Big 12 Weekend Preview: Conference Flirting With History

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 7th, 2014

Even without a clear national title contender beyond Kansas, it’s impossible to deny that this season has been hugely successful for the Big 12. No matter what you value, the conference has it.

  • Top-shelf NBA Draft talent (Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart)
  • Fantastic upperclassmen (Melvin Ejim, Markel Brown, Juwan Staten, Cory Jefferson, Cameron Clark)
  • Impact transfers (DeAndre Kane, Ryan Spangler, Tarik Black)
  • Coaches who have done remarkable jobs getting their teams to buy in (Bill SelfRick BarnesFred Hoiberg and Lon Kruger)
The Big 12 is trending towards history, and we're not talking about Kansas' vice grip on the crown. (John Rieger/USA Today Sports)

The Big 12 is trending towards history, and we’re not talking about Kansas’ vice grip on the crown. (John Rieger/USA Today Sports)

That’s not to say that the season hasn’t had its low points (Marcus Smart getting popped for three games after shoving a fan; West Virginia shooting itself in the foot with early season losses; TCU’s continued struggle to make any discernible noise), but all in all, it’s been a fantastic year for the Big 12. The most impressive thing about the conference, however, doesn’t have as much to do with the here and now as it does with what could be on Selection Sunday: A league record-tying seven NCAA Tournament bids.

At the beginning of the season, most prognosticators pegged the Big 12 as a five-bid league. Granted, at the time, Oklahoma State and Baylor weren’t believed to be the teams that would need wins at the end of the regular season to earn bids, but that’s how things have shaken out as Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma have overachieved as the Cowboys and Bears struggled. But with Travis Ford and Scott Drew’s teams now clicking again, the odds of the conference squeezing not five, not six, but seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, are rising. If seven bids come to pass, it would tie a league record set in 2010, but if we’re nitpicking, seven bids in 2014 would be even more impressive than seven bids in 2010, and I’ll explain why.

When the realignment wave hit the Big 12, the league switched to a full round-robin schedule. Prior to the 2012-13 season, the Big 12 was divided into the North division (Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado and departed members Missouri and Nebraska) and the South division (Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and former member Texas A&M). Each year, teams played opponents in their division twice and teams in the other division once. More often than not, the North division was the weaker of the two — even though it included Kansas — while the South sent at least three teams to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.

With the divisions now eliminated, though, a team like this year’s Oklahoma State’s squad has been given multiple chances to make good on lost opportunities from earlier in the season, and that’s exactly what they’ve done with wins over Kansas and Kansas State putting the Cowboys in a favorable (but not guaranteed) position for an NCAA Tournament bid. Baylor, also considered on the right side of the bubble at the moment, can solidify its standing with a second regular season win over Kansas State, which wouldn’t have been possible in the old divisional setup. Of course, bids aren’t certain until the brackets are revealed a week from Sunday, but for the time being, the Big 12 has put itself in position to be at the forefront of the NCAA Tournament picture, reaping the rewards of a stellar season.

Marcus Smart and the Cowboys look to solidify their tournament bid. (USA Today)

Marcus Smart and the Cowboys look to cement their tournament bid. (USA Today)

  1. Baylor at Kansas State (12:30 PM CST) – The Bears are looking much better of late after a horrific 2-8 start to conference play. The last meeting between these teams was a double-overtime thrill ride that saw Kenny Chery notch a triple-double and Brady Heslip can a buzzer-beating three at the end of regulation. With Thomas Gipson and D.J. Johnson battling foul trouble, the Bears were able to attack the paint and complement their outside attack. Look for more of the same tomorrow in Manhattan, where the Wildcats haven’t lost this year, but Baylor will have to do a better job defending Marcus Foster, who contributed 18 points and 10 assists in the first game.
  2. Oklahoma State at Iowa State (1:00 PM CST) – The Cyclones will be glad to return to Hilton Coliseum after taking consecutive losses on the road, but they face an Oklahoma State team that has been rolling since Marcus Smart returned from suspension. The Cowboys’ offense is clicking at a rate of 1.16 points per possession over its last four games, which is roughly how teams like Oklahoma, Louisville, Wichita State and UCLA have operated all season. Without Michael Cobbins protecting the paint for the Pokes, the undersized Cyclones won the rebounding battle in a triple-overtime slugfest back on February 3. Travis Ford’s team has to feel pretty good about its NAA Tournament chances at this point, but a win on the road would give Oklahoma State some breathing room in the conference tournament.
  3. Kansas at West Virginia (11:00 PM CST) – This time last month, the Mountaineers had resuscitated their NCAA Tournament hopes with five wins in seven games, including a 25-point demolition of Iowa State. Since then, however, West Virginia has dropped four of its last five contests to become an NCAA Tournament longshot once again. On Wednesday, the Jayhawks didn’t miss Joel Embiid one bit as all Tarik Black did was go 9-of-9 from the floor to help Kansas blow by Texas Tech. Embiid will sit this game out as well with lingering back issues, but considering West Virginia’s perimeter-heavy attack, it would be a surprise if Kansas felt their big man’s absence. Juwan Staten, who has failed to score at least 15 points just once in 17 conference games, will have another crack at the Jayhawks after lighting up Kansas’ backcourt for 28 points in Allen Fieldhouse on February 8.
  4. Texas at Texas Tech (3:00 PM CST) – Like Kansas, Texas is simply playing for seeding at this point. The Red Raiders fell apart in the final 30 minutes against Kansas, but at United Spirit Arena, it’s been a completely different story. Tech may be struggling at 5-12 in conference play, but home wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State and even close home losses to Kansas, Kansas State and West Virginia have breathed life into a dormant program. The first game between the Longhorns and Red Raiders was decided by a pair of key hustle plays and timely free throw shooting by Texas center Cameron Ridley, one of the conference’s most improved players.
  5. Oklahoma at TCU (3:00 PM CST) – The Sooners’ resume doesn’t include any eye-popping wins, but sweeps over Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor are a big reason why Oklahoma is safely in the field. Entrusting ball-handling responsibilities to a freshman point guard can be a tricky proposition, but Jordan Woodard has been calm at the controls with a 2.58 assist-turnover ratio over his last nine games. Meanwhile, the Horned Frogs will try to avoid becoming the first team since Texas A&M in 2003-04 to go winless in Big 12 play.
Brian Goodman (966 Posts)

Brian Goodman a Big 12 microsite writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BSGoodman.

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