2014 Big 12 Tournament Preview: This is going to be good

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If I could only watch one conference tournament this season, it would be the Big 12. That’s what happens when, barring an upset, all eight teams in the quarterfinals have a chance at playing their way into the Big Dance.

The matchups?

The juiciest.

RELATEDRead through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

There’s No. 4 Iowa State and No. 5 Kansas State, two teams that are noted for being unbeatable on their home floors squaring off at a neutral site. No. 3 Texas, who came from nowhere this season to become an NCAA tournament team, takes on No. 6 West Virginia, who needs to make a run to the finals to have a shot at hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. If No. 7 Baylor can beat No. 10 TCU, the Bears will square off with No. 2 Oklahoma, with the best perimeter team in the conference taking on the team with the best front court. And if No. 8 Oklahoma State can get past No. 9 Texas Tech, they’ll take on No. 1 Kansas, a matchup that shouldn’t need explanation.

And that’s just the quarterfinals.

Did I mention they have great barbecue in Kansas City?

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City

Final: March 15, ESPN

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

On paper, Kansas is the most talented team in the Big 12, maybe the country. They have the two guys that will go top three in the NBA Draft in June (Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid), another lottery pick (Wayne Selden) and an all-Big 12 caliber role player that could end up being a first round pick himself (Perry Ellis). As you’ve come to expect from a program that has won ten straight Big 12 regular season titles, they’re loaded.

MOREWhere did Andrew Wiggins rate as an NBCSports.com All-American?

But there are two things that could derail a Big 12 tournament title. The first is Embiid’s back. It’s balky. He’s getting a second opinion on it in California and could very well end up sitting out until the NCAA tournament. He’s the defensive rock for a team that has not been consistently great defensively. The other is Naadir Tharpe. For the most part, Tharpe has been very good this season. But when he’s bad, he’s really, really bad. Kansas could end up playing Oklahoma State and Iowa State before the finals. They cannot afford Bad Naadir if Embiid isn’t playing.

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And if they lose?: Iowa State

As crazy as this may sound, the Cyclones actually had more Big 12 Player of the Year candidates than Kansas did. DeAndre Kane has been the best back court player in the conference, and Melvin Ejim has capped a terrific career with an All-American season. Throw in Georges Niang, one of the nation’s biggest matchup nightmares, and the Cyclones are good enough to make a run to the title despite being slotted into the No. 4 seed.

Other Contenders:

  • Oklahoma: The Sooners are better than anyone gives them credit for. The No. 2 seed in the bracket, Oklahoma spreads the floor and gets out in transition as much as anyone in the conference. Buddy Hield and Cameron Clark are as good of a 1-2 punch as you will find in the league, and yes, I do realize how loaded that statement is.
  • Texas: Remember when we all fired Rick Barnes back in October? Well, don’t look now, but the Longhorns finished as the No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament and drew a matchup with West Virginia in the quarterfinals. Texas wins with their defense and their massive front line, and on the nights that Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor are shooting well, they’re dangerous.

Sleeper: Baylor

We all wrote the Bears off earlier this season, and rightfully so. They lost eight out of ten games at one point and looked like a sinking ship. But they closed the regular season with seven wins in eight games as Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson started to play better while Kenny Chery embraced his role as lead guard offensively. The issue with this group is always going to be on the defensive end, where they rank 95th in defensive efficiency.

Deeper Sleeper: Oklahoma State

I’m actually picking the Pokes to win the Big 12 tournament despite being the No. 8 seed that will have to beat Texas Tech, Kansas and either Kansas State or Iowa State just to get to the final. Here’s why: Marcus Smart is back to being Marcus Smart. He’s still flopping, but he cut down on his ridiculous threes and he cutback on some of those headlong drives into the lane. He’s playing like an actual point guard instead of trying to be Kobe Bryant. When he does that — when he allows Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash to be the go-to-guys offensively — Oklahoma State looks like the team that was picked in the top ten in the preseason. Oh, and in the last two weeks, they beat Kansas and came within a missed free throws from Phil Forte and a 25-foot three from Naz Long of beating Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Markel Brown, Oklahoma State: Le’Bryan Nash was a top ten recruit. Marcus Smart is, well, Marcus Smart. But Brown has been Travis Ford’s most consistent offensive weapon in Big 12 play.
  • Juwan Staten, West Virginia: It’s a shame that Staten plays in a league with DeAndre Kane and Smart because he’s been overshadowed. He had as good of a year as any point guard in the country.
  • Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield’s development into an all-Big 12 player is one of the biggest reasons that the Sooners are a top 25 team this season.
  • Marcus Foster, Kansas State: He wasn’t a top 100 player coming out of high school but Foster has been one of the nation’s best freshmen.

CBT Prediction: Oklahoma State over Oklahoma

Best Big 12 Tournament Memory:

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?