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 2016.
THE BIG 12 IN 2016
When the 2014-15 college basketball season came to an end, eras ended in both Austin, Texas, and Ames, Iowa.
After the Texas Longhorns failed to reach the Sweet 16 for the seventh straight season, the administration decided to fire head coach Rick Barnes. There’s no question he left as the most successful head coach in Texas basketball history. He won 402 games, took the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament in 16 of his 17 seasons, won three Big 12 regular-season titles and led the Longhorns to the 2003 Final Four. For a little perspective, he had nearly twice as many wins as his predecessor, Tom Penders. It was truly the end of Texas’ most successful era of basketball.
Texas hired Shaka Smart to replace Barnes. Smart worked his way up from being a Division II assistant coach to the head-coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth by 2009, a rise that took just 10 years. In six seasons at VCU Smart won 163 games, led the Rams to a CBI championship, two conference tournament championships and five NCAA Tournament appearances, including a surprise run to the Final Four in 2011. Texas felt Smart was ready for the big time.
By the way, it didn’t take long for Barnes to find work. The Tennessee Volunteers hired him shortly after his firing.
Meanwhile, the NBA snatched Fred Hoiberg away from the Iowa State Cyclones. The ‘Mayor’ of Ames had returned five seasons earlier to dig his alma mater out of a funk and he had done just that. In five seasons he won 115 games, claimed two Big 12 Tournament titles and led the Cyclones to four NCAA Tournament appearances. That included a Sweet 16 appearance in 2014.
The Chicago Bulls were coach shopping when they fired Tom Thibodeau after the Bulls fell to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Hoiberg was a former Bulls player, and the Windy City made an offer too good to refuse. The ‘Mayor’ was off to try and rescue the Bulls.
In came Steve Prohm. A disciple of Billy Kennedy, Prohm had led the Murray State Racers for four seasons, winning 104 games, two regular-season Ohio Valley titles, one OVC tournament title and a CIT championship in 2014. He only took the Racers to one NCAA Tournament, but the Racers won their first-round game. Prohm would inherit a pretty full pantry of talent in Ames.
After a couple of ‘”down” years by Kansas standards, the Jayhawks looked re-energized. Going 15-3 in league action and winning 33 games overall, the Jayhawks continued their incredible streak of Big 12 regular-season titles now at 12 seasons. Led by Perry Ellis, who averaged nearly 20 points per game, along with Wayne Selden, Frank Mason and Devonte Graham, the Jayhawks spent ended the season No. 1 in the AP Top 25. But Kansas had two years’ worth of losses in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to haunt them all season long.
Two games back was West Virginia (26-9, 13-5). Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers were totally back now. The Mountaineers didn’t have the respect in the AP Top 25 to start the season, but by season’s end the Mountaineers were No. 8. Jaysean Paige (13.7 ppg) and Devin Williams (13.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg) led the way, but sophomores Jevon Carter (9.5 ppg), and Daxter Miles (9.4 ppg) were a major part of the equation.
Oklahoma (29-8, 12-6) finished third and at one point in the season the Sooners were No. 1 in the nation, before they settled in at No. 7. Buddy Hield was a senior and he was a sensation, averaged 25 points per game. And he had great support, too, with Jordan Woodard (13.0 ppg), Isaiah Cousins (12.6 ppg) and Ryan Spangler (10.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg). The Sooners were on the Big 12’s most experienced team and it showed night in and night out.
Texas (20-13, 11-7) bounced back a bit in Big 12 action in Smart’s first season. Texas had gone 8-10 in the Big 12 the previous year. The Longhorns took a peek into the Top 25 at one point, but didn’t finish there, led by Isaiah Taylor (15.0 ppg).
Baylor (22-12, 10-8) and Iowa State (23-12, 10-8) were in the middle of the pack but better than .500 in Big 12 action. Baylor had a peak of No. 14 in the AP Top 25 before finishing the season at No. 21. Senior Taurean Prince (15.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg) was one of four Bears in double figures, including Rico Gathers (11.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
Prohm’s first year at ISU included an AP ranking as high as No. 4 before the Cyclones fell to No. 22 in the final poll. The Cyclones were bursting at the seams with Hoiberg’s leftovers, including Georges Niang (20.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Monte Morris (13.8 ppg), Abdel Nader (12.9 ppg), Nazareth Mitrou-Long (12.0 ppg), Matt Thomas (11.0 ppg) and Jameel McKay (11.1 ppg). Six NBA prospects dotted the roster.
Texas Tech finally found a rhythm with Tubby Smith (19-13, 9-9), led by Toddrick Gotcher (10.9 ppg), Devaungtah Williams (10.8 ppg), Aaron Ross (103. Ppg) and Zach Smith (10.0 ppg). A young guard named Keenan Evans was coming into his own, too.
Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU all finished well under .500 in league action. Kansas State did finish just above .500 overall, and head coach Bruce Weber had recruited three players that would go down as some of the best in KSU history — Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown Jr. But Justin Edwards led the Wildcats with 12.7 ppg. Wesley Iwindu added 11.9 ppg.
The regular-season award winners included Hield (player of the year), Texas C Prince Ibeh (defensive player of the year), Iowa State G Deonte Burton (newcomer of the year), Oklahoma State G Jawun Evans (freshman of the year), Paige (sixth man) and Smith (coach of the year). The All-Big 12 First Team included Prince, Niang, Ellis, Hield and Taylor.
At the Sprint Center in Kansas City, the Big 12 Tournament saw the No. 1 and No. 2 teams advance to the championship game for the second straight year. On championship Saturday No. 1 Kansas defeated No. 2 West Virginia, 81-71. Graham was the tournament’s most outstanding player while Ellis, Hield, West Virginia’s Devin Williams and Niang made the all-tournament team.
On Selection Sunday the Big 12 received seven invitations to the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season — Kansas (No. 1), Oklahoma (No. 2), West Virginia (No. 3), Iowa State (No. 4), Baylor (No. 5), Texas (No. 6) and Texas Tech (No. 8).
The first round of the NCAA Tournament was punctuated by upsets, and two Big 12 teams suffered two of the biggest.
West Virginia was primed for a long venture into March Madness. The previous tournament WVU reached the Sweet 16, and one could argue that this Mountaineers team was better. But, in the NCAA Tournament, you only get one shot, and that goes for the team you play, too. And West Virginia ran into a upset special at the hands of Stephen F. Austin, 70-56.
SFA was up 31-28 at the break and the Mountaineers, as hard as they tried, couldn’t get over the hump at game’s end. WVU shot 30 percent from the floor and Devin Williams led the way with 12 points. It was a bad night all around for WVU, and that included the 22 turnovers. SFA, meanwhile, got an incredible 33 points from Thomas Walkup, one of the best performances by any player in the tournament. It more than offset SFA’s own shooting woes (30.9 percent).
Baylor, meanwhile, stumbled, too. The Bears looked like they had a great matchup in Yale, but the Bulldogs pulled off a massive upset, beating the Bears, 79-75. This would be the second straight year the Bears found themselves upset in the first round (the Bears had lost to Georgia State the previous tournament). Can’t blame Taurean Prince. He had 28 points. But Yale had a huge game of its own from Makai Mason, who scored 31 points. File his name away. It will come up later.
Some Big 12 teams won in the first round, just so everyone is clear. Kansas plastered Austin Peay, 105-79. Oklahoma did the same CSU-Bakersfield, 82-68. And Iowa State dispatched with Iona rather easily, 94-81.
But two other Texas teams fell in the first round. Much was hoped for from Texas, but the Longhorns lost to Northern Iowa, 75-72. Meanwhile, Texas Tech fell hard to Butler, 71-61.
Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State had the Sweet 16 in sight. And if all three could get there it would be the first time since 2009 that the conference accomplished the feat.
Kansas ended up with UConn in the second round. The Jayhawks were up big at the break, 44-24, and never took their foot off the gas in a 73-61 victory. Wayne Selden had 22 points, Perry Ellis had 21 points and Landen Lucas had 12 rebounds. Devonte Graham pitched in 13 points.
Next up was Oklahoma, which drew Virginia Commonwealth in the second round. This one turned out to be a much closer affair, but the Sooners won, 85-81. The Sooners surrendered a 13-point halftime lead but hung on, thanks to Hield, who finished with an incredible 36 points. The Sooners were on their way to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
Finally, Iowa State. The Cyclones were taking their first-year coach, Steve Prohm, on a great ride. The Cyclones tamed Arkansas-Little Rock, 78-61, as ISU had a 12-point halftime lead. Georges Niang scored 28 points, while Matt Thomas added 16 points and Jameel McKay had 10 rebounds.
For Kansas, the second-round monkey was off its back. For Oklahoma, it was back-to-back Sweet 16’s. For Iowa State, it was as if Fred Hoiberg hadn’t left. But could the three of them keep it up all the way to the Final Four in Houston?
With Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma in different regions, the possibility existed for all three to advance to the Final Four in Houston, something the Big 12 had never done.
Kansas squared off with Maryland. The Terrapins were coached by a former Big 12 coach, Mark Turgeon, who at one point led Texas A&M. In this one, the Jayhawks only led by two points, 36-34, at halftime, but rolled out to a 79-63 win with a terrific second half. Perry Ellis led the way for Kansas with 27 points, while Wayne Selden had 19 points, Landen Lucas had 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Frank Mason pitched in 11 points. Kansas appeared to be on a full blown roll toward Houston.
Speaking of Texas A&M, the Aggies would be Oklahoma’s Sweet 16 opponent. That reunited Aggies coach Billy Kennedy with an old Big 12 foe. The Sooners were dominant, though, as they ran away from the Aggies, 77-63. In fact, OU was up 45-26 at halftime. Buddy Hield had 17 points and 10 rebounds, but the supporting cast came through. Jordan Woodard had 22 points, Christian James scored 12 points, Ryan Spangler had 10 points and Khadeem Lattin added 10 points. The Sooners were rolling right into the Elite Eight.
Unfortunately, Iowa State wouldn’t be joining Kansas and Oklahoma. The Cyclones fell behind Virginia, 45-31, at halftime and never caught up in the 84-71 loss to the Cavaliers. Georges Niang had a terrific game for the Cyclones, scoring 30 points and collecting 8 rebounds. Matt Thomas scored 12 points, Deonte Burton had 11 points and Monte Morris added 10 points. In fact, the Cyclones shot 51.9 percent from the floor. But the Cavs shot 56.1 percent from the floor and got 23 points from Anthony Gill. On the Cavs’ bench was a player that would become familiar to Cyclones fans down the road — Marial Shayok.
Oklahoma hadn’t been to a Final Four since Kelvin Sampson took the Sooners there in 2002. Head coach Lon Kruger and star senior Buddy Hield had the Sooners on the verge of their first Final Four trip in 14 years. All they had to do was get past Oregon. The Sooners made it easier that it should have been, beating the Ducks, 80-68. The Sooners blasted the Ducks in the first half, 48-30, and never looked back. Hield had another incredible game, scoring 37 points. Jordan Woodard had 13 points and Isaiah Cousins scored 11 points.
Houston, here come the Sooners.
Would Kansas join Oklahoma? The Jayhawks’ last trip to the Final Four came in 2012, when the Jayhawks got all the way to the national championship game before losing to Kentucky. Villanova was in the way and the Wildcats, seeking their second national title, ended up with the victory, 64-59. Villanova had a seven-point edge at halftime and hung to secure their invitation to Houston.
Devonte Graham led the Jayhawks with 17 points, while Frank Mason and Wayne Selden added 16 points each. Landen Lucas added 12 rebounds.
Bill Self and Kansas would have to wait another year for a shot at the Final Four.
Oklahoma’s fifth trip to the Final Four wasn’t just a big deal for the Sooners. It was a big deal for head coach Lon Kruger. The long-time college coach had taken Florida to the Final Four in 1994, and the Gators came away empty-handed. Not only were the Sooners seeking their first national title, Kruger was seeking his, too.
Hield was universally considered the game’s best player that season. By the time award season was over, Hield claimed the John R. Wooden Award, Naismith College Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson Trophy, Sporting News College Player of the Year and Jerry West award. He was also a consensus first-team All-American. It was a season of greatness for Hield.
But the greatness ended in the national semifinals, and it ended badly. The Sooners faced Villanova (which means, of course, had Kansas won in the Elite Eight the Jayhawks would have faced the Sooners in the semifinals instead). The Wildcats absolutely destroyed the Sooners, 95-51. Villanova shot an incredible 71.4 percent from the floor, which meant the Sooners would have had to play the game of their collective lives.
Unfortunately, Hield had a pedestrian game (9 points, 7 rebounds). Jordan Woodard ended up leading the team in scoring with 12 points. The Sooners shot only 31.7 percent from the floor.
And, with that, the national title chase continued for the Sooners.