Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Previewing the Madness: The Big 12

The Big 12 was wild this season.

It was considered by many to be the best conference in the country in the preseason, but with the way that teams like Kansas State, Baylor, Missouri, and Texas played early in the season, that notion went out the window pretty quickly.

We may have been too quick to judge, however. Kansas has been the favorite just about the entire season, with the exception of the start of Big 12 play, when the Longhorns made their surge. Bolstered by a punishing defense, the Longhorns at one point held a two game lead on the Jayhawks late in February before a stretch of three losses in four games.

Kansas State was the next team to surge, rebounding from a 4-6 start in the league to win their last six games and finish the season tied for third in the conference. Will Baylor or Missouri be the team to make their run this week?

Another interesting storyline of this tournament is the bubble. Both Baylor and Colorado are sitting squarely where you don't want to be -- the cut line. Both will probably want to win two games to feel comfortable, but their first round matchups -- Colorado against Iowa State and Baylor against Oklahoma -- come against teams that knocked them off this season.

Where: Kansas City, MO

When: March 9th-12th

Final: March 12th, ESPN, 5:00 pm

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

The Jayhawks have to be considered the favorite to win this tournament, as they, along with Ohio State, are the two favorites to win the national title. Kansas is as efficient and balanced as anyone in the country. It starts with the Morris twins inside, who are both versatile scorers. They also rebound the ball and defend, combining with Thomas Robinson off the bench to provide one of the best front lines in the country. The Jayhawk back court is deep and talented, as well. Tyshawn Taylor is their best point guard, but they also have Josh Selby, who is capable of going for 20 on a given night despite his struggles down the stretch, and Elijah Johnson, who proved he is a starting point guard in the Big 12 when Taylor was suspended late in the season. Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar are the leaders and the knock down jumper shooters that keep the floor spread.

  • Other Contenders: There are two that fit into this category. Texas has slipped up the past couple of week, but the Longhorns are terrific defensively. Tristan Thompson has become a force on the block and arguably the best low-post player in the conference. The question mark is going to be Jordan Hamilton, and to a lesser extent J'Covan Brown. Will those two rediscover the selectiveness that made them dangerous scorers this season, and if they don't, will they continue to struggle defensively?

    Kansas State is the other contender. Their resurgence has been sparked by Jacob Pullen (more on him in a bit), but the Wildcats have also started to play like the team we expected them to be early in the season. They are playing aggressive, physical, and intense basketball once again, as their front court is overwhelming opponents while their back court are ball hawking defensively.
Sleeper: Missouri Tigers

The Tigers, for my money, have the best chance at stealing this title. For starters, they will be playing in an arena that is actually in Missouri, a place they have played twice already this season. They also play the most unique system, one that is difficult to plan for on short notice. They are deep and they press for 40 minutes. When tired legs start to become a factor, the Tigers may be the best equipped to not only deal with it, but to take advantage of it in their opponents.

  • Deeper Sleepers: Baylor is arguably the most talented team in the conference, with an all-american caliber scorer in LaceDarius Dunn and a long and athletic front line. Texas A&M is a team I am not sold on, but they defend and they rebound consistently, and Mark Turgeon always fields teams that don't make mistakes. Colorado is another option, as the Buffaloes have proven to be a tough out and can claim two of the best scorers in the league in Cory Higgins and Alec Burks.
Players to Watch:
  • Jacob Pullen, Kansas State: He's been awesome during Big 12 play and taken his game to another level down the stretch. He's hitting his jumpers now, he's getting to the basket and to the foul line, and he's executing when he has the ball in his hands at the end of a clock. There is a legitimate argument to be made that he was the Big 12 player of the year -- he averaged 21.4 ppg, he led all guards in field goal percentage, and he was top ten in steals and assists.
  • Marcus Denmon, Missouri: The Tigers high scoring guard has really come on as a junior. He's perfect for Missouri's system -- he is a lights out shooter, a quality defender, and capable of making plays in the open floor.
  • Alec Burks, Colorado: Burks is a terrific slasher that doesn't get the publicity he deserves because he plays for Colorado. Its not a mistake that he averaged 19.5 ppg and 6.4 rpg.

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