LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 25: Tyshawn Taylor #10 of the Kansas Jayhawks reacts after scoring as the Jayhawks defeated the Missouri Tigers 87-86 to win the game on February 25, 2012 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Big 12 Tournament tips off Wednesday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Can a team like Iowa State, Baylor or Kansas State prevent a Border War rubber match in the finals?
What, Who, When
The Big 12 takes place March 7-10 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
The conference utilizes the typical 10-team bracket. The top six teams get a bye to the quarterfinals, while the bottom four teams play on Wednesday night.
Wednesday: No. 8 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Texas A&M, No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 Texas Tech
Thursday: No. 4 Baylor vs. No. 5 Kansas State, No. 1 Kansas vs. OU/A&M, No. 2 Missouri vs. OSU/Tech, No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 6 Texas.
Who The Numbers Like
Kansas. Ken Pomeroy's projections give them a 54.6 percent chance of winning the tournament ($), Missouri 23.0 percent, and the rest of the field 22.4 percent combined. The Jayhawks rank fourth in Pomeroy's rankings, and despite five mostly high-quality losses, they can all but sew up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a title this weekend, and potentially with just a trip to the finals.
Who The Eyeballs Like
Kansas. It is difficult to go against the Jayhawks, who have a national player of the year candidate in Thomas Robinson and lost just two conference games, each on the road, to the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the conference. Kansas was expected to drop back a bit this season after losing both the Morris twins and strong role players like Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and Mario Little; but when you recruit well and coach even better, you can avoid too many steps backward. Bill Self's Jayhawks won their 113th consecutive conference title* this year, and they are well-rounded enough to be the resounding favorite this week.
* slight exaggeration
Kansas State. The Wildcats have had an incredibly up-and-down season; after going 11-1 in non-conference play, they lost three of their first four conference games, then won three in a row, then lost two, won two, and lost two more. They did, however, finish strong. Following a tight home loss to Kansas, they took out both Baylor and Missouri on the road and won four of five overall. They probably do not have the offense to beat Kansas, but as they proved against teams like Missouri and Oklahoma State, if they can find a hot shooter, they can be devastating.
Best Possible Title Game
Kansas vs. Missouri. After the two incendiary games they played against each other this season, an Old Hate Rubber Match would be perfect.
Who Might/Will Get In Anyway
Kansas and Missouri. As it currently stands, Kansas is in good shape for the third No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while Missouri is solid in the middle of the No. 2's. Depending on what happens in the ACC, the Big 12 could end up with two 1-seeds if Missouri were to beat Kansas in the finals on Saturday.
Baylor. The Bears have a confusing resume right now. Ranked 15th by Ken Pomeroy, they are 25-2 versus teams ranked below them and 0-4 versus teams above. They are likely still in good shape for a 4-seed in the NCAAs, and technically a win over Kansas State on Thursday could put them on the verge of a No. 3, though that might be a bit too much to ask.
Iowa State and Kansas State. The Cyclones were iffy in November and December, interesting in January, and downright strong ever since. They went 3-1 versus Kansas State and Baylor, and their resume since Jan. 1 looks like that of a 4-5 seed. Unfortunately, the resume still contains the early losses to Drake and Northern Iowa. Chris Dobbertean still has them on the 8-9 line, but if they can knock off Texas and Missouri and get to the finals, they could easily jump to a six or so. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are safely in the Field of 68 at this point, but good luck figuring out where they should be seeded. They swept Missouri and were swept by Oklahoma. Their best non-conference wins came only against Alabama and Long Beach State, but aside from the odd Sooner sweep, they really do not have any bad losses either. Dobbertean also has them on the 8-9 line, but their ceiling may not be quite as high with a run in the Big 12 Tournament.
Texas. The ultra-young Longhorns looked the part of a tournament team while taking apart Kansas State and Iowa State in conference play, but they missed every single other opportunity to pull in a nice, tourney-worthy win. They lost to Baylor by five points twice, they lost to Missouri by one at home, and they lost to Kansas by three at home. In all, they were 2-8 in games decided by six points or less in the regular season. That is what you expect from a young team, but if they want to make the NCAA Tournament (and right now they are perched directly on the bubble line), they might want to make that 3-8 Thursday night against Iowa State. (Or, technically, they could try winning by MORE than six, too.)
Players To Watch
Jeff Withey, Kansas. We all know about Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, but Kansas goes from excellent to transcendent when Withey is playing well. In five games between Feb. 8-22, Withey averaged 16.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.2 blocks per game, freeing up Robinson to wreak havoc (not that Robinson was struggling with that before). He was horrendous twice in facing odd matchups against Missouri (32 minutes, two points, five rebounds), but he has been mostly great down the stretch.
Marcus Denmon, Missouri. The world stops when Marcus Denmon finds his range. The senior from Kansas City scored nine points in one minute to bring Mizzou back in the first Kansas game, then hit a couple of daggers in overtime that almost allowed them steal the second game, too. Since scoring just six points on 3-for-12 shooting against Texas on Jan. 30, Denmon has averaged 19.9 points per game, hitting 36 of 71 three-pointers (51 percent). And when he gets hot, seemingly everybody around him does too. Mizzou's perimeter defense and occasional rebounding glitches might eventually bring their season to a close, but they have the most efficient offense in the country ($) for a reason. That reason's name is Marcus Denmon.
Royce White, Iowa State. For White, I mean "player to watch" in the most literal sense. He is fascinating. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound Minnesota transfer is ISU's best scorer (12.9 points per game), best rebounder (9.1 boards per game) and best passer (5.2 assists per game), and when he is dialed in, he can flirt with triple doubles. He had 10 points, 18 boards and 10 assists against Texas A&M in January, and he almost led the Cyclones to an upset of Missouri last week with 20 points (including two three-pointers), six boards and nine assists. In the last four games, he is averaging 13.3 points, 9.8 boards and 7.0 assists.
Perry Jones III, Baylor. Like White, Jones is equally fascinating, but for different reasons. On a peripheral level, Jones had a sophomore season almost identical to his freshman campaign -- between 13-14 points per game, between 7-8 rebounds, 1-2 assists. He cut down on his turnovers and improved, ever-so-slightly his three-point and free throw percentages, too. But wow, has he been hit-or-miss. In Baylor's first game versus Kansas, he scored 18 points on 8-for-17 shooting and grabbed five rebounds; in their second game, he scored five points on 1-for-8 shooting, grabbed four boards and committed four turnovers. Against Kansas State, he scored 17, then four. Against Iowa State: 18, then 10. Against Texas: 22, then 10. Against Oklahoma: 21, then eight. Like a pitcher getting hammered his second time through the order, Jones seemed to struggle when opponents figured him out. A recent ESPN profile on Jones showed him to be a very likable player with high rootability. But his recent disappearances have left Baylor in a bind.
Angel Rodriguez, Kansas State. The freshman from Miami had ups and downs that mirrored his team's this season. If he is playing well, so is Kansas State. In road wins over Baylor and Missouri, he scored 22 points (on 9-for-17 shooting, 2-for-4 from long range), dished 12 assists to just six turnovers, and grabbed six steals and six rebounds. But when he is off, he brings the entire offense down with him. The KSU defense was fantastic in their 59-53 loss to Kansas on Feb. 13, but Rodriguez was horrid -- zero points on 0-for-8 shooting, five assists to seven turnovers, no steals. (His stats from both Kansas games: 37 minutes, zero points on 0-for-12 shooting.) If KSU is to truly serve as the tournament's dark horse, Good Angel needs to make a sustained appearance.