- Kansas was the biggest story in the Big 12 again last season, but the conference deserves credit for the depth it displayed in 2016-17.
The NCAA tournament tends to obscure everything that came before it in a given college basketball season. Which teams won those Thanksgiving-week nonconference tournaments? Which players were making compelling cases for national awards in December and January? The image of Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and other North Carolina Tar Heels cutting down the nets in Glendale moments after a six-point win over Gonzaga in the title game won’t fade away soon, but in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at what else happened during the 2016-17 campaign. This is the second installment of a conference-by-conference review series, focusing on the Big 12. We've already reviewed the ACC.
Most important thing we learned: The Big 12 was underrated
A lot of attention was given all season to the ACC, and with good reason. That conference sent nine teams to the Big Dance and housed five teams in the top 16 of the AP Top 25 poll, leading many to call it one of the deepest leagues ever. So it might surprise you to learn that it was the Big 12, not the ACC, that led kenpom.com’s conference rankings, which ranks leagues by adjusted efficiency margin. The Big 12’s mark of +19.81 was head and shoulders above the rest of the country—in fact, it was the highest mark of any conference since the ACC in 2003–04. No other league since then had even hit +18.
The strength of the Big 12 was reflected in the fact that the top five hardest schedules in the nation all belonged to teams from it. Beyond Kansas and Baylor, which both spent time ranked first by the AP, the conference also had the No. 1 offense in adjusted efficiency in Oklahoma State, and the No. 1 team in defensive turnover percentage in West Virginia. Only a 10-team league, it wasn’t as deep as the ACC, but it sent the same percentage (60%) of its teams to the NCAA tournament. The Big 12’s performance in 2016–17 shouldn’t be overlooked.
Best game: Kansas 84, West Virginia 80 in OT (Feb. 13, 2017)
The Mountaineers were 2:58 away in mid-February from pulling off the rare double feat of winning in Allen Fieldhouse and sweeping the regular-season series with the Jayhawks. With less than three minutes to play, West Virginia held a commanding 14-point lead, its kenpom.com win probability sitting at 99%. How then, did it lose by four in overtime?
Enter Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. Mason scored 11 of the Jayhawks’ final 21 points in regulation, while Graham added eight, including a clutch three-pointer with 34 seconds remaining. Mason then hit two free throws with 21 seconds to go to tie the game. Kansas had erased the entire 14-point deficit in two minutes and 22 seconds, improbably sending the game to overtime. OT would also belong to Mason and Graham, who combined for 10 of the Jayhawks' 13 points to complete the comeback and seal the win.
Best player: Frank Mason III, Kansas
The national player of the year, Mason made a big leap as a senior, picking up the mantle of those a season ago who stuck around for their final year of school and starred. Mason put together what was easily his best season at Kansas, taking over as leading scorer and No. 1 option for the first time in his four years. His numbers improved nearly across the board as he averaged 20.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Mason shot 49.0% from the floor and 47.1% from three, including a 50.0% mark from behind the arc in Big 12 play, which led the conference. The Jayhawks’ elite backcourt trio of Mason, Graham and Josh Jackson wreaked havoc on opposing defenses, but it was Mason who captained the ship, logging a team-high 36.1 minutes per game. Kansas will miss his talent and his veteran leadership next year as it enters life without the graduating senior.
Best coach: Bill Self, Kansas
Winning the Big 12 is nothing new for Self, but his Kansas team once again commanded the conference, going 16–2 in league play to run away with the regular-season title. The Jayhawks’ season was derailed in the Elite Eight by Oregon, but for large parts of the season, Kansas looked unstoppable, winning 18 straight after a season-opening loss to Indiana and going 3–1 combined against Baylor and West Virginia. Self developed Mason, who became the first-ever Jayhawk to be named the AP national player of the year, and recruited elite prospect Jackson to Lawrence. Kansas rolled through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament before running into the Ducks, but advanced farther than any other Big 12 program.
Best newcomer: Josh Jackson, Kansas
Yes, another Kansas player. (When you win a conference by four games, it usually means you have some pretty good players.) Jackson, who came to Kansas as the nation’s No. 1 recruit, made headlines on and off the court during his one year in Lawrence, with news coming out right before the NCAAs began about an allegation that he threatened to “beat” a women's basketball player during a confrontation in December. Jackson had been previously charged with misdemeanor criminal damage. Additionally, the guard was suspended for Kansas’s Big 12 tournament opener after hitting a parked car and leaving the scene of the accident in early February.
On the court, Jackson largely lived up to his lofty ranking, averaging 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting 51.3% from the floor. His best game as a Jayhawk came when he willed Kansas to a one-point win over Texas Tech in February, scoring his team’s final five points to cap a 31-point, 11-rebound performance on 12 of 15 shooting. Defensively, Jackson was also a standout, averaging 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks. The fact that the Jayhawks lost that Big 12 tourney game to TCU without him illustrates how valuable he was.
Biggest surprise: Baylor
Talk about going 0 to 100. The Bears didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, but by the first week of December they had leapfrogged into the top five. Then on Jan. 9, they earned the AP No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history. Baylor’s meteoric rise was the direct result of a robust start to the season, which included top-10 wins over Oregon, Louisville and Xavier. The Bears didn't lose until a dreadful showing at West Virginia on Jan. 10, when they were flummoxed by the Mountaineers’ press and committed 29 turnovers. And while the Scott Drew-led bunch hit a few obstacles during Big 12 play, finishing 12–6, it notched its highest win total (27) as a program since 2011–12 and definitely exceeded expectations.
Biggest disappointment: Texas
The Longhorns took a big step backward in Shaka Smart’s second year at the helm, going from being ranked No. 21 to start the season to sputtering to an 11–22 record and a dead-last finish in the Big 12. They were a young team, with Shaquille Cleare being the only upperclassman to log at least 20 minutes per game, and struggled too often offensively to capitalize on the stronger defense they played. Texas’s three-point (29.2%, 345th in the country) and free-throw (65.0%, 322nd in the country) shooting were both dismal, and their leading scorer, sophomore Tevin Mack, was suspended in January and never took the court again, leaving the program a month later.
It should be noted that the Longhorns’ strength of schedule ranked as the fourth toughest in the country, per kenpom.com, which was largely due to its rough Big 12 slate. But a 4–14 mark in conference play and losses to UT Arlington and Kent State in its non-conference schedule are disappointing, no matter how you slice it. Freshman standout Jarrett Allen has declared for the NBA draft, but Smart has the current No. 6 recruiting class coming to Austin in the fall as Texas looks to rebound from 2016–17.
One burning off-season question: Can anybody dethrone Kansas?
Every year, people wonder if this will be the year that someone besides the Jayhawks will win the Big 12 regular-season title. Kansas has captured the crown for 13 straight seasons, a testament to the job Bill Self has done in building his roster and developing it year in and year out. The Jayhawks are losing Mason and Jackson, who combined for over 37 points per game, as well as glue guy Landen Lucas. But Graham is coming back for his senior season, and former top recruit Malik Newman will suit up in 2017–18 after sitting out a year as a transfer. The Jayhawks are also still in the hunt for elite point guard recruit Trevon Duval and are set to bring in five-star prospect Billy Preston and four-star Marcus Garrett.
Who could challenge Kansas next season? If Motley opts to forgo the NBA draft, Baylor will certainly be in the conversation again, but the best bet is probably West Virginia. Jevon Carter, the Mountaineers’ leading scorer and anchor of Press Virginia, will be back, as will Esa Ahmad and Daxter Miles Jr. West Virginia does lose two starters, but brings in five recruits, including four-star center Derek Culver.