Commentary

The 'meaningless' title game could pay off down the road

Originally Published: March 15, 2008
By Tim Griffin | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Texas and Kansas will meet Sunday in what is evolving into the Big 12's clash of basketball titans.

It might not matter much in the grand scheme of most bracketologists -- particularly those who matter the most. It's hard to believe the NCAA selection committee will break out the Liquid Paper for a major late revision based on the final results of the Big 12's championship game that will end less than an hour before their show airs.

Which is a shame. Because in its own way, the annual battle between the Longhorns and Jayhawks is evolving into the kind of rivalry that at least bears mention with Duke-North Carolina, Stanford-UCLA or Tennessee-Kentucky among college basketball's best.

Most mock brackets have the Longhorns and Jayhawks both as solid second seeds after Saturday's semifinal victories. Texas looked much better in its 77-49 thrashing of Oklahoma than Kansas, which needed a huge game from Brandon Rush to claim a grinding 77-71 triumph over Texas A&M.

But it's hard to believe Sunday's results will attract much notice from those sequestered in the Indianapolis hotel meeting room that everybody in college basketball is concerned about.

"I'd like to think that whoever wins the game tomorrow is among the top four teams in the country," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "But I don't want to tell the committee how to do its job."

[+] EnlargeDamion James and Justin Mason
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesTexas was able to roll into the Big 12 final by routing rival Oklahoma, 77-49.

Texas will be seeking its first Big 12 tournament championship after losing in the final four times. The culprit the past two years has been Kansas, which has claimed a record five Big 12 tournament championships.

"I guess it's a tradition for Texas and Kansas to end up in the championship game," Kansas forward Darnell Jackson said. "There's a lot of tradition with Kansas and with Texas. I think our whole mind-set is that these two programs want to win everything."

For everything Barnes has accomplished in Austin, the lack of a Big 12 title is still a motivational factor for his current players. There has been a Final Four trip, enough top players to stock an NBA franchise and an awakening that has enabled the Longhorns to be mentioned as one of the nation's best programs.

But they still haven't cut the nets at the end of a Big 12 title -- something that has been mentioned more than once since the Longhorns arrived in Kansas City.

"We've been working since the summer and the preseason for this game," Texas guard A.J. Abrams said after scoring 24 points to lead the Longhorns' victory over Oklahoma. "We took care of our business and got to where we want to be."

This will be a fun game. It will be an up-tempo game against a tough, tough opponent. It's something we need to get used to.

--Kansas guard Sherron Collins

The regular season has been different. The two teams have split the past eight regular-season games in the series, with the squad with home-court advantage prevailing every time.

Texas claimed a 72-69 victory in Austin on Feb. 11 over the then-No. 3 Jayhawks that enabled the Horns to claim a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.

The Jayhawks remember that game because they were uncharacteristically pummeled inside -- by Texas forward Damion James, who grabbed all 13 of his rebounds in the second half.

Sunday's game also will be an interesting matchup of strong backcourts that boast best players who have been peaking late in the season.

Texas guard D.J. Augustin has overcome a midseason slump that crested in a 1-for-13 shooting slump against the Jayhawks in the first game. Since then, he has averaged 21.2 points and five assists per game.

"Where he's really improved so much in the last month is his concentration," Barnes said. "I thought he was masterful with the way he worked the game for us."

The Jayhawks have received their own backcourt lift since the first Texas game, courtesy of the return to form of guard Sherron Collins. Even though he still hasn't cracked the starting lineup, Collins has been the pivotal player in Kansas' recent spurt.

[+] EnlargeSherron Collins
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKansas has received a lift from Sherron Collins.

Collins finally has approached his level of last season in the past two weeks, averaging 13.2 points per game in his past five games.

"He has the best presence of anybody on the court for us," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "And we missed that when he was gone. We played pretty good without him, but certainly, he can take our team to another level if everybody is playing well."

Collins and Augustin will be on display in what should be an entertaining game with a lot of intensity. It's too bad it couldn't be played a day earlier to be truly savored -- and maybe have some meaning when the No. 1 teams are selected.

"This will be a fun game," Collins said. "It will be an up-tempo game against a tough, tough opponent. It's something we need to get used to."

Which is why the championship game that might not matter ultimately could pay big dividends for both teams in upcoming weeks.

Tim Griffin covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.

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