Big 12

Final bow for Big 12 full of drama

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —There's too much at stake to think of anything else, really. Colorado and Nebraska bring postseason tournament hopes to the Big 12 men's tournament at the Sprint Center and aren't interested in thinking of the big changes that lie ahead.

Same verse for everybody else in Big 12, what with the NCAA Tournament, NIT possibilities, slump-breaking — looking at you, Mizzou — all still hanging in the balance.

And there's coaching changes. Who's on deck at Texas Tech? Or, is there a candidate other than Billy Gillispie?

No, enough keeps teams occupied at the 15th Big 12 tournament to avoid much drifting into the future.

And yet a new world is tantalizing close.

This tournament marks yet another closure milestone. In December, the final Big 12 football championship was contested.

Saturday, the net-snipping ceremony will bring an end to a 12-team conference, and the history book on the league's two major sports will be shut.

In hoops, the Big 12 can begin to look ahead to a 2011-12 season that will take on a theme that brings a rare unanimity of opinion.

The conference is about to become leaner and meaner.

Leaner because the Buffaloes are off to the Pac-12 and Cornhuskers to the Big Ten, and the Big 12 is trimmed to 10 competitors.

And although both programs are on an uptick and arrive in Kansas City part of the bracket bubble conversation, their combined three NCAA Tournament appearances in the league's 14-year history defines their historical status.

Thus the meaner.

Start with an 18-game conference schedule.

"It's going to be hard," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "But it's supposed to be hard."

Toss out the schedule matrix. No more of this North-South stuff. Home and away happens for everybody.

Kansas goes to Austin, College Station and Waco every year. Texas comes to Lawrence, Manhattan and Columbia every year.

On the women's side, every Big 12 outpost will get a shot at Baylor and Brittney Griner.

"You might as well like it because it is what it is and you need to embrace it," Texas Tech women's coach Kristy Curry said.

If an 18-game schedule were plugged into this season's calendar, the conference season would have started in late December, not the second week of January.

That's more than two months of Big 12 opponents.

"It's already tough at 16," Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said. "Now you're adding two quality opponents and one road game, one more travel date."

Among Big 12 coaches, Turgeon has the most experience with an 18-game schedule, having spent seven seasons in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference at Wichita State. His best season, 2006, the Shockers won the conference with a 14-4 record.

"We started right after Christmas, and it was a grind," Turgeon said.

Kansas' 14-2 record topped this year's Big 12 standings. Jayhawks coach Bill Self believes anybody who can get to that victory total should take the crown next year.

"The records won't be as good," Self said. "I think if somebody went 14-4, that would give you an unbelievable chance to win the league. I don't see teams winning a higher percentage of games."

Among BCS conferences, the Big 12 is one of three that currently play a 16-game conference schedule, joining the ACC and SEC. The Big East, Big Ten and Pac-10 play 18 games.

The Pac-12 will continue an 18-game schedule. The Big Ten hasn't announced next year's schedule, but it's believed the conference will maintain its 18-game slate.

What jumps at Big 12 coaches is the prospect of playing several heavyweights in a short stretch.

"You see teams in the Big East or Big Ten, how tough it is when things start to go south," Turgeon said.

Like Villanova. The Wildcats climbed to No. 7 in the polls in mid-January, hit a patch where they played .500 ball, then tumbled completely out of the polls and took a four-game losing streak into Tuesday's Big East opener [ update/game at 6pm ]. The rugged schedule never allowed Villanova to recover.

One injury could make a huge difference. Since losing starting point guard Al Nolen with a broken foot, Minnesota has gone 2-9 entering the Big Ten tournament, and from a probable NCAA Tournament team that knocked off North Carolina and West Virginia in November and Purdue early in the league season to not even close to the bubble. There were no breathers for the Gophers in Big Ten play.

Next year's Big 12 tournament could follow the structure of other conferences with 10 teams.

In the Pac-10 and Missouri Valley, the top six receive first-round byes. On the first day, the seventh seed takes on the 10th seed and the eighth and ninth seeds meet with winners completing the quarterfinal bracket.

But nothing is set.

If Nebraska and Colorado weren't part of this year's bracket, Missouri and Baylor could have joined Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M and Kansas State with a first-day break, with Oklahoma State meeting Iowa State in one game with Oklahoma matched against Texas Tech in the other.

There won't be a shortage of attractive matchups for ESPN's Big Monday or CBS, and Big 12 associate commissioner John Underwood sees the new schedules as good for business.

"It will enhance season-ticket sales," Underwood said. "If you're a Texas school, you've got Kansas, Missouri, Kansas State coming to play. You have additional quality home games."

With a more strenuous conference task, will coaches opt for softer nonconference schedules?

"I think philosophies are different from team to team," Turgeon said. "A lot of teams schedule soft anyway. You know who does and who doesn't."

Especially this time of year when teams' NCAA Tournament credentials get the microscope treatment. Take Baylor. The Bears entered Tuesday with a wrong-side-of-the-bubble No. 84, and their NCAA chances will be damaged by having played only one non-league opponent, Florida State, in the RPI top 50.

"From a conference perspective, we will continue to encourage our teams to play quality non-conference schedules," Underwood said. "The more you delve into the NCAA selection process, you learn it's more about who you play and where you play them."

Before next basketball season, the Big 12 will have negotiated its Fox Sports Net football contract, a critical component for keeping the conference together. It will have played a football season for the first time without a championship game, and there's uncertainty whether that's a good or bad thing.

But there is no dispute about the potential quality of a 10-team basketball conference.

"It's going to make for an unbelievable league, an even more competitive league with better rivalries," Self said. "I don't think coaches will like that at all."

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