The 2015 Big 12 Tournament gets under way Wednesday evening in Kansas City with an opening round battle between No. 8 K-State and No. 9 TCU at 6:00 pm CDT, followed by No. 7 Texas and No. 10 Texas Tech. Both games will be televised on ESPNU, with the winners advancing to quarterfinal match ups with the tournament's top two seeds. Before we dive into tourney talk, let's briefly review how we got here.
Regular Season Review
Although many thought the Jayhawks looked vulnerable after a 25-point loss to Temple late in the non-conference season, I noted in my Big 12 regular season preview that I wasn't about to project anyone ahead of KU in the standings:
I'm a Texas homer through and through, but picking against KU is like picking against gravity. The Jayhawks can shoot, their freshmen are improving, and if this team starts defending like a Bill Self team usually does, they'll be dominant at home and good enough on the road to make it 11 straight.
Death, taxes, and Kansas atop the standings of the Big 12. At least so long as Bill Self is in Lawrence, the road to the conference crown goes through Phog Allen, which has been the key ingredient in KU's remarkable run. Across the Jayhawks' 11-year run, Self's squads have a ridiculous 88-4 record at Allen Fieldhouse, a full 16 games better than the next best team over that same period, Texas.
KU's dominant home court advantage isn't the only reason the Jayhawks have won at least a share of 11 straight conference titles, but it's a big part of what makes usurping their throne so challenging. Wanna beat Kansas? You probably need to go 9-0 at home and pick up 6 or 7 road wins.
Moving down the standings, the rest of the Big 12 field mostly shook out as I projected it, with one very notable exception.
The entire conference season is perhaps best explained by the performance of teams on their home courts. Outstanding play at home helped both OU and Iowa State (8-1 records) get to 12 wins, and Baylor's strong performance at the Ferrell Center (7-2) allowed them to best my projection by a game and match West Virginia's 11 conference wins (7-2 at home). I sold Oklahoma State two games short after the Cowboys went 6-2 at Gallagher-Iba, and even Texas Tech and TCU were competitive on their home floors, winning 3 against 6 losses.
And then there's Texas, whose disappointing conference season we're all familiar with. The Longhorns avoided catastrophe by closing out win-win over Baylor and Kansas State, but the 4-game gap between their 8-10 record and the 12 wins I projected them to win owed almost entirely to their inability to lock down their home floor. Rick Barnes' squads have typically taken care of business at the Erwin Center, averaging almost 7 conference wins per season over the previous 10 years, but the 2015 squad managed just a 5-4 mark in games played in Austin, dropping contests to Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State.
If Texas winds up on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble on Sunday, they can point to their 65-63 loss to Oklahoma State in overtime on February 4th as the game that delivered the fatal wound. I thought this group would steal one more on the road than they actually did, but their road performance isn't what's been disappointing. It was the losses at home. Indeed, the Horns actually impressed in narrow road losses at OU and KU late in the year, but turned in discouraging performances against the Sooners and Jayhawks in Austin. And while it's always difficult to win at Gallagher-Iba, dropping the rematch in Austin was a crime.
The Big 12 Tournament
That brings us to the 2015 Big 12 Tournament, which tips off tonight with what are essentially two play-in games to join the rest of the quarterfinal bracket.
6:00 pm CDT
No. 8 Kansas St vs No. 9 TCU
ESPNU | Watch Live Online
8:00 pm CDT
No. 7 Texas vs No. 10 Texas Tech
ESPNU | Watch Live Online
The winners of tonight's opening round match ups will advance to complete the quarterfinal round, with the KSU-TCU winner drawing a Thursday date with the top-seeded Jayhawks, while the Horns and Red Raiders will be competing for an opportunity to knock off the No. 2 seeded Iowa State Cyclones, winners of last year's Big 12 Tournament. Here's a look at the full bracket (click to enlarge):
With Texas' NCAA Tournament bid at stake, I noted a week ago my preference for a quarterfinal match up with Oklahoma rather than Iowa State, but the difference may be academic: the Big 12 field is absolutely loaded this year, and there's no easy paths forward, no matter your place in the bracket.
Ken Pomeroy's ratings. RPI. Analyst consensus. By any measure, the 2014-15 Big 12 was the best top-to-bottom conference in the country, and it wasn't close. The second-best conference rating under KenPom's system was as close to the #6-rated conference as it was the top-rated Big 12. Seven of the conference's 10 teams were rated among the top 31 in KenPom's system, and TCU (#59) and K-State (#80) were both comfortably within the Top 100. No conference has had as high a rating as the 2015 Big 12 since... the 2010 Big 12. Say what you will about this group's prospects as a football conference; the Big 12 is second to none on the hardwood.
A reasonable case can be made for any of the top 7 or 8 teams to make a run through the bracket to the championship game, so before I make a fool of myself trying to predict the outcomes of these games, let's a quick look at the current status of each team and what it's playing for in Kansas City this week
(1) Kansas - The Jayhawks have been less dominant in the post-season during their 11-year streak, but KU has still cut down the nets 6 times since 2005, and the only other team to win multiple tournaments (Mizzou) isn't even a member of the conference anymore. So it's relative... The Jayhawks are slotted in on the No. 2 line on most projected brackets, and it's unlikely they'll move up or down regardless of what happens this week.
(2) Iowa State - The Cyclones broke through last year to win the 2014 Big 12 Tournament, and in my mind they are the top challenger to knock off KU again this time around. With a capable point guard and the ability to make it rain three points at a time, a hot Cyclones team is capable of beating not just anyone in the conference, but the country. Currently projected as a No. 3 seed, ISU could plausibly play up to a No. 2 with three wins, but a No. 3 seed seems most likely irrespective of what happens this week.
(3) Oklahoma - The Cyclones may be the more explosive team, but the Sooners have the higher floor and may be the safer bet to advance deep into March: the Sooners have the conference's best all-around offensive player (Buddy Heild), a frontcourt that rebounds, and outstanding defense, as well as a veteran coach who knows how to win in the post-season. Like ISU, Oklahoma is presently projected as a No. 3 seed, and they aren't likely to move one way or the other.
(4) Baylor - I've not been shy about criticizing Scott Drew for underachieving, so it's only fair I tip my cap his way for his performance this year. The Bears outpaced almost everyone's pre-season projections, and head into the Big 12 Tournament a consensus No. 3 seed. An early exit might drop them down a line, but the Bears are in great shape to earn a protected seed. If Kenny Cherry is hot over the next month, Baylor is a legitimate Final Four contender.
(5) West Virginia - Speaking of overachievers, Bog Huggins was a deserving winner of the Coach of the Year award this season, leading an underwhelming group (from a talent perspective) to an 11-7 record. They're a lock for the Tourney and are currently projected as a No. 5 seed -- a perch from which they could move up with a couple wins in Kansas City. A first-round loss to Baylor likely sees them on the No. 5 or 6 line on Sunday.
(6) Oklahoma State - While the Longhorns avoided a catastrophic end to the season, the Cowboys did not and are plummeting down projected bracket boards following losses in 5 of their final 6 regular season games. At 8-10 and with a decidedly negative trendline, OSU could be competing with Texas for a 7th and final bid for the Big 12, depending on how conference tournaments around the country shake out. A rash of Cinderellas gobbling up at-large bids would up the stakes for Travis Ford's squad in their quarterfinal match up against OU.
(7) Texas - Once ranked in the Top 10, the injury to Isaiah Taylor kept this team from settling into a groove for most of the season, and a pair of four-game losing streaks in conference play have the Longhorns squarely on the Tournament bubble, where they'll hope for orderly finishes to other conference tournaments and a statement win over Iowa State to secure their invitation. A loss tonight to Texas Tech would make for a very nervous Sunday, with Rick Barnes' squad currently projected in the field as a consensus No. 11 seed, but very little room to spare.
(8) Kansas State - After knocking off KU in Manhattan two weeks ago, the Wildcats were threatening to get back on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but their roller coaster season finished with yet another dip and at this point they probably need to win the Big 12 tourney to get an invitation to the Dance. A run to the finals would make things interesting, though.
(9) TCU, (10) Texas Tech - The Frogs and Raiders need to win four straight to get to the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT is a very real possibility for TCU and this season has represented a huge improvement for Trent Johnson's program after winning just 1 conference game over the previous two years. As for Tubby Smith's squad, the Raiders are young but have some solid talent that should develop into a more competitive squad over the next 2-3 years.
As for predictions... your guesses are as good as mine, and honestly, the only thing I care about is whether Texas plays their way into (or out of) the NCAA Tournament. This is a sports blog, though, so I'm obligated to make a fool of myself.
TCU over K-State
Texas over Texas Tech
Kansas over TCU
Baylor over West Virginia
Oklahoma over Oklahoma St
Texas over Iowa State
Kansas over Baylor
Texas over Oklahoma
Kansas over Texas
Honestly, if we make it to the finals, I'm not sure I wouldn't predict a win over KU, too. The most likely outcome, I'm afraid, is a quarterfinal loss to ISU, but hey, we played the Cyclones tough in Austin and if we get a little luck and ISU doesn't shoot 60% from beyond the arc again, a win isn't out of reach.
Like the conference as a whole, this Texas team is hard to predict. They've been winning and losing in streaks, though, so hopefully they'll build on the momentum from the two wins to close out the regular season and make a run in Kansas City.
I'd rather not be playing an elimination game until the NCAA Tournament itself, but hey, if it helps us hit our peak at the right time, I'll take it.
Two down, four to go. Let's do this.