Omaha, Neb. Down goes Iowa State. Down goes Baylor. Down goes Texas.
Just a bad day for the Big 12, or a good day to stop referring to it as the best basketball conference in the country?
Kansas University, regular-season champ, went 6-2 against Thursday’s three losers, so it’s not time for anybody to panic, but it does serve as a reminder that the gap between so-called power conferences and mid-majors steadily shrinks, courtesy in many ways to the absurdity of the one-and-done climate.
Today’s game against No. 15 seed New Mexico State is no layup, not that a layup is the sure thing it used to be in college basketball anyway.
If UAB can knock off Iowa State by a point and Georgia State can send Baylor home by a point, outscoring the Bears 13-0 in the final 2:54, the Aggies can make Kansas sweat.
After all, New Mexico State has won 13 in a row, and even against the weak competition the WAC has to offer, that’s not easy to do. The Aggies have a decent full-court press and rank ninth in the nation in offensive rebounding, but turn it over a ton.
What the champions, regular-season and post-season, of the WAC don’t have is the best basketball player in today’s game.
That would be Perry Ellis, who appeared to move well Thursday, at least from what can be learned watching a public practice, which amounts to little more than players throwing up shots at an easy pace.
“It’s almost there, man,” Ellis said of his sprained right knee. “It’s definitely getting better and better, and it’s almost there. And when you get out there for the tournament, the adrenaline gets going, and that makes you feel even better.”
Asked to put a percentage on his recovery, Ellis said, “Maybe like 90-plus, maybe,” he said. “I’m jumping well, moving well on it, feeling real comfortable on it.”
Ellis, who takes hard steps when he’s executing his patented spin moves, reiterated that playing in the Big 12 tournament helped him to learn how to play through injury.
“Getting a little pain, that kind of messes with your mind a little bit, a little pain when you’re spinning and stuff,” he said. “Now I’m not getting that much, so it’s been great in that aspect. Now it’s feeling a lot better. No problem with that.”
Media sessions with the Kansas players took place before the Big 12 reeled off three losses, which could only add to shaky forecasts about KU’s tournament fate, a reality not lost on the players.
“A lot of people may be doubting us,” Ellis said. “We’re just using that for fuel to motivate us. You’re just kind of like, ‘Dang,’you know? Kind of just thinking, like, ‘Why’s that, you know?’ But it’s just fuel. I think it definitely could help us, playing with that chip on your shoulder and going from there.”
New-found disrespect for the Big 12 was the story of the day in the tourney Thursday. Naturally, Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford didn’t buy it.
“Obviously, it’s been a rough day for the Big 12,” said Ford, whose Cowboys face Oregon today. “You know, I fielded a lot of questions the last two to three days about the Big 12 has been the best league in America all year long. All the numbers say it. You can go through it all, and the popular question was, well, what if you don’t do so good? And I said that doesn’t matter. I’m not going to base anything on one day or three weeks on what we have done in the last four months.”
Still, the tournament’s the best vehicle for comparing leagues. So far, so bad. That can change today with a pair of games in Omaha involving Kansas and Oklahoma State and a pair in Columbus, Ohio (West Virginia vs. Buffalo, Oklahoma vs. Albany).
“In my opinion, I think it’s the toughest league in America,” Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte.
To prove it, the league will have the stage the sort of comeback this tournament that Iowa State did game after game to win the Big 12 tournament championship.