Rejoice, college basketball fans. The Madness of March is here.
For teams in the Big 12 Conference, that starts with the league’s tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., which kicks off today with a pair of first-round games.
To get you ready, the Avalanche-Journal takes a look at some of the tournament’s biggest storylines.
The one who needs it most: While an automatic bid is guaranteed to the winner of the tournament, there is one team in the field that can still earn an at-large bid: Baylor.
ESPN Bracketology guru Joe Lunardi currently has the on-the-bubble Bears — the No. 6 seed in the tournament — as one of his first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament. That’s an improvement on where they stood before whipping Kansas on Saturday. Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State should all be in the field regardless of how they finish this week.
Baylor, which plays third-seeded Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Thursday, likely needs at least one in order to crack the NCAA Tournament field.
A stage of future pros: The Big 12 tournament often features a handful of future NBA players, and this year is certainly no different.
Scouts will no doubt be on hand to watch Big 12 player of the year Marcus Smart, the Oklahoma State freshman who will be a first-round pick in this summer’s draft should he choose to enter it. The same goes for Kansas freshman Ben McLemore, who potentially could be be the No. 1 selection.
Baylor’s Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson and Kansas’ Jeff Withey are among others who could hear their names called in the first round. It will be interesting to see how these players perform in a big-stage audition like this one.
So who wins it?: Fans in Kansas City would probably love to see a title-game rematch between Kansas and Kansas State. The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, shared the Big 12 regular-season title, though the Jayhawks beat the Wildcats twice during league play this season.
A win in the title game could provide a trump card, not to mention a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. But other teams aren’t going to let the Sunflower State schools reach the title game without a fight. Oklahoma State, which finished a game behind the two schools in the regular season and is playing as well as anyone behind do-it-all Smart.
Baylor is also riding high after a big upset of Kansas. And don’t count out Texas, which must win the Big 12 tournament to reach the NCAAs and has been a different team since the return of point guard Myck Kabongo.
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