Welcome to Conference Championship week, when automatic bids get stolen, bubble teams make their final push and top contenders look to affirm their status. As you prepare to fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket, catching up on these teams might give you a better idea of who could make a run.
CBS Local Sports is previewing the six major conference tournaments: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. We’ll break them down by the favorites, contenders and dark horses that will have a chance of locking up the automatic bid to the Big Dance, which starts next week.
Let’s look at the Big 12, whose tournament begins on Wednesday at the Sprint Center in St. Louis, Missouri. There’s a familiar face entering as the top seed, one that has done so for each of the last 13 seasons.
First, a look at the tournament schedule (courtesy of CBS Sports).
Wednesday, March 8 (First round)
Game 1: No. 8 TCU vs. No. 9 Oklahoma | 7 p.m. | ESPNU
Game 2: No. 7 Texas Tech vs. No. 10 Texas | 9 p.m. | ESPNU
Thursday, March 9 (Quarterfinals)
Game 3: No. 4 Iowa State vs. No. 5 Oklahoma State | 12:30 p.m. | ESPN2
Game 4: No. 1 Kansas vs. Game 1 winner | 2:30 p.m. | ESPN2
Game 5: No. 2 West Virginia vs. Game 2 winner | 7 p.m. | ESPNU
Game 6: No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 6 Kansas State | 9 p.m. | ESPNU
Friday, March 10 (Semifinals)
Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner | 7 p.m. | ESPN or ESPN2
Game 8: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner | 9 p.m. | ESPN or ESPN2
Saturday, March 11 (Championship)
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner | 6 p.m. | ESPN
Death. Taxes. Jayhawks winning the Big 12. These are certainties in life. Just to beat you over the head with a stat you’ve likely heard a million times before, Kansas has won at least a share of the Big 12 title for 13 straight years. To no one’s surprise, this year’s edition of the Jayhawks is once again the favorite to take home the Big 12 title. Frank Mason III is a National Player of the Year candidate, fellow guard Devonte Graham is a dangerous secondary scorer and Josh Jackson is an all-around force.
Their offense is one of the best in the country, averaging 82.7 points per game and rating fifth in offensive efficiency, scoring 121.2 points per 100 possessions. They’ve knocked down threes at a ridiculous 40.8 percent clip on the year thanks largely to the shooting of Mason, Graham and backup guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. The biggest weakness they’ve had is defending the three-point line. They’ve allowed opponents to shoot 35.7 percent from three (222nd DI), and in their three losses, they’ve allowed an even higher percentage. Indiana, West Virginia and Iowa State combined to shoot 48.2 percent (41/85) from three in those three games.
The Bears are likely the most surprising team in the country this season. There’s not a consensus NBA draft pick on the roster, and yet Scott Drew and company peaked at number one and are finishing the year in the AP top ten. Defense is the team’s strength, allowing opponents just 62.5 points per game (16th) and grading out even better when that number is adjusted per 100 possessions (91.4, 10th DI). Unlike the Jayhawks, their defense of the three-point line has been pretty outstanding, allowing opponents to shoot just 31.2 percent from distance on the year. The downside? Baylor is 1-3 against Kansas and West Virginia. They had a rough stretch from the end of January through mid-February, but they have rebounded, winning four of their last five regular-season games heading into the tournament. The road to a Big 12 title likely goes through Kansas and/or West Virginia, so finding a way to beat them is crucial.
West Virginia Mountaineers
Bob Huggins’ team is known for their vicious press that just wears teams down over the course of 40 minutes. They’ve certainly earned the moniker “Press Virginia.” This year’s team is no different, riding the press to a 24-7 record. They are the highest-rated team in Ken Pom’s efficiency ratings, checking in at number three overall with the 17th-ranked offense (118.1 offensive efficiency) and fifth-ranked defense (90.5 defensive efficiency). On the flip side, they’ve had a few questionable losses. They lost to Temple in the non-conference and Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State in conference play. The loss to Kansas was also a head-scratcher, because they led the Jayhawks by 14 with 2:35 left in the game before blowing that lead and losing in OT. That said, the Mountaineers have shown the capability to build big leads on top opponents (just ask Baylor). And that press is a bear to handle, particularly in a setting where teams play games on consecutive days.
Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones haven’t been hyped like in year’s past, but once again they pose a threat to the top three teams in the conference to take home the conference tournament crown. Why’s that, you ask? Well, the Cyclones are 2-4 against Kansas, Baylor and West Virginia this year, with the three losses coming by a combined 28 points. The Cyclones are in the top 25 of Ken Pom’s ratings and feature a top-20 offense (118.1; 18th) to go with a top-50 defense (96.8; 42nd). They’re also one of only three teams to beat Kansas this season, and they would face the Jayhawks in the semifinals if they beat Oklahoma State in their first game of the tourney.
The Cyclones are led by a quartet of scorers, including two names that people likely remember from NCAA Tournaments past: Monte Morris and Deonte Burton. The senior duo combine to average 30.6 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game. Combine their production with that of fellow senior guards Nazareth Mitrou-Long (16.0 PPG) and Matt Thomas (12.2 PPG), and you have a deadly offense that ranks 18th in the country in three-point field-goal percentage (39.9). The Cyclones have the firepower to take on any of the top three teams, and they’ve proven they can beat both Baylor and Kansas already this year.