The Big 12 has been hit especially hard this off season with the graduations of it stars, early entrants in the NBA draft and more recently, the transfer bug. News broke yesterday that Kansas State sophomore point guard and 2nd team All-conference member, Angel Rodriquez, was leaving Manhattan to be closer to his family in Puerto Rico. As ESPN's Jason King pointed out, this defection alone wasn't earth-shattering in terms of its impact on the conference, but it is significant nonetheless.
In terms of conference strength, the Rodriquez news certainly alters things. For one, Kansas State goes from league title contender to the "second tier". It also hinders the returning star-power of the league and weakens the Big 12's profile on a national scale.
From an Iowa State perspective, though, this opens the door of opportunity. On the one hand, the Cyclones' chances for significant wins may have been reduced, but this type of loss does allow Fred Hoiberg's team to presumably have an easier path to the top of the league standings and a chance to cement Iowa State's staying power in the league. What was once thought of as a possible transition year is all of a sudden taking shape as yet another chance for Fred Hoiberg to guide a radically different roster to the NCAA tournament.
If The Mayor can guide this overhauled roster back to the tournament, he'll need his young team to notch a few quality wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule. As of today, Iowa State's known non-conference opponents include home games against UMKC, Michigan and Iowa, a road contest at BYU and neutral site games against Northern Iowa, as well as at least three games as part of the Diamond Head Classic (current field includes Iowa State, St. Mary's, George Mason, Boise State, Oregon State, Hawaii and South Carolina). Iowa State will also match up with an opponent from down south as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. As you can see, there will be plenty of opportunities for quality wins with that schedule and even with a few losses, provided they come to the right teams, won't doom Iowa State's tournament chances.
Furthermore, contrary to what many would have you believe, there will still be RPI top-50 wins to come by in conference play as well. Oklahoma State and Kansas will be in that top-15 range throughout the season and depending on what Isaiah Austin decides to do, Baylor should remain as another worthy opponent. Kansas State, while damaged, still brings back an experienced core and West Virginia has the look of a sleeper team. Texas and Oklahoma have their work cut out for them.
If anything, I hope this illustrates that Iowa State will not be doomed by their schedule going into the '13-'14 season, but instead may be a benefactor of their schedule. The tournament selection committee is still going to look at who you beat, where you played them and how did you look doing so. Iowa State's non-conference schedule will be challenging to say the least, but necessary as a quality win or two could carry some serious weight on the Cyclones' resume. In conference play, a winning league record is still part of the recipe and given how the league is setting up, that isn't out of the question in spite of the fact that the Cyclones lost five seniors that were integral to last season's success.
Is the Big 12 going to be a six-bid league next year? Probably not. It might not even be a five-bid league, but given the conference's history and pedigree, there should be enough depth to feel confident about landing at least 3-4 teams in the tournament with the potential for a fifth depending on how things shake out. The tournament selection committee has made it a point in recent years to stress that they do not use perceived conference strength as part of the selection criteria, which may actually bode well for several Big 12 schools come Selection Sunday 2014.
In the mean time, there will be plenty to discuss, including overreacting to the individual performances in the Capitol City League, but the the strength of the Big 12 and how it will impact Iowa State's tournament hopes is something we can likely put to bed for now.