Brutal Big 12 tournament promises to be wide open

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas coach Bill Self was chatting this week with someone who brought up the possibility that some unfortunate team with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament might have to play its second game against Oklahoma State, which was once considered a Final Four contender.

“I said, ‘Just think if that happens in your conference tournament,'” Self responded.

After winning their 10th straight regular-season title, the Jayhawks earned the top seed when the Big 12 tournament began Wednesday night at the Sprint Center. But the reward is a first-round bye and a matchup with the eighth-seeded Cowboys in today’s quarterfinals; the two teams split their two meetings this year.

Oklahoma State beat No. 9 seed Texas Tech 80-62 in the first game Wednesday night. Seventh-seeded Baylor defeated No. 10 seed TCU 76-68 in the nightcap.

“I think we’ve always had very competitive Big 12 tournaments,” Self said, “but I don’t know if I can ever remember where if there’s a final between whatever seeds there are, it would be absolutely not a major surprise to anybody. It’s going to be a pretty special weekend.”

The Big 12 has been the runaway leader in conference RPI all season, and some believe that it could land seven or eight teams in the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday.

Just consider the games that will be played Thursday: Along with Kansas getting Oklahoma State or Texas Tech, second-seeded Oklahoma will play Baylor, No. 3 seed Texas will play No. 6 seed West Virginia, and No. 4 seed Iowa State will play No. 5 seed Kansas State.

“This league,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said, “is by far the toughest in the country.”

That’s why the Jayhawks still believe they can earn a No. 1 seed to the NCAA tournament, despite their 23-8 record. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State (21-11) is teetering around the bubble, and its win over Texas Tech might have been enough to push the Cowboys firmly into the dance.

Knocking off the Jayhawks would certainly do the trick.

“We’re just trying to worry about the next game,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said prior to the opening round, “and worrying about all that other stuff doesn’t really do you any good.”

In that case, here are five things that fans SHOULD worry about:

BUBBLE WATCH

Oklahoma State isn’t the only team on the NCAA tournament bubble. Baylor (21-10) would feel much better with a win or two, while West Virginia (17-14) hopes the momentum it picked up by knocking off Kansas last weekend will propel it to enough wins in Kansas City to make a case on Selection Sunday. “I think if we won two we’d be in great shape,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, “but I think if we can win that first one that we would be pretty good.”

CHAMPIONSHIP CHALLENGE

Kansas is the only current member to have won the Big 12 tournament since 2005 – twice since then, Missouri won the title. In fact, Oklahoma and Iowa State are the only current schools besides the Jayhawks and Cowboys to have won. “No matter what people say, no matter what other teams do,” Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart said, “it goes through Kansas.”

STAR WATCH

There will be stars-a-plenty at the Big 12 tournament. Andrew Wiggins of Kansas is a potential No. 1 draft pick, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim is the Big 12 player of the year and Smart is also a potential lottery pick. But one player who won’t be on the floor is Jayhawks center Joel Embiid, who’s been ruled out for the Big 12 tournament and unlikely for the first week of the NCAA tournament because of a stress fracture in his back.

HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE

Local schools Kansas and Kansas State always pack the Sprint Center, but Iowa State also tends to draw well – its campus is a reasonable drive from Kansas City. That means it’ll be tough to secure a ticket to Thursday’s first session, when the Cyclones play the Wildcats and Kansas is also in action in a tantalizing double-header.