In just a few days, the fast-paced world of Big 12 basketball will descend upon Oklahoma City. Two tournaments, 12 schools, 24 teams and thousands of rabid fans, anxious to see how it all plays out.
The women’s side of the championships ” set to unfold at the Cox Convention Center ” has a bracket that boasts of six Big 12 teams ranked in the top 25, including Oklahoma in the top 10. Across the street at the Ford Center, the men enter the fray less decorated as a whole, but every bit as determined. The event’s marquee no longer features legendary coaching names like Roy Williams, Eddie Sutton, Bobby Knight and Kelvin Sampson, but the next generation seems to be more than holding its own.
Topping the list is a former gym rat from Edmond who has been on the fast-track since he took up coaching as a graduate assistant in 1985. In his first five seasons at Kansas, Bill Self’s teams won four regular-season conference titles, three Big 12 tourney crowns and a national championship last year.
As an encore to the national title season, Self has possibly done his best overall coaching job in 2008-09, taking a Jayhawk team that was supposed to be rebuilding and instead guiding them to another Big 12 banner (barring consecutive losses against Texas Tech and Texas).
Rick Barnes is the one main holdover from the “legends era.” During his 11 seasons at Texas, he has been almost as spectacular as Self. The North Carolina native’s progression was slow and steady prior to his arrival in Austin, but since coming on board, he’s led the Longhorns to 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances (11, if you count this season) and nine consecutive 20-win seasons.
Texas has advanced to the Sweet 16 in five of the last seven seasons, joining Duke and Kansas as the only school to accomplish that feat. And while the Longhorns have yet to win the biggest prize of all, Barnes certainly seems to be the guy who can get it done.
There’s a third-year guy named Jeff Capel, who survived losing most of a top-5 recruiting class his first month on the job at Oklahoma, and has since managed to turn the Sooners into a Final Four contender. Capel is only 34 and may not have the résumé of a Self or Barnes, but he has a basketball pedigree that is second to none.
Born in North Carolina, Capel was a four-year starter at Duke, where he earned all-conference honors four times. After playing two pro seasons, he took his knowledge and talents to the sideline where he quickly became one of the best young coaches in the business.
After finishing 16-15 in his first season at OU, Capel helped lead the Sooners to the second round of the NCAA tourney a year ago. This season, Oklahoma has taken its game to another level and become a legitimate contender again on the national stage.
The jury is still out on Oklahoma State skipper Travis Ford, whose team has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride this season, his first at the Cowboy helm. The 39-year-old Ford rebuilt programs at Eastern Kentucky and UMass before taking over an OSU program that has not been to the NCAA Tournament since the 2004-05 season. “Jay C. Upchurch