Sports

Best Conference in Men’s College Basketball? The Big 12.

College basketball fans are always arguing about how their teams stack up — and how their conferences compare. Partisans of all the big leagues love to crow on message boards about their dominance or disparage competing conferences.

So, as the men’s basketball season heads into its final months, which conference is on top? The Big Ten? Sure, Purdue is No. 1. The Southeastern Conference? Yep, Tennessee is No. 2. Arizona and U.C.L.A. of the Pac-12 are playing well, too.

But the best and deepest conference this season is the Big 12.

To be sure, the Big 12 has been consistently strong in recent years. The past two national titles went to Kansas and Baylor, after all. But what’s different this season is its depth: Not just three or four teams, but eight or nine in the 10-team Big 12 are playing at a high level this season.

Going into Tuesday’s games, the Big 12 has six teams in the top 15 of The Associated Press Top 25, six in the top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s computer ratings and six in the top 25 of Jeff Sagarin’s ratings. ESPN’s Bracketology currently predicts that the conference will get N.C.A.A. tournament bids for eight of its 10 teams, with a ninth just missing out. Last season, it got six teams in.

The dominance was made even clearer on Saturday, when Big 12 teams were 7-3 against SEC teams in their interconference challenge event. In the most eye-opening game, unranked Oklahoma, which is only 2-6 in Big 12 play, smashed then-No. 2 Alabama, 93-69, behind 30 points from guard Grant Sherfield.

The Big 12’s success has come even though the depth brings with it an unfortunate handicap: The teams have to play most of the second half of the season against one another other. So almost every night a strong Big 12 team is losing to another strong Big 12 team. Those extra L’s on the record often bring less respect from Top 25 voters and sometimes the N.C.A.A. seeding committee.

Nevertheless, ESPN’s Bracketology projects the Big 12 to receive two 2 seeds (Kansas and Texas), a 3 seed (Kansas State) and three 4 seeds (Baylor, Iowa State and T.C.U.) of its eight projected tournament teams.

Even the teams at the bottom of the Big 12 are pretty good. Oklahoma, Alabama’s recent vanquisher, is tied in second-to-last place in the conference standings but is ranked in the 30s or 40s nationally by computers, and could well make the tournament. Last-place Texas Tech has a 1-8 conference record but is still ranked in the top 65 by most computers and won its challenge game as well, beating L.S.U.

Oklahoma guard Grant Sherfield, left, drives against Alabama guard Nimari Burnett during the Sooners’ win Saturday.Credit…Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Like all conferences, the Big 12 will lose some quality players to the N.B.A. next season, with Gradey Dick and Jalen Wilson of Kansas and Keyonte George of Baylor projected as first rounders.

But the conference will also get a potential jolt: The Big 12 next season will add B.Y.U., Central Florida and Cincinnati, respectable programs if not currently worldbeaters. And it also will add Houston, which is currently the No. 3 team in the country. That should help take some of the sting out of losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC for the 2025-26 season.

In the end, the Big 12 will inevitably be judged by how it performs in the N.C.A.A. tournament, and the one-and-done nature of that event leaves a wide range of possible outcomes. But as of now, the conference is looking as robust as it has in years.

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