Buckle your seat belts and get ready for four days of basketball mania the likes of which you will only see in the month they now refer to in the college hoops world as March Madness. It’s tournament time, and for those of us in Big 12 country that means the postseason conference championship, which this year shapes up as an out and out battle royal that eight ot nine of the 10 teams can realistically win, followed by everybody’s favorite: the NCAA Tournament.
I’m not joking when I say any of nine teams can emerge from the Big 12 Championship with the league’s postseason title and the automatic bid to the so-called Big Dance. Some experts are saying that as many as eight Big 12 teams can receive bids to the NCAA Tournament this year.
With five conference teams virtual locks to make the NCAA 68-team field (Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas and Kansas State) and Oklahoma State and Baylor probably also on the right side of the proverbial tournament bubble, if a team other than one of the aforementioned – say, West Virginia - were to run the table, it’s possible that the Big 12 could see eight teams NCAA Tournament bound. And if you are Oklahoma State or Baylor, such a scenario could be problematic, because one of those two schools could get knocked out of the NCAA field if West Virginia were able to win out.
And don’t rule out the nine-seed Texas Tech Red Raiders in this week’s Big 12 Tournament. Head coach Tubby Smith’s Red Raiders beat both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the regular season and came within two points of beating conference-champion Kansas. The only team without a realistic chance of surviving the four-day affair at the Spring Center in Kansas City, Mo., is TCU. The Horned Frogs are highly unlikely to get beyond their first-round game against No. 7 seed Baylor, let alone win four games in four days when they couldn’t win one Big 12 game in two months during the regular season.
To put it simply, you can expect the unexpected in this year’s Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship. Let me be the first to rattle the trees, so to speak, and come out with the bold prediction that Kansas (23-8, 14-4), winner of the past 10 regular-season conference crowns and nine previous tournament championships, will not win the 2014 tournament championship. Having said that, though, I do believe the Jayhawks will make a good run in the NCAA Championship, although not past the second weekend.
It’s difficult to pick against Kansas, especially this time of year, but I don’t believe this year’s Jayhawks’ squad is quite on the same page as a team unit on the floor and has shown more inconsistency than in recent seasons. There is no question that Kansas has terrific talent and athleticism and a boatload of depth, but the young Hawks are playing too much as individuals and are far more offensive-minded than on defense, which is uncharacteristic of coach Bill Self’s past championship teams.
Plus there is the uncertainty surrounding Kansas’ freshman seven-footer Joel Embiid, who some think could be the No. 1 pick in thiu year’s NBA Draft. Embiid reportedly was in Los Angeles on Monday getting a second opinion on his troubling back issues. In KU’s loss at Oklahoma State a week ago, Embiid reinjured his back, and head coach Bill Self decided to rest his big man in the Jayhawks’ final two regular season games. Self told the media over the weekend that he felt confident that Embiid’s season is not over. The big question is: How soon that might happen?
“It’s nothing where he won’t be feeling great in four weeks with some rest,” Self said in an interview Sunday with the Kansas City Star. “But we don’t have four weeks…The whole deal is it’s not an injury that he could hurt worse. I don’t think we would put him back out there if it was.”
As the No. 1 seed in the Big 12 Tournament, the Jayhawks will play the winner of Wednesday night’s game between No. 8-seed Oklahoma State and No. 9 Texas Tech in the quarterfinal round on Thursday. Imagine Kansas having to play Oklahoma State in the Jayhawks’ opening game of the tournament? The Cowboys ran into some bad luck, losing seven games in a row during the conference season, which was probably made worse by the three-game suspension to their best player, sophomore guard Marcus Smart, last season’s Player of the Year in the Big 12 as a freshman.
The Big 12 coaches had voted Oklahoma State as the co-favorites with Kansas this season in their annual preseason poll. And despite the Cowboys’ disappointing 8-10 conference record, this is still a very dangerous team with a lot of talent and not a team you want to face in an early-round game, or in any game in the Big 12 Tournament, for that matter.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger, who led his team to a second-place finish in the Big 12 in his third season at OU says “two through eight there isn’t any difference” in the teams in this week’s conference tournament. “It’s that balanced of a league, and at very high quality. It’s just whoever’s making a shot at the right time,” the Oklahoma coach said.
The No. 2-seed Sooners may have the easiest path to the championship game, not having to play Kansas until a potential matchup in the final game. OU will play the winner of the first-round game between No. 10 TCU and No. 7 Baylor. The Sooners swept both teams in the regular season, including a 30-point win over TCU in their regular-season finale on Saturday.
Oklahoma (23-8, 12-6) dominated its side of the tournament bracket this season, posting a record of 7-1 against Baylor, TCU, Texas and West Wrginia. The Sooners lone loss against those four teams was a five-point overtime loss at West Virginia. Against the Kansas side of the bracket, OU went 5-5 this season.
So who is going to win this year’s Big 12 Tournament. As far as I’m concerned, you have an 8 out of 10 chance of picking the winner.
On Tuesday, I will preview the two Wednesday opening-round games, and on Wednesday I will preview the four quarterfinal games and predict the overall tournament results.
Tags: 2014 Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament Baylor Bears Big 12 Basketball Bill Self Iowa State Cyclones Kansas Jayhawks Kansas State Wildcats Lon Kruger Oklahoma Sooners Oklahoma State Cowboys Texas Longhorns Tubby Smith