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Best Conference, Best Players
March 15, 2019
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By Jimmy Burch
Special to the Big 12

Over the past 12 years, no college basketball conference has produced more Naismith Award winners than the Big 12. Four players identified as the nation’s best during those seasons began their paths to the NBA with stellar college careers at Big 12 schools.

The list began with Texas’ Kevin Durant (2007), who has gone on to win two NBA championships, four league scoring titles, one MVP award and two Olympic gold medals during his time with the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder. Joining Durant on the list of recent Naismith Award winners with Big 12 ties are former Oklahoma standouts Blake Griffin (2009) and Buddy Hield (2016), as well as Kansas grad Frank Mason (2017).

All four remain on active NBA rosters, with Durant and Griffin joining Joel Embiid, another former Kansas standout, as NBA All-Stars this season.

As fans gather for the 2019 Phillips 66 Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship this week in Kansas City, Mo., they can expect to be treated to another across-the-board talent display from a league that has produced 29 first-round picks over the last nine seasons, as well as 116 total draftees since the league began competition in the 1996-97 school year.

In each of the last three NBA Drafts, six Big 12 players have been selected, including three lottery choices last June (Oklahoma’s Trey Young, Texas’ Mo Bamba and Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith). During the league’s 22-year history, the Big 12 has had at least one first-round pick on 21 occasions, with a top-seven selection in 12 of the last 13 seasons (2006-14, 2016-18).

The pace has increased in recent years, with nine or more players taken in the same draft three times since 2008 and 69 total selections during that stretch. Twice in the past decade, the Big 12 has produced the NBA’s top overall pick: Griffin (2009) and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins (2014).

The league’s productive NBA pipeline, as well as its recurring status as a national leader in RPI and non-conference winning percentage for the past decade, has placed the Big 12 among college basketball’s elite. An eye-popping 70 percent of league members (7-of-10) have reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in the past three seasons, with the Big 12 putting together a cumulative non-conference winning percentage of almost .800 during that stretch.

The Big 12’s recent run of national success has included a Final Four team in 2016 (Oklahoma) and 2018 (Kansas), with TCU claiming the 2017 NIT Championship during the bridge season.

“We’re competing very well against the nation’s best,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.

A neutral voice takes Bowlby’s proclamation a step farther. Seth Greenberg, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former coach in the ACC for eight seasons (Virginia Tech), identified the Big 12 as the nation’s best basketball conference this season.

Greenberg is sold on the league’s impressive top-to-bottom depth, which translated last year to four Sweet 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament and 90 percent of league members advancing to postseason play. After placing seven teams in last year’s Big Dance, Greenberg said the Big 12 should send seven or eight teams to this year’s NCAA field, with Kansas, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Iowa State on the short list of national title contenders.

“The ACC is great, but when you look at the percentage of teams that are going to make the tournament and combine it with the number of teams that can win the national championships, … the best league, to me, is the Big 12,” Greenberg said. “The depth of the Big 12 is pretty special.”

That is a byproduct of an elite talent level that makes players want to compete with and against others considered on a fast track to the NBA in order to sharpen their skills for the same transition. The 2018-19 NBA season began with 48 players from Big 12 schools on active team rosters. A certifiable All-Star team or league title contender could be formed exclusively from those players.

Consider: How strong of an NBA title contender would this 15-player, All-Big 12-Expatriates squad be if its roster included this year’s three All-Stars (Durant, Griffin, Embiid), along with these six additional “bigs” (Bamba, Jarrett Allen, Marcus Morris, Myles Turner, LaMarcus Aldridge, Georges Niang) and these six guards/swing men (Hield, Young, Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Marcus Smart, Wesley Iwundu)?

Without question, most coaches would like their chances to make a deep playoff run, and possibly hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, with that roster. Bamba, a 7-foot-1 center with a 7-10 wingspan who was the No. 6 pick of the Orlando Magic in last June’s NBA Draft, acknowledged the lure of Big 12 competition and the opportunity to improve his game in that environment led him to Texas for his one-and-done college season in 2017-18.

Bamba said the opportunity to play with and against NBA-bound players on night-in, night-out basis allowed him to improve both his tangibles and intangibles during his time in Austin.

“As far as intangibles, it was about leadership,” said Bamba, stressing that Longhorns’ coach Shaka Smart preached that trait to him from the moment he began formal workouts with the team. “It seemed pretty comical at first, when coach told me in the summer to put that look on your face and show that you care. Because when you have that look on your face, the impact on your teammates rubs off. And the next thing you know, guys are flying around and playing very hard. Skill-wise, I think my game is night and day (better) than when I entered college. I’m shooting with confidence. I’m getting into post moves, using my body more. It’s just fun being out there imposing my will on other players.”

Bamba posted a school-record 111 blocked shots (3.7 per game) during his lone season with the Longhorns and has averaged 1.4 blocks per game while playing 16.6 minutes per contest during the first half of his rookie season with Orlando.

The Big 12’s lure to players reaches around the globe. Embiid, a native of Cameroon, began playing the game at 14 after watching Kobe Bryant play for the Lakers in the NBA finals. Going to Kansas, where he played for Hall of Fame coach Bill Self, helped him improve his game to the point that he could blossom into the All-Star performer he is today with the Philadelphia 76ers.

Embiid recalled being “kind of shy” on the court when he first started playing the game but quickly developed a comfort zone that enhanced his rapid improvement with Self and the Jayhawks. Embiid said he “felt comfortable and had a great time” during his tenure in Lawrence, which allowed him to showcase his potential to NBA scouts.

“I really grew my game a lot during my time at Kansas,” Embiid said. “I just want to thank the coaches, the coaching staff, my teammates, my mentor, the fans and everybody that helped he through my journey there. They showed me nothing but love, and that was a really special time for me.”

Hield, a third-year guard with the Sacramento Kings, is another player drawn to Big 12 basketball from a foreign country. The 2016 Naismith Award winner grew up in the Bahamas, hardly a basketball hotbed, but developed a deadly jump shot as a youngster. That drew the attention of Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, who helped round out Hield’s game during four seasons in Norman, Oklahoma.

During his senior season, Hield averaged 25 points per game, shot 50.1 percent from the field and led the Sooners to the 2016 Final Four. Taken with the No. 6 overall pick of the 2016 Draft by the New Orleans Pelicans, he has averaged 13.9 points per game during his career while playing for New Orleans and Sacramento.

From Hield’s perspective, he’s come a long way from his days as a teen-aged, playground standout in Freeport and credits the finishing touches to his time in the Big 12 with Kruger and his staff.

“I was just a shooter back then,” Hield recalled of his early college days. “I never did attack. I’m a different player now. I know how to attack it off the dribble and create my own shots. It’s a different type of style and that’s helped me get to where I am. I hear a lot of stories about Kobe Bryant and how much work he put in to hone his game, so I’ve tried to instill that in my body. I meditate on that. With as much work as I have put in, the results have shown on the court.”

Lots of former Big 12 players tell similar tales about the role that the league played in their development. Atlanta Hawks’ rookie guard Trae Young, who led the nation in scoring and assists last season at Oklahoma, said playing at such a high level in college forced him “to mature a lot more quickly than a lot of 19-year-olds would.” That process, he said, has helped him in the NBA.

“I wouldn’t go back and do anything different,” Young said. “You can always get better and you learn from your failures. I’m just maturing and getting better each and every day.”

During a recent visit to Austin, the most-decorated former Big 12 star in the NBA became sentimental when he spotted the sign identifying the Longhorns’ practice facility as the “Kevin Durant Texas Basketball Center.” Durant, who averaged 25.8 points for the Longhorns while winning the 2007 Naismith Award, enjoyed seeing the tangible result of his $3 million donation to the school’s athletic department, the largest gift by a former student-athlete in program history.

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury-News, Durant shared his thoughts about his relationship with his former school and its basketball program.

“Who would’ve thought … when I first walked in there as a 17-year-old kid when I was a freshman that, 10 ½ or 11 years later, my name would be on the wall,” Durant told the newspaper. “I had dreams of making it to the NBA. I definitely wanted to make it sooner than later. But it was the fact that I … just focused on becoming a better basketball player. I was excited about playing in college. I was excited about playing in the tournament. That type of stuff fueled me every day to focus on where I was and knowing I want to be an NBA player.”

Several members of the next generation of NBA stars will compete this week at the Phillips 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship at the Sprint Center. So will TCU coach Jamie Dixon, who previously served on staffs in the Big East and the ACC during 17 seasons at Pittsburgh, including the last 14 as the Panthers’ head basketball coach (2003-2016).

How does Big 12 basketball rate, in Dixon’s mind, to those two celebrated leagues after spending the past three seasons in Fort Worth?

“I tell everyone I’ve gone from the best conference, to the best conference, to the best conference,” Dixon said of his coaching progression. “Basketball in the Big 12 is as good as it gets. It’s the toughest of the tough. It’s exciting to be in a conference that’s ranked at the top in RPI on a yearly basis, so you can tell that to recruits.”

Many of those recruits will be part of this week’s stellar talent display featuring future NBA draftees at the Sprint Center.

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