Football brought the Big 12 together in 1996 and sent Nebraska to the Big 10 and Colorado the Pac 10 starting next season.
But something strange happened in that fourteen year interim -- the haphazardly assembled collection of public universities scattered throughout Texas and the Great Plains became a basketball conference.
While the ACC has slowly devolved into a top-heavy two-team league and the Big East is perennially overrated because of its location in the big media markets, the Big 12 has quietly been putting in work. From 2007-2009, three different Big 12 schools have had the best player in the country -- Texas (Kevin Durant), Oklahoma (Blake Griffin) and Kansas State (Mike Beasley).
ESPN's "Bracketologist" Joe Lunardi currently projects the Big 12 to get 7 teams into the Tourney -- a 1 seed (Kansas), a 3 (Texas), a 4 (Missouri), a 5 (Texas A&M), a 6 (Kansas State), a 10 (Baylor) and a 12 (Oklahoma State).
** Am I supposed to be impressed that this guy usually gets 62-63 of 65 teams correct? The only hard part about projecting the Tourney is "the bubble" -- which is at most 5-8 teams. My five-year old cousin could figure out the other 55 teams. **
The latest mock draft at Draft Express has five Big 12 players going in the first round, including three lottery picks.
Kansas (one of the true blue-chip programs) and Texas (the most profitable athletic department in the nation) will always be basketball powers. The story of the Big 12's rise is in the other schools, the schools "punching above their weight" nationally.
Waco and Manhattan aren't particularly close to any of the major metropolitan areas where big-time basketball recruits generally hail from, nor do Baylor and Kansas State have a particularly long history of basketball success. But in the last few years, both schools have become some of the biggest players in college basketball recruiting anyways.
Frank Martin at Kansas State and Scott Drew at Baylor have dived headfirst into the world of AAU basketball. Martin made Dalonte Hill, a 29-year old former AAU coach out of Washington DC, an associate head coach and gave him a $420,000 salary, rumored to be the largest in the country. Drew created the position of "coordinator of operations" for Dwon Clifton, John Wall's AAU coach, and had the 2005 graduate of UNC-Greensboro on staff for two seasons. While Wall never came to Waco, Quincy Miller, the #2 ranked player in next year's class and a guy Wall considers "a little brother", committed to Baylor last fall.
If you want a laugh, peruse Kansas State's roster -- there are only three guys from the state of Kansas on it! The Wildcats hail from places like Colombia, Florida, NYC, DC and Chicago -- apparently its easier to recruit players to the "Little Apple" than it is to the big one.
** Though Texas fans should not get too comfortable on our high horse. I personally don't think it's odd at all that seemingly every big-time prospect out of Findlay Prep in Las Vegas (which is as much a traveling team of AAU vagabonds gathered from around the country as it is a high school) chooses to come play basketball in Austin. **
Meanwhile, in Colombia, Missouri embraced a different direction with the hiring of Mike Anderson, a long-time assistant of Nolan Richardson at Arkansas and a disciple of his "Forty Minutes of Hell" system. It's a contrarian scheme, similar in philosophical origins to Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense at Texas Tech -- if you can't get the best recruits to come play for you, install a unique system that maximizes the talents of lesser ones.
There's no better example of the effectiveness of Anderson's system than the 2009 Sweet 16, when his team of unheralded recruits outgunned John Calipari's Memphis Tigers, who were led by Tyreke Evans, a McDonald's All-American who would become the NBA Rookie of the Year the next season.
But all three new powers are, along with the rest of the Big 12, still trying to catch Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks. Since Self came to Kansas in 2003, the Jayhawks have won at least a share of all but one Big 12 title. And Kansas was the unanimous pick of our esteemed panel of FanTake "experts" to win the Big 12 for the seventh consecutive time.
Check out team-by-team breakdowns from the "finest collection of bloggers" / "biggest collection of drunks" to ever cover the Big 12 here.