In most precincts of the college basketball universe, a conference tournament title is like the hood ornament on a Mercedes-Benz.
It’s recognizable, shiny and eye-catching. But it does nothing to elevate the value of the vehicle.
Likewise, a conference tourney title does not enhance the credibility of a basketball program from a power conference like the Big 12.
Sure, the trophy is cool and a title might elevate a team’s seed by one or two lines in the NCAA Tournament. But in the Big 12, coaches lure recruits, earn bonuses and endear themselves to fans by winning regular-season championships and playing past the Sweet Sixteen round in March Madness. Unless you work at Kansas, national championships are optional. But Final Four appearances are recommended.
Having said that, it would be a relief for long-suffering local basketball fans if Baylor could do something Saturday that no school from the Lone Star State has been able to do in the league’s 18-year history: Win a Big 12 tournament title and the automatic NCAA berth that goes with it.
The Bears earned their shot to take home this year’s trophy by knocking off Texas 86-69 in Friday’s late game at the Sprint Center. They will face Iowa State, a 94-83 winner over Kansas in the other semifinal, in front of a national television audience (8 p.m., ESPN).
Had the result been different, with Texas knocking off Baylor, the storyline would still be the same. Fans who love basketball in football-crazed Texas would still tune in to Saturday’s telecast in hopes of seeing their first ship come in at a Big 12 tournament.
If it happens, Baylor coach Scott Drew will be the captain of that ship. And he’ll be doing so after picking up career victory No. 202, a Baylor school record, with a thorough thumping of a Texas team that swept the Bears (24-10) during the regular season.
But it was Baylor that dominated the action Friday night against the Longhorns (23-10), seizing control with an 11-0 run midway through the first half and building the lead to more than 20 points down the stretch.
Baylor leaned heavily on forward Cory Jefferson (20 points, 13 rebounds) and center Isaiah Austin (10 points, 7 blocks), who controlled the paint against the physical Longhorns.
“Our big guys are our key. We need them every day,” point guard Kenny Chery said. “Without them, what else can we do? We need them to block shots, make shots harder. That’s what they did.”
The Bears will arrive at the Sprint Center knowing Texas-based teams are 0-9 in title games at the Big 12 tourney. That means local schools get there more than half the time but never finish the job.
If this were football, such a dismal record in a comparable high-stakes setting would have local fans up in arms. But because NCAA Tournament berths are doled out in droves to teams that win 20-plus games in the Big 12, this long-term shortcoming does not raise the collective blood pressure of Texas residents.
Still, it would be nice to see the brakes applied to this basketball-related black eye in the same season the Final Four returns to Dallas-Fort Worth for the first time in the Big 12 era (April 5 and 7, AT&T Stadium in Arlington). And the spotlight is on Baylor, which put itself in position to make Big 12 history by picking up its 10th victory in its past 11 games.
The Bears have endured their share of heartache in this setting before. They are 0-2 when playing for a Big 12 tournament title, with the most recent loss in the 2012 event. But they are far from alone.
Texas is 0-6 in this same spot and Texas Tech is 0-1. Historically, the state’s closest brush with hardware came in 2007, when Texas fell to Kansas 88-84 in overtime in Oklahoma City.
Perhaps having lower expectations and a lower seed will benefit these Bears, a No. 7 seed in this tournament. Perhaps avoiding a matchup against Kansas in Kansas City will help, too. Drew, for one, sounds ready for the challenge against Iowa State, the No. 4 seed.
“That’s the great thing about the tournament this year. You knew coming in that it was more wide open than it’s ever been,” Drew said. “It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s going to be a war.”
Baylor took control of this game in the first half when their inside/outside combo of Jefferson and guard Brady Heslip combined for 25 points. Texas’ duo of Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix, meanwhile, went scoreless. For the game, Jefferson and Heslip combined for 44 points, with Heslip (24 points) making 6-of-11 from behind the arc. Holmes and Felix combined for eight points, making 4-of-16 shots.
Baylor led 42-27 at the half and never looked back in advancing to their third Big 12 title game in six seasons.
One thing is certain: Based on the way Iowa State played in knocking off Kansas, the Bears will face a difficult task in breaking through.