The USA Today pre-season Coaches Poll was released last week and like clockwork, the conference superiority argument followed shortly after. While the SEC continues to reign supreme on the gridiron, the debate on the hardwood isn't so clear.
There's any given number of ways to frame the position for your preferred league, whether it be the number of ranked teams, strength of non-conference schedule, NCAA tournament bids, etc., but at the end of the day, the subjective side of it usually finds a way to take over and admittedly, what I'm about to say is more of a subjective feel for things.
I'm not here to say that the Big 12 will be the best or even the deepest league in the country this year, but when I look at the top five teams in this conference, I'd argue that those five teams are as good as the best five teams in any other conference around the nation.
Although the conference's coaches butchered the order of the top five teams in the Big 12 in their pre-season poll, I do think that they have a firm grasp on who will battle it out in the top half of the conference. Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Iowa State (in that baffling order) are who the coaches identified as being the league's best.
Four of those teams found their way into the top 19 teams among the pre-season rankings and Kansas State sits just outside (#28) in the "others receiving votes" category. Both Kansas (#6) and Texas (#10) wound up in the top ten and Iowa State isn't far off, coming in at #14. The Sooners checked in at #19...hence the "top 19 teams" phrasing.
Now, we all know that Kansas is in the midst of a 10-year conference championship streak that has often seen them go relatively unchallenged throughout league play. This year, however, it might not be so easy. Texas received three first place votes in the conference coaches poll and Oklahoma received one as well. There's also Iowa State, whom this writer feels might pose the biggest threat to ending the Jayhawks' title run.
That's all well and good, but until someone actually dethrones Kansas, it's all just speculative conversation. The important thing at this point, however, is that the conversation is taking place, which bodes well for the league's profile as a whole.
Higher pre-season expectations can lead to better rankings, which can lead to a better conference perception, which can lead to better seeding in the NCAA tournament, which can lead to deeper tournament runs.
Okay, but why should we care? To be perfectly honest, I don't know that we should, but we do. It didn't really bug me all that much as I watched the other six Big 12 teams get picked off in the NCAA tournament last March, but once the narrative turned to questioning how good the Big 12 actually was, well then there was a league reputation to protect and I wouldn't have anyone downplaying the strength of Iowa State's schedule or conference. But if we're calling a spade a spade here, the Big 12 didn't perform very well in last year's tournament. Only Iowa State and Baylor managed to make the Sweet 16, but the conference's representation in the tournament ended in that round. But that was last year.
This year, the Big 12 will get a chance to build on last year's (pre-tournament) successes and atone for the poor showing in the NCAA tournament. It will start with the non-conference portion of the schedule as Kansas and Texas take on their usual gauntlets, while the Cyclones, Sooners and Wildcats navigate fewer high profile games, but still get a chance to put a few feathers in the league's cap.
And while we're on the subject, I'm not going to completely write off Baylor or Oklahoma State just yet. Both suffered heavy losses due to graduation and early defections, but there's still a little talent on each of those teams and perhaps enough to make it back to the tournament. Both have a few too many unknowns though to warrant much pre-season love.
So best conference? Deepest conference? I'm not sure, but I do know that Iowa State, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas State on paper at least, look like they can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the Big 10 and the ACC, which figure to garner most of the early season hype. We'll find out soon enough once the action tips off.