The loss of the NCAA Tournament and March Madness got you down? At Heartland College Sports, we get it. We’re down about it too. Well, leading up to the night that would have been the 2020 national championship game, April 6, we will rewind what happened to the Big 12 in March Madness for each year of its existence. Today, we dissect 1997.
The Big 12 in 1997
The Big 12 made its debut season in 1996-97, a shotgun marriage between the entire Big 8 Conference (Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State) and remnants of the Southwest Conference (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech). The past spring, the Southwest Conference had fallen apart, the result of Arkansas moving to the Southeastern Conference a few years prior and the SWC’s flagship schools — Texas and Texas A&M — agreeing to join the Big 8 schools in the new configuration. Baylor and Texas Tech came along for the ride.
The season prior, in 1996, Texas Tech won the SWC regular-season title and tournament, finishing 30-2 for the season and reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 before losing to Georgetown. In the Big 8, Kansas won the regular-season title, spent three weeks as the nation’s No. 1 team, but Iowa State won the conference tournament. Iowa State lost in the second round, while Kansas reached the Elite 8 before losing to Syracuse.
In the first season of Big 12 play, Kansas won all but one league game, winning the regular-season championship easily, with Colorado second, four games back. Texas Tech ended up going 19-9 for the season, but would surrender all of its conference wins due to the use of an ineligible player.
The first Big 12 Tournament, held at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, saw Kansas dominate the field, beating Missouri in the final and seeing three of its players named to the All-Tournament Team — Paul Pierce (most outstanding player), Jacques Vaughn and Raef LaFrentz.
Five Big 12 teams made the tournament, with Kansas earning a No. 1 seed. The other participants were Iowa State (No. 6 seed), Colorado (No. 9 seed), Texas (No. 10 seed) and Oklahoma (No. 11 seed).
First Round 1997 NCAA Tournament
Four of the Big 12’s five NCAA Tournament participants advanced past the first round — Kansas (def. Jackson State, 78-64), Iowa State (def. Illinois State, 69-57), Colorado (def. Indiana, 80-62) and Texas (def. Wisconsin, 71-58). The lone first round loss was Oklahoma, which fell to Stanford, 80-67, in Tucson, Ariz. That team, led by senior Nate Erdmann and two freshmen, Corey Brewer and Eduardo Najera, finished 19-9 under Kelvin Sampson.
Second Round 1997 NCAA Tournament
With an eye on a trip to the Sweet 16, three of the four Big 12 teams advanced — Kansas (def. Purdue, 75-61), Iowa State (def. Cincinnati, 67-66) and Texas (def. Coppin State, 82-81). The Cyclones’ win, of course, came at the expense of Bob Huggins, then the head coach at Cincinnati and now the head coach at West Virginia. The Longhorns, then under head coach Tom Penders, was led by Reggie Freeman, who averaged 21.8 points per game, and Kris Clack, who averaged 12.6 points per game.
The only loss in the second round was Colorado, which fell to No. 1 seed North Carolina, 73-56. That ended the Buffaloes’ season. Head coach Ricardo Patton guided Colorado to a 22-10 record with Chauncey Billups leading the way, who averaged 19.1 ppg. Fred Edmonds and Martice Moore also averaged double figures.
Sweet 16 1997 NCAA Tournament
Three Big 12 teams had their eyes on the Final Four going into the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend that March. But in the space of two weeknights, the conference’s hopes of reaching the Final Four ended.
Texas, a No. 10 seed that had to that point enjoyed a Cinderella run, fell to No. 6 Louisville, 78-63. It ended up being Texas’ final NCAA Tournament appearance under Penders, who would lead the Longhorns to a 14-17 record the following season and lose his job.
Iowa State fell to No. 2 UCLA, 74-73, in an overtime classic. Iowa State lost a 37-25 halftime lead to the Bruins, and ended up falling by one point in the overtime. Derrick Willoughby had a huge game for the Cyclones, scoring 34 points. Willoughby, along with Kelvin Cato, would find their way to the NBA after Iowa State’s 22-9 season. So would a freshman on that team, Paul Shirley.
Kansas fell to Arizona, 85-82, in Birmingham, Ala. That Jayhawks team finished 34-2 under Roy Williams. Before the Arizona loss, the Jayhawks’ only other loss came to Missouri, 96-94, in double overtime. Pierce led the Jayhawks that night with 27 points, while LaFrentz added 14. Off the bench, Ryan Robertson had 14 points and Billy Thomas had 13 points. That Arizona team was stacked with future NBA players, including Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Jason Terry. The Wildcats would go on to win the national title that year, beating Kentucky in the championship game.
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