The field of 68 is posted and the bracket pool administrator at your office will spend the next 72 hours functioning as a collections agent, trying to round up $20 from every participant before Thursday’s first tipoff.
The Big 12 placed five teams in the NCAA tournament, though few would have guessed during the preseason that Baylor and Texas wouldn’t be among them. Here’s a glimpse at what to expect from the conference’s fortunate five:
Kansas (29-5): The Jayhawks were a debatable choice for the South Region’s No.1 seed over Miami. Both teams won their league’s regular-season and tournament titles, and each assembled strong records against the RPI top 100 — KU went 15-4, the Hurricanes 14-4. (Amazingly parallel profiles really: Kansas lost to Michigan State 67-64 on a neutral court, and Miami beat the Spartans 67-59 at home. The committee apparently gave more credence to KU’s win at Ohio State than KU’s loss at TCU).
How far will the Jayhawks advance? As far as the smooth-shooting Ben McLemore takes them. His 3-point bombs and rim-rattling dunks in transition energize this team, which survives shaky guard play at times. A Sweet 16 pairing against No. 4 seed Michigan would have looked perilous three weeks ago, before the Wolverines turned soft, and No. 2 Georgetown too frequently becomes a one-man band on offense. I’ve got the senior-stocked Jayhawks reaching Atlanta and losing to Indiana in a national semifinal.
Kansas State (27-7): The dependable and decidedly unspectacular Wildcats shared the Big 12 regular-season title but suffered a three-game sweep at the hands of rival Kansas. The No. 4 seed in the West was a mediocre 8-7 against the RPI top 100 and won seven games by 10 points or less against teams ranked below 100. Rodney McGruder and point guard Angel Rodriguez can create their own shots in a pinch, but undersized power forward Shane Southwell must come up big for K-State to make a deep run.
How far will the Wildcats advance? Fortunate to survive a round-of-32 grinder against Wisconsin, K-State will lose a Sweet 16 rematch against Gonzaga, which won their Dec. 15 meeting 68-52.
Oklahoma State (24-8): Seeded fifth in the Midwest, the Cowboys can be awfully entertaining with Markel Brown, Marcus Smart and Le’Bryan Nash providing multiple options on the offensive end. Not to be overlooked is the midseason return of Brian Williams.
How far will the Cowboys advance? OSU opens its NCAA journey in San Jose against the Pac-12 tourney champs Oregon. Next comes a tight win over St. Louis before the Cowboys bow out against Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Oklahoma (20-11): Kudos to Lon Kruger for restoring this program from the rapid descent of Jeff Capel’s final two seasons. At their zenith, the Sooners beat Kansas; at their low point, they lost to TCU. Romero Osby leads an athletic frontcourt, and outside of his All-Big 12 exploits, the senior’s biggest contribution may have been the go-ahead free throw he made in a 63-62 win over Oral Roberts on Nov. 28. In retrospect, a loss to the No. 148 RPI Golden Eagles might have bumped 10th-seeded Oklahoma out of the NCAA field.
How far will the Sooners advance? Maybe it was the meltdown during the final eight minutes at Texas or the slip-up in Fort Worth, but there’s something unconvincing about OU. Meanwhile, San Diego State is making its third straight NCAA appearance and gets to prove the Mountain West’s computer love is legit. Oklahoma’s NCAA stay will be a brief one.
Iowa State (22-11): Only three NCAA at-large teams had worse RPIs than the No. 45 Cyclones (No. 49 Cincinnati, No. 51 Villanova and No. 53 Cal). Then again, the RPI formula overlooks the fact Iowa State came within an eyelash of beating Kansas — twice. ISU ranks eighth nationally in offensive efficiency, but because Fred Hoiberg’s crew spreads the floor with 3-point shooters, it is prone to wild momentum swings.
How far will the Cyclones advance? They open with an intriguing matchup against seventh-seeded Notre Dame. Though Jack Cooley might very well put up a 20-20 double-double against ISU’s soft interior defense, here’s guessing the Cyclones 3-ball their way into the round of 32, where they’ll lose a close call to Ohio State.
From my perspective, NIT-bound Baylor (18-14) finished in a dead heat with West Virginia for Big 12′s Most Disappointing Team this season. The Bears were picked second in the conference — with a roster featuring two, maybe three, future NBA players — yet suffered nonconference home losses to College of Charleston and Northwestern (affording Bill Carmody one of his final highlights as Wildcats coach).
According to licensed bracketologists, Baylor was among the final eight teams left out of the NCAAs, its fate wrecked by a season’s worth of late-game failures. During March alone, Scott Drew’s team managed to lose to K-State despite possessing the ball with 1 second left in a tie game, and of course, the Bears were victims of a phantom foul with 2.9 ticks left in their 74-72 Big 12 tournament loss to Oklahoma State.
With so much talent undone by so much inconsistency, the Bears maddening season concluded with three losses in their final four games, the lone victory being a 23-point thumping of Kansas, which subsequently landed an NCAA No. 1 seed.
“I think we can beat anybody in the country, and that means we can play in the Final Four,” Drew said after Thursday’s Big 12 tourney loss, and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford lobbied for his conference counterparts,
“if you know basketball and you look at that team, that’s a team that can win a lot of games in the NCAA Tournament,” Ford said. “And I think they call that the eye test. If there’s an eye test, it’s an easy one.”
In Baylor’s case, the NCAA selection committee wisely had an eye for production over potential.
LONGHORNS IN CBI
The pay-to-play College Basketball Invitational, which satiates the public’s clamoring to see sub-.500 teams keep running ball-screens, has paired Texas (16-17) against Houston, RPI No. 202, in a first-round game.
Meanwhile, Purdue (15-17), which looked positively Gonzaga-like while carving up West Virginia 79-52 back in January, also is CBI-bound. The Boilermakers will host Western Illinois, forking over $35,000 for the privilege.