With college basketball immersed in March Madness, small, unheralded teams can use their conference tournaments to garner a shocking and unexpected automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
That probably won’t happen in the Big 12 Conference Tournament, which begins when No. 9 seed Kansas State and No. 8 seed Iowa State play at 2 p.m. today in Dallas’ American Airlines Center. The Wildcats and the Cyclones are two of the six teams without a first-round bye.
Four consecutive wins tough task in Big 12 tourney
For these teams to win the tournament and earn the Big 12’s automatic bid, they would have to win four consecutive games. This feat has never been accomplished in the conference’s seven-year history.
“The difficult part is all the teams are so good, particularly the top teams, and everyone is scouted so there isn’t much you can do different,” Texas A&M coach Melvin Watkins said. “It comes down to players making plays, and it seems like in the tournament, the better teams have better players step up.
“If that happens, it’s going to be hard for anybody to upset those (top) teams. That’s usually why it’s very difficult. Occasionally, somebody can get on a run and do it, but for the most part, history will tell you it’s difficult to do.”
Nebraska and Oklahoma will play the second game of the day at 6 p.m. Finally, the Aggies (7-20), seeded 11th, face Missouri (15-12) about 8:30 p.m. today.
The Tigers have twice come close to completing the difficult stretch of four games in four days undefeated. Oklahoma State nearly did it once.
In 1997, the inaugural year of the Big 12, the Tigers won five regular-season Big 12 games, but with a No. 10 seed, they upset three teams in the tournament, advancing to the final. Top seed Kansas ended the run with an 87-60 win March 9, 1997.
Two years later, the Cowboys’ run included an upset of top seed Texas in the semifinals, but it ended when Kansas defeated the No. 5 seed Cowboys 53-37 in the final March 7, 1999.
2003 Tigers almost defied history
In 2003, the Tigers, seeded fifth, advanced to the finals against Oklahoma and had several shots to win late, but they could not convert. Oklahoma secured its third straight title with a 49-47 win.
“We probably came the closest of anybody last year,” Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. “We had two shots to do it in the last 30 seconds of the game against Oklahoma.”
With most of the 2003 team intact from the improbable tournament run, Snyder said his team knows that winning four straight days can be done.
“I definitely think our team was fatigued at the end of that game, but it’s more of a mental journey than a physical,” Snyder said. “You can find energy. You can find adrenaline to play.
“It’s just a question of being able to segment the tournament, truly take one game at a time and focus on whatever’s in front of you at that moment, and for us that begins (tonight).”
During that run, the Tigers’ defeated No. 1 seed Kansas in the semifinals. A meeting with the Jayhawks (20-7) would occur in the quarterfinals this year because Kansas earned the No. 3 seed.
Similar to 2003, the Jayhawks defeated Missouri twice. The second game closed Hearnes Center with a 84-82 Missouri loss Sunday.
To duplicate their tournament run from 2003, the Tigers would need to again beat Kansas in the third meeting of year, and then they would encounter one of the tournament’s big favorites, No. 2 seed Texas.
Texas looks to bench for strong performance
Because of the tournament’s quick turnarounds, a deep bench would help a team keep its best players fresh. The Longhorns’ depth, probably, represents their strongest point.
“I would look for someone like Texas with great depth because I think to win a tournament like this you have to have the depth,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “You play a lot of games in a few days, and that really helps.”
Drew also said Texas (21-6) might have added motivation because it closed the season with two straight losses and lost to top seed Oklahoma State twice in the regular season.
Oklahoma State secured the No. 1 seed with its first outright conference title since 1965. Tony Allen and John Lucas have led the Cowboys (24-3) to their most wins since 2000 when they finished 27-7.
Missouri would not be able to meet the Cowboys until the final.
With the Cowboys and the Longhorns on opposite sides of the bracket, the path to victory will likely go through them. Watkins said, though, the teams are too evenly matched to declare an obvious favorite.
“You still have to favor Oklahoma State, but it’s one of those years where it’s not a clear-cut thing,” Watkins said. “You’ve got Texas and Kansas, and those teams can beat anyone. It’s going to make for an interesting tournament.
“Oklahoma State doing what they did in the regular season, you, obviously, would have to favor them, but I’m going to sit here and just say, ‘Move aside. Let Oklahoma State.’ There have been years I probably said Kansas is going to win, no matter what, and that has been true. I think this year, it’s going to make for a very interesting tournament, and you better be on the edge of your seats there.”
History might be against the Cowboys as well, for the top seed has won three of seven titles and none in the past three seasons.