There’s been no better rivalry this year than Kansas and Missouri. The two teams split their regular season meetings, with each team winning a big come-from-behind effort at home. Kansas was the more consistent team and won the conference championship, but there could be at least one meeting left this year on Saturday night in Kansas City…and maybe even a fourth at the Final Four in New Orleans. TheSportsNotebook takes a look back on how Kansas, Mizzou and other contending teams in the Big 12 got to this point, looks ahead to the next four days in KC and hands out individual awards.
Kansas and Missouri have good talent, but there was no reason to expect a championship-caliber effort from either team. Kansas has an extraordinary post man in Thomas Robinson and a solid guard in Tyshawn Taylor, but everything after that is up to head coach Bill Self fitting the right players into the right roles. Mizzou has a very talented backcourt led by Marcus Denmon who averages 18 ppg, but they’re thin up front with 6’8″ forward Ricardo Ratliffe having to shoulder the entire load. Nonetheless, both teams separated themselves from the Big 12 pack. Kansas controls its destiny for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Missouri has a chance at the top line themselves if they win the Big 12 tourney. The Tigers could take a top seed from Kansas, or just move up and join their conference rival alongside Kentucky and Syracuse, at least depending what happens with North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
Baylor has the most talented lineup in the conference, but just hasn’t put it together in the biggest games. With a frontcourt of Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller, they can match up with anyone. With a floor leader like Pierre Jackson, they should be able to beat anyone. But on the floor, they’ve gone 0-4 against the league’s Big Two and also finished tied with a less-talented Iowa State team. The Cyclones got to 12-6 in the league based primarily on the backcourt of Chris Allen and Scott Christopherson joining up with forward Royce White. The fifth team in the conference who’s heading for the Big Dance is Kansas State, with its inside-out combo of Jamar Samuels and Rodney McGruder.
EVERYTHING’S UP TO DATE IN KANSAS CITY
The subhead is a line from a song in the musical Oklahoma and has no relevance to this conference tournament other than the fact it mentions Kansas City and I like to sound cultured every once in a while.
The team the Selection Committee will have its eye on is Texas. The Longhorns are 19-12 and right on the bubble. To my way of thinking they should be leaning into the field, but to ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi, they are actually leaning the wrong direction. Considering the bubble usually gets tighter in the days from Friday through Sunday, the ‘Horns are not in a comfortable spot…unless of course they beat Iowa State tomorrow night. Texas is led by the dynamic J’Covan Brown who’s averaged 20 ppg to lead all Big 12 scorers, but they’re also very young and that’s tripped them up at times this year. I think Rick Barnes’ team is going to make it, but there’s nervous moments ahead in Austin.
Oklahoma is playing for an NIT bid at 15-15 and they lead up the bottom four teams that play tonight. Oklahoma State can only get over .500 by winning the tournament and at that point they become an automatic NCAA invite regardless. Texas A&M and Texas Tech are going nowhere after this.
My pick to win the tournament is Missouri. I generally steer away from regular season champions unless they’re head and shoulders above everyone else and that’s definitely not the case in this rivalry. After having Baylor as national championship material this season, I’m fed up with the Bears–and that’s probably the best thing for them, because once I throw in the towel on a team like this, they start winning. The Big 12 is also not a league that usually sees middle-of-the-pack teams step up and win, so by process of elimination that leaves Missouri.
My instincts are telling me to take Thomas Robinson, and that he’d be a great choice nationally as well. But he did get a lot of help from Tyshawn Taylor. Those two can win a Batman & Robin award for best duo in the country, but if there’s credible candidates that really carried a team, I’d prefer to look elsewhere. That’s why I’m going with Brown at Texas. He’s on the verge of pretty much carrying a team into the NCAA Tournament and with this group as young as it is, they might be a sub-.500 rebuilding team along the lines of Oklahoma State or Villanova this year if they didn’t have him. Honorable mention also to Denmon at Missouri, but Brown is the pick.
For Coach of the Year, we’ll look at the two heavyweights, as Kansas’ Bill Self and Missouri’s Frank Haith did great jobs. Haith had more good players, but Self’s two were better balanced inside and out. Which would you rather have? I lean toward preferring quantity, but more importantly is that Self’s team won the conference, so he gets the spoils.