IS IT SATURDAY YET?
You won’t hear any Big 12 coaches or basketball players ask that question this week. They will stick with the politically-correct approach until Kansas hosts Texas Tech on Monday and Kansas State takes on TCU on Tuesday. But they have got to be looking forward to the weekend as much as the rest of us.
That’s when the Big 12 championship will be decided in two games, assuming the Jayhawks and Wildcats, who are tied for first, take care of business at home against the two worst teams in the league.
First up Saturday is a 12:30 p.m. tip between K-State and Oklahoma State at Gallagher-Iba Arena. If the Wildcats win, they clinch at least a share of the conference title. They can win the league outright if Baylor knocks off Kansas a few hours later at the Ferrell Center.
But beating the Cowboys won’t be easy. One game back, they are still a factor in the league race. If they beat Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum on Wednesday, they can force a three-way tie for the conference crown with a victory over K-State combined with a Kansas loss.
No matter what happens, the pressure will be on Kansas in the night game. An outright championship, a co-championship, a three-way split … it will know what is at stake before tip-off.
The Jayhawks have won four straight outright Big 12 championships and have claimed at least a share of the title in eight straight seasons. Will either of those streaks come to an end? Will K-State win its first conference championship since 1977? Can Oklahoma State crash the party?
Fans across the league will be tuning in Saturday to discover the answers.
The final day of the regular season might be the most exciting.
DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS
When Oklahoma’s Amath M’Baye threw down a dunk to give his team a 22-point lead over Texas with under eight minutes to play last week, he taunted Texas players and fans by flashing a Horns-down signal.
Angered by the sign of disrespect, the Longhorns responded with a furious comeback and eventually won in overtime behind 31 points from Myck Kabongo.
Why it took that sign of disrespect from an opponent to get the Longhorns going is a reflection of just how poor the state of Texas basketball is at the moment, but other players should learn from M’Baye’s mistake. If you’re going to flash a Horns-down signal, wait until the game is over.
The NCAA Tournament bubble got crowded in the Big 12 last week. A two-game losing streak has Iowa State in trouble, and Baylor’s inability to close out games has the Bears with lots of work to do. The Cyclones would benefit from a win over Oklahoma State on Wednesday. Otherwise, it will need to win a couple games in Kansas City. The Bears might have to beat Kansas to get in at this point. Their last quality victory came over Oklahoma State in mid-January.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE
On Monday, KU coach Bill Self said Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey, Marcus Smart and Rodney McGruder should be the main four contenders for the Big 12’s Player of the Year award. He’s right. McLemore has been quiet at odd times, but also scored 30 or more points in three conference games. Withey has been a constant, impacting games with points, rebounds and blocks. Without Smart, Oklahoma State wouldn’t still be in the mix for a league title. McGruder is K-State’s best player and just made the game-winner against Baylor. The final two games may decide who comes out on top.
COACH OF THE YEAR RACE
There is much less of a debate for this award. Bruce Weber is the strong front-runner. He has won more games than any other first-year coach in K-State history and has the Wildcats ranked in the top 10. But Lon Kruger and Self have also done admirable jobs this season. Oklahoma is headed back to the NCAA Tournament, and Kansas is in the top five a year after losing Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor.
Through Saturday’s games
1. Kansas (25-4, 13-3): Who is the better Player of the Year candidate? Withey or McLemore?
2. Kansas State (24-5, 13-3): McGruder adds a buzzer-beater to his resume.
3. Oklahoma State (22-6, 12-4): Cowboys will either be contenders or spoilers Saturday.
4. Oklahoma (19-9, 10-6): Still hard to believe the Sooners blew a 22-point lead at Texas.
5. Iowa State (19-10, 9-7): Beating Oklahoma State could save NCAA Tournament chances.
6. Baylor (17-12, 8-8): Season in a nutshell: Tie game, one second left, Baylor has the ball, K-State wins.
7. Texas (13-16, 5-11): Longhorns may pull an upset or two in Kansas City.
8. West Virginia (13-16, 6-10): Mountaineers have struggled all around.
9. Texas Tech (10-17, 3-13): Better than TCU.
10. TCU (10-19, 1-15): Worse than Texas Tech.