It’s Championship Week in college basketball, otherwise known as the week of tournaments before THE Tournament. And honestly, it seems this year people only really care about two conference tourneys: the Big East and the Big 12 … maybe the ACC based on history and hype.
So far I’ve previewed the Big East and the Pac-10 (hometown allegiance); next up is the Big 12. Going into this season, the conference boasted two popular Final Four favorites, but was generally seen as a top-heavy group without much depth. Currently there are four Big 12 teams in the AP Top 25 — two of them in the Top 10 — and as many as seven teams are expected to crack the big field of 65 come Selection Sunday.
5 THINGS TO WATCH FOR DURING THE BIG 12 TOURNAMENT
1. An avalanche of buckets from James Anderson
Depending on where you’d stick multi-positional Evan Turner on the court, Anderson could be considered the best two-guard in the nation. The Big 12 Player of the Year is averaging 22.9 points and is climbing up the NBA Draft boards. Less than two weeks ago, he dropped 27 points to beat No. 1-ranked Kansas, and the last time he faced today’s first-round opponent Oklahoma, Anderson went off for 31. And this time the Sooners won’t have Willie Warren (ankle), whose quickness and athleticism could have given Anderson a hard time on the defensive end. If the Cowboys get past Oklahoma, they get Kansas State in Round Two. Anderson gave K-State 30 the last time he saw them.
2. Damion James vs. Craig Brackins
Taking NBA projections out of the equation, Texas senior Damion James is the best power forward in college basketball. The 6-7 captain of the Longhorns (a SF in the pros) is a testament to hard work: Since coming to UT as a freshman with Kevin Durant, he’s gone from a raw athlete to a fairly skilled basketball player. In the first round of the Big 12 tourney, James (17.7 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 spg) will face Iowa State junior Craig Brackins, a top PF whether you’re going off of NBA potential or college production. The 6-10 Brackins (16.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg) has seen his numbers go down from a year ago when he was a projected Lottery pick, but this is his chance to leave a lasting impression against a high-profile opponent. While Texas is simply better than ISU, the Longhorns are 6-8 in their last 14 games, while the Cyclones are coming off their biggest W of the season, beating Kansas State on the road. On that note …
3. Is Kansas State for real?
After a brief NIT appearance in ’09, K-State entered this season viewed as a Top-5 team in their conference. Nobody thought they’d be Top-5 in the country. The Wildcats’ (24-6) resume is legit: Their nonconference slate included major-conference opponents Alabama, Ole Miss and Washington State, plus Atlantic-10 stalwarts Xavier and Dayton. Frank Martin‘s squad is 4-2 against teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time they played, with the two losses coming against Kansas. Are they talented enough? Junior guard Jacob Pullen (18.6 ppg) earned Big 12 first team all-conference and all-defensive honors, while sophomore forward Jamar Samuels (11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) was named Sixth Man of the Year. Even if the Wildcats really are more of a Cinderella than a powerhouse, Martin, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, has them believing they’re as good as anybody.
4. Forty Minutes of Brimstone
If you miss those 1990’s Arkansas teams that made Nolan Richardson‘s “40 Minutes of Hell” defense famous — or if you never got to see those Razorbacks the first time around — make an appointment to catch the 2010 Missouri Tigers. Coach Mike Anderson is a Richardson student, having played for him at Tulsa and working as his assistant for almost 20 years. Anderson brought that same full-court, harassing pressure D to Missouri, which got them to the Elite Eight last year. This version of the Tigers (22-9) may not be exactly 40 minutes of the same Hell/Fire, but at worst they’re bringing a ton of Brimstone. Senior guard J.T. Tiller — Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year in ’09 and first team All-Defensive this year — spearheads a swarm of piranhas that have forced 19.9 turnovers per game (best in the nation), averaged 11 steals, and given up just 65.5 points a night. And Missouri’s first-round opponent, Nebraska, doesn’t handle pressure very well; the Cornhuskers are 1-10 on the road and have dropped nine of their last 10 games.
5. A Kansas/Baylor championship game matchup
My prediction: If things work out and KU and Baylor meet in Saturday’s final, it will be the best college game you’ll see all season. In no uncertain terms, it would be the biggest game in the history of Baylor’s basketball program, while Kansas would be fighting for a No. 1 overall Big Dance seed. In their previous meeting, the Jayhawks won a close game at Allen Fieldhouse. At a neutral site, Baylor would be extremely dangerous. Both teams match up well: Senior PG Sherron Collins vs. senior PG Tweety Carter; Lottery pick SG Xavier Henry vs. long-range sniper LaceDarius Dunn; Two-time Big 12 DPOY Cole Aldrich and athletic big man Marcus Morris vs. athletic big man Ekpe Udoh and dunk machine Quincy Acy. If both teams take care of business, this should be a classic.