Dates: March 9-12
Location: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Championship game: Saturday, 5 p.m. on ESPN
Outlook: This tournament revolves around three thing: Big 12 bubble teams, Texas and the Sunflower State.
The league has five teams – Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri and Kansas State – that seem to safely be included in the NCAA tournament field. That leaves Colorado and Baylor (sorry Nebraska) a couple of chances to impress the tournament committee. And they can’t mess it up. The Buffs (19-12) have huge wins (over Texas and K-State) and NBA-caliber players in Alec Burks and Cory Higgins, but an awful non-conference schedule could sink Tad Boyle’s team. As for Baylor (18-12), the Bears probably wish they could face Texas A&M after their opening game vs. Oklahoma. They’ve beaten the Aggies twice this year.
Instead, a semifinal against Texas likely awaits. And nobody knows what’ll happen in that game.
The Longhorns (25-6) are far from the team that was 23-3 and eyeing a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance just two weeks ago. They’ve dropped three of their last five and barely escaped at Baylor on Saturday. Don’t be surprised if the Longhorns pull off a narrow victory, but fall to the Texas A&M-Missouri winner.
As for the top half of the bracket? Well, that’s where the teams to beat are. Look in the champions section below.
Players to watch: Jacob Pullen, Kansas State and Jordan Hamilton, Texas
Kansas forward Marcus Morris was the conference player of the year, and rightfully so. He boosted his season averages in points (17.3) and rebounds (7) during league play and also made 60 percent of his field-goal attempts. But Pullen and Hamilton get the nod here, both for different reasons.
Pullen was the catalyst for the Wildcats’ late-season run, pouring in 38 vs. Kansas and seemingly hitting every shot in sight. He’s since cooled, but K-State has not. What could make him heat up again? Playing Kansas in the semifinals.
And Hamilton? He’s the opposite of hot. The Longhorns’ leading scorer is hitting just 31.5 percent of his shots in the last five games, three of which have been Texas losses. Until he finds his form, don’t expect much out of the ‘Horns.
It’s too bad Kansas and Kansas State area headed for a Friday evening semifinal game. It would make for a much better championship (and a packed house). But this’ll do.
The Wildcats (22-9) haven’t lost since thrashing the Jayhawks in Manhattan on Feb. 12, the same day Kansas reached No. 1 in the AP poll. In those six straight wins, K-State’s done pretty much everything pundits expected them at the start of the season: hit the boards, defend and ride Pullen’s shooting to wins.
But that won’t be enough vs. Kansas. The Jayhawks (29-2) haven’t lost to a Big 12 team twice in one season since Bill Self’s debut season in ’04. Since then, they’ve won seven straight regular-season league titles and four Big 12 tournaments (two of which were at the Spring Center).
They have the player of the year, the league’s best offense (by far) and a defense that’s played more like the ’08 version in the last two games. That’s not just bad news for Big 12 opponents, but bad news for NCAA tournament foes.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.