What to watch at Big 12 tournament


That's what you say when someone asks you who is going to win the Big 12. The Jayhawks not only have won at least a share of the past nine regular-season titles, they've also grabbed five of the past seven conference tournament titles.

This year, it looked like form would hold heading into conference play. And then the Jayhawks had one really bad week in February -- losing to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma -- and the pack closed in, so much so that, when Baylor destroyed KU in the regular-season finale, the Jayhawks ended up sharing the Big 12 regular-season title with Kansas State.

Consequently, the issue is two-fold: Can Kansas win the tourney? Equally critical: How is the Jayhawks' psyche as they prepare for March? That loss to Baylor was a disaster -- a 23-point beatdown -- which isn't exactly how anyone wants to head into the most critical part of the season.

The Big 12 tournament, then, is almost a show-me run for the Jayhawks. A chance to show the selection committee they are still worthy of a No. 1 seed, a chance to show themselves the Baylor loss was an aberration and, most important, a chance to show that the Big 12 still runs through Lawrence.

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So if not Kansas, then who?

The most likely candidate is Kansas State. Bruce Weber has done an unbelievable job in his first season in Manhattan, leading the Wildcats to their first piece of a league title since 1977. Kansas swept the Wildcats in the regular season, so to the Jayhawks' way of thinking, this shared title is bananas. But what if they meet for the tourney title in Kansas City? That would redefine bananas.

Which freshman is better -- Marcus Smart or Ben McLemore?

You can't really go wrong with that question, though it sure makes for a fun debate. Both are sensational. Both are critical to their team's success, and both are probably gone after this season. So instead of arguing who is better, how about we enjoy both?

Who's on the bubble?

One man's disaster (for KU fans) is another's piece of art (for Baylor). The Bears weren't even much in the bubble conversation until that eye-opening win against the Jayhawks to end the regular season. Their at-large profile remains exceedingly bubblicious -- an RPI of 61, a 2-5 record against the top 25 in RPI and a 1-5 mark against the top 50. But Baylor has a critical head-to-head win against one other bubble team (Kentucky) and a better chance to turn heads in the Big 12 tourney than the Wildcats have in the SEC.

Five players to watch

Ben McLemore, Kansas: He's the first freshman in Kansas history to score more than 500 points in his rookie season. Along the way, he topped Danny Manning. Is that enough reason to watch him?

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Smart is a stat stuffer extraordinaire, a guy who can beat you in about a dozen ways. He can score (15.1 points per game), rebound (5.7 RPG), dish (4.3 APG) and play defense (3.0 SPG). Best of all, he does it all within the context of the game.

Jeff Withey, Kansas: His freshman teammate has taken much of the glory this year, but Withey has been solid all season. He's a dependable scorer and a defensive stopper. His shot-blocking perhaps isn't as head-turning as Nerlens Noel's is, but his presence in the lane is every bit as much a deterrent.

Rodney McGruder, Kansas State: It took a little while for the senior and his new coach to get on the same page, but once everything was copacetic between them, things started to soar for the Wildcats. McGruder has been a consistent scorer and, more importantly, a smart scorer, shooting 44 percent from the floor. K-State surprised plenty when it claimed a share of the Big 12 regular-season title. If McGruder plays well, it could be a surprise tourney winner, too.

Will Clyburn, Iowa State: The Utah transfer has been very good for Fred Hoiberg this year, but he also has had a few dud games. The Cyclones could make some noise in this tournament but need a consistent Clyburn to do it.

Around the tournament

Hottest team: Oklahoma State. Sure, the Cowboys lost to Iowa State two games ago, but they've also lost all of twice since the end of January -- and one of those was in double overtime to Kansas. Travis Ford's team is clicking offensively and will be a tough out here.

Coldest team: West Virginia. As if the journey between Morgantown and any Big 12 school isn't bad enough, more often than not this year the Mountaineers have gone home after a loss. They've lost six in a row and seven of their past eight. You get the feeling Bob Huggins won't be upset when this season is over.

Sleeper pick: Iowa State. The catch with this sleeper pick -- the Big 12 tourney isn't being played in Ames. The Cyclones were unbelievable at home and so-so away from it, but if they can somehow channel their home-court mojo in Kansas City, they could win this thing. Fred Hoiberg's team has been solid offensively all year, sharing the scoring and taking pretty good shots.

Best first-round matchup -- Texas vs. TCU: It's not a great game, but the other choice is West Virginia versus Texas Tech, so there you go. Beyond that, the Longhorns at least have shown a pulse with Myck Kabongo in the lineup. They're 5-3 since he finished serving time for the NCAA.

Best potential quarterfinal -- Oklahoma State vs. Baylor: The Bears played themselves back into the NCAA tournament conversation by walloping Kansas in the regular-season finale, so they'll be desperate here. Baylor beat the Cowboys once this year (on a buzzer-beater in overtime), but OSU rolls into the tourney with just one loss in its past five games.

Predicting a champion: Kansas. OK yeah, I just spent a bunch of paragraphs saying this might be the year Kansas won't win, but I'm picking the Jayhawks anyway. Sue me. My bold prediction came back in October when I was asked to make a bold prediction and said West Virginia would win this league. That went well, didn't it? Yeah no, so I'll stick with what I know and say Jayhawks here.