Kansas State University

In 2026, K-State enjoys life in a true Big 12

When K-State looked for a new coach, they went to Steve Henson after his success at UTSA and Tulsa. The former Wildcat brought back an entire staff of former K-Staters, which played well as Bramlage Coliseum rocked like never before.
When K-State looked for a new coach, they went to Steve Henson after his success at UTSA and Tulsa. The former Wildcat brought back an entire staff of former K-Staters, which played well as Bramlage Coliseum rocked like never before. The Wichita Eagle

Editor’s note: As part of our college basketball preview, Eagle beat writers are projecting what the state’s basketball programs will be like in 10 years.

MANHATTAN — The Kansas State basketball fan wakes up on game day and evaluates his options.

What should he do before the Wildcats play their third conference road game of the 2026-27 season? A morning at the golf course sounds fun. So does an afternoon at the swimming pool. Maybe there is time for both.

These are decisions that never used to cross the minds of K-State’s traveling fan base before the Big 12 added teams and expanded west. But now that Arizona and Arizona State are regulars on the conference schedule, they make the most out of the warm weather that greets them upon arrival in the Grand Canyon State.

As former football coach Bill Snyder used to say, “it beats the tar out of” winter weather in the Flint Hills.

The game should be fun, too. K-State, coached by Steve Henson, appears on its way to the NCAA Tournament with a team that has taken on the personality Henson once displayed during his record-breaking career as a Wildcat guard. Arizona, ranked in the top five, looks like it might have the goods to do what so few original members of the Big 12 have been able to do over the years — beat Kansas for a conference championship.

If it’s anything like the football game K-State played at Arizona State last October it’s going to be a wild night. Remember when coach Brent Venables led the Wildcats to an upset over the Sun Devils in Tempe? You know, the game that secured bowl eligibility for K-State and dropped Arizona State out of first in the Big 12 West Division? The one that ended on a blocked field-goal attempt?

The Wildcats’ first basketball trip to Arizona could be every bit as fun, and not just because it’s a matchup of teams with the same nickname.

K-State is trending up on the basketball court after a run of mediocrity. Bob Huggins gave the program a pulse when he was hired 20 years ago, Frank Martin had some good years that featured an Elite Eight, and Bruce Weber won a share of a conference championship in 2013, but NCAA Tournament wins were few and far between for the next decade. Weber guided the Wildcats to the Big Dance four times, never making it past the round of 32 before his departure in 2021. Henson, following a string of successful seasons at Texas-San Antonio and Tulsa, was tabbed as his replacement.

Henson’s first three years focused mainly on rebuilding K-State’s basketball culture and recruiting practices. With the help of associate head coach Mitch Richmond, lead recruiter Rodney McGruder and special adviser Lon Kruger, K-State is bringing back the excitement that filled Ahearn Fieldhouse in the 1980s when the team was a Final Four contender.

Under Weber, a segment of the fan base disliked the program’s direction so much that it rooted against the Wildcats, hoping a disastrous season would lead to a coaching change. Under Henson, everything has changed. K-State fans everywhere have rallied around their coach, confident he can win at the same levels he achieved as a player.

He won under Kruger as a K-State player, he won at UNLV as an assistant, he won at Oklahoma as an assistant, he won conference championships at UTSA and he reached the NCAA Tournament at Tulsa. Much like Venables in football, he was the fan favorite to take over the basketball program.

That leads us to today’s game. Tradition-rich Arizona vs. up-and-coming Kansas State, it’s the type of matchup few saw coming a decade ago.

How did it happen?

It began three years ago, when the Big 12 grew tired of sweating out the final spots in college football’s playoff while the SEC and Big Ten were locks ever year.

The Big 12 was left out in the cold of the first playoff despite Baylor and TCU both being contenders. Oklahoma got in the next year and went on to make its share of appearances, but with Texas struggling to win big, the league faced an uphill battle. Then the Pac-12 had to stay home for several years while USC and Oregon slumped. The ACC was left without a regular contender when Clemson and Florida State were unable to continue the torrid pace they set in the 2010s. Every year, one of the three conferences was left seething.

With five major conferences and only four playoff spots, each league attempted to strengthen itself and increase its odds of inclusion. That meant expansion.

For years, media proclaimed the Big 12 to be the most vulnerable conference to be raided, but that changed when Oklahoma president David Boren retired and league commissioner Bob Bowlsby left for a job outside college athletics. The days of Big 12 presidents using phrases like “psychologically disadvantaged” to describe the conference ended when new leadership took over. So did the days of extremely public expansion talks in which every team outside a power conference begged to be considered.

Expansion rumors still surfaced every few years, but they were nothing like the circus of 2016, when the Big 12 presidents authorized their commissioner to explore expansion candidates for several months and ended up rejecting every known candidate.

Instead, Big 12 leaders worked behind the scenes to improve the conference. Most in the league liked the 10-team setup for its round-robin schedule. There is no better or fairer way to crown a champion, especially in basketball when every team plays each other home and away. But it isn’t conducive for a conference championship game, which returned in 2017. The league went without divisions in its first two years with a title game, creating a rematch between the conference’s top two teams, but that felt awkward.

Then the conference split into divisions of five teams with Baylor, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia in the south and Iowa State, Kansas, K-State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the north. That worked better, but the underdog won half the time, eliminating the Big 12’s hopes of reaching the playoff.

When No. 21 West Virginia upset No. 2 Oklahoma in the 2023 Big 12 football championship game, after the Sooners beat the Mountaineers in Morgantown during the regular season, the league decided to make a change. It set out to add two new teams and to create divisions of six teams, just like the old days.

All the usual expansion targets were discussed: Boise State, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston and South Florida, but the conference ultimately set its sights higher and reached out to schools in other power conferences.

Arkansas and Nebraska topped the wish list, but they were happy in the SEC and Big Ten. Then the Big 12 looked west and found interested parties. The Pac-12, which made less per year than any other power conference in TV revenue and owned a poorly distributed league network, was in bad shape. When the Big 12 called, Arizona and Arizona State listened.

They were tired of playing their best football games during the week and basketball games in empty arenas. They were fed up with starting the majority of their Saturday games at 8 p.m. or later so ESPN had something to broadcast after midnight on the East Coast. And they never understood why the Pac-12 forced its teams to play basketball games in China and football games in Australia. The conference basketball tournament started off fun in Las Vegas, but slot machines lost their allure.

In the Big 12, they could play football games at better times, boost their basketball prestige and make more money.

They had concerns about the Longhorn Network and joining a conference ruled by Texas and Oklahoma. Then again, they had bigger concerns about the Pac-12 Network and a conference ruled by UCLA and USC.

Besides, every Big 12 team had its own network by 2021. You could watch K-State games on Netflix, West Virginia games on Hulu and Kansas games on HBO. The Longhorn Network no longer felt like an elephant in the room.

The Big 12 sold the Arizona schools on joining that environment. Kansas and Arizona would become one of the nation’s biggest basketball rivalries. Arizona State, a regular in the football top 25 since 2020, could recruit Texas.

K-State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas brought huge numbers of fans with them to Arizona when the Big 12 champion used to play in the Fiesta Bowl. They would do the same for conference games and the occasional Big 12 championship game in Glendale. Arizona fans gave new life to the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, and the city rejoiced about a bigger slate of games each March. It was a good fit.

So, with the Pac-12 grant of rights expiring in 2024, a year before the Big 12’s media contract was set to run out, the Wildcats and Sun Devils stunningly agreed to join the Big 12 and talk of the conference’s demise came to a crashing halt.

Texas and Oklahoma could have left for another conference, but they realized their best path to the playoff was in a 12-team Big 12, not in a 16-team Big Ten or SEC.

The new conference setup is a major boon for schools like K-State. Instead of playing nine conference games in football and 18 conference games in basketball, the Wildcats are back to the Big 12’s original scheduling format. In football: Four nonconference games, five division games, three cross-division games. In basketball: 15 nonconference games, 10 division games, six cross-division games.

Translation: the Wildcats get an extra winnable game in football and two extra winnable games in basketball.

That’s good news for Venables and Henson, who have it easier than Snyder and Weber did at the end of their tenures. That should help both programs and increase fan support.

There was legitimate fear that the Big 12 would break apart and leave K-State with undesirable conference options, but that is no longer a concern.

Instead, a K-State basketball fan’s biggest worry is deciding whether to play golf or head to the swimming pool before a conference game in Tucson.

Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett

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