Big 12 battles continue in the conference tournament

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- His body still joyfully sore from being the dog in the pile of his Iowa State Cyclones teammates, Monte Morris was given the choice to exchange life in the helter-skelter Big 12 Conference for Kentucky’s comparatively easy path of perfection. The point guard said no thanks.

“They’re a great team, but that’s a team that hasn’t really been tested," Morris said. “In the Big 12, we’re battle tested, man."

Battle tested is a good euphemism.

More accurately, the Big 12 is like a trip to the endodontist. In order to be free of pain you first must suffer some serious agony.

Sometime on Saturday night, one team here will emerge from the misery, happy and giddy, with the Big 12 tournament crown. A day later, a good number of league teams will reap the ultimate reward with an NCAA tournament bid.

There will be more suffering -- or what they call battle-testing here in Kansas City -- before that, though.

In the tournament quarterfinals, the Baylor Bears had to fight off a severely depleted West Virginia Mountaineers team to win; a severely depleted Kansas Jayhawks team needed all it could muster to top the near-basement-dwelling TCU Horned Frogs; Iowa State trailed by 10 with 4:17 to play before winning on a buzzer-beater and possibly extinguishing the Texas Longhorns' tourney hopes; and the Oklahoma Sooners, winners of four of their last six, were pushed by the Oklahoma State Cowboys, losers of five of their past six.

“That’s the great thing about playing in the Big 12," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “When you play 91 percent of the conference games involving a ranked team, if you’re going to win, they’re probably going to be close games."

Which is a great thing -- when you win.

When you’re Texas coach Rick Barnes, it’s not so great. The Longhorns played easily their best game in months for 36 minutes, scoring on the Cyclones with ease by finding each other for open shots. Texas really looked like a team instead of a bunch of individual parts.

Then the last four minutes happened.

The Longhorns turned Hook ‘Em into Choke ‘Em, squandering a 10-point lead helped by a brain cramp on getting the ball over half court. A wildly partisan Iowa State crowd also played a factor.

The dagger came when Morris drove the length of the court, rolled to the deep corner and swished a jumper as the buzzer sounded.

The loss puts Texas on the NCAA ropes, and maybe Barnes, too.

“Do I want to get to the NCAA tournament? Yeah, but we have to wait and see," he said. “We are what we are. We had a chance to play our way in today and we didn’t finish."

The finish is what ultimately will matter for the Big 12. Leagues, like their teams, are not remembered for how many teams they get into the NCAA field but how those teams do once they get there. Will all this battle-testing result in NCAA success?

Predicting how Big 12 teams will do in the tourney might be tougher than predicting the winner of conference games. Every team that earns a bid is be good enough to beat anyone, but also has issues that could result in an early exit.

Let's start at the top with Kansas. Bill Self doesn’t sound like he expects to see Cliff Alexander in the lineup anytime soon. Knowing how NCAA stalemates tend to go (the NCAA says it needs documents; the Alexander camp says it’s turned everything it has over), his pessimism is well-placed. Self does expect Perry Ellis to return from his knee injury, maybe as early as Friday’s semifinals, but whether Ellis is immediately himself remains to be seen.

That being said, those two players aren’t even Kansas’ biggest issues. Self lamented after the game that his team is almost upside down, with the younger players (Kelly Oubre and Landen Lucas combined for 38 points Thursday) showing more urgency and effort than the upperclassmen (Wayne Selden and Frank Mason accounted for 13).

Asked what would happen if his team didn’t find a motor, Self said simply, “We’ll go home."

Meanwhile, Iowa State is a lot of fun to watch. It can run and score with anyone, but couldn’t guard a little old lady with the defense it played against Texas. The Longhorns hit shots, but the Cyclones also gave them an awful lot of open looks. The Cyclones' No. 262-ranked scoring defense didn't come by accident.

West Virginia needs Juwan Staten and Gary Browne back in the lineup. The Mountaineers are a completely different defensive team with them, but then again, they’ve frequently been an offensive aberration no matter who is playing.

Oklahoma and Baylor are each reliable, if not necessarily sexy, but aren’t exactly teams that will blow anyone out. Oklahoma State will limp into the NCAA field.

After the Cyclones' dogpile untangled itself and the entire city of Ames seemed to leave the Sprint Center, the always unflappable Fred Hoiberg, who didn’t even pump a fist in exultation, tried to explain what just happened in his game against Texas.

“Still not sure how we won," he said.

Someone then asked the coach about his athletic director, Jamie Pollard. Pollard suffered a heart attack Monday and underwent triple bypass surgery Wednesday. Hoiberg, who has a pacemaker himself, is qualified to both answer to the seriousness of Pollard’s condition and make what might otherwise seem a non-PC joke at his athletic director’s expense.

“[He’s] probably not doing very well after watching that one," Hoiberg said. “He’s probably had another heart attack."

Hopefully no one else will join in the literal sense, but figuratively? Yeah, the Big 12 will do that to you.