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Archive for Sunday, March 9, 2014

Column: Big 12 really is best league

March 9, 2014

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It happens every March in every power conference. As Selection Sunday draws closer, coaches take the podium and talk up their league as “the best in the country.”

Such words scratch the backs of fellow conference coaches, and it helps everybody in the league.

This year, it happens to be true for the Big 12.

The best guess is seven schools, or 70 percent of the conference members, will earn NCAA Tournament bids. If West Virginia could find a way to win a couple of games in Kansas City during the upcoming Big 12 tournament in Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., as many as eight schools could receive bids.

The ACC has a greater number of serious Final Four contenders — Virginia, Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina — but might not have more than a third of its 15 teams receive invitations to the most entertaining tournament on the planet.

Half of the 10 American Athletic Conference schools — Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Memphis and SMU — need not sweat out Selection Sunday. The league’s dropoff between the first and second division is as severe as any in the nation.

The Big Ten always has multiple Final Four threats, but just half the 12 schools have what it takes to earn at-large berths. Close second.

As usual, the Pac-12 is better than most know because most are snoring by the time their games finish, but with just one team (Arizona) in the Associated Press Top 25, it can’t quite match the Big 12.

The SEC is another underrated league, especially given the way Tennessee is playing of late, but the only Top 25 teams are bookends Florida and Kentucky.

The strength of the Big 12 made it impossible to avoid omitting quality players from the AP All-Big 12 teams to be released today. Here’s what I went with: Player of the Year: Kansas University’s Andrew Wiggins. Coach of the Year: Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger.

Freshman of the year: Wiggins.

Non-freshman Newcomer of the Year: DeAndre Kane, Iowa State.

First team: Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Kane, Wiggins, Melvin Ejim (ISU), Joel Embiid (KU).

Second team: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Marcus Foster (Kansas State), Markel Brown (OSU), Cory Jefferson (Baylor), Cameron Ridley (Texas).

Not surprisingly, Big 12 coaches put Smart on the first team. They have to prepare their teams to play against him, and he’s so strong, quick and aggressive, which makes it so difficult to devise a strategy to keep him from controlling games. But he figuratively took himself out of games by shooting too many three-pointers and forcing the action and literally took himself out of three games with a suspension after his altercation with a loudmouth in Lubbock, Texas. Smart’s a first-team talent, but until returning from the suspension, he did not perform like one.

Embiid, who played such a huge role at both ends for regular-season champion Kansas (14-4 in conference) before being sidelined three games by a back injury, was more deserving of first-team honors than Smart, whose Cowboys went 8-10 in the Big 12.

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