All year long, the Big 12 has been marked as the #1 conference in America, even if the top 25 polls don't always seem to reflect that. All computer numbers, most expert analysts, and undoubtedly all college basketball fans' eyes provide further evidence of the strength of the Big 12.
It seems each week the Big 12 has delivered with another jaw-dropping game with unbelievable endings and plenty of storylines. So it goes without saying, but we will say it anyway, this Big 12 tournament that starts today in Kansas City could be one of the best of all time.
In this preview, we will briefly look at what the tournament could mean for each team.
The story-line for Kansas is all about missing star player Joel Embiid and playing for NCAA seeding. Coach Bill Self explained Embiid would miss at least the Big 12 tournament, and potentially more time in the NCAA tournament due to a lingering back issue. He also has emphasized in recent weeks the importance of the NCAA weekends as compared to one weekend in Kansas City for the Big 12 title.
Kansas has nothing to prove to the rest of the Big 12. Their streak of 10 straight regular season conference championships is brilliant. However, the people Kansas are trying to impress sit on that selection committee.
It's unclear what sort of emphasis the committee will place on Embiid's injury vs. what Kansas has accomplished this season. But, even their accomplishments this season are a bit "un-Kansas-like" as they have 8 losses and will end up with 10 if they don't win either the Big 12 Tournament or the NCAA tournament. Because of that, Kansas could certainly use a good few days in Kansas City to bolster their resume for the committee. Most bracket-experts dropped Kansas off the 1-seed line after losing 2 of their last 3 games. An early exit for Kansas could drop them down to a 3 seed and potential upset matchups on the first weekend without Emiid, while winning the tournament could put Kansas back up to that 1-seed line and make their road a bit easier.
The program turnaround under Coach Lon Kruger took significant strides this year as Oklahoma finished with a 23-8 record and a second place finish in the Big 12 at 12-6. As will be a theme in this column for 7 different teams that all appear "in" the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma is mainly playing for seeding.
Most projections have Oklahoma as a 5 seed right now, and while certainly Oklahoma would take that, finishing in second place in the toughest conference in America feels like it should merit a better position than that.
If Baylor wins, Oklahoma will try to get its third win of the year over the Bears in its first Big 12 game. Their next game, if they were to beat the Bears, would be either West Virginia or Texas - two teams they've defeated by double digits earlier in March.
Oklahoma has probably been a little under-appreciated by the national media and a run to the finals and winning the Big 12 Tournament would certainly help their profile moving forward.
Big 12 Coach of the Year Rick Barnes brings his Longhorns into the Big 12 tournament as the 3 seed, where they will square off with West Virginia in their first action on Thursday. Texas beat the Mountaineers twice during the regular season, both times by double digits.
For the 3 seed in this tournament, the Longhorns NCAA tournament resume is not quite as strong as the teams immediately before them and after them - Oklahoma and Iowa State. They have 2 less top 50 wins than Iowa State, a much worse SOS number, and a comparative RPI.
However, Texas has a more favorable first-game matchup than the Cyclones, which could help them to gain ground when the NCAA brackets are revealed. If Texas does get by West Virginia, they will likely hope to face Baylor or TCU - teams they've defeated twice, rather than Oklahoma - a team they've lost to twice.
Having lost 4 of their last 6 games, including a loss to 9 seed Texas Tech in their last game, Coach Barnes will hope he can get the momentum going in the other direction during this tournament. That momentum, rather than seeding, might be all that Texas is after in the next few days.
Iowa State was able to stop the bleeding with a narrow overtime victory over Oklahoma State on Saturday. Prior to that game, they had dropped 2 straight and were looking to avoid 3 straight heading into this tournament.
Iowa State has the talent to win the Big 12 tournament with Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and several other talents including newcomer of the year DeAndre Kane. To progress in this tournament though, they will have to fend off a tough Kansas State team in their opening game - a team they split with during the regular season.
Iowa State has a better tournament profile than Oklahoma, and thus has a great chance to be seeded above the Sooners. However, an early exit from the Big 12 tournament could cost them a seeding line or two.
Kansas State is following the trend of the last several teams in that they are coming into the Big 12 Tournament with very little momentum. The Wildcats have lost 2 straight and 4 of 7 overall.
The good news for Kansas State is the location of this tournament and the fact that they split the season series with their game 1 opponent - Iowa State, having most recently beat them 80-73 earlier this month. If they can get by Iowa State, they will either face a depleted Kansas team whom they split the regular season with, or Oklahoma State (split) or Texas Tech (2-0) - teams they have had varying degrees of success against.
At 10-8 in the conference and 21-10 overall, K-State is absolutely playing to get out of the 8/9 game in the NCAA tournament. That game always represents one of the more difficult first weekends as you have an equal team in the first game and then face a #1 seed in game 2. All of the games K-State will likely play in the Big 12 tournament come against top 50 RPI teams, so any wins here would help their current 7-7 record vs. top 50 teams. Their strength of schedule of 46 and RPI of 48 are not doing them any favors, so the Wildcats really need a nice Big 12 tournament run.
West Virginia snuck into the 6 seed and a first round bye when Oklahoma State lost in OT to Iowa State on the last Saturday of the season. A win by OSU and the Mountaineers would be playing in the first round.
Their reward for obtaining that 6 seed is a matchup with the Texas Longhorns - a team they've lost to twice in the regular season - both times by double-digits.
More than any other team in the top 8 though, West Virginia needs to pull off a nice Big 12 Tournament and win the whole thing. At 9-9 in the best conference in the land, one would think they might be on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. But all projections have them OUT because of their lousy computer numbers (RPI in the 80's ) and a 5-12 record against RPI top 100 teams. It is unlikely even a win or two will help those numbers much, so West Virginia likely needs to win the tournament to get into the Big Dance.
A little over a month ago on February 8, the Bears lost big to Oklahoma and were sitting at 2-8 in the conference. After an amazing run following that game, Baylor finished at 9-9 and all projections have them IN the NCAA tournament.
Baylor has tremendous computer numbers compared to many of the Big 12 teams directly above them - they have a top 10 SOS and a 34 RPI, in addition to 8 wins against top 50 teams. They are bolstered by key non-conference wins over Kentucky, Colorado, and Dayton.
With that said, Baylor is playing for a better seed in the NCAA tournament. Even a couple of weeks ago in the midst of their 7-1 run, the Bears just wanted to get selected. Now, like Kansas State above, they are hoping they can be somewhere higher than an 8 seed.
The Bears should be able to get by a (Big 12) winless TCU squad in the first round tonight. If they do, then they will square off in a rematch against Okahoma. The Sooners do not present the best matchup for Baylor, as evidenced by the February 8 loss, but Baylor was within a late buzzer beater of beating Oklahoma in Waco.
Baylor and the next team discussed, Oklahoma State, are by far the two hottest teams entering this tournament. And the Bears have made runs in the Big 12 tournament before, so it should be exciting to watch to see if they can keep up their momentum and improve their NCAA seed.
Oklahoma State suffered a heart-breaking loss in overtime to Iowa State on Saturday. The Cowboys had the lead for much of the game and allowed Iowa State to tie the game on a buzzer-beating 3 pointer at the end of regulation. That loss left the 8-10 Cowboy fans feeling less confident about their NCAA position, but all projections seem to have Oklahoma State definitely IN the tournament today.
Even so, Coach Travis Ford would feel more comfortable if Oklahoma State can continue its recent turnaround and peel off a few wins in the Big 12 tournament. An early exit to Tech could leave them susceptible if other conference tournaments steal at-large bids from the big boys.
After going through a mid-season lull losing 7 straight games, Oklahoma State has now won 4 of 5 including impressive wins over Kansas and Kansas State, and a 22 point drubbing of 1st round foe Texas Tech.
You have to think Marcus Smart will be looking for redemption and to improve his draft stock this post-season, and a big start in the Big 12 tournament could be a key.
One last food for thought - in a strange way, an early loss for Oklahoma State either in the 1st or 2nd round of the Big 12 tournament could actually be favorable to keep them as a double digit seed, such as a 10 seed, rather than bumping them up to the dreaded 8/9 line. No one will ever admit they are rooting for that of course, but if it happens it would not be all bad.
Texas Tech and TCU
No disrespect is meant for Texas Tech, who at 6-12 in conference clearly had a much better year than 0-18 TCU, but neither team is playing for the NCAA tournament short of winning the Big 12 Tournament. As mentioned above, Tech has a first round matchup with Oklahoma State - a team they split the regular season series with. TCU on the other hand, didn't beat anyone in the Big 12 and will have a tough time turning that around tonight against Baylor.