Prior to Marcus Smart announcing his decision to return for his sophomore year at Oklahoma State, I, like most of you assumed he'd leave and started to research and examine just how many underclassmen the Big 12 had lost to the NBA draft during the one-and-done era (2006-current). My assumption heading in, was that the Big 12 had to be among the leaders of major conferences as far as underclassmen declaring to go early.
I took particular interest in this exercise because I also felt it provided a strong correlation to the relative strength of the conference during this time period. With fewer athletes making it to their junior and senior years, many rosters around the Big 12 were in a constant state of flux and it left fewer great teams.
Assuming that Smart was entering the draft, many of us probably expected that Oklahoma State would join teams like Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor as schools that were losing their best players and the overall strength of the league would suffer in '13-'14. Now, just because a guaranteed lottery pick decided to come back to school, doesn't necessarily mean that the collective Big 12 will be a more competitive league, but is does change the conference dynamic and gives the Big 12 something it may have otherwise not had; a legitimate top 10 team and Final Four contender.
That "Final Four contender" tag is key, because there is a direct correlation between how many underclassmen have been drafted from a conference as opposed to the number of teams that have made a Final Four from that conference starting with the '06-'07 season.
First let's take a look at how many underclassmen have been drafted during the one-and-done era from major conferences.
Big 12 - 22
SEC - 18 (14 of those have come since John Calipari took over at Kentucky)
Pac 10/12 - 17
ACC - 17
Big East - 14
Big Ten - 9
Now, the teams that have seen the most attrition of losing underclassmen to the draft:
Kentucky - 12
Texas - 8
UCLA - 5
Ohio State - 5
North Carolina - 4
Kansas - 4
Syracuse - 4
Memphis - 4
Interesting list. The only team on that list that hasn't made a Final Four during the one-and-done era is Texas, which probably explains some of the angst and frustration that Texas fans have had with Rick Barnes, but also shows that Texas has been in a perpetual state of reloading and rebuilding since 2006 and has been doing it without very many talented upperclassmen.
So what else can we conclude from this? Well, it shows that on a national level, it takes exceptional athletes and well-established programs to recruit future NBA draft picks and get them to succeed during their limited time in college. To be honest though, didn't we already know that?
On the Big 12 level however, with two schools on that list it is the only conference that can claim that distinction, which coupled with the fact that the Big 12 has also lost the most underclassmen to the NBA, may go to show that the conference's perceived downward trending from a competition standpoint can be attributed directly to the fact that Big 12 schools just aren't keeping their stars.
With that, let's take a look at the next part of this; which conferences have been placing the most teams in the Final Four since the '06-'07 tournament.
Big East - 8
Big Ten - 5
SEC - 3
ACC - 3
Big 12 - 2
Pac 10/12 - 2
Horizon - 2
Conference USA - 1
Colonial - 1
Missouri Valley - 1
It's basically the complete opposite of the prior list. While having the fewest underclassmen drafted, the Big East and Big Ten lead the way in Final Four appearances. Down the list, you'll see that the Big 12 and Pac 10/12 only have two appearances, which again reflects the inverse of the first list. It's not to hard to see the correlation between early entrants and lack of championship-level achievement in the NCAA tournament.
Bringing this back to the Big 12, the conference's perceived depth and strength was and likely still is considered by most to take a serious hit going into the '13-'14 season, and justifiably so. Aside from losing a handful of experienced and talented seniors, the Big 12 will likely add to the number of underclassmen draftees. Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash have announced they'll be returning to school, but Ben McLemore and Myck Kabongo have already declared for the draft. Isaiah Austin has yet to make a decision, but has lottery-pick potential if he chooses to leave.
Last, I just wanted to list all of the underclassmen that have been drafted from Big 12 schools during the one-and-done era to illustrate just how much talent has come through this league, but ultimately left their school early.