Perhaps the best indication of just how wide open the Big 12 tournament is this year is the fact that Texas, sitting squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, will play Wednesday night in a game generally reserved for teams that have had poor campaigns.
After a season full of intrigue, the league that boasts the nation's top cumulative RPI and five teams ranked in the top 20 of the latest AP poll heads to the Sprint Center for its marquee event. And helping to kick things off will be the seventh-seeded Longhorns, a team once ranked in the top five that will instead be facing Texas Tech on the opening night.
"Every team in our league right now has a chance to play their way in with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, so in reality, this is part of the NCAA tournament," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "The parity in the league is that close."
The tournament officially begins with eighth-seeded Kansas State taking on No. 9 seed TCU, with the winner advancing to face top-seeded Kansas on Thursday. The winner of the second game between Texas and Texas Tech earns a date with second-seeded Iowa State.
The quarterfinal matchups already set include fourth-seeded Baylor against No. 5 seed West Virginia and third-seeded Oklahoma against No. 6 seed Oklahoma State.
"You could make a case that there are seven or eight teams that could win the tournament if they get hot," said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team won at least a share of the regular-season championship for the 11th consecutive season. "I don't think there are any other tournaments in America with that type of competitive balance."
While the Jayhawks have dominated the regular season for more than a decade, history has proven that the Big 12 tournament levels the playing field. Three different schools have captured the crown each of the past three years, including Iowa State's title run last season.
"That's just life in the Big 12," Cyclones forward Jameel McKay said. "There's no such thing as an easy out. You can't hide from these guys. If you want to be the best, you'll have to beat some of the best teams in the country."
While just about every game figures to be a toss-up — in other words, must-see TV — here are some things to watch for as the Big 12 tournament prepares to tip off:
SHORT-HANDED JAYHAWKS: Leading scorer Perry Ellis has a banged-up knee, point guard Frank Mason III has a bum ankle, forward Cliff Alexander is out while the NCAA investigates allegations of improper benefits and swingman Brannen Greene is coming off a one-game suspension. That's hardly a recipe for March success. "I'm concerned," Self acknowledged. "I don't see how you could be at your best unless you have your full complement of guys."
BOOMER SOONER: Oklahoma won three straight Big 12 tournaments when Kelvin Sampson was in charge, the last in 2003. Since then? The Sooners haven't even reached the final night. But after a win over the Jayhawks, coach Lon Kruger's troops are headed to the Sprint Center on a high.
BEWARE THE FROG: After going winless in the Big 12 last season, TCU has won three league games since mid-February. The Horned Frogs have also put a scare into Iowa State and Oklahoma in recent weeks, making them a dangerous No. 9 seed.
STAR POWER: The Big 12 may not have an uber-elite prospect this season, but there are plenty of players to watch. Oklahoma's Buddy Hield was Big 12 player of the year, and players from four other schools joined him in making up the AP's all-conference first team: Ellis, Georges Niang of Iowa State and Juwan Staten of West Virginia and Rico Gathers of Baylor.
STYLES MAKE FIGHTS: It's an old adage in boxing, but it's just as applicable to the Big 12, where just about everybody does something different. Want to see a unique approach to the zone defense? Check out Baylor. Want to see someone chuck up 3s? Iowa State is your team. Want to see some frenzied, in-your-shorts pressing? West Virginia has you covered.
"I've said it many times the coaching in this league is terrific. Everybody is so well scouted," Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. "You know, everybody knows what the other team is going to do. It comes down to a matter of can you stop them?"
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