Program Tiers: Big Twelve
Our recent piece on schools that should be perennial powers received a good deal of feedback, so we figured it's the perfect time to capitalize and bring more of the same content.
All jobs aren't created equal. There are some schools that have more funding, more prestige and better resources at their disposal to make recruiting (and, by extension, winning) more sustainable. As an attempt at pegging which jobs in the major conferences are best and which are most difficult based on those factors, we developed a seven-prong tier system, ranging from the perennial blue bloods to the spots with annual uphill battles.
A good coach can raise their program a tier, perhaps even two if there's longevity involved. These rankings fluctuate slightly as a result of the man in the head chair, but are largely dependent on factors outside of who the boss is right now.
In the Big Twelve, everyone chases Kansas. Their success and history is no accident, the careful combination of tradition and a great administration. Texas is nipping on their heels of late, and the depth of middle-tier programs lately has made this one of the best hoops conferences in the country. How sustainable is their run of recent success? And how might a lack of sustainability shape the perception of each job outside of Lawrence or Austin?
Tier #1 - Bluebloods
Kansas - I mean... The Jayhawks last missed the tournament in 1989. Since then, they've been ranked #1 in the country in 15 different years, won 30 games 13 times and landed countless 5-star recruits. Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Naismith ties and an athletic department that only makes money off of their hoops scene means they'll pump anything and everything into keeping this as a program. It's as desirable a job as any; with the history, great pay and Adidas ties, the guy who takes over for Bill Self eventually will likely be there for 20 years.
Tier #2 - Consistent and Historic
Texas - Burnt orange is a household color. Guys will come from all over to be the top recruit in the richest athletic department in the nation. The national prestige of the league helps bring in guys from all over. To round out the roster, a rich backyard and local base that idolizes the Hook 'Em traditions keeps them brimming with talent. The Longhorns haven't won enough basketball in late-March or early-April to be seen as a blue blood, but they have legitimately every advantage a program could want.
Tier #3 - Have it Rolling Right Now
None - There are a couple places who really do have sustained success right now that are lower on these tiers, but they aren't quite sustainable enough yet to be counted upon to outlast their current regimes.
Tier #4 - Should Be in Tier 2
Oklahoma - In-state talent isn't plentiful, but the Sooners are a brand name in college athletics and always hire well. It's a place that coaches can definitely win and create #1 seeds regularly. But it'll never be thought of as a basketball school thanks to their dominant football program. Current coach Lon Kruger is as underrated as anyone in the country -- and he wants it that way. They don't make enough noise to be higher on this list.
Tier #5 - You Can Sustain Winning There
Oklahoma State - Donors in Stillwater have kept that program afloat, sinking a ton of money into athletics just to keep them relevant when they should be outmatched by larger, more successful state school programs. The Cowboys' landing of Cade Cunningham is proof that elite names will go there; yet the school isn't a danger to the rest of the league to regularly become a school that poaches from the top-tier guys.
West Virginia - For Bob Huggins, Morgantown is coaching nirvana. A really passionate fanbase who is okay with winning ugly, the party school is just enough off the map for coaches to feel out of the spotlight and to do whatever they want. But there are resources here, aided by their proximity to Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and solid basketball history.
Texas Tech - Bob Knight really helped elevate this place from the shadow tier to a place that hangs its had on athletics. The last two decades have undoubtedly been the best in Lubbock from a success standpoint. They care about winning enough and are willing to commit to it that the Red Raiders can avoid being a bottom-feeder for long stretches. It's still not the most desirable job, but what Chris Beard has done to build it into a national power so quickly doesn't happen if there's nothing worth promoting to their guys.
Baylor - What Scott Drew has done over the last decade has essentially moved Baylor up two tiers, from the uphill battle category into sustained winning. He's proving it possible despite all that holds them back: lowest prestige of in-state power schools, budgetary struggles and rarely being seen as a destination. There's just so much talent in Texas that places like here and Texas Tech can really win under the right circumstances.
Tier #6 - In Someone Else's Shadow
TCU - Part of Baylor's ascent has been that now there's a school in Texas a slight tier beneath them in a power conference. TCU has solid facilities and a good campus location, but lacks the name brand to win important battles head-to-head with other Big Twelve schools. Jamie Dixon wisely looks out of region for his guys as a result. They'll have a couple of solid seasons here and there, but this is clearly a school still not in the same tier as their conference foes.
Kansas State - The Jayhawks' existence as one of the nation's best blue bloods means the Wildcats have to get insanely creative with how they build a program. They are the very definition of this tier, living in someone else's shadow. There isn't one major advantage they have over Kansas, so making winning an annual thing won't ever be easy.
Iowa State - Ames is a difficult place to recruit. It's the B-school in-state, getting out-slugged by the Hawkeyes at every turn. The easiest path to success has come through the Fred Hoiberg model: mass transfer portal recruiting, take a chance on a few renegades and have an unorthodox offensive identity that makes you appealing to kids. It's really hard to sustain that, but they'll certainly try.
Tier #7 - Uphill Battles
None - Part of the beauty of this conference is that, with the right coaching staff and tools, any team can make a serious run. There's just so much talent in this region that when you're relevant in-league, you can make any type of run nationally.
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Assistant Men's Basketball Coach, Dickinson College.