Conventional wisdom says teams that don’t have to play on the first day of the four-day Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tournament are rested and better off than an opponent who had to play a full game less than 24 hours before. Maybe so in the past, but that may not be the case this year, in a season in which there is so much parity in the conference and very little difference between the teams that finished second through eighth in the 10-team league standings.
The tournament format is set up in such a way that the teans that finish in the top two spots in the regular-season standings are rewarded with a first-round bye, which is supposed to give them a slight advantage over their quarterfinal opponent, which must play and win a game the day before to advance to the next round the following day.
Because the teams seeded seventh through 10th must play opening-round play-in games to advance to the quarterfinal round, the winners the first night of the conference tournament generally are heavy underdogs when they move to the next round, where the top two seeds in the tournament await them. We all know that anything can happen in a postseason tournament of this nature, in which everyone comes in with a clean slate on a neutral floor and everyone knows each other the result of having played a round-robin league schedule.
While an extra day of rest can be a real plus at this stage of the season after having to play at least two games a week for the last three months, we’ve also seen good teams come out a little flat and with their energy level and timing just slightly off. Additionally, you’ve got the first-game jitters to work through, especially in a hyped-up tournament atmosphere. That is why we often see lower-seeded teams hanging with their higher-sseded quarterfinal opponents, at least for a while.
The difference in this year’s Big 12 Men’s Tournament is that the teams seeded No. 7 and No. 8, Baylor and Oklahoma State, are both 20-win teams this season, which is highly unusal for a team seeded that low. We’re talking about two very good teams that fell on inexplicable hard times in this year’s incredibly difficult and highly competitive conference schedule, which sunk them in the league standings like a boat taking on too much water.
Baylor (21-10, 9-9) lost five games in a row and six out of seven early in the conference season that left them with a 2-8 record in the league early in February. Since that time, the Bears have played as if they were on a mission, winning seven of their final eight regular-season games to finish at 9-9. Their only loss during the second-half turnaround was a five-point loss at Texas.
Baylor was ranked as high as No. 7 in the national rankings this season and was 12-1 heading into conference play. Oklahoma State was picked by the Big 12 coaches in the preseason as a co-favorite with Kansas to win the conference regular-season crown. The Cowboys, led by the 2012-13 Big 12 Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, climbed as high as sixth in the national polls and got off to a 3-1 mark to begin the conference season.
That’s when the wheels came off for the conference co-favorites. OSU lost by a dozen at Oklahoma and then went on to lose its next six games – only one by more than six points. It might not have been as bad as it was had it not been for a three-game suspension handed down to Smart for what was judged to be inappropriate contact with a fan in a loss at Texas Tech.
The Cowboys (20-11, 8-10) finished the regular season with four wins in their final five games. And it could easily have been five consecutive wins were it not for a three-point bomb by Iowa State’s Naz Long at the buzzer in regulation to send last Saturday’s game into overtime, which was eventually won by the home-team Cyclones in the extra session.
What all of this adds up to is a giant wave of late-season momentum that both Baylor and Oklahoma State are riding into their opening-round games on Wednseday in the Big 12 Basketball Championship at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The tournament tips off with the Cowboys against No. 9 seed Texas Tech (14-17, 8-12) in the first game Wednesday evening, followed by Baylor taking on No. 10 TCU, which went winless (0-18) in conference play this season.
If the first-day brackets play out as expected, both No. 1 seed Kansas – and without the services of injured Joel Embiid, its seven-foot difference maker in the paint – and two-seed Oklahoma, will have their work cut out for them when they take the floor for the first time in Thursday’s quarterfinal round.
The Jayhawks will likely face Oklahoma State in the second game on Thursday, which is hardly a reward for earning the No. 1 seed. And don’t forget that the Cowboys beat the Jayhawks a couple of Saturdays ago, and that was with Embiid playing into the second half before leaving the game with an injury. At the beginning of the season, this would have been considered a championship gsame matchup, not a second-round game.
And that is the mind-set that the Jayhawks are going to have to have if they want to still be playing on Friday.
No. 2 seed Oklahoma’s likely opponent from the opening-round seven-ten game will be Baylor, a team the Sooners have already beaten twice this season. But this isn’t the same Baylor team the Sooners played earlier. At least the Bears are not playing like it. It isn’t easy to defeat a team three times in the same season, and Baylor is not a lock to make the NCAA Tournament like OU is. That adds up to big-time danger for the Sooners, because the Bears have a lot more at stake in this game.
If that’s not enough to scare you as an Oklahoma fan, need I remind you that the Sooners have lost their opening game in the Big 12 Tournament in four of the past five years. Ironically, OU’s lone tounament win over that stretch was against Baylor, when the Bears were the No. 7 seed and the Sooners were the 10 seed.