KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Top-ranked Kansas hasn't lost since Baylor stunned the Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse in January, that run of excellence driving coach Bill Self's squad to another regular-season Big 12 title and the top seed in the conference tournament.
Better not let that winning streak end any time soon.
The Jayhawks (28-3) know all too well their next loss ends a dream, whether that's to win the Big 12 Tournament this week in Kansas City or the NCAA Tournament beginning next week. Kansas lost to Iowa State in the league tourney final a year ago, and didn't even make the championship game three years ago, when the Cyclones beat West Virginia for the crown.
“It's win or go home from here on out,” said the Jayhawks' Devon Dotson. “I know all of us are locked in in that locker room. No distractions. We're looking to do something special coming up.”
The tournament begins Wednesday night when seventh-seeded TCU (16-15) plays No. 10 seed Kansas State (10-21) and eighth-seeded Oklahoma State (17-14) plays No. 9 seed Iowa State (12-19). The winner of the latter game gets the Jayhawks in the quarterfinals Thursday while the TCU-Kansas State winner will play fifth-ranked Baylor (26-4), which enters as the No. 2 seed and knows that it could play its way to a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament with a strong showing.
"We did everything it normally takes to win conference and we came up short," said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team has lost three of its last five after a school- and Big 12-record 23-game winning streak. “All year long, we've been banged up and we've been able to overcome. We'll get regrouped, refocused for the conference tournament.”
The quarterfinals already set for Thursday feature fourth-seeded Texas (19-12) against No. 5 seed Texas Tech (18-13) and No. 3-seed Oklahoma (19-12) against sixth-seeded West Virginia. Only the Mountaineers (21-10) are likely NCAA tourney locks.
Iowa State is accustomed to playing into the weekend in Kansas City, winning four tourney titles in the past six years. But an injury to star guard Tyrese Haliburton early in the season coupled with other issues have left the Cyclones in a tough situation. They know nothing less than a championship means their season is over.
“We just hope to get some guys healthy, but we've been battling that for a while,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “It's the best conference tournament in the country. We're ready to go to Kansas City and see what we can do.”
Much like the Cyclones, Kansas State's season spiraled downhill in a hurry after the loss of its core group from last year's regular-season Big 12 champions. The Wildcats at least have some momentum heading into Kansas City, though, after Xavier Sneed piled up 31 points in a rout of the Cyclones last weekend.
“You feel good about yourself and now if it’s TCU or whoever, we’ve been close. You’ve got to come to play,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “We're going to have to play well, and our coaches do a great job. If we play hard and defend like we have and make some shots, we can compete.”
The Longhorns were once considered an after-thought in the Big 12, and coach Shaka Smart's future seemed to be hanging in the balance in Austin. But they ripped off five straight wins before a loss to Oklahoma State last weekend, and that was enough to catapult Texas all the way to the No. 3 seed — and potentially into the NCAA Tournament.
Like the Longhorns, the Sooners, Red Raiders and Mountaineers all finished 9-9 in league play, and the strength of the Big 12 usually means that is enough to get an NCAA bid. But a win or two in Kansas City would help all their chances.
RED RAIDERS RETURN
Texas Tech has been to the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons and made a memorable run to the national championship game a year ago. But the Red Raiders have struggled at the Big 12 tournament, putting together a 14-23 record — the worst among programs still in the league — and losing its only championship game to Oklahoma State in 2005.
“I’ve been around here for a while now. You guys understand that I just go one day at a time,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. "We’ll get up tomorrow and we’ll try to win tomorrow. It’s just the way I’ve always done it. I know it’s not the sexiest of answers for you guys but I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. I don’t ever look any more than one day ahead.”
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