Black Tuesday for Big 12 Hoops

It may be counterintuitive for many fans, but often times the Aggies should be cheering on their fellow conference members. The Big 12 has struggled from top to bottom so far this year, and this threatens to hurt the Big 12 bubble teams come tournament time.

Last season, Texas A&M made the NCAA Tournament field despite an 8-8 conference record due to the overall strength of the Big 12 Conference. Based on results so far in 2008-2009, the Aggies and the rest of the Big 12 may not have that luxury, especially after the dismal results from Tuesday.

The conference was at its toughest last year when six members heard their name called in March for the Big Dance. The Jayhawks were again flush with talent, and in 2008 they added plenty of experience to the lineup that resulted in the Big 12's first basketball national championship. With DJ Augustin and Damion James, the Longhorns were again a Top 10 team and advanced to the Elite Eight. The resurgent Sooners made the tournament along with Baylor's first appearance in the NCAA's in the Big 12 era. The Aggies made its third straight appearance under new coach Mark Turgeon and Kansas State was a tournament team with freshman sensation Michael Beasley.

Well, things have changed dramatically for the 2008-2009 season as many Big 12 teams are struggling at a time when conferences are jockeying for position in the RPI ratings – ratings that are critical when the NCAA selection committee closes the door and pours over the numbers to set the field of 65. Kansas is retooling with an extremely young lineup. Kansas State is struggling to find an identity without Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. Baylor seems to be hot and cold so far. The same could be said about Texas, although they've held their own in a tough non-conference slate. Texas A&M is winning, but in unspectacular fashion. The only team that is clearly better than last season is Oklahoma sitting at a perfect 12-0 and #3 in the Realtime RPI rating. You have to give Jeff Capel credit for resurrecting a program in disarray with the ugly departure of Kelvin Sampson.

But it's not just the top of the Big 12 that is struggling. The lower half of the conference is frankly abysmal, and Tuesday's results reflect just how bad things have become at the bottom for programs like Iowa State, Nebraska, and Colorado. The Cyclones lost at home 65-58 to mighty South Dakota State while Nebraska lost by a bucket to Maryland-Baltimore County on its home court as well. Colorado squeaked past University of Louisiana-Monroe 65-62 despite the Buffs outrebounded by an extraordinary 45-22 margin. Missouri was off to an encouraging start to the season, but they were walloped 75-59 by rival Illinois in an important match-up with the Big Ten. The night was topped off in Tucson where an up-and-down Arizona team dismantled the Jayhawks 84-67.

The carnage is reflected in the current RPI ratings, and it doesn't look good for the Big 12. Only two teams, OU and Texas, are listed among the top 25 according to RealTimeRPI.com coming in at #3 and #16 respectively. Then comes Oklahoma State at #33, Texas A&M at #44, Missouri at #45, and Baylor at #64. At the bottom of the conference is Iowa State at #176 and Colorado at #245. In fact, five of the 12 teams in the conference fall below #100.

That doesn't bode well for the Big 12 at tournament time. Currently, the Big 12 is ranked behind the ACC, Big Ten, and Big East in overall RPI according to RealTimeRPI.com. Only the Pac-10 and SEC are BCS conferences rated below the Big 12. Unfortunately, the conference has few opportunities to change that before conference play, with Kansas hosting Tennessee in early January as the only significant RPI contest on the schedule.

So what does that mean for the Aggies? Well, for starters it's almost a certainty that an 8-8 conference record will not get them to the Big Dance for the fourth straight season. To assure themselves of an NCAA berth, A&M will need to finish no worse than fourth in the conference and a minimum 10-6 record. The fact that the Big 12 South is far superior to the Big 12 North will also cause a problem. While the Aggies, Sooners, Longhorns, and Bears are beating up on each other two times each, a middle-of-the-pack Missouri team will be feasting on a horrid Big 12 North division.

Thus, to assure themselves of another NCAA Tournament bid, the Aggies will need to take care of business against weaker north division opponents, sweep Texas Tech or Oklahoma State, and hold serve against OU, Texas, and Baylor.

In 2009, there will be no room for slip-ups in the conference race for the Aggies. With the likelihood of only four berths and a maximum of five for the Big 12, A&M must get to 10 wins in the conference regular season and win a Big 12 Tournament game for good measure. The road just got tougher in 2009. Thank you Cyclones, Huskers, Tigers and Jayhawks.




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