College of Houston to Huge 12: Basketball enters rugged terrain

Baylor coach Scott Drew has all the data-driven proof he needs that the Big 12 is the top men’s basketball conference in the country.

“They’ve run the numbers, it’s still the toughest conference in the country,” Drew said at the Big 12’s meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., in early May.

Fact: KenPom, a trusted college basketball analytics website, has the Big 12 as the best conference entering the upcoming season.

Number-crunching aside, the Big 12 has more indisputable evidence. The league is home to the past two national champions: Baylor (2021) and Kansas (2022). The Big 12 came within an overtime loss by Texas Tech in the 2019 national championship game of making it three straight titles, and Kansas was the No. 1 overall seed in the 2020 tournament that was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While football has been the driving force behind conference realignment, Big 12 men’s basketball stands to be a big winner with the addition of the University of Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and the University of Central Florida in 2023-24.

To be sure, KenPom adjusted its conference ratings to factor the Big 12’s loss of the University of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC and the four newcomers, and the Big 12 still held the top spot, just ahead of the Big Ten and SEC.

“One thing in today’s society, change is inevitable, and you better embrace it,” Drew said.

Drew said the Big 12 offers “top-to-bottom strength.”

Since 2014, the Big 12, which currently has 10 members and will expand to 14 for at least two seasons, has qualified a minimum of six teams to every NCAA Tournament. Five times during that span the league sent seven teams to the NCAA postseason.

The Big 12 became only the second conference to send different teams to three consecutive NCAA championship games, joining the Big Ten (Ohio State, Indiana and Wisconsin) from 1939-41.

“That’s what makes a great conference — it’s the top to bottom,” Drew said. “There’s no off-night. That’s the secret to the success of our league. It’s like a great meal. If you have one good dish and nothing else, it’s not a good meal. With us, it’s everybody pitching in and doing their part.”

From a competitive standpoint, Kansas coach Bill Self said the recent success and incoming schools position the Big 12 to offset the loss of Texas and Oklahoma.

“We’ll have our struggles ahead of us, but we’ll survive and be fine,” Self said. “The new schools certainly add competitive value. I think if you took us out of it, and added certain teams, (the Big 12) would be the most competitive conference.”

Houston is coming off a Final Four appearance in 2021 (a loss to Baylor in the national semifinals) and trip to the Elite Eight in 2022. Kelvin Sampson’s team is among the early favorites to contend for the national title.

“Houston deserves to have a good basketball program with all their history, and certainly Kelvin is bringing it to them,” Self said. “There’s not a better coach in America that gets his teams to play hard than Kelvin does.”

Cincinnati brings a strong basketball tradition, although the Bearcats have missed the postseason the past two seasons after making nine straight appearances.

BYU, which plays in the 19,000-seat Marriott Center, is “as big a sleeping giant possibility as anybody,” Self said.

UCF has the least basketball success of the new Big 12 schools, although the Knights narrowly missed an upset of top-seed Duke in the 2019 tournament.

Sampson, who is set to begin his ninth season at UH, is familiar with the Big 12 landscape. He coached at Oklahoma for 12 seasons, a span that included the merger between the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference to form the Big 12.

“There’s nothing like January, February battles as the season starts raging and you look up and have a three-game stretch coming up where you are at Baylor, home to Kansas and at BYU, for instance,” Sampson said. “You better be good.”

“The great thing about playing in those kinds of conferences,” Sampson added, “is they are going to send six to eight teams to the NCAA Tournament every year.”

Even before UH was invited to join the Big 12, Sampson often loaded his nonconference schedule against teams from the major conferences, among them Oregon, LSU, Arkansas, Virginia, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Washington and Wake Forest. The Cougars own NCAA tournament wins against Ohio State, Rutgers, Syracuse, Oregon State, Illinois and Arizona.

“I never looked at us as a team that wasn’t on their level,” Sampson said of playing a tough schedule. “I always thought we were on their level. People are saying what’s it going to be like now? We played those teams for four years. Now we get to play them twice a year.”

Sampson said UH’s move to the Big 12 will also be a chance to showcase the school’s basketball facilities, namely the Fertitta Center, where the Cougars have built one of the toughest environments in college basketball with a 79-4 record.

“It’s going to be good to share it now with the country,” Sampson said.

Sampson expects a similar welcome as UH is introduced to the Big 12.

“Can you imagine what it’s going to be like when we go to Tech? What it’s going to be like when we go to Kansas?” Sampson said. “We’re the newbie. But sometimes those newbies can be pretty good.”

PREVIOUS

I left: Lofty goals and a lengthy to-do list
Part II: changing the brand
Part III: A step up in recruiting
Part IV: The scheduling maze
Part V: Football seeks increase in attendance

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