- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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LAWRENCE, Kan. -- TCU coach Jeff Mittie was familiar with Big 12 play, because for years he scheduled nonconference games against that league’s schools. But after TCU’s first season as a member of the Big 12, Mittie acknowledges it’s a very different thing to go through the league season.
“We’ve played a tough nonconference schedule before,” Mittie said, “but now we’re doing this in the Big 12 nine weeks in a row, playing every few days. I believe the battle scars we’re getting this year will pay dividends down the road.
“This league, other than Baylor, is maybe not as top-heavy as it’s been in the past, but there are a lot of good teams that can win some games in the NCAA tournament.”
Top-ranked Baylor went through its second consecutive undefeated conference regular season and is the overwhelming favorite to win the Big 12 tournament, which begins Friday in Dallas. From the standpoint of who’s going to win the championship, the Big 12 seems to have about as much drama as Daniel Day-Lewis versus “the other guys” in this year’s best-actor noncompetition at the Oscars.
Instead, the drama in Dallas will have to come from other story lines. Can Kansas, which ended an 11-season NCAA tournament drought last year, claw its way into the Big Dance this year? Can teams such as No. 2 seed Iowa State, No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 4 Texas Tech do much to improve their NCAA tournament seeding?
And how will the tournament be received in Dallas as a stand-alone event? For the first time since the conference’s formation in 1996-97, the women’s and men’s hoops tournaments are not in the same city on the same week.
Certainly, it’s an easy drive for Baylor Nation, about an hour and a half north from Waco on Interstate 35. The Lady Bears and the other top-six seeds have a bye into Saturday.
The new Big 12 school that’s even closer to the tournament site -- the American Airlines Center -- is TCU, which will drive about 45 minutes from Fort Worth. While the Frogs’ fans haven’t had much to cheer about this season, TCU still has a chance to play spoiler in this tournament, along with trying to set a positive tone for next season.
No. 10 seed TCU takes on No. 7 Kansas on Friday. The teams met in the regular-season finale in Lawrence on Tuesday, when the Jayhawks held on for a 74-67 victory. KU had to rally from a 22-point halftime deficit to beat the Frogs 76-75 when they met at TCU on Feb. 13.
TCU went 2-16 in league play, but those two wins were against Iowa State and No. 5 seed Oklahoma State. The Frogs have improved during this season, even if their record doesn’t show it.
“Physically, we’ve got to get bigger for this league,” Mittie said. “The Mountain West was such a motion [offense]-based league. Everybody could shoot the 3, from the center to the point guard. You didn’t have the rebounding that we’ve seen this year. With the exception of us, I don’t think there’s a bad rebounding team in this league.”
Kansas, at 17-12 overall and 8-10 in the Big 12, is on the wrong side of the bubble and -- as has been the case in previous seasons -- can look back at several woulda/shoulda/coulda games.
The Jayhawks must beat TCU again to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. The winner of that game faces Iowa State. The other teams on that side of the bracket are Oklahoma and No. 6 seed West Virginia.
In this way, Kansas at least has a better chance of picking up more than one Big 12 tourney victory. The Jayhawks split with the Cyclones, Sooners and Mountaineers this season. In fact, all the teams on this side of the bracket have the advantage of not having to face Baylor until the championship game.
Friday’s other action pits No. 8 seed Kansas State versus No. 9 Texas to see which team has to slog through another loss to Baylor.
It has been a reorganizing year, if you will, at Texas under first-year coach Karen Aston. The Longhorns went 5-13 in the league, with some upheaval on the team getting used to the new staff. It will soon be time for Texas to turn its attention to next season, which is probably just as well.
Meanwhile, K-State has battled gamely this season despite being devastated by injuries. The Wildcats were able to upset Texas Tech at home March 2 and even stayed close to Baylor into the second half of their regular-season finale March 4 in Waco. Then Baylor ran away, Brittney Griner finished out a 50-point performance, and the Wildcats were left feeling there really just wasn’t much else they could have done.
You could say that for all the league’s schools in regard to facing Baylor this season and last. The Lady Bears haven’t had any real lulls during this dominance, and it’s unlikely you’ll see a let-up during the league tournament.
So the title game Monday might not be a thriller. But keep an eye on the other things that might happen in Dallas before then that could affect the rest of March Madness.