OKLAHOMA CITY — Just a few short years ago, the Big 12's baseball product was so strong that even a team that couldn't qualify for the conference tournament was able to make it into the NCAA tournament.
That's certainly not the case in the first year after conference realignment took effect.
No. 6 seed Missouri (28-26)
vs. No. 3 seed Texas (30-20)
WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, Oklahoma City
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
Last season, Missouri became the first No. 8 seed to advance to the Big 12 tournament championship game before falling to second-seeded Texas A&M 10-9 on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 10th inning.
In a year dominated by regular-season champion Baylor, the Big 12 enters its conference tournament this week in Oklahoma City hoping to avoid setting a record low for teams that move on to the postseason.
At least five Big 12 teams have made it into the NCAA tournament every year since 1998, with a record eight teams in 2009. That's the year Oklahoma State finished ninth out of 10 teams but still made it despite missing the Big 12 tournament.
But this year, there could be as few as three teams that get into the NCAA tournament — one less than in the first year of the Big 12 back in 1997.
"I do believe Baylor will be a national seed, I think Texas A&M, with a couple wins, can become a national seed. ... I think we're going to be a lock to be in the NCAA tournament," Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said Tuesday. "I think Texas would feel more secure with a win or two because their RPI is behind ours, and you've got four other teams that know they've got to win the tournament outright. So, it's going to make for a great and interesting competition."
The double-elimination tournament starts Wednesday with Baylor (42-12, 20-4 Big 12) facing Kansas State (26-29, 7-17), fourth-seeded Oklahoma (35-21, 13-10) taking on Oklahoma State (32-23, 13-11), No. 2 seed Texas A&M (41-14, 16-8) playing Kansas (22-32, 7-16), and third-seeded Texas (30-20, 14-10) against Missouri (28-26, 10-14).
The top-seeded Bears grabbed the conference's top honors after reeling off a record 18 straight conference wins to start Big 12 play. Steve Smith was named Coach of the Year, catcher Josh Ludy won Player of the Year and designated hitter Nathan Orf was the Newcomer of the Year in voting announced Tuesday.
Oklahoma State lefty Andrew Heaney won Pitcher of the Year while Texas pitcher Parker French earned Freshman of the Year honors.
Smith suggested that Baylor's dominance may have hurt the Big 12 from an RPI perspective. The Bears swept six straight Big 12 series before getting swept themselves in a three-game set at Oklahoma.
"Nobody really gained a lot by playing us this year because we didn't lose any to them," Smith said.
The coaches even traded ideas Monday night on how they might change the conference schedule to boost the RPI. Oklahoma State coach Frank Anderson pointed out that Nebraska's departure to the Big Ten came at the price of 27 conference games. Some teams ended up replacing the Cornhuskers' void with low RPI opponents.
"We need to do something to rectify that problem because this league's too good to not get but three or four people in. It shouldn't happen," Anderson said.
Smith didn't see a need for changes after only one season, considering the conference's strength over time, but he hopes it opens eyes to the importance of strong nonconference scheduling.
There are more changes ahead.
At the awards luncheon Tuesday, opposing coaches took turns saying goodbye to Texas A&M's Rob Childress and Missouri's Tim Jamieson, who will take their teams to the SEC next season. TCU and West Virginia will replace them.
"It's going to be a disappointment to not to be able to compete week in and week out with the great group of coaches that we have," Childress said. "We'll definitely carry the Big 12 flag with pride as long as we can, until somebody knocks us out."
Jamieson recalled memories of his wife being pregnant with their first son during the first Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City and their second son the following year, when the event moved across town into its current location at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark for the first time. There were also the hard-to-swallow moments losing the 2004 and 2011 championship games after leading with one out left.
"I know that where we're headed is going to be a challenge but I can guarantee you — I can guarantee you — that the experiences I've had over the last 24 years being a part of the Big Eight and Big 12 will not be near what they will be in the future just because of the people, the venue, the competition, the coaches," Jamieson said. "It's very special."
This year, his team is among a group that can only get to the NCAA tournament by claiming the automatic bid that comes by winning the Big 12 championship.
"I think our focus is really to win it all," Oklahoma State's Heaney said. "We know that's the only way to ensure that we get into the tournament, so that's what we're going to try and do."