Coaches from the four Texas-based men's basketball teams competing in the Big 12 Tournament have an opportunity to become pioneers this week in Kansas City, Mo.
None of the Texas-based schools has won the men's postseason tournament since the Big 12 began in the 1996-97 school year.
None of this year's entries from the Lone Star State will be among the top three tournament seeds when games begin tonight in the Sprint Center, with Texas A&M (13-17) playing Oklahoma (15-15) and Texas Tech (8-22) meeting Oklahoma State (14-17) in first-round games.
Texas (19-12) and No. 12 Baylor (25-6) play their first-round games Thursday. Although Baylor coach Scott Drew said the proximity of the Sprint Center to the campuses -- and fan bases -- of No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 Missouri, No. 25 Iowa State and Kansas State represent an advantage for those schools this week, Texas coach Rick Barnes disagreed about the impact of loud, supportive crowds on the bottom line in tournament play.
"I don't think those things affect players," Barnes said. "The team that wins normally is the team playing the best basketball."
And when it comes to the conference tournament, the primary goal is to play well enough to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament when the 68-team bracket is finalized Sunday. For A&M or Tech, that would require an against-the-odds charge to a Big 12 tournament title as a No. 9 seed (A&M) or No. 10 seed (Tech).
But for Texas and Baylor, the NCAA opportunity is tangible. Baylor, projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, will be playing this week to enhance its status. Texas, an NCAA bubble team, may need to knock off Iowa State (22-9) in Thursday's first-round contest to secure an at-large berth from the NCAA selection committee.
"Nobody knows that," Barnes said. "That's media speculation. We've got to worry about winning a basketball game, not the NCAA Tournament. If [players] go into the game thinking about the NCAA Tournament, we haven't done our job as coaches."
But the two entities appear intertwined. A first-round loss by Texas, the No. 51 team in the latest RPI rankings, would prevent the Longhorns from climbing in RPI as the week progresses. Typically, teams need to finish among the top 50 in RPI to land at-large berths.
That is why Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team finished 1-1 in regular-season matchups against the Longhorns, expects a spirited effort Thursday from Texas.
"This is a very important game for Texas," Hoiberg said. "I know they'll be prepared and hungry. We have to play with a lot of urgency."
Texas will have to play without forward Alexis Wangmene (6-foot-7, 241 pounds), a fifth-year senior and physical interior defender who underwent surgery Tuesday for a dislocated wrist suffered in Saturday's 73-63 loss to Kansas. With Wangmene out for the season, Texas is down to three interior defenders: Clint Chapman, a 6-10 center, and a pair of 6-7 freshman forwards, Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond.
"We may have to play with four guards," Barnes said. "We've adjusted on the fly before. I hope we've done it enough to where we can handle it."
Baylor, unlike Texas, can head into Thursday's 11:30 a.m. matchup against Kansas State (21-9) secure in its status as an NCAA-bound team. But the Bears would like to win to earn another shot at No. 3 Kansas (26-5), the Big 12 tournament's top seed and a team that swept Baylor in two regular-season meetings.
Baylor is ninth in the latest RPI rankings. With a couple of high-profile victories in the Big 12 tournament, the Bears could secure a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"Any time you can have a chance to beat a top 10 team, it helps you with confidence and seeding for the NCAA Tournament," Drew said. "I don't spend time looking at those things. But your seeding changes based on how we perform. I'd rather focus on the performance and let the seeding take care of itself."
Unlike Barnes, Drew considers this week's venue an added challenge for his team. It will mark the 11th time in 16 seasons for Kansas City to host the Big 12 tournament, with the event slated to return to the Sprint Center in 2013 and 2014.
"When we play Kansas State, you can look in the stands and see who has more fans," Drew said. "That's an advantage. Period. Kansas City is a great venue... But I also like sharing the wealth and moving it around. Maybe we can get it in San Antonio or Dallas in the future."
By then, perhaps one of the Texas-based schools will have stepped up and won the event. Their next opportunity begins today.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760