Previously on Big 12 Men’s Basketball …
The Kansas Jayhawks were back atop the Big 12 standings in the regular season. The Baylor Bears had captured the imagination of the college basketball world, and between the two teams the Big 12 was poised to claim a pair of No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Big 12 Tournament was on edge in Kansas City, with most fans waiting in anticipation of a potential third meeting between the Jayhawks and Bears (the road team had won the first two meetings). But, there was still business to conduct on a chilly Thursday morning as the Texas Longhorns and the Texas Tech Red Raiders prepared to lift the lid on the second day of the Big 12 Tournament. And then … someone from Big 12 public relations tapped us all on the shoulder and told us that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby needed a word.
That was Thursday, March 12 in Kansas City. I was there. I still look back on that day and think to myself, “All of that happened.” The Big 12 canceled the men’s tournament (they canceled the women’s tournament the same day). Then the NCAA canceled March Madness. The coronavirus and COVID-19 was just starting to rear its ugly head and sports didn’t know how to deal with it. I drank that evening away in the Kansas City Marriott bar as West Virginia fans worked their phones trying to get flights out. Meanwhile, Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins chilled in the dark corners of the bar with Mountaineers fans while folks at the Kansas City airport warmed up the charter. Operation Shutdown became Operation Get the Hell Out.
I don’t think I’ve written totally about the experience. I was scheduled to leave on Saturday morning. Our site’s boss, Pete Mundo, was going to handle the title game that Saturday because I had a concert back in the Dallas area that evening (which, of course, was canceled). Instead of flying stand-by or trying to get out in a hurry, I decided to stay through my planned departure.
I cannot emphasize how ‘dead’ downtown Kansas City was that Friday. The previous year, my first Big 12 Tournament, it was busy, busy, busy every day. My Saturday evening in the Power and Light District, after Iowa State won the tournament in 2019, ended with quite a bit of beer and quite a bit of fun with Iowa State fans.
But on that Friday, March 13, I awoke to my view of the Municipal Auditorium across the street from the hotel, the site of the Big 12 women’s tournament, and there was nothing going on. NOTHING. I mean, that area was supposed to be teeming with women’s basketball fans. Instead it was just a few workers breaking down the fan experience. I walked the streets, had a late lunch with Pete at The Flying Saucer and was just blown away by the nothingness of it all. It was as if something had sucked all the people away. I had dinner at the Marriott that night and I mean I had dinner BY MYSELF. I had to tip the bartenders generously that night. I was basically their only customer. Gotta use that HCS company card, right?
The next morning, I got on the plane at the Kansas City airport and went home, not knowing what was next.
So here we are. Here’s what next. Basketball, maybe a couple of weeks later than we’re used to. But, basketball. Not quite totally like normal. But, getting there.
The pandemic upended everything. To be fair, it still is. Medically speaking, we are entering another spike of cases, only this time those spikes are not contained to different parts of the
country. They’re everywhere. Where I live in Texas, we became the first state to diagnose one million cases the week of the presidential election. California has since joined us.
And, yet, we’ve found a way to play our games. And, tonight, we tip off basketball.
Don’t expect this to be perfect. Football certainly wasn’t. But the majority of football games in the Big 12 conference games have been played as scheduled. The medical protocols have generally worked to keep players safe. The socially-distanced crowds aren’t as loud, but they’ve had their moments. Trying to get back to ‘normal’ in this ‘new normal’ requires creativity, and the Big 12, oddly enough, blazed the trail in football.
Basketball does add a degree of difficulty, though. It’s an indoor game, and this virus seems to thrive indoors. But you try playing an outdoor game in Ames, Iowa, in January. In shorts. Good luck with that.
So, here we go, COVID protocols and all, into another Big 12 basketball season.
This season has the makings of something special. The COVID shutdown had an odd effect. Some players that might had chosen to leave early for the NBA didn’t. As a result, several Big 12 rosters look stacked.
When it comes to the preseason polls, half of the Big 12’s teams are in the Top 25. Baylor was No. 1 in the coaches’ poll and No. 2 in the AP poll. Kansas was No. 5 in the coaches’ poll and No. 6 in the AP poll. Texas Tech is No. 13 in the coaches’ poll and No. 14 in the AP poll. West Virginia is No. 15 in both polls. Texas took a bow, too, entering the coaches’ poll at No. 22 and the AP poll at No. 19. Oklahoma State received nine votes in the coaches’ poll.
The non-conference schedule looks different. There are some tournaments, but not the far-flung destinations for every team that we’re used to. The Maui Invitational is in Asheville, North Carolina, if that tells you anything. Several Big 12 teams aren’t going to tournaments, and Kansas State took the step of hosting its own. But the Big 12 was able to hang onto both its Big 12-Big East Battle and its Big 12-SEC game (at least for now).
And, the biggest change, of course, is the early start to league action. The Big 12 normally begins its conference slate in early January, right after the new year. But, in a nod to COVID, the conference will actually start play on Dec. 6, when TCU hosts Oklahoma. Each Big 12 team will play two league games before Christmas Day, meaning that the league slate is scheduled to end on Feb. 27.
The reason is simple. The Big 12 is trying to give its teams some buffer space between the scheduled end of the regular season and the Big 12 Tournament, which is slated for March 10-13 in Kansas City. Those 11 days could have the same effect of the flexible schedule at the end of the Big 12 football season, as the league chose the option of having the conference championship game on either Dec. 12 or Dec. 19 (and it will now be Dec. 19, thanks to games being rescheduled due to COVID on Dec. 12).
It’s already wreaked havoc on one Big 12 program. Baylor head coach Scott Drew announced on Sunday that he has COVID-19. The next day Baylor announced it wouldn’t play in the Empire Classic, even though no other member of the team or coaching staff had tested positive.
We should expect a bouncy season. We should expect game cancellations and postponements. We should expect players to get COVID. And we should give those players and coaches our prayers when they need them.
But we’re going to play. So, here we go.
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