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Take Note, NCAA Committee: The Big 12 North is No Longer the South's Little Brother

Coming into the 2008-09 basketball season, the general consensus was that the Big 12 South was a much stronger division than the Big 12 North.  Oklahoma had Blake Griffin and super-freshman Willie Warren along with a deep and experienced supporting cast.  Texas was coming off a trip to the Elite Eight, even if they had lost D.J. Augustin.  Baylor returned a slew of talented guards who could drive, pass and shoot and had made the NCAA Tournament in 2008.  Texas A&M had made the round of 32 the year before and was only denied a trip to the Sweet 16 by a Final Four-bound UCLA team that got the benefit of some dubious calls.

On the other side of the conference, KU was considered ‘down' after losing almost everybody, even though they had (redacted) in 2008.  K-State was completely written off as a one-year wonder (I almost wrote "oneder") after losing Michael Beasley and Bill Walker from a team that made the NCAA Tournament and defeated USC in the first round.  Missouri had a spectacularly unsuccessful season and the rest of the North was pretty bad.

Hence, when the Big 12's preseason polls came out, the South dominated the standings.  I should note that it's my belief that this poll reflects a "power-poll" mentality rather than a projection of final standings.  Given the preseason projections for each team, it seems to me that the coaches voted based on who would win on a neutral court, rather than where teams would finish in the standings by year's end.

We are now just a little beyond the halfway mark of the conference season, and it appears everyone got it wrong.  Over at the oddly named Oread Boom Kings (formerly Kansas Football - It's Business Time, apparently an homage to the sure-to-be short-lived nature of KU's football success), hiphopopotamus, an occasional commenter here at BOTC and knowledgeable basketball fan, recently wrote a post discussing the very possibility of North superiority this season in basketball.  I hadn't seen this post when I considered taking up this issue, but with an extra weekend of Big 12 basketball in the books, I believe it's worth examining and expanding on.

Overall, the North owns an 11-8 record against the South this season.  Those 11 wins have come against Texas (3x), Texas A&M (2x), Baylor (2x), Texas Tech (2x), Oklahoma State (2x).  Also of note, the North has notched six of its victories against the South on the road, against only five at home.  This may or may not be of interest, because it's my general opinion that South venues are not nearly as hostile as North venues.  For the record, I've seen games in Manhattan (Bramlage Coliseum), Lawrence (Allen Fieldhouse), Lincoln (Devaney Sports Center), Columbia (the old Hearnes Center), Austin (Erwin Center), Waco (Ferrell Center), and College Station (Reed Arena).  Whether it's because football is king in Texas or because the weather is nicer in the winter or some other reason, the South venues just aren't particularly intimidating or hostile.

Anyway, getting back on track.  On top of the North owning a winning mark against South opponents and notching more than half those victories on the road, it should be noted that intra-divisional records compared to inter-divisional records lend some support to the position that the North is superior to the South this season.  Excluding Oklahoma, who is perfect against both divisions, the South has three teams with a better winning percentage against fellow South opponents than against North opponents (Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State); one team, Baylor, has the same winning percentage against both divisions; and one team, Texas Tech, has a better winning percentage against the North than the South.

The same metric in the North does not yield such conclusive answers.  Only one team, Missouri, has a better winning percentage against the South than it does its own division.  The dregs of the division, Colorado and Iowa State, have managed their only conference win against other North opponents and remain winless against the South.  Meanwhile, Texas Tech has managed its only conference win against Colorado.

What does all this mean?  Certainly, we can't assert that the North is dominating the South this year.  That would be entirely inaccurate.  Oklahoma appears to be the best team in the league, and it would appear that the South is marginally better at the bottom, too, with Texas Tech having an advantage on CU and ISU.  However, in the muddy middle where the conference's last NCAA bids will be sorted out, teams such as K-State and Missouri have flexed their muscles against similarly situated teams from the South, notching wins against Texas, Texas A&M, and Baylor recently.  Also, even if Iowa State as a team is something significantly less than intimidating, they have a guy named Craig Brackins who just may go off for 40 points in a game.  Just ask KU.

Two years ago, K-State was left out of the NCAA tournament in favor of a Texas Tech team that won two fewer conference games during the regular season and got waxed by, guess who, K-State in the Big 12 conference tournament.  Last year, K-State finished third in the conference but was seeded below teams such as Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the NCAA Tournament.  Why?  Because the perception was, and fairly so, that K-State competed in the weaker half of the conference and had been able to amass a better conference record by beating up on Iowa State, Colorado, and to a lesser extent, Missouri and Nebraska.

The overall point is that the same cannot be said this season.  We don't know how many games the Cats are going to win this year or where they'll end up in the final Big 12 standings.  But if this year ends up like prior seasons and K-State finishes in the conference's top four, ahead of other bubble teams from the South, our conference brethren from Oklahoma and Texas cannot claim that they were at a significant disadvantage vis-à-vis the North because of their tougher division.  KU is having an unexpectedly big season at the top, and K-State, Missouri and Nebraska have proven they are tough outs.