Heartbeat of the Heartland: Previewing the Big 12 Championship

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Four days and 11 games at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. That’s the typical schedule for the Big 12 Championship that decides the conference’s automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament.

To paraphrase the catch phrase of another Power League (which just happens to be holding its basketball event across I-70 in St. Louis): It just means a helluva lot more.

Rarely do the teams playing in Wednesday’s first-round games need to win just to enhance their NCAA resume; usually, they’re hoping to start a three-game winning streak that assures a place in Saturday’s championship game. But this is a rare year for the Big 12.

The conference tournament starts with nine – yes, nine – teams with a legitimate chance to make the bracket.

Kansas, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Kansas State and TCU are virtual locks. Baylor, the No. 6 seed, faces WVU in the Thursday’s quarterfinals and needs a victory to avoid finishing the season losing four of its last five.

The first game is the K.C. version of Bedlam with Oklahoma facing Oklahoma State with Texas taking on Iowa State in the second first-round game. The Cyclones, unless they win four in four days, are the only Big 12 team without a legitimate hope to make the NCAA Tournament.

“When you look at top to bottom, the depth, this is the strongest league I’ve been in,” said TCU coach Jamie Dixon, who coached in the Big East and the Atlantic Coast conferences. “We’ve got nine teams good enough to make the NCAA Tournament. Will the numbers fall that way, I don’t know.”

Oklahoma State, picked in the coaches’ pre-season poll to finish last, has become Team Intrigue. In his first season, Cowboys coach Mike Boynton became the first coach to win the season series against Kansas coach Bill Self. Oklahoma State has four victories over top 10 teams; no other team has more.

“How can I say this?” Self said after the Cowboys stampeded the Jayhawks 82-64 Saturday. “We win the league by two games, and they are a lot better than us. The two times we played them, it hasn’t been close. “To ask if they’re a tournament team, my answer would be an emphatic yes. I don’t know how it all shakes out from the metrics that people obviously study, but I would say absolutely they are.”

One could dismiss Self as campaigning for his alma mater and a team in his conference. But consider this. Two days ago, the Cowboys weren’t even listed on BrackMatrix.com, the web site that aggregates 110 projected brackets. As of Monday, Oklahoma State was listed in the “first four out” category.

While no conference has ever placed 90 percent of its teams in the NCAA field, the Big 12 bracket breaks favorably for that to happen. It won’t be farfetched for Oklahoma State to reach Friday’s semifinals; if the Cowboys beat their rivals in the opener, they get another game with the Jayhawks. And Self says Oklahoma State is the worst match up in the Big 12 for his team.

The BracketMatrix has Texas and Baylor as No. 11 seeds. That’s bubble territory. The Longhorns helped their cause with Saturday’s overtime defeat of West Virginia. If they can beat Iowa State, they’ll face Texas Tech in the quarterfinals. Texas beat the Red Raiders in Austin and lost in overtime in Lubbock. Winning at least once in Kansas City is imperative for Texas and Baylor but it wouldn’t be surprising to see both playing in the semifinals.

Self, who will be participating in his 15th Big 12 tournament, isn’t sure if “unpredictable” is the correct word to describe the upcoming games at the Sprint Center.

“I think it’s predictable in that you’ll have teams playing harder this week than they’ve played all season – and this is a hard-playing league,” he said Monday on the Big 12 coaches’ teleconference. “Oklahoma State played harder than we did Saturday. And I told our team that everybody is gonna play harder this week.

“There’s something about playing amongst your peers at the same venue that drives the competitive spirit. It’s gonna be off the charts.”

Fast breaks

  • Bedlam, Kansas City Version, will take place in Wednesday’s first round when Oklahoma State takes on Oklahoma. The two rivals split their season series, with each team winning on their home court. This will be the fourth time Bedlam has taken place at the Big 12 tournament and the third time in the first round. Oklahoma State has won two of the three meetings.

  • Oklahoma has lost seven of its last nine. In those nine games, Young is shooting 34.9 percent from the field, 23.2 percent from 3-point range while averaging 7.3 assists and 5.5 turnovers.

  • Kansas State junior Dean Wade became the second player in Big 12 history to finish in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, steals, and 3-point percentage. The other? Kevin Durant of Texas.

    Wade is also the fourth Wildcat to earn All-Big 12 first team honors joining Michael Beasley (2008), Jacob Pullen (2010 and 2011) and Rodney McGruder (2013).

  • West Virginia senior guard Jevon Carter is the first Big 12 player to make the all-defensive team four times. He was also named the defensive player of the year for a second time; Carter is the fourth player to achieve that.

  • Texas made 57.9 percent (11-of-19) from 3-point range in its overtime defeat of West Virginia. That’s the best percentage from three the Longhorns have shot in Shaka Smart’s three seasons in Austin.

  • During KU’s string of 14 consecutive titles, it has only won the tournament seven times and has only doubled up twice in the last six seasons. While it’s far from a voodoo palace for Kansas, the Sprint Center is nothing like Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks are 35-9 at the Sprint Center and have lost three of their last four games there.

  • Kansas has made 311 3-pointers and could set the school record in its quarterfinal game Thursday. The Jayhawks’ made 318 threes last season, the most in program history.

  • If Iowa State is going to play more than one game in Kansas City, redshirt freshman center Cameron Lard will need to snap out of his shooting slump. He missed six of his seven shots in the season finale against Oklahoma and he’s 4-of-20 from the field in the last three games.

  • Iowa State’s conference record (4-14) is its worst since 2011 when Fred Hoiberg went 3-13 in his first season as the team’s coach. That was also the last season that the Cyclones failed to win at least one game on an opponent’s court. They went 0-10 on the road this season.

  • TCU reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years is a significant accomplishment for Jamie Dixon in his second season. There is one more box to check next season. The Frogs are 1-81 all-time on the road vs. ranked opponents following Saturday’s loss at Texas Tech. That only victory came against No. 24 Hawaii on Jan. 19, 1998.

Straight talk

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins on his team’s loss at Texas in overtime Saturday:

“A couple of guys had career games that they’ll never have again, but we let them.”

Iowa State freshman Lindell Wigginton after the Cyclones ended the regular-season with an 81-60 loss at Oklahoma, the team’s eighth loss in its last nine games:

“Everybody not buying into what coach is saying. Coach has done it on the big stage for a long time. He’s a winner. Everybody isn’t really buying into what he’s saying and doing what he does best. That’s been the frustrating part – everybody not clicking and buying in to what he’s saying.”

Texas coach Shaka Smart on his team’s mind set after a clutch victory over West Virginia Saturday:

“I’ll be 100-percent honest with you, I’m never fully comfortable with where those guys are after, I guess in their minds, what would be a big win. It’s a constant battle for humility. We had better understand by the time that ball goes up in the air Wednesday night, we’re playing against a hungry team that was within a possession of beating us earlier this year. And a team that in some ways has nothing to lose.”