KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- After his half-court heave clanked off the backboard and dove through the net on Friday during the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament, Buddy Hield jumped over press row and ran into the stands to celebrate what he thought was a buzzer-beating Oklahoma victory. In the minutes before that shot, West Virginia had surrendered a 12-point lead to the Sooners after pressuring Hield into one of his worst shooting nights.
Once officials waved off Hield's shot, however, the matchup's most impactful storyline regained its prominence: West Virginia had turned the top contender for the Wooden Award -- a future first-round pick who scored 39 points against Iowa State on Thursday -- into an afterthought.
“It was really tough for me to get the ball,” said Hield, who scored six points (shooting 1-for-8) and committed three turnovers in the 69-67 loss to the Mountaineers. “They keep you thinking all the time.
"That’s the best I’ve been defended my whole career probably.”
Friday’s finishes elevated the stakes for Saturday’s championship matchup between Kansas and West Virginia (6 p.m. ET, ESPN). Kansas hasn’t lost since Jan. 25. The top-10 turbulence obscured the KU avalanche that has rushed through the Big 12 over the past six weeks. The Jayhawks (29-4) could enter the NCAA tournament as the favorite to win the national title. And a victory over the same West Virginia team that just silenced Hield, the squad that held KU to 0.85 points per possession in a Jayhawks loss on Jan. 12, would solidify that point.
And if West Virginia (26-7) beats Kansas to win the Big 12 tournament for the first time since joining the league in 2012, the Mountaineers will announce their status as true title contenders. A top-two NCAA seed -- an even stronger possibility with a defeat of Kansas -- would ease West Virginia’s path to Houston.
“We're just going to play to win,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said after Friday's game. “I mean, that's what we always do. I'm not into ... I think this group is as competitive as just about any group that I've ever had, and that takes in a whole bunch of people. I just want them to do what they do, just go compete and play as hard as we can possibly play, and hopefully play well.”
But Kansas will secure a top seed even if it loses to West Virginia on Saturday. The Jayhawks are positioned to collect the top overall seed too.
Beyond that, they’ve competed as well as any team in America in recent weeks. Other programs have used their respective conference tournaments to make statements about their postseason potential. Kansas, however, has made its statement in America’s best league, pound for pound.
Bill Self's crew is rolling. Devonte' Graham is playing with an abundance of confidence and is also one of the nation’s toughest perimeter defenders. The grit of Frank Mason III has infected the rest of the program. Perry Ellis looked like an All-American in scoring 20 points in Friday’s 70-66 win over Baylor. Kansas is blessed with the nucleus a team needs to win a national championship.
During the team’s current 13-game winning streak, only three Kansas opponents have topped 1.04 points per possession (Oklahoma, Baylor and Iowa State).
The Big 12 title streak demanded the bulk of the attention in Lawrence over the past two months. Now that the Jayhawks have made it 12 in a row, it’s time for the next question: Is Kansas the team to beat in the NCAA tournament?
The Jayhawks aren’t the only team in that conversation. Virginia, North Carolina, Villanova, Oregon, Michigan State and others could make a case as the best team in the country entering Selection Sunday. Nothing will be proved prior to NCAA tournament.
But a convincing win over a hot West Virginia squad -- the Mountaineers have won six in a row -- would allow Kansas to maintain mojo that could last through early April.
“It will be difficult [to prepare for West Virginia or Oklahoma], but everybody in the tournament knows the other team because we've all played each other twice,” Self said after his team’s win over Baylor and before he knew which squad Kansas would face in Saturday's title game. “I may look at this a little bit differently, but I don't think it's overload tonight or tomorrow to get them ready. I think you just go out and try to have fun and play and be aggressive and see what happens.
"But certainly, you know, there's certain things you need to probably do against Oklahoma to have a chance to be successful, and with West Virginia there's no difference. You have to handle pressure, in which one game we did an average job of it and one game we weren't very good at all. But either way, it will be a fun game for us -- at least that's how I'm looking at it and what I'm going to tell my guys.”