The Big XII
By Matthew L. Lofton
Any discussion involving the Big XII begins and ends with Kansas. And how could it not with eight-straight regular season titles in the conference and the inside track to one of the last two number one seeds? And the two teams who actually beat the Jayhawks are on the other side of the bracket so KU could not meet those teams until the finals. Anyone who has paid any attention at all knows the name of possible player of the year, Thomas Robinson.
Robinson has already been named ESPN.com Player of the Year, averaging 18.0 and 11.9 boards per game. Earlier this season, he became the first KU player in more than 50 years to score 30 points and grab 20 rebounds (had 21) in KU’s win over North Dakota. Tyshawn Taylor is the perimeter compliment to Robinson with 17.2 points per game and is the only KU player to hit more than 40% from three (52-123). Robinson and Taylor are a great inside-outside combo, finishing one-two on the team in assists (108 and 85 respectively).
The bracket is a mixed bag for Kansas. The two teams who actually beat Kansas are on the other side of the bracket, but a tough semifinal match-up against Baylor or Kansas State awaits. Baylor has great bigs but they like to play around the perimeter so Robinson should be able to take out the Bears. But, Kansas State awaits, who beat Missouri twice in the regular season. And a rivalry game is always tough.
It is now or never (or at least a few years) for Missouri with a senior-laden team. Its top three scorers are all seniors. Head coach Frank Haith was named Big XII Coach of the Year, which may validate a coaching hire that left many people scratching their heads in the offseason.
Most people have heard about Missouri blowing a 19-point lead at Kansas (coupled with a tough loss at home to Kansas State earlier in the week), but the Tigers responded my knocking off a stingy Iowa State team and a dominating win at Texas Tech to end the season.
No one can match Missouri’s experience class-wise, but one has to wonder if the Tigers underachieved under former coach Mike Anderson. If Missouri wins the tournament (and other things fall into place), this team could move up to the one seed line for the NCAA tournament. If Marcus Denmon (18 points per game) and Kim English (14.1 points per game) light up from outside and also feed Ricardo Ratliffe (13.8 points per game), Missouri could win the tournament. JUCO transfer Michael Dixon comes off the bench for an impressive 13.3 points per game.
But be wary of Missouri. The Tigers most likely will face a quarterfinal opponent in Oklahoma State, who played two tough games against MU and actually won at home. But if it survives, Missouri probably faces Iowa State. MU is the only Big XII team to win in Ames.
Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg maybe should have been Big XII Coach of the Year. Almost out of nowhere, the Cyclones finished 12-6 in conference and knocked off everyone at home except Missouri early in conference season. But, Iowa State’s four road wins came against the five worst teams in the Big XII. Kudos for Iowa State going dancing, but ISU will not even make the Big XII finals. No one particularly stands out as three different players average just over 12 point per game.
Team with biggest possibility to make a run playing from the first day: I am not going out on a limb by saying the top seed that plays on the first day, Oklahoma State. Assuming an easy win in the first round, it split with Missouri and Iowa State (and the game in Ames was only a three-point loss).
Winner: Kansas. With Missouri leading by 19 and losing in the Phog plays to Missouri’s psyche. If MU-KU meet in the final (which I believe they will) and the Tigers get out to any lead, MU will tense up with every shot the Jayhawks hit. A lot of the game is mental, and KU has the edge.