The Big 12 baseball tournament is usually Kansas State’s final opportunity to prove it is worthy of an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Things are different this year. The Wildcats have something bigger to play for.
They are in Oklahoma City as the No. 1 seed, fully aware they will be selected for a regional next week and with a high seed. But they don’t know where they will play their first game.
That’s where the Big 12 Tournament comes in.
With a strong showing at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, they might get to play at home. The NCAA Tournament assigns 64 teams to 16 regional sites, with 16 teams hosting four-team pods. After winning the Big 12 regular-season championship and climbing into the national rankings, the Wildcats (39-16, 16-8 Big 12) are hoping to open regional play at Tointon Family Stadium.
“That would be very special,” K-State coach Brad Hill said. “It would be a great thing — a first in Kansas State history. We would have great fan support. That’s what we had against Oklahoma, and that was just tremendous. There was so much energy. The kids responded to it and fed off it. To have that for a regional would be very exciting.”
K-State has been a strong home team all season, going 24-7 and taking two of three from Oklahoma with a conference championship at stake last weekend. So playing in Manhattan would help its chances of reaching a super regional.
But what are its chances of hosting? Depends on the ranking system you prefer. With a No. 15 ranking in the latest Baseball America poll, K-State might only have to avoid a losing streak. But at No. 19 in the RPI and No. 17 in the coaches’ poll, it might still have work to do.
Historically, the regular-season Big 12 champion has hosted a regional in the NCAA Tournament. But nothing is guaranteed. For now, the Wildcats are focused on winning another trophy.
“I think we will be motivated,” Hill said. “We also lost on Sunday (to Oklahoma) and no one likes losing very much. You want to keep momentum. The more you win the more you feel good about yourself. That’s what you want for next week. You want to feel good about yourself, you want to be playing good baseball. That’s only possible when you have momentum.”
The challenge begins at 12:30 p.m. Thursday against Texas Tech in a re-tooled tournament. Instead of starting Wednesday and using the double-elimination format, the Big 12 Tournament will begin a day late because of tornado destruction in nearby Moore and feature pool play with a championship game on Sunday.
After Texas Tech, K-State will face Baylor on Friday and Oklahoma on Saturday in one pool, while Kansas, TCU, Oklahoma State and West Virginia play a round-robin in the other pool. The winner of each pool will advance to the championship game at 1 p.m. Sunday.
K-State has never won the tournament before. It has never been the top seed or played in this format, either.
But it isn’t holding anything back.
“This allows us to get three starters out there and helps us prepare for next week,” Hill said. “Hopefully we can get a little bit of momentum going into the regionals next week. You hope to play well and you expect to get to Sunday and see what happens from there.”