For most of the twenty years of its existence, the Big 12 has featured some of the best teams in the country. Kansas is the definitive blue blood, with a rich basketball history featuring the inventor of the sport, James Naismith, as the first coach of the basketball program. Many of the other nine schools have had successful runs, particularly Kansas State and Texas. In the years since the Big 12 dropped to 10 teams, however, the conference has firmly planted itself in the upper echelon, perhaps only surpassed by the ACC and Big Ten. How has the conference improved so much over such a short time? By landing some of the best coaching hires in the nation.
In 2011-12, the first year of the Big 12’s current 10 team format, six teams made the NCAA Tournament. A 60 percent inclusion rate in March Madness is an impressive feat, especially considering Kansas and Missouri were both 2 seeds. However, the season was soured when Missouri, widely considered one of the best teams in the country, was upset by 15th seed Norfolk State. Many of the Big 12’s current coaches were not at their current school in 2011-2012. Only Bill Self (Kansas), Lon Kruger (Oklahoma), Scott Drew (Baylor) and Bob Huggins (West Virginia, who was in the Big East at the time) were at their current school five years ago. While that may appear to be a bad sign, the Big 12 has used this high turnover rate to improve themselves.
Progress began almost immediately with coaching hires in the conference. In 2013, Texas Tech made waves by hiring Tubby Smith, who has a .669 winning percentage, a National Coach of the Year Award, and a National Championship. In his third year, Texas Tech went to their first NCAA Tourney in almost a decade, losing in the first round to Butler.
The next season, while no new hires were made, the Big 12 was becoming a force, as half of the conference finished in the final AP Top 20. Two more teams, Oklahoma State and Texas, made the NCAA Tournament. One of the conferences premiere programs, Iowa State, lost coach Fred Hoiberg to the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Instead of rolling over, they hired Steve Prohm, who had previously coached at Murray State. He amassed a .782 winning percentage at Murray State, including a 31-2 finish in 2011-12. In the past two years, the Cyclones have showed no signs of slowing down with Prohm at the helm.
On top of that, Texas, who had been coached by another great in Rick Barnes, lured Shaka Smart away from the VCU Rams. In Richmond, Smart turned the Rams into one of the greatest mid-majors in the country, including a Final Four appearance in the 2011 tournament. Smart was offered almost every job that was open for most of his tenure at VCU, but Texas was finally able to land him. In 2015-16, the Longhorns improved, and while this year’s team is inexperienced, the future is bright for UT.
In 2015-2016, the Big 12 had perhaps its best year ever. Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia all spent significant portions of time in the top ten, with KU and OU never falling out of the top ten, and both spending multiple weeks at #1. Baylor, Iowa State, Texas and Texas Tech were also forces in conference, with the double round robin schedule making the Big 12’s conference schedule widely considered the most difficult in the country. Three of the teams that finished in the bottom 10 of the conference changed coaches, and all three hires were slam dunks.
Texas Tech fans were saddened when Tubby Smith, who had turned around the struggling program and was loved by most of the community, left for the Memphis Tigers. However, the Red Raiders fanbase was overjoyed when Chris Beard was hired as the next coach. Beard has only been coaching for five seasons, with only last season being in Division I. However, he has a .765 winning percentage, and led Arkansas-Little Rock to a 30 win season and an upset of Purdue in March Madness. If he keeps coaching at that same level, Tech may stay in the top tier of the conference for a long time.
Oklahoma State, who was a top team in the early decade but became irrelevant in recent years, fired Travis Ford in the offseason. The Pokes also went to a successful mid-major coach when they hired Brad Underwood. Underwood led the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks to three consecutive NCAA appearances, never losing more than six games in his three years, and only losing once in conference play. Underwood brings a near flawless record to OSU, and the Cowboys rightfully believe he can lead them back to the tournament and beyond.
Probably the best coaching hire of the year nationally came for the Horned Frogs when they drew Jamie Dixon to Fort Worth. Dixon, a TCU alumnus, coached at Pittsburgh for 13 years, leading the Panthers to 11 tournament appearances in two different conferences. Already, Fort Worth is more excited about their basketball team than they have been in years, as Dixon was not only a sexy hire, but likely an effective one that could bring quick improvement to the long-suffering TCU basketball program.
In only two years, the Big 12 has attracted five of the best young coaches in the country. Texas Tech has made two hires in four years that were widely praised. On top of that, the coaches that have been in the conference for a longer time (Self, Huggins, Kruger, Drew, and K-State’s Bruce Weber) have established themselves as great. The Big 12 has been trending upward in the basketball world, and that trend will likely continue. All 10 schools have bright futures ahead of them, with great coaches to guide the way. Even longtime doormats Texas Tech and TCU look to be in good shape for the near future. There has never been a better time for college basketball in America’s heartland.