KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- There’s been no shortage of controversy leading up to the Big 12 tournament.
Start with voting for coach of the year. No. 5 Missouri’s Frank Haith lost votes to Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and Bill Self of Kansas on coaches’ ballots.
The Tigers jilted the league and will be joining the Southeastern Conference next season.
Then there’s the future of Kansas City as the tournament host. The Sprint Center is on the Missouri side of the state line, and there will no longer be a Big 12 member from Missouri.
“Kansas City has done such a great job historically with this tournament,” Self said. “With Missouri not being in it in the future, it’d give the appearance that it would hurt it, but I can’t see that happening. I think moving forward there will be as much interest as ever.”
Then the Jayhawks’ coach stoked the fire a little bit more by saying that Kansas City is a battleground for Kansas State and Kansas, and that Missouri is something of an afterthought.
So yes, there are plenty of compelling storylines when the tournament kicks off with a double-header Wednesday night. And that’s without even talking about the games.
The top-seeded Jayhawks, who won their eighth straight regular-season crown, await the winner of Wednesday night’s opener between No. 8 seed Oklahoma and ninth-seeded Texas A&M. The winner of the nightcap between seventh-seeded Oklahoma State and No. 10 seed Texas Tech will face second-seeded Missouri during a marathon of four games Thursday.
The other teams who received byes into the quarterfinals are fourth-seeded Baylor and No. 5 seed Kansas State, who open Thursday’s games. No. 3 Iowa State and sixth-seeded Texas play in the nightcap with the Longhorns sitting squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
“We’ve got a conference tournament where there’s an automatic bid,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “I also have confidence in our league—if we’re the second-best league in the country, that’s where we are—there’s no reason we shouldn’t have six teams in.”
Nobody else is facing such desperation in Kansas City, though there is still plenty at stake.
The third-ranked Jayhawks could be playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, perhaps even in the Midwest Region, which would mean games in St. Louis the second weekend. Missouri could also win its way to a top seed with a little help in other league tournaments.
Even teams with little hope of postseason basketball have reason to make a run. Besides that automatic berth for the champion, teams such as Texas A&M and Oklahoma State—both ransacked by injury—and Oklahoma and Texas Tech, which are in rebuilding mode, can take a big step forward.
“I didn’t expect it to be a rebuilding year,” said first-year Aggies coach Billy Kennedy. “I don’t look at it as a negative, down year. We’re building a base for our program.”
Oklahoma State center Philip Jurick will miss the tournament after tearing his left Achilles tendon in the Cowboys’ regular-season finale. Star freshman Le’Bryan Nash is also in doubt after missing the last three games with a fractured left, non-shooting hand.
“I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. It’s honestly been overwhelming at times,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said of the injuries. “We continue to have to adjust on the fly, but our guys have stayed very positive and we’ve continued to compete.”
Everyone will get at least one more chance to compete in Kansas City.
Some have better chances than others.
The Jayhawks are considered the favorites behind Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson, a bruising 6-foot-8 forward oozing pro potential. He’s complemented by all-conference guard Tyshawn Taylor and a savvy group of veterans who have been through the wringer.
“We have to be ready to play,” Taylor said. “We kind of understand it’s not going to be easy and we have to go out there and play, and we have the guys to do that.”
Kansas will face 12th-ranked Baylor, which has spent most of the season in the nation’s top 10, or Kansas State, which gave the Jayhawks all they could handle a couple weeks ago and has won four of its last five games heading into the conference tournament.
“We got a lot of young guys that haven’t been through it,” said Jamar Samuels, the Wildcats’ senior forward. “The tournament time is coming—the conference tournament, the NCAA tournament—and they haven’t been here. But I think the last few weeks has helped them out a lot.”
The Tigers don’t have it any easier on their side of the bracket.
If they get past the quarterfinals, their semifinal game will be against Texas or No. 25 Iowa State, arguably the biggest surprise of the conference season. And if chalk holds true all the way to the finals, the Tigers just might get another crack at the Jayhawks.
The Tigers rallied in the final minutes to beat Kansas in Columbia, only for the Jayhawks to come from 19 down for an overtime win in Lawrence. That was the final scheduled regular-season meeting between programs that have been rivals for more than 100 years.
Perhaps it would be fitting for them to meet again in Kansas City, just off the interstate that connects their two campuses, with a conference tournament title at stake.
“We’re going into it with a chance, we believe, to validate what we’ve already done in the regular season,” Self said. “If you’re going to play in it, you might as well win it.”
There’s nothing controversial about that.