The Big 12 Conference has a reputation as the king of college basketball, often sending seven or eight teams to the NCAA Tournament each year during the past couple of decades. Clemson coach Brad Brownell believes the league has a formula to get the inside track to NCAA berths.

Weeks ago he called out the Big 12 for scheduling easy non-conference opponents to inflate the metrics that are used to determine bids for the tournament. Those metrics include margin of victory. In other words, they are scheduling weak non-conference opponents in order to pile on the points, more popularly known as “running up the score.”

Asked to explain his remarks last week, Brownell said, “… I do think they (the Big 12) figured some things out. … I think there are a lot of teams in their league that scheduled in a way that helped their NET (the NCAA Evaluation Tool, which is used to determine the field for the NCAA Tournament).

“There’s different ways to do it,” he continued. “You can schedule really hard games and try to win those games. Or … you can schedule some teams that aren’t maybe as good and beat them by a lot and pad your offensive and defensive efficiency numbers (part of the NET). And I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t already been put out there, not only by other coaches in our league, but some media people had figured it out. And I do think that’s a problem. It’s a problem with the system and we really need to look at it. This tournament is too important to too many people.’’

It’s nothing new. Teams have been padding schedules in football and basketball for decades. The NCAA has produced various formulas that attempt to make postseason selections more equitable and objective, but with limited success. According to Team Rankings, the Big 12 had only three schools ranked among the top 48 for strength of non-conference schedule — Kansas 13th, Baylor 16th, Houston 22nd.

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And yet eight schools — tied with the SEC for the most — were given berths in the tournament. They didn’t exactly justify those bids. After two rounds, the Big 12 is 7-6 and only two of its eight teams advanced to this week’s Sweet 16. The SEC has performed likewise, with a 5-6 record and two Sweet 16 qualifiers. Meanwhile, Brownell’s Clemson squad, along with the three other ACC teams that were invited to the tournament, are all in the Sweet 16.

The Big 12′s two No. 6 seeds lost to a No. 11 seed — Texas Tech falling to N.C. State and BYU bowing to Duquesne, which was making its first tournament appearance in 47 years. No. 9 seed TCU lost to No. 8 seed Utah State, which then lost by 39 points to Purdue. In the second round, No. 7 Texas lost to No. 2 Tennessee and No. 3 Baylor lost to No. 6 Clemson. Only No. 1-seeded Houston and No. 2-seeded Iowa State advanced

The Big 12 has put at least seven teams in the NCAA Tournament eight times in 13 years. That might or might not be deserved, but it’s relevant to note that Big 12 teams have won two of the last three national championships (Baylor in 2021 and Kansas in 2022), and the conference has been represented in four of the last five Final Fours, including three national championship games.

The weak-schedule strategy is working. This season, the Big 12 non-conference schedule included games against Gardner Webb, Nicholls, Houston Christian, Morgan State, Bellarmine, Detroit Mercy, Bryant, Merrimack, Stetson, Louisiana-Monroe, Lindenwood, Idaho State, Prairie View A&M, Manhattan, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Monmouth, Incarnate Word, Alcorn State, Texas A&M-Commerce, Lipscomb, Bethune-Cookman and Radford.

The strategy doesn’t always work. Oklahoma, with a 20-12 record, played a non-conference schedule that ranked 274th in the nation (out of 362 Division I schools), including four opponents who failed to crack the top 300 in the NET rating.

Tim Krueger, a stat geek and self-described “bracketologist,” decided to dig into the numbers after noticing the “weird” way the tournament was “placing teams in the bracket and seeding them.” What he noticed most “is the number of teams who have a good NET ranking but have played poor non-conference schedules. … What I found even shocked me. … Of the top 70 teams in the NET, 60% of them had non-conference strength of schedules ranked 100th or worse. Almost 43% had a (strength of schedule) of 200 or worse. And that’s not all. There are 362 teams currently ranked in the NET ranking for Division I college basketball. Of the top 50 teams in the NET, 13 ranked in the lowest 15% of non-conference schedules. That means that of the top 50 teams, over 25% of them had some of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

“What does this mean?” Krueger continued. “It means that the best schools in the country don’t find value in scheduling strong opponents outside their conference, which, in my opinion, is really bad for college basketball. Why the sudden change in scheduling? We don’t know the entire NET formula so we can’t say for certain, but it appears that blowing inferior opponents out has a more positive effect on the NET ranking than playing tough opponents.”

Iowa State forward Hason Ward (24) and forward Conrad Hawley (23) celebrate after defeating Washington State in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.
Iowa State forward Hason Ward (24) and forward Conrad Hawley (23) celebrate after defeating Washington State in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 23, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. | John Peterson, Associated Press