The participants of major conference tournaments can be broken down into several categories.
There are those looking to hold their lofty position, perhaps improve a NCAA Tournament seed, like Big 12 co-champions Kansas and Kansas State, along with Oklahoma State.
Some appear on the right side of the NCAA bubble and look to avoid slippage. That’s Iowa State and Oklahoma.
There are teams looking for a miracle, upset victories to help vault them into the postseason picture.
Then there’s Baylor.
The Bears probably are on the wrong side of the bubble and need to win their way into the NCAA Tournament field. An 18-13 overall record and a ratings percentage index in the low 60s puts Baylor in the danger zone.
“We know what’s at stake,” Bears guard Pierre Jackson said. “We know what the big picture is.”
The Bears played with a purpose Saturday, smashing then-No. 4 Kansas 81-58.
Baylor also boasts victories over Oklahoma State and at Kentucky. But it’s been an inconsistent season. The Bears twice carried three-game losing streaks in conference play.
“We’ve kind of felt like this for a while,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
If there’s a gleam of hope for Baylor, it’s the matchup. The Bears beat the Cowboys 64-54 in January in Waco, and two weeks later took the Pokes to overtime before losing in Stillwater.
“They’re good; they’re athletic,” Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart said.
So are the Cowboys, led by Smart, who was voted Big 12 player of the year by the coaches and The Associated Press. The Cowboys rank among the Big 12’s top defensive teams and hold teams to 62.4 points per game.
But maybe there’s some Drew magic brewing. On Tuesday night, Valparaiso, coached by Scott’s younger brother Bryce, outlasted Wright State in the Horizon Conference Tournament final for an automatic NCAA berth.
The celebration extended to the Kansas City hotel where Baylor is lodged.
“We’re lucky we didn’t get kicked out,” Scott Drew said.
Neutral zone — When Oklahoma visited Iowa State, the Cyclones rolled by 19.
When Iowa State went to Norman, the Sooners prevailed by 17.
The teams’ records are nearly identical. Their NCAA Tournament profiles look about the same, with perhaps a slight edge to Oklahoma.
If ever a game was made for a neutral site, it’s this Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal opener at 11:30 a.m. today.
“The whole tournament is balanced,” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. “There’s a lot of teams that feel like they have a chance to compete here.”
The fourth-seeded Sooners and fifth-seeded Cyclones arrive on equal terms because of the opposite way the teams ended the regular season.
Iowa State played great in the final week, defeating Oklahoma State in Ames, then holding off West Virginia in Morgantown after opening a 27-point lead.
“We had to find a way to get those two last week, and we got them,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Two huge wins for us.”
The Sooners lost Saturday at TCU. They never led and trailed by 22 at halftime before falling 70-67.
“Disappointed with the way we finished,” Kruger said. “We’d been playing well the last month. Then we came up with a really poor shooting effort (36 percent) against TCU. We have to bounce back.”
In Oklahoma’s victory over the Cyclones, guard Sam Grooms came up big. He averages five points per game but knocked in 19 against Iowa State.
At Iowa State, Will Clyburn had 19 points, and the Cyclones came up big defensively, holding Oklahoma to 37 percent shooting.
A quality victory would help either team’s NCAA Tournament profile. Oklahoma is 3-6 against the RPI top 50; Iowa State is 3-7.
“You always feel like you have to win one more,” Kruger said. “I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘OK, we’ve won enough, we can lose now.’”
McLemore honor — Kansas freshman guard Ben McLemore was selected a freshman All-American on Wednesday by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
McLemore, who leads Kansas with 16.7 points per game, joined UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart on the freshman All-America team.
Smart, who was selected the Big 12 player of the year, was voted the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year by the USBWA. McLemore, a redshirt freshman, has already broken the single-game (36) and season (517) scoring record for KU freshmen. He was previously selected a finalist for the Wooden Award and the USBWA’s Oscar Robertson Award, given to the nation’s best player.