As coach of an injury-plagued team staring up at peers from the bottom of the Big 12 men’s basketball standings, TCU’s Trent Johnson can testify to the talent of rivals from the nation’s top-ranked league in RPI.
“Everybody that knows anything about basketball knows there is seven NCAA Tournament teams here. There’s seven, make no mistake about it,” Johnson said while reflecting on the presence of former top-10 teams Baylor (21-10) and Oklahoma State (20-11) in today’s opening games at the Big 12 conference tournament.
“Two weeks ago, Oklahoma State was ninth in this league. A week before that, it was Baylor. I know this: I’d like to have this team I have right now go play in somebody else’s league. We wouldn’t be oh-for-the-world, I can tell you that.”
Instead, TCU (9-21) will carry its 18-game losing streak against Big 12 foes into Wednesday’s 8:30 p.m. matchup against Baylor at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
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The Horned Frogs, the first Big 12 team to post an 0-18 record in league play, join Texas Tech (14-17) as the only schools in the 10-team tournament that enter with losing records and without at least an outside hope of landing an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday.
The latest bracket projections by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm show the Big 12 with seven NCAA teams, all seeded between No. 2 (Kansas) and No. 10 (Oklahoma State). West Virginia (17-14), which posted a 9-9 record in league play and earned the No. 6 seed in the Big 12 tournament, is not projected as an NCAA participant by either analyst.
But the Mountaineers could change that in Kansas City. West Virginia, which scored a Saturday upset of regular-season champ Kansas, could earn the league’s automatic NCAA berth by claiming the Big 12 tournament title. Advancing to Saturday’s finals might place the Mountaineers in at-large discussions.
Bottom line: Baylor coach Scott Drew predicted Monday that seven teams, including his Bears, could win this week’s conference tournament. That figure might be low, based on records and seeds heading into Wednesday’s matchups between Baylor-TCU and Oklahoma State-Texas Tech.
The reality is that, for the first time in years, every school has a compelling reason to shine in Kansas City to solidify an NCAA berth or boost its seed when the 68-team field is announced Sunday. That includes TCU and Tech, two schools that must cut down the nets at the Sprint Center to extend their seasons past this week.
Asked what his team, with three players lost to season-ending injuries and one to academics, must do to beat a Big 12 opponent, TCU guard Kyan Anderson said: “Just stay positive and keep fighting. ... These teams are really good and they’ve proved this is one of the premier conferences in the United States.”
In order of Big 12 tournament seed, here is a look at what each school has on the line in Kansas City:
1. Kansas (23-8, 14-4 in Big 12): The Jayhawks will play without injured freshman center Joel Embiid (back), who is also doubtful for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Kansas probably cannot reach the top line of the NCAA bracket without a tournament title but could drop to a No. 3 seed with no victory in Kansas City. Playing at the Sprint Center without Embiid, the Big 12 defensive player of the year, will make it tougher for KU to win.
2. Oklahoma (23-8, 12-6): The Sooners enter the tournament on a three-game winning streak and, in the words of coach Lon Kruger, are playing their “best basketball” at an ideal time. Leading scorer Buddy Hield (16.8 ppg) said OU has “something to prove to everybody” in Kansas City and plans to grab a tourney title. If that happens, Oklahoma should improve from this week’s NCAA fifth-seed projections.
3. Texas (22-9, 11-7): The Longhorns have lost four of their last six games, including Saturday’s setback to a Texas Tech team with a losing record. A Thursday loss to a hungry West Virginia team probably would lower Texas’ projected NCAA seed (No. 6 by Lunardi and Palm) and hurt the Longhorns’ opportunity to play its first two games in San Antonio. Lunardi has them headed there, which would be a huge boost for a young team that has lost its last five road games.
4. Iowa State (23-7, 11-7): The Cyclones’ undefeated record in nonconference play will help maximize their NCAA seed from selection committee members. Projected as a No. 3 (Lunardi) or No. 4 (Palm) seed, the Cyclones could push themselves into second-seed discussions by winning the Big 12 tournament. Reaching the finals should lock up a No. 3 seed and some favorable NCAA matchups.
5. Kansas State (20-11, 10-8): Barring a couple of victories in Kansas City, the Wildcats appear destined to play in an 8/9 seed matchup to begin the NCAA Tournament. With a victory, either option means a first-weekend showdown with a No. 1 seed. By stepping up in Kansas City, K-State could climb to a No. 7 seed and avoid a potential early matchup against a juggernaut.
6. West Virginia (17-14, 9-9): Because of nonconference struggles, the Mountaineers probably must win the Big 12 tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. But two victories and a spot in the championship game would strengthen their argument for an at-large berth when the selection committee convenes. The team’s 9-9 finish in the nation’s toughest league will resonate behind closed doors.
7. Baylor (21-10, 9-9): The Bears enter as the league’s hottest team, with a 7-1 record in their last eight games. Baylor clearly is off the bubble, headed to the NCAA field and in need of more high-profile wins to enhance its seed on Selection Sunday. Baylor projects as another 8/9 participant in its first NCAA game, a fate the Bears can improve with a strong run in Kansas City.
8. Oklahoma State (20-11, 8-10): The Cowboys loom as one of the most dangerous teams in the field because of their talent level and NCAA bubble status after posting a sub-.500 league record. Behind resurgent guard Marcus Smart, OSU has rebounded from a 1-8 stretch to win four of its last five games. No team can do more in Kansas City to enhance its NCAA seed than OSU, the No. 8 team in the AP poll six weeks ago.
9. Texas Tech (14-17, 6-12): The Red Raiders must win the conference tournament to continue their season beyond this week. But Tech has been scrappy under first-year coach Tubby Smith, with victories over Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Tech knocked off OU, the No. 2 seed, in Norman, Okla., and defeated Texas in its regular-season finale.
10. TCU (9-21, 0-18): The depth-depleted Frogs probably are not capable of going worst-to-first with four wins in four days in Kansas City. But the possibility exists. As for the Frogs’ effort, Johnson said: “For this basketball team to be in this league and not stop fighting speaks volumes about them as people and their character. I would just like to see us break through … and have a chance to get a win.”