Kansas State and Kansas tied for the regular-season Big 12 title.
That doesn’t mean they feel very good about themselves entering the league tournament.
The Wildcats lost a road game against Oklahoma State on Saturday, while the Jayhawks were routed by Baylor a few hours later in a game that would have given them the outright title.
Consider it proof that the Big 12 tournament, which starts tonight at Sprint Center, promises to be among the most intriguing and unpredictable in conference history.
“I’ve never seen the league better, with more teams that can win your league tournament, than we have now,” said the Jayhawks’ Bill Self, whose team has won five of the last seven editions.
“Not very often you go in and say, ‘Well, I think that team can positively win three games in a row,’” Self said, “and there are six teams that can win three games in a row.”
Maybe more. Maybe even some that can win four in a row.
Seventh-seeded Texas, which is 0-6 in Big 12 tournament title games, faces league newcomer TCU on the opening night. The Longhorns have won three of their last four after a disastrous start to the season, their improved play coinciding with the return of star guard Myck Kabongo.
“I think this tournament may be the most competitive we’ve ever had, because there’s a lot of team that go into it thinking, ‘We have to do some work,’” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “We know what’s there. We need to win, it’s plain and simple, and not just one game. For us to do what we set out the year to do, we have to win the tournament.”
That’s the same situation that Texas Tech and league newcomer West Virginia are in as they prepare to play the other game tonight. The winner advances to play top-seeded Kansas, while the Texas-TCU winner gets No. 2 seed Kansas State in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
The other quarterfinals are already set.
Third-seeded Oklahoma State faces sixth-seeded Baylor, which is coming off that eye-opening victory over the Jayhawks. But at 18-13 overall, the Bears are still desperately chasing marquee wins if they want to reach the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years.
“All season long, I’ve said there is parity in college basketball,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Our team can beat anybody in the nation, and as everybody has shown in college basketball, anybody can lose to anybody. We just need to keep the execution going.”
No. 4 seed Oklahoma and fifth-seeded Iowa State are sitting more comfortably than Baylor on the NCAA tournament bubble, but nevertheless, a win in their Thursday match-up would take much of the pressure off them come Selection Sunday.
“I like the rhythm we’re playing with right now,” said Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team has gone eight years without winning a game at the Big 12 tournament.
“We’re going to go down there and approach it like it’s a very important game, which it is,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to go down there with the right mindset.”
The mindsets of Kansas State and Kansas should provide quite the story line.
The Jayhawks won both of their regular-season meetings, including a lopsided verdict at Allen Fieldhouse. But the Wildcats fared better against the rest of the league, so the teams were tied in the standings as they entered their road finales last Saturday.
The Wildcats played well against the Cowboys, building a nine-point lead in the second half, only to wither down the stretch and lose 76-70. Their coach, Bruce Weber, and most of their players were so dejected after the defeat that they didn’t even bother to watch Kansas play Baylor on television a few hours later, even though it would determine whether they shared the title.
The Jayhawks struggled early on, managed to close the gap to six points in the second half, and then watched the Bears go on a late run in an 81-58 upset victory.
The result: Kansas State and Kansas were co-champions of the regular season.
“A lot of people, instead of saying we won the Big 12, they want to focus more on, ‘Oh, Kansas should have won it because they beat you guys twice,’ or whatever,” said the Wildcats’ Angel Rodriguez. “We got the same record, and that’s all that matters. They should’ve took care of business, too, just like we should have took care of business against them.”
With the teams on opposite sides of the bracket in Kansas City, they’ll each have to win two games to get another shot at each other. But if they manage to do that, the feeling on both sides of the rivalry is that the game would serve as an unofficial tiebreaker.
“This year the tournament means a lot because we tied for the regular season,” Kansas guard Travis Releford said. “If we make it that far, I hope to win it outright.”