The Texas Longhorns are going to be in the NCAA tournament, so they’re not a particularly weak team within the larger world of college basketball. Yet, the Horns started a 24-hour sequence in which the nuttiness of both the Big 12 and all of college basketball this season was perfectly encapsulated.
Monday and Tuesday were basically just another pair of nights ending in the letter “Y,” and that doesn’t even include Kentucky blowing a 17-point lead to Tennessee or Providence losing to DePaul.
The Big 12, as a conference, might still end the way it always has over the previous 11 seasons — namely, with Kansas winning the title — but this ruthlessly competitive conference is spitting out the plot twists left and right.
Monday, Texas got the wild Jesse Pinkman party started.
The Longhorn football team won last December in Waco, altering the New Year’s Six bowl puzzle by pushing Baylor out of the Sugar Bowl and into the Russell Athletic. That result stung for the Bears. So did this past Monday’s loss to Shaka Smart’s Bevo Boys of basketball. Baylor, you see, had won at Iowa State earlier this season. BU coach Scott Drew conquered Hilton Coliseum for a second straight year. He had a right to expect — coming off such a conquest — that Baylor could make a legitimate run at the Big 12 crown.
There’s no shame in losing at home to Oklahoma or on the road at Kansas — Baylor had done both of those things in the month of January — but with those results on the books, Baylor could not afford to give away losses to middle-of-the-pack teams in the conference. A Texas team which lost to both Texas Tech and TCU began the Big 12 season in the middle of the league. Little about the Longhorns suggested that they would be able to make their way into the top tier of the conference.
Texas found a way to win at West Virginia earlier in the season, but a lot of pundits (this one included) chalked that up to the Mountaineers’ propensity to be erratic and squander newfound prosperity. Texas’s ability to beat Baylor on the road comes as an unexpected plot twist, one which thinned out the herd in the Big 12 and created a more tiered conference race in this first week of February. The Longhorns are now in the hunt, while the Bears’ margin is a lot smaller.
That was Monday night in Waco.
Then came Tuesday night in the aforementioned Hilton Coliseum.
The same West Virginia team which didn’t just lose at Florida (an SEC bubble team) on Saturday, but got crushed by the Gators, readjusted itself and outplayed Iowa State in the final 90 seconds of regulation to hush Hilton Magic. West Virginia very much remains a team with a penchant for pulling off the unpredictable, but this time, that propensity worked to the Mountaineers’ advantage, not their disadvantage. Tied with Oklahoma atop the league with only two conference losses, the Mountaineers know that OU must come to Morgantown later in the season. WVU has, in one swift stroke, changed the nature of the conference race such that it will likely stay with the Sooners and Kansas to the very end.
For Iowa State — now with four conference losses and a road trip to Kansas still on the way — the loss feels like a standing-eight count in the Big 12 race. The NCAA tournament will still be there in several weeks, but the pursuit of an especially high seed and the chance of a conference title — two possibilities which animate the final days of February for established programs — will not materialize for first-year head coach Steve Prohm. The Cyclones handled Kansas and Oklahoma at home, but lost focus against two teams which haven’t received as much publicity this season.
Yawn — it was just another 24-hour period from Monday night through Tuesday night in the Big 12.
College basketball’s unhinged 2016 season shows no real signs of normalizing.