KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Mike Boynton remembers vividly his first season leading Oklahoma State.
He was just 35 at the time. Never been a head coach at any level, much less at a Power Five program. And with just one year on the Cowboys’ bench as an assistant, Boynton was picked to replace Brad Underwood and guide Oklahoma State through the Big 12, which has historically been one of the toughest conferences in college basketball.
“The competition is a real thing,” Boynton said with a shake of his head. “It’s been baptism by fire for me.”
Reminiscing about his own start in the Big 12 — the Cowboys were eighth in what was then a 10-team league in 2016-17 — got Boynton to thinking about the four coaches entering the league, and what BYU’s Mark Pope, Cincinnati coach Wes Miller, UCF’s Johnny Dawkins and Houston coach Kelvin Sampson are about to experience in the coming months.
“The new teams, all four this year and the ones we add moving forward, will just continue to elevate this conference above what I ever imagined would be one conference’s strength,” Boynton said during Big 12 media day Wednesday.
Sampson is actually returning to the Big 12 after a dozen years at Oklahoma, a stint that began when it was still the Big 8. The league he returns to is markedly different after the departure of Colorado, Texas A&M, Nebraska and Missouri in past years, and the addition of West Virginia and TCU along with the four newcomers this season.
Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado will further alter the Big 12 landscape when the Pac-12 schools arrive next year, and when longtime members Oklahoma and Texas depart for the SEC.
One thing has remained constant amid all the change: The Big 12’s standing as the nation’s dominant basketball league.
Other conferences have staked a claim over the years, including the ACC and Big East, but none can match the recent body of work the Big 12 has put together. Kansas and Baylor have won national championships two of the past three years, and Houston went to the Final Four when it was played in a COVID-19 bubble in Indianapolis.
Last year, seven of the top 25 teams and eight of the top 30 in the final KenPom rankings came from the Big 12.
“This is the best college basketball league in America. It’s undisputed in recent history,” Miller said. “It’s neat and exciting to be a part of that. We haven’t experienced it yet. Will there be some adjustment? Absolutely. But we talk about it all the time, just like freshmen have adjustments to college basketball, there is no way around it.”
It’s not as if the programs joining the Big 12 will struggle to compete in basketball, unlike what’s happening now in football.
If anything, they are making the rich even richer.
Houston has made the last five NCAA tournaments, gone to the Sweet 16 each of the past four and, along with its Final Four run, made the Elite Eight two years ago. The Cougars bring plenty of college hoops history, going back to the days of coach Guy Lewis, stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, and the rest of Phi Slama Jama.
The Bearcats have two national titles from the 1960s to their credit, but they have been good in recent years, too. They had a run of nine straight NCAA tourney appearances end in 2020, but they are coming off an NIT quarterfinal last season.
UCF and BYU both have made the NCAA Tournament within the past five years.
“You think of the Big 12, you just think of unbelievable basketball,” Knights coach Johnny Dawkins said. “Last year, I believe that every game that was played was a Quad 1 game, which is unheard of.”
Baylor coach Scott Drew envisions a year when the Big 12 gets three and maybe all four teams to the Final Four, perhaps even this season. Kansas is the preseason No. 1 in the AP Top 25, thanks in part to the arrival of prized Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, while Houston was seventh, Texas at No. 18 and Baylor rounding out the top 20.
Kansas State, which made a surprising Elite Eight run last season, and TCU also received votes.
“We have been the best basketball league in the country for a while now,” Wildcats coach Jerome Tang said. “Every kid out there wants to compete against the best, so they’re going to want to play in the Big 12. We have the best coaches, best environments, the best players and the results speak for themselves.”
Not everyone agrees. UConn coach Dan Hurley, fresh off leading the Huskies to the national championship, said Monday on the College Hoops Today Podcast that the Big East was “going to be the best conference in the country and it’s not particularly close.”
The league has a claim: Fifth-ranked Marquette, the sixth-ranked Huskies and No. 8 Creighton give the Big East three of the top eight in the AP preseason poll, while Villanova is No. 22.
Along with a few elite teams, though, the Big 12 offers greater depth and longevity than the Big East or any other league.
“Excited about the new teams coming in, the great venues. I’m excited being part of our growth,” Tang said. “When you can walk around knowing you’re the very best at what you do, it gives you some extra confidence.
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