- Matt Cox
(check out the Big 12 preseason preview here)
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Jarrett Culver, So., Texas Tech
Coach of the Year: Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Newcomer of the Year: Dedric Lawson, R Jr., Kansas
Freshman of the Year: Jaxson Hayes, Texas
1. Sayonara Streak
We present the obligatory conference headline, which needs no longwinded explanation. Kansas had won at least a share of the Big-12 title for 14 consecutive years, an unfathomable run of success at any level in any league – but this is the Big-12, a consistent national powerhouse that offers no ‘gimme’ games.
As they say, all good things must come to an end. Texas Tech pounced on a golden opportunity to seize the Big-12 title belt after the Jayhawks were decimated with injuries, which was compounded by LaGerald Vick’s untimely departure in early February. Make no mistake about it – this was NOT the Jayhawks fumbling away the crown, but rather Texas Tech ‘raiding’ the conference for the last five weeks of the season. After getting walloped by Kansas in Phog Allen on February 2nd, the Red Raiders responded by playing flawless basketball to close out the season and enter the Big-12 tournament riding a 9-game winning streak.
2. Shared Glory
Texas Tech’s sizzling finish to the season wasn’t enough to outlast the purple Wildcats, who refused to go away in a wild race to the finish that ended in a two-way tie atop the Big-12 standings. It’s no secret that Bruce Weber was feelin’ the heat from a contingent of K-State fans who were growing impatient with a program that seemed to be walking upwards on a downward moving escalator. Last season’s Elite-8 run silenced a good chunk of these naysayers, but the annoying whispers likely still haunted Weber well into the season this year.
The basketball Gods toyed with Weber early in the year when star forward Dean Wade tore a tendon in his right foot, a damming omen for a big man who’s dealt with chronic foot problems over his career. Wade’s absence left a gaping hole in both the Wildcats offensive rhythm and collective emotional spirits at the onset of Big-12 play, a major reason why K-State dug an early 0-2 hole in conference. Wade’s return to the fold just two games later against a red-hot Iowa State team proved to be the defining win of the season, igniting a well-timed tear through the Big-12’s gauntlet of a schedule. Wade would suffer another minor setback in mid-February, but remained a fixture in the starting rotation and the Wildcats went on to win 14 of their final 17 contests.
3. Baylor’s Bounceback and Iowa State’s Demise
How fitting that these two are slated to play each other in the first round of the Big-12 tournament in the first of the four quarterfinal matchups on Thursday in Kansas City. Just two months ago, a scenario where Baylor would actually enter the Big-12 championship as the higher seed seemed preposterous - yet, after an immaculate turnaround by the Bears, coupled with a head scratching skid by the Clones, Baylor wound up sneaking past Iowa State in the final regular season standings.
The Big-12 tournament returns to its familiar home in Kansas City, which ‘ought be renamed to ‘Phog Allen East’ as often as Kansas plays there on an annual basis. The near proximity to so many local KU supporters could reinvigorate the frustrated Jayhawks, who have won two of the last three Big-12 championships with the support of a semi-home court edge at the Sprint Center.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
As stated above, Texas Tech and Kansas State stood above the rest of a fiercely competitive field this season but Kansas’ strong showing in the non-conference still has them in the hunt for a top-4 seed on Selection Sunday. Texas Tech is currently forecasted as a 3-seed in bracketmatrix.com’s most recent aggregated projections, while K-State is a notch below and right alongside their in-state nemesis on the 4-seed line.
Iowa State has fallen back to a 7-seed after a tumultuous last few weeks, but the Clones are still a lock for an at-large berth. Behind them lies a clustered group of Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas and TCU, all of whom are concentrated around the 9 to 11-seed lines as it stands today.
Dark Horse Team
With the recent news of Dean Wade unlikely to play in the tournament this weekend due to lingering pain in his foot, leaving one of the tourney frontrunners’ devoid of its most valuable asset. This is music to the ears of those slotted in the upper-half of the bracket, who get to bypass Kansas and Texas Tech until the finals.
This draw sets up nicely for my deep, deep sleeper pick of Oklahoma State. The Pokes will open with a downward trending TCU team who is finally beginning to feel the adverse effects of playing without Jaylen Fisher. If they can survive and advance in the opener, they’ll march on to play the Dean Wade-less Wildcats. Yes, I’m fully aware K-State smacked the Cowboys in both regular season meetings, but the conference tournament is simply a different animal. Unsuspecting squads tend to play inspired basketball with a new lease on life and we’ve now witnessed multiple examples of favorites struggling to defeat inferior opponents for a third straight time in the conference tournament - refer to South Dakota State falling to Western Illinois and Gonzaga falling to Saint Mary’s for two recent precedents.
(9) Oklahoma State over (8) TCU
(7) Oklahoma over (10) West Virginia
(9) Oklahoma State over (1) Kansas State
(4) Baylor over (5) Iowa State
(2) Texas Tech over (7) Oklahoma
(3) Kansas over (6) Texas
(4) Baylor over (9) Oklahoma State
(3) Kansas over (2) Texas Tech
(3) Kansas over (4) Baylor