Big 12 Tournament Preview: A Seven-Strong Scrum

For a while now, the Big XII has been the most underrated conference in college basketball, and this year is no exception. While the Big East was truly exceptional a year ago, that conference has become to college basketball what the SEC is to college football, so I fully expect the talking heads to over-hype the Big East's bid for 10 bids while under-discussing the strength of the Big XII -- which was both the nation's best conference in non-con play and closes the season with the strongest top-six in the nation. A quick glance at the Basketball Rankings Bible (Ken Pomeroy's ratings) reveals that among the Top 25 rated teams in the country, no conference can match the Big XII at the top.

Conference Teams in Top 25
Big 12 (6) Kansas (2), Kansas St. (11), Baylor (12), Missouri (13), Texas (14), Texas A&M (21)
Big East (5) Syracuse (4), West Virginia (7), Villanova (15), Georgetown (20), Marquette (22)
ACC (4) Duke (1), Maryland (8), Clemson (17), Florida St. (18)
Big 10 (4)
Wisconsin (3), Ohio St. (6), Purdue (10), Michigan St. (23)
Others (6) BYU (5), Kentucky (9), California (16), Xavier (19), Utah St. (24), Temple (25)

As we head into March Madness, if there is any heartening news for fans of the Texas Longhorns -- who have tumbled far from the No. 1 national ranking they enjoyed in mid-January -- it's that, as much as anything, they've been battling through one of the toughest conference schedules in the country. Throw Oklahoma State (#42 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings) into the mix, and the Big XII's top seven teams are an exceptionally formidable bunch, and a good argument can be made that this is the strongest the always tough conference has ever been.

The Stakes

This marks the first time in the conference's 13-year history that 7 teams will receive bids to the NCAA Tournament, as Oklahoma State -- on the bubble heading into late February -- secured their bid to the dance with an 85-77 win over then-No. 1 Kansas. As such, the 7 Big XII locks for the tournament are jockeying for seeding position:

Kansas Jayhawks (29-1, 15-1): Even were they to lose in the quarterfinals, the Jayhawks are going to be a No. 1 seed in the Dance. It's a done deal.

Kansas State Wildcats (24-6, 11-5): In the conversation for the fourth No. 1 seed a week ago, the Wildcats' overtime loss to Iowa State all but eliminates them from that conversation, barring a barrage of early-round upsets to the other top-line contenders in their conference tourneys. In all likelihood, the Wildcats are battling to secure a No. 2 seed, and with a win in the quarterfinals over the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State winner, they'll probably lock it up.

Baylor Bears (24-6, 11-5): The Bears closed the season winning 10 of their final 12, including a sweep of the Longhorns and home wins over Texas A&M and Missouri. If they can get into the Big XII semis with a victory over the Texas-Iowa State winner and Kansas State gets there with a quarterfinals win, Baylor will have an opportunity to play themselves onto the No. 3 line with a win.

Texas A&M Aggies (22-8, 11-5) & Missouri Tigers (22-9, 11-5):  Assuming Missouri dispatches of Nebraska in the tournament's opening round, the Aggies and Tigers will enter a crucial quarterfinals battle for NCAA seeding. The winner is all but assured to receive a No. 6 seed or better, while the loser seems destined for a slot in the No. 7-10 range, which not only includes a more difficult opening round match up but also an assured clash with a No. 1 or No. 2 seed juggernaut in the second round.

Texas Longhorns (24-8, 9-7):  Heading into the conference championships, I seriously doubt any team has as wide a spread of potential NCAA Tournament seeds as do the Longhorns. Thanks in part to their obvious potential and January ascendancy to No. 1 in the national rankings, should Texas win four games in four days to win the Big XII tournament, I don't doubt it would hear it's named called on the No. 3 or No 4 line on Selection Sunday. At the same time, should the Longhorns drop their opening round game to Iowa State on Wednesday, there's a real possibility they could find themselves on the No. 10 or No. 11 line.

Oklahoma State Cowboys (22-9, 9-7):  At 16-7 (4-5) on Feburary 6th, the Cowboys were on the outside looking in, but a terrific 4-1 stretch including wins over Oklahoma, at Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas (with a road loss to Texas in between) secured the Pokes' spot in the tournament. Likely floating in the No. 8-10 seed range heading into the Big XII tournament, Oklahoma State could play their way up to a No. 6 with a run into the conference championship game (or, perhaps, a bit higher should they win it all).

Names You Should Know

G/F James Anderson, JR, Oklahoma State -- Amidst of a slew of worthy choices, the Big XII coaches got it right, voting Anderson the conference's 2010 Player of the Year. Even if he weren't the most dynamic player in the conference from a talent standpoint, the coaches would have been right to reward him for meaning disproportionately more to his team than anyone else. Even more so than Evan Turner (who will rightly win the National Player of the Year), Anderson not only does it all on the court but simply cannot sit for any sustained period of time if his team is to be competitive with opponents of any quality at all. For the season, Anderson was on the floor for 85% of the season's total minutes. His offensive rating of 120.4 (points scored per 100 offensive possessions) was second nationally among players similarly central to their teams. He's solid off the bounce, knows how to use his body exceptionally well, and is happy to rake from the charity stripe; he abuses smaller defenders by going to the rim and bigger ones with a legit stop-and-pop outside game. Most impressive, he's done it all with as weak a surrounding cast as anyone you're likely to see in the NCAA Tournament. Truly, a one man show, and I hope everyone gets a chance to watch him on an "on" night sometime. It's fun to behold, so long as it's not your team he's destroying.

G Sherron Collins, SR, Kansas -- I've been pretty tough on Collins over the last two years, repeatedly pointing out what I perceive to be his weaknesses and limitations -- a reaction that has almost exclusively been about trying to establish that he is not the same caliber of lead guard that, for example, Duke's Jay Williams was. He's a half-notch slower, less quick, less explosive, and less consistent than the super-elite point guards to whom he's often compared.

That said, as Sherron Collins' Kansas career draws to a close, this is probably the time to tip my hat to one of the best collegiate careers a fan could ever hope for. He's a national champion who's been an integral part of the Jayhawks' going 126-18 over his four years on campus, including four straight regular season titles. While he may be a half-notch below the truly elite individuals, he's demonstrated repeatedly that he's as superb a team player as you could hope to have and -- especially this year -- grown into one of the best, most mature on-court leaders I can remember. If Kansas wins it all this year, it won't be because Collins is unstoppable, but because he's instrumental in getting the most out of the five guys on the floor -- on both ends of the court,

F Damion James, SR, Texas -- Damion James headed to Texas in 2006 with Kevin Durant and DJ Augustin -- the trio comprising one of the most supremely talented incoming groups of freshmen ever assembled. But whereas Durant and Augustin were among the most naturally gifted basketball players imaginable, James arrived 'merely' one of the most athletic players imaginable. Nine times out of ten, guys with that kind of athleticism (but lacking natural basketball skills) fail to develop into complete basketball players, but James has been the exception to the rule.

Grasping his athletic prowess isn't difficult: 2009-10 marks the third consecutive year he's been among the best of the best defensive rebounders in the nation (24.6 DR% in 2007-08, 23.2% in 2008-09, 24.9% this year), and the 6'7" tweener forward (incredibly) set the Big XII conference career rebounding record back in January of this year. Astounding as that record is, most impressive has been James' development this year into a more complete all-around player who can have the offensive run through him. He's hit an excellent 30-72 three pointers (41.7%) and draws 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes played (65th best nationally), earning him 187 shots from the charity stripe. It's still not a natural endeavor for James (watch him dribble in the open court), but few make the most of their talents and limitations as has James. He's an easy kid to appreciate and root for.

G Jacob Pullen, JR, Kansas State -- The Wildcats kill teams outside-in and no player better exemplifies Kansas State than Pullen, an undersized guard whose effectiveness flows from his exceptional quickness, court-savvy play (particularly on defense), and fearless attacking attitude. That shouldn't be underestimated at the collegiate level, where Pullen perfectly embodies everything Frank Martin wants his teams to do. Kansas State hasn't romped to a 24-6 record on being the most talented team in the country, but by being its most tenacious. They make you play their game, and they can do it because they have guards like Jacob Pullen. He'll pop you from the outside (40% from downtown) or take you on the bounce and pick up his points from the line (52.7 FT Rate), where he shoots north of 80%.

HC Mike Anderson, Missouri -- Most national discussions of Missouri will start with the undeniably talented (but supremely inefficient) Kim English, but there's no need to bog down in such irrelevancies. The Missouri Tigers are Mike Anderson, the brilliant Nolan Richardson protege responsible for 40 Minutes Of Hell The Fastest 40 Minutes In Basketball. It's proven over the years to be a particularly dangerous tournament identity, and if the Tigers don't make any noise against more familiar foes in this year's Big XII Tournament, you don't want to see this team opposite yours in the bracket in the NCAAs.

Donald Sloan, SR, Texas A&M -- As much as it pains this Texas fan to say, this is a player the Longhorns really could have used this year. Suggesting that Texas would be the nuts with Sherron Collins might elicit a 'Duh' from the peanut gallery, but I wonder how many realize that A&M's Donald Sloan would provide much the same boost. At the very least, few would have predicted as much following Sloan's junior year performance, which was solid, but somewhat uneven. As a senior, Sloan has improved his game to become a primary scorer, upping his true shooting percentage (from 49% to 56.1%), free throw rate (from 42.4 to 49.7) and two-point field goal percentage (from 40% to 48%). Looking at the Aggies' NCAA Tournament chances, if Sloan is at his best in terms of limiting turnovers, Texas A&M will be one of the more difficult outs of the Dance.

Tournament Outlook

As should be clear by this point in the preview, this year's Big XII Tournament should be considered wide open. Kansas is clearly the team to beat, but the field arguably never has been so deep as this year, when three NCAA locks (Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma State) will be playing opening round games. For fans of college basketball, this is as good as it gets, and if the Big XII tends to be underestimated as a powerhouse hoops conference, those who tune in regularly don't need to be told what a treat it has become. Be it the epic battles between Hollis Price and T.J. Ford, Brandon Rush and Kevin Durant, or Sherron Collins and James Anderson, on the whole Big XII basketball has been far more competitive and interesting than Big XII football for about a decade now.

Tune in. You won't be disappointed.

(SBN's Big12hoops.com has a look at why each team in the conference can win the tournament... and why they can't.)

The Bracket

All times Central.

Wednesday, March 10

Game 1: (8) Colorado vs (9) Texas Tech - 11:30 AM [Big 12 Network]
Game 2: (5) Missouri vs (12) Nebraska - 2:00 PM [Big 12 Network]
Game 3: (7) Oklahoma St. vs (10) Oklahoma - 6:00 PM [Big 12 Network]
Game 4: (6) Texas vs (11) Iowa St. - 8:30 PM [Big 12 Network]

Thursday, March 11

Game 5: (1) Kansas vs Game 1 winner - 11:30 AM [ESPN2]
Game 6: (4) Texas A&M vs Game 2 winner 2:00 PM [Big 12 Network]
Game 7: (2) Kansas St. vs Game 3 winner - 6:00 PM [Big 12 Network]
Game 8: (3) Baylor vs Game 4 winner - 8:30 PM [ESPN2]

Friday, March 12

Game 5 winner vs Game 6 winner - 6:00 PM [Big 12 Network]
Game 7 winner vs Game 8 winner - 8:30 PM [Big 12 Network]

Saturday, March 13

Championship Game - 5:00 PM [ESPN] 

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