as Florida missed two potential game-tying 3-pointers on its final possession in a wild 69-66 victory.
The nation is learning about Evans, who has emerged as a major player even as his practice time is limited as he recovers from an injured foot. Evans is averaging 22.5 points in the tournament with 33 of those points coming during the second half.
Purdue remembers Chris Beard well
They will face Purdue Friday night in Boston. The Boilermakers are familiar with Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, who made his early tournament name with a wild double-overtime victory over them in the 2016 tournament while at Arkansas-Little Rock. The Trojans overcame a 13-point deficit in the final 3:33 of regulation.
Matt Painter and his team remember that game and Beard, who was chirping afterwards about not overlooking mid-major teams in the tournament. Purdue assuredly won’t discount this team coached by Beard.
And Kansas State did what No. 1 tournament seed Virginia couldn’t do when it eliminated Cinderella UMBC on Sunday night. The Wildcats have limited opponents to 51 points and 32.2 percent shooting in their first two games.
They also will likely have leading scorer and rebounder Dean Wade back in the lineup after missing his last three games with a sprained ankle.
Kentucky will be the Wildcats’ toughest task to date. Kansas State will be gunning for its first win against Kentucky after nine previous losses. The most recent one came in the 2014 tournament.
No Big 12 team is a regional favorite
Kansas is the only Big 12 team favored in their regional semifinal games. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if all of the teams are eliminated by the Final Four.
But so far, no Power 5 conference has lived up to expectations like the Big 12.
Considering some of the problems that have dogged it recent years, the tournament success is something to be celebrated.
Especially for a conference that hasn’t had much to cheer about during that period.
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