Seven Big 12 teams to play in NCAA tournament

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:48 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Texas forward Gary Johnson celebrates a basket during the Big 12 tournament. The Big 12 celebrates a record seven team being selected for the NCAA Tournament.

KANSAS CITY  — The Big 12's coaches spent an entire season, even some time before it, telling anyone who'd listen this was the conference's strongest year ever.

Turns out, they were right.

The Big 12 earned a conference-record seven NCAA tournament berths Sunday, including the No. 1 overall seed and two more in the top three, validating what its coaches have been saying all along.

"The more the merrier," Oklahoma coach Travis Ford said Monday. "I know our coaches are always pleased when they see people value the product that the Big 12 schools are putting out there. To get over half your teams into the NCAA tournament is a very, very nice compliment."

Football has been the calling card for the Big 12 since its inception in 1996, the perception being Kansas and Oklahoma State were the only teams playing real basketball.

The league has gradually changed its acumen over the past few years as Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri joined the Jayhawks in making deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

Still, six NCAA berths was the best the Big 12 could do — seven times, including the past two seasons — feeding an inferiority complex, as if the basketball power conferences were a big brother who wouldn't let them win at anything.

Now that Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Missouri, Texas A&M and Texas are in, this relatively new conference has moved up to a level usually reserved for older powerhouses like the Big East and ACC.

"As far as us getting seven in this year, my response is: it's about time," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said.

Kansas, no surprise, earned the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The Jayhawks start Thursday in Oklahoma City, against Lehigh.

A monumental mismatch? Probably. But after that, the road gets tougher.

The Midwest regional is considered the toughest in the tournament, one potential land mine after another awaiting the top-ranked Jayhawks.

Get by Lehigh and the second round, Kansas could face Michigan State or Maryland in the regional semifinals, then could face Georgetown or the two teams that gave the Jayhawks their two losses, Oklahoma State or Tennessee.

Even for a team that's as deep as any in the country, one that spent all but four weeks at No. 1, that's a tough gauntlet.

"I do believe this is a very, very difficult region," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But, from my standpoint, to get to where you want to go, you should have to beat good people. I'm sure no matter who gets to Indianapolis they're going to have a tough road."

Kansas State set a school record for wins and has its highest seeding ever, No. 2 in the West. The seventh-ranked Wildcats open the NCAA tournament against North Texas in Oklahoma City on Thursday.

Baylor, No. 3 in the South and 19th in the nation, also starts on Thursday, against Sam Houston State in New Orleans. No. 23 Texas A&M gets Utah State in Spokane, Wash., as the fifth seed in the South, and Oklahoma State faces a tough first-round matchup against Georgia Tech as the seventh seed in Milwaukee. The Aggies and Cowboys both play Friday.

The other Big 12 teams in the NCAA tournament need to make quick turnarounds.

Missouri closed out the season by losing three of its final four games, including to last-place Nebraska in the conference tournament. The Tigers open Friday in Buffalo, N.Y., against Clemson in what's likely to be the fastest game of the tournament.

Then there's Texas.

The former No. 1 team in the nation, the Longhorns followed a 17-0 start with a crash, going 9-7 during the Big 12 regular season. Texas is the eighth seed in the East regional and opens against Wake Forest on Thursday in New Orleans, hoping to get one potentially momentum-swinging win.

"One game, it can swing quickly," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "We see it all the time, teams come into that have been down and out, and they catch it and kind of ride the wave with it ... This time of year, one game here or there, one play here or there can really swing it."

After playing in the rugged Big 12, the Longhorns should be ready for it.

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