The Big 12 Tournament is nothing like the regular season.
Gone is the 18-game round-robin marathon. In is a four-day sprint. The process of identifying a champion has been simplified.
Ten teams meet at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. The team still standing Saturday night cuts down the nets.
Many assume that team will be Kansas or Missouri. They were the class of the league in the regular season, fighting for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and played two thrilling games before the Jayhawks emerged as regular-season champions.
A third meeting could be the most intriguing championship game the Big 12 Tournament has seen.
But there is no guarantee it will happen. The endurance, planning and strategies both teams used to succeed in January and February might not mean much in March. Sometimes it takes a totally different approach to win the conference tournament. Depth, motivation and luck are now important.
That could open the door for Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State, three teams that are trying to be tournament crashers this week.
“I think all three of those teams could win it,” said ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, who regularly calls Big 12 games. “All three of those teams present their own challenges to the top two teams. Baylor has immense size and talent. Kansas State is relentlessness and tough on the boards. Iowa State is a team with a unique player that can knock down 15 threes in a game and go out and play with Kansas.
“It would not shock me at all to see one of those teams in the final. Despite their seeds, it will take a little bit of luck for Kansas and Missouri to meet in the championship game.”
He thinks that way, in part, because neither the Jayhawks nor the Tigers have the look of a team built to win three games in three days.
Kansas sports Big 12 Player of the Year Thomas Robinson and the best starting five in the conference, but it lacks depth. The last time they were in a tournament setting was the Maui Invitational final, losing to Duke with a fatigued Tyshawn Taylor committing 11 turnovers.
Missouri uses a four-guard lineup and depends on three-pointers. Foul trouble or poor shooting didn’t come when they won the CBE Classic with easy victories over Notre Dame and California, but that was two games in two days with no postseason implications on the line.
K-State and Baylor have arguably been better tournament teams. The Bears defeated St. Mary’s and West Virginia to win the Las Vegas Classic. And the Wildcats blew past Southern Illinois, Texas-El Paso and Long Beach State to win the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu over Christmas.
What did Wildcat coach Frank Martin, the only Big 12 coach to win a three-game tournament this season, learn from that title run?
“How important depth is to our basketball team,” Martin said. “We had tremendous energy. That last day, our guys probably played harder than they did on the first day. That depth is going to be something that is a strength for us.
“Just having different guys who can perform and go out there and help the team win. It’s hard when you depend on the same person over and over and over again, because when that person has a bad day, then what do you fall back on?”
The Wildcats have confidence in a deep roster. Rodney McGruder and Jamar Samuels lead the way in most games, but Martavious Irving, Thomas Gipson, Victor Ojeleye and Shane Southwell have all had their moments off the bench. Nine players have started games.
No wonder they consider themselves the deepest team in the Big 12.
K-State players are planning on rotating in and out this week. It worked in December. Why not now?
“We’ve got guys on the bench who can come in and play some key minutes for us,” junior Jordan Henriquez said. “It’s important because the game is 40 minutes long. Around this time you’re playing games back-to-back days two or three days in a row and your body does start to wear on you.”
If K-State can get past Baylor in the quarterfinals on Thursday, it will likely face Kansas in the next round. The Jayhawks beat the Wildcats twice in the regular season, but things could be different with both teams coming off a game the day before.
K-State would hold a depth advantage, and may be able to play at a faster pace.
Baylor would like another crack at the Jayhawks, too. Iowa State narrowly lost at Missouri last week, and would welcome a rematch in the semifinals. Confidence and motivation won’t be a problem.
There are more than two teams entering the Big 12 Tournament with championship expectations.
“We have a lot of confidence going into the tournament,” McGruder said. “It’s a new season. Whatever happened in the Big 12, that’s over now. It’s a new season. New record. New everything.”