Just a month ago, it seemed the Big 12 was ready to take up half of a region in the NCAA Tournament. Eight teams were making arguments for why they should be in the bracket this year — seven were in the tournament last season. But it appears their calendars were a month in advance. The madness arrived a month early. The fate of at least two teams hangs in the balance, and their fates will ultimately be decided in Kansas City in the Big 12 tournament starting on Wednesday and ending on Saturday.
The two teams that are looking for a bid to this year’s dance are Texas and Oklahoma State, each with a record of 8-10 in conference play. Both have been ranked during the course of the season but have had a difficult time maintaining any kind of consistency. If either drops the ball in their first game, the probability of them being announced on Selection Sunday decreases dramatically; but with a win, they’re in. But now to the tournament itself:
On Wednesday, Texas will be looking to ward off Texas Tech who has a habit of ruining everyone’s fun in the Big 12, no matter the sport. The Red Raiders are coming off of a three point loss at Baylor after scaring the Bears with an eleven point lead at one point while Texas is coming off a two game win streak including an emotional overtime win against the Baylor Bears. The Longhorns have one of the biggest and most physical front-courts in the nation (ranking in the top five in both offensive and defensive rebounding) and should be able to easily put away the Red Raiders to advance to play Iowa State on Thursday. The Longhorns would probably consider themselves lucky to get by Iowa State in the next round.
Oklahoma State has a first round bye and will be playing in-state rivals Oklahoma on Thursday. The Cowboys haven’t been able to take down the Sooners this season and I don’t expect them to this week either. Oklahoma is arguably the hottest team in the conference right now — even as a three seed — after beating Kansas. If the Cowboys can turn it on, however, they might just steal that fire and make a run in the tournament.
The most likely team to play upset though is Kansas State. The Wildcats are a team with a losing record both in and out of conference play yet, somehow, they can still consider themselves in discussion for a bid in the NCAA bracket because they legitimately have the ability to win the conference tournament. In their last three games, they’ve beaten Kansas and Iowa State and lost to Texas. That’s a pretty fair representation of their entire season: beating great teams and losing to not-so-great teams.
They face off against TCU to open up the tournament. The two teams split wins in the regular season. The Wildcats are hungry to punch their ticket for the NCAA tournament and you can expect them to push through the first round even though they are as bi-polar as a team can get. The question is if they can play the role of spoiler again in the second round against Kansas. The only way I see Kansas State making the selection committee really consider them is if they can win the championship. I don’t see that happening.
Not only is Kansas standing in the way, but so to are the other teams with a first round bye: Baylor, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State. Baylor should be able to handle West Virginia for a third time and Iowa State will skate by Texas as well. That makes the semi-finals: Kansas vs. Baylor and Oklahoma vs. Iowa State. I know it’s not very exciting to have zero upsets but it’s going to take a lot of convincing to tell me the teams’ placement in the conference aren’t indicative of their ability.
However, I do have the Sooners defeating the Cyclones in the semifinals, taking on the Jayhawks in the championship. If Kansas takes care of business against Kansas State and Baylor, it will be tough to take them down. I’ve said Oklahoma is the hottest team right now, but that can only take them so far. Kansas has been the most consistent team and that’s what led them to an 11th straight Big 12 season title. I see them ultimately being crowned champs again on Saturday.
If you’re one to really look for a team that could make a run and completely turn the committee’s heads, I’ll point you towards Baylor. There’s no doubt in my mind that they can beat West Virginia even with Juwan Staten back in WVU’s lineup. The roadblock for them will be against Kansas.
They dropped the ball against the Jayhawks twice already but I think Baylor has the qualities of a perfect tournament team. In tournament play, it’s all about the runs you can establish and maintaining hot streaks. The Bears have shown that they can go on 20-0 runs multiple times throughout the season thanks to great 3-point shooting. They’re also particularly good at starting and closing games. What stops them from having continually high margins of victory is that they let their opponents go on runs as well.
If Baylor can turn it on early in their games and make a high percentage of 3-pointers (look for Royce O’Neal to be on the perimeter) and control the glass with Rico Gathers, they’ll be in good position to run the table and be crowned Big 12 champs. But regardless of who “could” make a statement here, it’s going to be a wild slate of games. One team we thought was a lock could be taken down by a team that gets hot at the right time. Will we see Texas Tech or TCU crowned Big 12 champions? Very unlikely, but that’s what’s so fun about conference tournaments: you never know for certain.