Burning Questions Going into the Big 12 TournamentPosted by Brian Goodman on March 12th, 2014
The 2014 Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship is finally here, and the action begins at 6:00 CST tonight from Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City. To get you up to speed, our microsite team runs down the most important storylines around the conference.
Brian Goodman (@BSGoodman): We begin with Oklahoma State and Baylor as they look to take the final steps toward redemption. It’s been a longer road for both teams than we expected at the start of the season. The Cowboys endured a seven-game losing streak earlier this season, punctuated by Marcus Smart‘s three-game suspension for shoving a fan, and looked dead to rights just three weeks ago. Since then, not only has Smart returned, but he’s playing perhaps his best ball of the season, and the Pokes are riding high, having won four of their last five contests. In the other game tipping off tonight, Baylor will aim to remove any remaining doubt regarding their bubble status. After a 10-1 start to the season, the Bears went on to drop eight of their first ten conference games. The roller coaster went back up, though, with a 7-1 stretch to end the regular season (including a sweep of Kansas State). Considering their current resumes, Oklahoma State and Baylor may some wiggle room should they be forced to head back early to their respective campuses, but at the same time, it would be unwise of them to extend the bubble conversation by going one-and-done. Do the Cowboys and Bears take care of business? What happens on Selection Sunday if either team gets bounced before Friday’s semifinals?
Nate Kotisso (@natekotisso): It’s safe to assume that Baylor and Oklahoma State are firmly in the field of 68. Baylor saved their season just in time to finish 9-9 in the league and own eight RPI Top 50 wins, four of them coming on road or neutral floors. Normally, I would say the Bears could get away with losing their first game in the Big 12 tournament, but when the opponent is TCU, the last thing you want your resume to have is an “L” to a team with an RPI in the 200s. Oklahoma State is in a similar spot playing Texas Tech tonight. Could they get in with a loss? It depends, but they should take care of the Red Raiders to rid themselves of any nerves on Selection Sunday.
BG: Yesterday, we discussed how Joel Embiid’s injury impacts Kansas’ aspirations. Despite the extremely unfortunate timing of the injury, I still see Kansas as the favorite to win the Big 12 Tournament (though not a prohibitive one). The Jayhawks will have a de facto home court advantage as they always do in Kansas City, and while Tarik Black, Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor can’t replicate everything Embiid brings to the table, frontcourt depth has been a strength for Kansas all season long and will be the difference that allows them to cut down the nets on Saturday. Do you agree, or does Embiid’s absence make it anyone’s race?
Taylor Erickson (@tc_erickson): Embiid’s absence this weekend in Kansas City without a doubt has the potential to leave a significant impact on how the Big 12 Tournament shakes out. Still, if the Jayhawks aren’t considered the favorite to win the title, the question becomes, who else? Regardless of who Kansas has inside, the Jayhawks still have Bill Self on the sideline and he didn’t fall into ten straight conference championships without knowing a thing or two about coaching. This situation draws comparisons the way Tiger Woods continues to have the best odds to win any major he enters, despite the fact that he hasn’t won a single one of them since he gimped around Torrey Pines on one leg in 2008. When you’ve done it time and time again like Self has, it’s difficult to pick against him. That being said, given the way Oklahoma State has played since Marcus Smart’s return, I think there’s a serious case to be made that the Cowboys might have the best chance to be the last ones standing on Saturday night. Iowa State is more than capable of making a run this week, but the Cyclones will need to shoot the ball well for three consecutive days to really have a great shot, and that’s been problematic at times. Bruce Weber’s Kansas State team could be a sleeper in the top half of the bracket as well, but the Wildcats have done nothing this season to prove they can win consistently away from Manhattan. The bottom half of this tournament bracket looks like it could be an easier path, and outside of TCU, you could make a case for any team getting hot on their way to an appearance in the conference title game. Can West Virginia use the potential of NCAA tournament berth as motivation to propel them to Saturday night? Or will Texas find a way to avenge losing four of their last six league games and right the ship? Baylor is playing as well as anyone, and there’s certainly no shortage of NBA talent along that front line. Last but not least is Oklahoma, which quietly went about their business en route to a second-place finish. This tournament is as wide-open as I can remember, with as many as eight teams having a nonzero chance of celebrating come Saturday evening.
BG: Oklahoma, Iowa State, Texas and Kansas State don’t have much to sweat out in terms of their NCAA Tournament positioning, but they still have kinks to iron out. As Taylor mentioned, Texas needs to reverse course after ending the regular season on a 2-4 skid, but they aren’t the only team needing to work out some kinks. At this point in the season, teams are known commodities, but Kansas State could use some consistent help for Marcus Foster, Iowa State would be considered more of a threat if its bench contributed more than it has, and Oklahoma would be well-served to get some steady rebounding beyond Ryan Spangler. Tournaments are all about matchups, of course, but among the teams behind Kansas, which one in relatively comfortable shape right now has the greatest odds of alleviating some remaining concerns with a big week in Kansas City?
Kory Carpenter (@Kory_Carpenter): Texas surprised most of the Big 12 this season on its way to a 22-9 record and likely NCAA Tournament berth. Head coach Rick Barnes earned conference Coach of the Year honors and the Longhorns are the #4 seed in this week’s Big 12 tournament. But the first half of their Big 12 season was better than the second. After dropping their first two conference games, the Longhorns won seven straight, four of which came against ranked opponents: Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas. Since then, however, they are 5-5 and haven’t won back-to-back games in nearly a month. A few wins in the Big 12 Tournament could provide some consistency they will need to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. That could come with better production from leading scorer Jonathan Holmes. During the seven-game winning streak, Holmes averaged 15 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but since then, the 6’8″ junior forward’s numbers have slid, posting 10.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest dating back to February 8. In the regular season finale against Texas Tech, Holmes went 2-of-7 from the floor and finished with seven points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Texas lost, 59-53. A similar performance tomorrow night against West Virginia could mean an early exit for the Longhorns.