In the Central Plains, the Southwest, and the Deep South regions of the United States, football is king with a few conspicuous exceptions. One doesn’t need a long explanation of the idea that if a sport is culturally less important, one is less likely to succeed at it. Ask the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
They know this story, which will be explained below.
A central part of the charm at this Final Four was not just the presence of first-time Final Four schools from Lubbock, Texas, and Auburn, Alabama, but from two conferences — the Big 12 and SEC — which place such noticeable cultural importance on football.
Virginia hadn’t been to the Final Four since 1984, but the Cavaliers are part of a conference which associates most of its cultural identity with basketball: the ACC. Texas Tech-Auburn would have been a more complete triumph for the have-nots in college basketball, but Texas Tech taking down blue-blooded Michigan State gives Monday Night’s championship game a substantial outsider feel as it is.
Texas Tech’s presence is not just significant for the school itself. It matters for all the schools — there are many — which need a reason to hope in the future.
Texas Tech came from the Southwest Conference, which — upon its death in the 1995-1996 college sports cycle — splintered into a number of conferences. Chief among those conferences were the Big 12 and — over a longer period of time — the SEC. The Big 12 is the power conference of the Central Plains and Southwest in college sports, the SEC the power conference of the Southeast.
The Big 12 — representing the Central Plains and the Southwest — was a product of the Big Eight plus a chunk of the SWC. The Big Eight was comprised of Kansas, the basketball king of the conference, and seven other schools: Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri.
Texas Tech had been part of the Southwest Conference before moving to the Big 12. The SWC included Houston, the biggest basketball superpower in the league, plus UH’s foremost rival and fellow superpower, Arkansas. Tech was one of several other SWC schools: Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Baylor, SMU and Rice.
That’s eight Big Eight schools and nine SWC schools, 17 total. Kansas, Houston, and Arkansas have been the three most accomplished basketball schools in those two leagues (albeit for varying lengths of time) over the past 60 years, since 1959.
In those 60 years, this is the full number of teams from the Big 12 or SWC outside the Kansas-Houston-Arkansas trio which had made the national championship game heading into the 2019 Final Four: 1.
That one team: Oklahoma in 1988.
Basketball in the South Central Plains, the Southwest, and also in the Deep South (in the SEC) has very rarely placed teams in the national championship game.
Kansas has been the only team to (somewhat) consistently reach national championship games in the Big 12. Other than 1988 Oklahoma, mentioned above, the last current Big 12 member school OTHER THAN KANSAS to make a national championship game was West Virginia in 1959.
The Big 12 and its SWC and Big Eight predecessors simply haven’t done very much in 60 years.
Houston and Arkansas were the only two teams to represent the SWC in the Final Four from 1957 through 1991 before Arkansas went to the SEC. Arkansas made back-to-back appearances in the national title game shortly after its move to the SEC, in 1994 and 1995. Houston was the only school to make the title game as an SWC member from 1957 through 1991. Arkansas made the Final Four twice in that time, but not the title game.
What has been true of most Big 12 (SWC, Big Eight) schools has also been true of the SEC.
Kentucky has been the only SEC school to regularly return to the Final Four over a longer period of time. Arkansas made its two appearances in 1994 and 1995 as a new SEC member. Among long-term SEC members, Florida is the only non-Kentucky school to have ever made a college basketball national championship game, and every Florida appearance came in one decade: the 2000s (2000, 2006 and 2007).
LSU, with four Final Fours, is 0-4 in national semifinals… and is the third-best SEC program among long-term members, fourth-best if Arkansas is included in the mix.
Six current SEC schools (including Big 12 refugees Texas A&M and Missouri) have never made a Final Four, let alone a national title game. Four other SEC schools — three long-term members, plus 1992 newcomer South Carolina — have made only one Final Four. Auburn and South Carolina have made their first Final Fours in the past three seasons.
Can we see how hard life has been for basketball programs and basketball fans in the state of Texas, much of the Central Plains, and much of the Southeast? Cultural primacy has flowed to football and, in some instances, baseball or gymnastics.
Where can programs from these football-focused parts of the United States find hope?
They can find it in Auburn to a certain degree, but Texas Tech most centrally carries these hopes into Monday Night.
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