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Words of warning? Why life in the Big 12 will ‘be a fight’ every night for BYU

Considered by many the toughest basketball league in the country, Big 12 players share why the sledding will be tough for the Cougars

Oklahoma State’s Isaac Likekele Jr., left, and Rondel Walker speak during Big 12 media day in Kansas City, Mo.
Oklahoma State’s Isaac Likekele Jr., left, and Rondel Walker speak to the media during Big 12 NCAA college basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo.
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Texas’ Timmy Allen is new to the Big 12, having spent three seasons at Utah before transferring to play for the Longhorns.

What was his reaction when he found out the Utes’ rival, BYU, would be joining the Big 12 in 2023?

“I was shocked,” Allen said during Big 12 media day last week. “I know they’ve always been trying to move around. They did pretty good last year. It’s good for them. They’re a good program. They have winners on their team. I’m still friends with (Cougars guard) Alex Barcello. We’ve been friends since we were really young. I’m happy for him and them. I’m sure they’ll do well.”

The Deseret News talked to a dozen Big 12 players about what it’s like playing in the league, which is widely regarded as the best in college basketball.

The Big 12 boasts Baylor, the defending national champion. How much did playing a Big 12 schedule help the Bears last season?

“Well, we won the national championship, so it probably prepares you pretty well,” Baylor wing player Matthew Mayer said with a sly grin.

Three Big 12 teams were ranked in the top eight in the preseason Associated Press poll — Kansas (3), Texas (5) and Baylor (8).

Texas forward Timmy Allen takes part in drills during a practice at the team’s facility in Austin, Texas. The former Utah Runnin’ Ute is happy for the BYU program and thinks it will do well in the Big 12.
Eric Gay, Associated Press

“They have targets on their backs. That’s what that says,” said Iowa State forward George Conditt IV. “Baylor is No. 8 and they’re the national champs. Everyone has a target on their back. Everyone wants to beat everyone and that’s the competitive vibe that is the Big 12.”

Big 12 players say the style of play and the venues in the league are difficult to manage.

They offered their advice to BYU — as well as Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida — about joining the Big 12.

“It’s a physical league. It’s a league where, top to bottom, every team is competitive,” said Baylor’s Flo Thamba. “We’re all capable of making it to March Madness. If I had to speak to BYU, I’d say, ‘You have to bring it every night. There’s no easy games. You can’t take a break any night. It’s going to be competitive from the moment that you come in.’”

Kansas State’s Mike McGuirl said playing in the Big 12 is a grind every night.

“The toughest part about it would be the physical toll on your body. It’s a physical league. We play hard,” he said. “Being able to bounce back and be fully ready for the next game physically. Two games a week. Every game is a battle. That’s the toughest part.”

Oklahoma State guard Rondel Walker pointed to the talent level of the coaches and players in the conference.

“We have such established coaches like (West Virginia’s) Bob Huggins and (Kansas’) Bill Self. It’s the programs they built,” he said. “I feel like you’re playing against NBA players every night. The level of competition is unmatched, night-in and night-out. … You have no easy games, no off days. The toughest team ultimately comes out on top every year.”

Walker added that having the reigning national champs in the league is proof enough of the Big 12’s excellence.

“It shows how the 12 is. Baylor won the national championship last year and the two teams that beat them in the regular season were from the 12,” he said. “It shows how gritty the 12 can get. It shows the level of competition in the 12.”

“I would say to anyone that’s new to the conference, every night it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a fight,” said Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar. “The crowds, home and away, are very hostile. It gets pretty rowdy. Big 12 basketball is physical, for sure.”

Texas Tech’s Kevin McCullar speaks to the media during Big 12 media day Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. What would be his advice to the Cougars? “I would say to anyone that’s new to the conference, every night it’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a fight.”
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

“It’s how physical it is. In this conference, it’s a lot tougher, harder, faster, stronger,” added TCU guard Mike Miles. “The physicality in this conference is different from any other conference, honestly.”

West Virginia guard Taz Sherman spoke to the league’s balance.

“You have to come to play every game. There’s not one easy game. If you take a team lightly, that’s the game you lose,” he said. “This conference isn’t top-heavy. Some are top-heavy. In this league, the last seed in the conference can beat the first seed. It happened last year. It can happen at any given moment.”

For Sherman’s teammate, guard Sean McNeil, there’s no better place to play than the Big 12.

“Players want to play on the biggest stage against the best competition. Having the best competition comes with acquiring the best players. That’s just how it is,” he said. “On any given night, a team can pop anybody. If you’re not ready to play, the guy you’re guarding is more than likely going to score 15 or 20. You’ve got to show up every night or else it’s probably not going to be good for you.”

What makes the Big 12 so rigorous?

“Because every night, no matter what, the team believes they’re going to win, whether you’re 10th in the league or first in the league,” said Iowa State’s Conditt. “Every team wants to defend their gym, every team wants to go into another building and beat them. There’s always that pressure. There are great programs in this conference. History behind them. Everybody wants to uphold the history.”

While BYU owns a formidable home-court advantage with its 19,000-seat Marriott Center, the Big 12 is home to several challenging road environments.

Most of the Big 12 players polled said the No. 1 toughest place to play is Kansas’ venerable Allen Fieldhouse, home of “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk.”

“I would say there’s nothing like Kansas,” said TCU guard Francisco Farabello. “That place is insane. We couldn’t have this conversation there. The fans are loud. But I absolutely love it. Everything shakes in there. That makes it great.”

“Kansas,” McNeil said. “The arena itself isn’t big. But they pack it in. It seems like everybody is sitting on top of each other. It sounds extremely loud. The floor shakes. Texas Tech is a fun place to play too.”

Miles, of TCU, remembers playing at Allen Fieldhouse last year.

“Even with COVID, it was still shaking. I was standing at the free-throw line. I missed the first one because the floor was shaking,” he said. “There was nothing but students in there but it was still shaking. The craziest gym I played in last year was Texas Tech. I don’t think they had COVID restrictions. It was so loud. It was supposed to be (socially distanced) but the students were all right there in one area, right behind our bench. That was the craziest place for me.”

Texas Tech’s McCullar voted for his own United Supermarkets Arena as the league’s toughest environment.

“I would say our arena for sure. Our fans are crazy. And Kansas. Kansas is a crazy environment. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself talk. It gets really loud in there when they make a run,” he said. “At Allen Fieldhouse, it’s everything. It’s wild. A bunch of college students all in one area. When they’re all in one area, it gets crazy. Everywhere you go in the Big 12, it’s going to be a great environment, for sure. Sometimes you can’t hear yourself talking to your teammate that’s standing next to you on the court.”

Texas Tech fans celebrate with the team after an game against TCU, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, in Lubbock, Texas.
Brad Tollefson, Associated Press

Conditt said Texas Tech is the toughest place to play.

“The crowd makes it unbelievable. KU’s crowd is loud. But if Texas Tech goes on a run and their crowd starts swag-surfing, it’s unreal,” he said. “Texas Tech’s crowd is seriously rude. The student section is right next to the visitors bench. They’re right over you, saying a lot of things that you don’t want to hear.”

Unsuitable for print in a family newspaper, Conditt said.

Sherman recalls playing Baylor at home a couple of years ago,

“I remember we had a great defensive possession. I got a block and it was a shot clock violation. It felt like the ground was moving,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is crazy.’ You can’t hear anything. You have to read lips.”

Players in the Big 12 are looking forward to the league adding four new teams, including BYU.

“It happened so quickly. But the level of teams and the level of competition that we’re adding, I feel like it’s going to make the 12 better overall,” said OSU’s Walker. “Nothing against Texas or Oklahoma. But these new teams will bring new travel and it will impact recruiting. It will shape the Big 12 in the future.”

McNeil likes the idea of the league adding four schools, even though he’ll be graduated by the time it happens.

“It’s great,” he said. “Not as much for us but it still affects us because we’ll be alumni soon.”

West Virginia is looking forward to having schools that are located closer to Morgantown.

“It will be nice not to have to travel three hours once or twice a week and get back at 5 a.m., and have to wake up at 8 and go to class,” McNeil said. “Hopefully, with the East Coast teams, travel will be a little easier on us.”

McNeil acknowledged that traveling to BYU would mean even more time on an airplane.

“(Provo) would be a long trip, too,” he said. “Orlando is only a couple-hour flight from Morgantown. Cincinnati is about a four-hour drive. You gotta give and take. You pick up two close ones and you’ve got to go out to BYU but it will be good.”

Miles, a sophomore, has heard about the environment at the Marriott Center.

“I hope I get to experience playing there,” he said.

TCU guard Farabello has heard about the rivalry between BYU and the Horned Frogs when they were both members of the Mountain West Conference from 2005-2011.

“I’m excited to see what’s going to happen in the future between TCU and BYU, if their rivalry is still there,” he said. “Should be exciting.”

Speaking of rivalries with BYU, Allen is the Big 12’s resident expert, having faced the Cougars when he was a Ute.

When it comes time for BYU to join the Big 12, Allen believes it will be ready.

“They’ve always had a lot of success,” he said. “They’ve always run their stuff and they’re really good at it. They’ve got good personnel. They’ll be just fine.”