This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
I'm not going to lie, I wasn't always a fan of the Big XII. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit how many years it took me to draw a significant distinction between the Big XII and the Big 10... Luckily in recent years college basketball has really exploded as far as televised games (or maybe I just take more note of it). This alone has allowed me to love college basketball more than ever before. Allow me to explain.
I grew up in the heart of ACC territory: my house was just 3 hours from Duke, NC State, UNC, and Wake Forest. North Carolina is a basketball state: the home of Tobacco Road, 11 basketball national championships, and Stephen Curry's unbelievable NCAA tourney performance (along with countless others). With no football national titles to speak of (not counting Appalachian State's 1-AA dominance), the last great D1 football moment came when the aforementioned Mountaineers upset Michigan. Anyone who argues football is king is probably a State fan veiling the mediocrity of its recent basketball squads with half-hearted insults to Duke and UNC football.
More after the Jump.
The state may be home to four schools, but nearly everyone in North Carolina pulls for UNC. So naturally, I was born and raised in a proud against-the-grain household of Duke alumni. My first college basketball memory comes from the 1997 finals of the ACC tournament when an overachieving NC State team met its demise against the heavily favored Tar Heel squad (courtesy of Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, and three other McDonalds All-Americans). Of course all I can tell you now about that game is that the Wolf and Ram got into an epic mascot brawl, and the Wolf ripped off one of the Ram's horns. Call it a moral victory.
The older I got, the more basketball I watched. The Hornets quickly left my home state, taking any hopes of me loving the NBA with them. The Big Ten / ACC challenge finally gave me reasons to appreciate the little things in life: like 75 point games, not "using" the entire shot clock (allowing viewers at home the time to rest their eyes, get a drink, or go for a quick run without missing anything), and everything else I took for granted growing up on ACC basketball.
By high school, I was a full-fledged NCAA men's basketball addict. I quickly developed more opinions than I deserved, hounding Sports Center for any possible new teams or players for me to get my mind off of Duke's "early tournament exits." Enter Kevin Durant.
Let me preface this by saying, I don't like the one-and-done rule. I think it's unfair to the players and to the college game in general. I love that there's some carryover in the college game, and it's impossible to get to know a player in just one season. I'd rather see Stephen Curry or Jacob Pullen burst onto the national scene once than see twenty one-and-dones. The thrill is in the chase; that's just me.
That said, Durant was different. There was a feeling I can't fully describe watching him play that I had never felt before. Here was this skinny kid, who could single-handedly run a game of men who looked twice his age (37 points, 23 rebounds as a freshman against Texas Tech). If Durant showed up to my high school chemistry class, I probably wouldn't have thought much apart from "he's really tall." His freshman Big Ten counterpart Greg Oden, probably could have passed for 50 (and certainly gets injured like he is). Watching Kevin Durant play finally made me realize that these guys were only a couple of years older than me... For me, watching Durant's season at Texas can only be described as surreal.
While Durant's magic only lasted one season, he opened my eyes to the better "big" conference that occupies the middle of our country. I still didn't watch the Big XII enough to be called a major supporter, much less a fanatic, but I took more and more interest. I watched Bob Huggins rebuild his image riding the coattails of Michael Beasley's one season at Kansas State; I watched Kansas swipe the 2008 national title from Calipari's well-moussed hands, an epic collapse sealed by an epic shot from Mario Chalmers. And suddenly, the Big XII became my second favorite conference.
This past season, I found myself caught up in Big XII basketball... I feared the beard. I rarely cheered harder than I did for K-State during the Kansas game in the Octagon. There wasn't a better comeback story than that of Baylor's program; there wasn't a harder fall from the top of the polls than the Longhorns took as the season progressed; there wasn't a more epic shot than Ali Faroukmanesh's unthinkable season-sinking three that derailed the conference and country's best team on the biggest stage; and there wasn't a game more exciting than the double OT thriller K-State and Xavier gave us in the Sweet 16.
Long story short, that's how I became a fan of the Big XII. I may not be the fan with the longest history, but I'm a fan nonetheless. With the threat of conference expansion largely behind us, it's time to appreciate everything that makes the Big XII great.