Before the Big 12 becomes the Medium 10 next year with the departures of Colorado and Nebraska, one of the more interesting races in the conference's 15-year history will take place over the final few weeks of the season. Of course the eventual conference champion -- likely either Texas or Kansas -- will receive most of the attention, but the race in the middle tier to be the league's fifth-best team (and possibly receive an NCAA tournament bid) will be just as intriguing.
Last season the Big 12 sent a conference-record seven teams to the tournament. Coming into this year most observers thought six of those seven teams had a pretty good shot at making it back: the Longhorns, KU, Missouri, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Kansas State. Those first four teams are in good shape, while Baylor, who's yet to beat a team in the RPI top 50, merits more discussion -- see below. And K-State? Despite being the preseason favorites to win the conference, Jacob Pullen and the Wildcats are now just a few losses away from being relegated to the dreaded NIT.
So who's in and who's out? First a lesson from history. It would be unusual for the third-best conference in RPI to send just four teams to the tournament, which is how the guys at Bracketology 101 have it right now. Then again Joe Lunardi's latest bracket has five representatives from the Big 12, including a surprise appearance by none other than Kansas State.
The Wildcats' resume is impressive only in that they've played a difficult schedule, one that ranks ninth nationally in SOS. Unfortunately K-State has lost a lot of games against that tough schedule, including an 0-6 record against the RPI top 50. Maybe Frank Martin taking the bizarro Bill Snyder scheduling approach is enough to make his team tournament-worthy, but a 2-5 conference record suggests otherwise.
In fact no Big 12 team with a losing record in-conference has ever made the NCAA tournament. Only once has a team with a .500 record made it in -- Texas A&M in 2008. Lastly, just six eligible Big 12 teams with winning conference records have been left out of the tourney field.
So if history's any guide there are essentially three bubble teams in the Big 12. Here are their resumes and what needs to happen for one of them to become the league's fifth or sixth team in the field of 68.
Baylor (14-6, 4-3)
The Bears currently appear on Bracketology 101's first four out, and what's holding them back is the lack of a quality win. Like K-State, Scott Drew's team has some quality non-conference losses (Gonzaga, Washington State, Florida State), but Baylor's "best" win has probably been beating Colorado at home.
BU's biggest problem this year has been replacing its point guard. Last year Tweety Carter not only provided scoring (15 points a game), he also helped Baylor get into its offense. Conversely this season A.J. Walton's been a turnover machine (34.8 TO%); as a team the Bears are giving the ball away on 26 percent of their possessions in conference play and scoring just 1.05 points per trip. Last season when Baylor had a much more respectable turnover rate (20.4), they averaged 1.14 points per possession in-conference.
Drew's defense is allowing Big 12 opponents a respectable 1.04 points per possession -- same as last year -- so if the Bears could just get a handle on this turnover thing they could plausibly play their way into the tournament. Baylor still has to play Texas and Texas A&M twice each, along with a trip to Missouri, so they'll have plenty of chances to get that resume-building win. If they fail to do so, however, they could end up in that three-letter tournament.
Colorado (15-8, 4-4)
The Buffs got off to a great start in conference play, one that included a win at home against Missouri and a victory on the road at K-State. However, CU then lost four straight before Tuesday night's 95-69 win at home over Iowa State.
During the selection process Colorado might suffer for their 2-3 start to the season, which included loses at San Francisco and at Harvard. Of course CU fans will be quick to point out that the Crimson are the class of the Ivy League and most likely will be a tournament team. The Buffs also have a quality non-conference win, having beaten Colorado State. The Rams are currently ranked No. 48 in RPI and are in third place in the tough Mountain West.
The safest course for Colorado would be to make all this discussion academic with a strong finish. It's certainly not going to be easy, with trips remaining to Kansas and Missouri, along with home games against Texas A&M and Texas. Ken Pomeroy has the Buffs finishing 7-9 in Big 12 play -- that won't be enough to get CU dancing for the first time since 2003. To make the tournament Tad Boyle's team is going to have to exceed expectations.
Nebraska (15-5, 3-3)
Nebraska's nowhere to be found in the bubble discussion as of yet, but the Cornhuskers might change that. Doc Sadler's group rates out as the most improved Big 12 team since last season, already having surpassed their two 2010 conference wins. Give the credit to the defense, where the Huskers are yielding 0.99 points per possession in conference play, third-best in the Big 12. Their adjusted defensive efficiency (87.2) ranks eighth nationally, according to Pomeroy.
The Huskers were one of three teams this year to hold Kansas under a point per possession, and they nearly pulled off the upset in Lawrence, losing 63-60. Nebraska then got a big win at home against Texas A&M by holding the Aggies to 0.88 points per trip. And while the Cornhuskers' performance on offense (1.01 points per possession in Big 12 play) isn't as impressive, they do have a senior point guard in Lance Jeter who controls the game and sets his teammates up in position to score.
In addition to tonight's road test at Kansas State, Nebraska has another big game on Saturday against the Jayhawks in Lincoln. The Huskers are undefeated at home this season and still get to play Texas and Missouri at the Devaney Center. With a 4-3 record against the RPI top 100 and several chances to get marquee wins left on the schedule, the Cornhuskers could conceivably make it into the field of 68. If they do they'll end the Big 12's longest tournament drought, one that dates back to 1998.
That'd be a good parting gift for the Huskers on their way out of the Big 12.
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter at cjmoore4.