The two-month grind of conference play has come to an end for the Texas Longhorns, and now Shaka Smart and his team look forward to the start of college basketball's fragmented postseason. The first phase takes place in Kansas City in a single-elimination tournament that Longhorn fans know well — the wordily named Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship.
While Phillips 66 seems an antiquated brand from a simpler time, I was surprised to learn that the nearest Phillips 66 station to my house is a mere 35 miles away in Brookfield, Indiana. Brookfield is also home of the Wolf Creek Habitat, where you can see wolves, interact with wolves, or have your senior photos taken with wolves. While the wolves may potentially scratch you, rest easy with the knowledge that they are really just playing and it is all in good fun. Wolf Creek Habitat's minimum height requirements make me suspect it is not good for children's birthday parties.
But you are here for basketball, not wolves.
Texas has the seventh seed, and plays Iowa State first
As happens in so many seasons, the Big 12 regular season ended with a lot of teams tightly bunched in the standings. Thanks to some favorable breaks from the various seeding tie breakers (see note below), Texas grabbed the No. 7 seed after finishing the the conference season in a four-way tie for sixth place. And landing in this spot is important, because it matches the Longhorns with last-place Iowa State in the first round, and keeps them on the opposite side of the bracket from top-seeded Kansas.
(This stuff can be so random sometimes. Let's imagine a parallel world where Texas finishes still finishes 8-10 in conference play, but instead of sweeping OU and being swept by Kansas State, instead splits with both teams. In this other dimension Texas ends up with the ninth seed and a possible contest with Kansas if they can get past Oklahoma State first.)
There are good and bad aspects of facing Iowa State. First, the good. Iowa State finished this season with only four conference wins. Additionally, the Cyclones lost two starters to injuries over the past month — starting point guard Nick Weiler-Babb and starting forward Solomon Young. With the emergence of redshirt freshman Cameron Lard and grad transfers Zoran Talley, Jeff Beverly, and Hans Brase, coach Steve Prohm at least has adequate replacements to soak up Young's minutes. The situation is not the same for Weiler-Babb, who was having an outstanding junior year. All of this tips things in favor of Texas.
But now on to the bad. The Cyclones still have some good players. In addition to Lard, who has given Texas problems this season, freshman Lindell Wigginton is one of the league's most talented guards, and senior Donovan Jackson is a dangerous perimeter shooter. An offensive explosion from one or more of these players could put the Longhorns in some trouble.
The venue (the Sprint Center, located in Kansas City) is one that has historically been kind to the Cyclones, in part because their fans have generally been more than willing to drive down I-35. Big 12 tournament attendance has been been dominated by three fanbases: Kansas, Iowa State, and Missouri (while it was still in the league). So tonight's game has the potential to play in front of a rather partisan crowd, if the season hasn't sapped the typical Cyclone fanatic's enthusiasm for driving four hours for a basketball game.
Will Mohamed Bamba play for Texas?
I honestly don't have a lot to say about Mo Bamba's toe, other than I am sure it is very large. As of this writing I don't expect he will play against Iowa State. I say that because he apparently doesn't expect he will play against Iowa State.
Straight from the big guy himself: Texas’ Mo Bamba said he is not expecting to play vs. Iowa State. But, he could feel different tomorrow.— Brian Davis (@BDavisAAS) March 7, 2018
That said, there is at least a possibility that he could play, either against Iowa State or later in the tournament, as he has made the trip to Kansas City with the team. The same is not true for Eric Davis, who didn't travel with the team.
Looking more broadly at the tournament, and how things line up for Texas
For being a seven seed, things honestly couldn't have worked out much better for the Longhorns. This is not to say that they will make a run in Kansas City — after all, the other teams are trying to prevent that from happening, and Texas is a seventh seed for a reason — but instead to say that the chance at least exists.
Should the Longhorns win their first round game against Iowa State, it will set up a contest against Texas Tech. While Texas Tech is a strong team that has had an excellent year, the Red Raiders are at least a team that Texas has beaten once, and nearly defeated a second time. They are also a team that has been vulnerable as of late, losing four of their final five games as star guard Keenan Evans has struggled with his own toe injury. (Evans did play much better than he has in a while on Saturday, dropping 23 points in 26 minutes against TCU. On the other hand, everyone scores against TCU.)
Should the Longhorns win today and find tomorrow that Mo Bamba rises in the morning with a spring in his step, a victory over the Raiders could at least be possible. When you are a seven seed in a 10-team tournament that is about the best that you can ask for.
So what does it all mean?
First off, playing in a conference tournament provides a chance to win a conference tournament. Texas has never won the Big 12 tournament but is not yet eliminated from this one, so there is always the chance that the Longhorns go on a run and put up four wins in four days. That would be both unlikely and fun.
Beyond that, the Longhorns still have some work to do to polish their resume for the NCAA tournament. Texas would be at risk of missing an invite were it to lose to Iowa State, and could all but guarantee entry with two wins.
Texas gets its tournament started tonight at 8:30 p.m. CT. With a win tonight, there will be games every day to follow until they lose. The game airs on ESPNU.