By STEPHEN HAWKINS
Tubby Smith has joined what was already an impressive roster of men’s basketball coaches in the Big 12.
With Smith now coaching at Texas Tech and the conference’s lone newcomer, the Big 12 is the only league that can boast that all of its head coaches have taken teams to the NCAA tournament. Six of the 10 coaches have been to the Final Four.
“It makes it hard. I don’t know if there’s ever been another league ever that had 60 percent of coaches that have coached in the Final Four,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who is part of that group. “That’s extremely impressive.”
Five of the Big 12 coaches have more than 500 career victories, led by Huggins’ 723 though he got only 13 in his first Big 12 season. The other 500-game winners are Texas’ Rick Barnes (560), Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger (514), Smith (511) and Kansas’ Bill Self (507) — that last trio reaching the mark last season.
“It speaks well (of the Big 12),” said Kruger, who last season became the first coach to take five different teams to the NCAA tournament. He led the Sooners to their first NCAA tournament since 2009, Blake Griffin’s final season in Oklahoma.
“You have unbelievable coaches in this league. The records speak for themselves, what a lot of the coaches in our league have accomplished,” Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg said Tuesday during a summer teleconference with league coaches. “That’s an unbelievable stat, 60 percent of your league that have coached in the premiere event in college basketball.”
Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State made it to the NCAA tournament last season, while Baylor won the NIT championship. The Jayhawks had the deepest NCAA run, getting to the round of 16 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where the Big 12 next April.
Kansas shared its ninth consecutive Big 12 title with Oklahoma State, which got a boost for 2013-14 when Big 12 player of the year Marcus Smart decided to stay for more than just his freshman season with the Cowboys.
Smart became only the third player in league history to be the AP’s Big 12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the same season. The others were Texas’ Kevin Durant in 2007 and Kansas State’s Michael Beasley the season after that.
With Smart back, and Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash staying as well, Oklahoma State returns its top six scorers next season.
That could make the Cowboys a favorite to end the Kansas stranglehold atop the Big 12 standings. Or does it?
Kansas had four senior starters last season and star freshman Ben McLemore is a likely top pick Thursday night after declaring for the NBA draft. But the Jayhawks have another talented class of newcomers, headed by 6-foot-7 superstar recruit Andrew Wiggins.
Barnes said Oklahoma State had a good season and that with Smart staying, “you would naturally expect the progression there. But you can’t out Kansas from the fact the caliber of player they have in Wiggins and what they were able to put together. ... I don’t know what order necessarily, but I think those two teams belong at the top.”
Texas missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 seasons, though Barnes (in 2003) and Self (2008, 2012) are the only Big 12 coaches to take their current teams to the NCAA Final Four. Self led the Jayhawks to the 2008 national championship, 10 years after Smith’s title at Kentucky.
Smith spent the past six seasons at Minnesota, fired three months ago right after the Golden Gophers won a game in the NCAA tournament. He has quite a task at Texas Tech, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and is on its fourth coach in four seasons.
“I’m always concerned about players and how they’re adjusting. So far, they’ve done a great job,” Smith said. “My expectations are that we’ll be a very competitive team. We have 10 returning players. That’s a good thing, but sometimes it’s hard to change. ... Obviously there are a lot of great players, a lot of good teams and a lot of excellent coaches in the Big 12. We know we have our work cut out for us. First, we want to get competitive in this league, and then institute a winning attitude and a winning atmosphere here.”