- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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The sun rose. And Kansas won its 10th consecutive Big 12 title.
There’s more, though.
The 2013-14 campaign for the Big 12 orchestrated a shift in the conference hierarchy. The Big Ten has been the king of regular-season college basketball for years. But the Big 12 can make that claim this season. The league will enter its tournament with seven teams positioned to earn at-large NCAA bids. That’s 70 percent of the conference.
No conference can match that depth. And if the hoopla in Kansas City, Mo., is anything like the movie we witnessed in a thrilling round of conference play, then we’ll need a lot of popcorn this week because anything could happen.
What’s at stake?
Kansas is still fighting for that fourth No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament but will have to do so without the services of Joel Embiid. After Embiid met with a spinal specialist in California, the initial stress fracture prognosis was confirmed and he was ruled out of the Big 12 tourney and is unlikely to play the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
"Based on that, this weekend [in the Big 12 championship] is out," Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement. "Next weekend, we feel like is a longshot, but the doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible that he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance."
So this week, for a few reasons, could be significant for the Big 12 champs.
A few wins in Kansas City would solidify the Jayhawks’ campaign, if a top seed is their best scenario. Maybe it’s not. Kansas could end up in a No. 2 slot opposite in-state enigma Wichita State. Perhaps that’s preferable. Regardless, this week could ease or complicate KU’s potential path to the Final Four.
But the Jayhawks are not alone.
Melvin Ejim, the Big 12's player of the year, and Iowa State could use this week’s tournament to attain some much-needed momentum after dropping two of three. A successful stretch would also help Texas and Oklahoma secure favorable second-round matchups on Selection Sunday.
But Baylor and Oklahoma State are the two teams that really need this tourney. Just two weeks ago, both looked as if they’d fallen out of the NCAA tourney pool.
Then Baylor won seven of its final eight regular-season games. And Marcus Smart led Oklahoma State out of a ditch, too. His return from a suspension fueled a rally of four wins in its last five games.
Both of those teams could win this tournament. Or they could stumble early. Their Thursday matchups -- potentially Baylor against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State against Kansas -- could be their toughest, assuming they’re successful in Wednesday night meetings with TCU and Texas Tech, respectively. A run in Kansas City could also position both teams to avoid dicey seeds in the Big Dance.
Baylor and Oklahoma State look good right now. But when they were bad, they were horrid. Oklahoma State endured a seven-game losing streak, and Baylor lost seven of eight during one ugly Big 12 stretch.
Additional quality wins would make it easier for the selection committee to consider the present instead of their collective, rocky past.
Team with the most to gain
What if West Virginia makes a run? On its best days, the Mountaineers have competed against the best teams in the league. And the 9-9 Big 12 squad enters the conference tourney following a whipping of Kansas over the weekend.
Juwan Staten would be a major star in any other league. A run would help him attract the praise he deserves. It’s not crazy, either. West Virginia opens the tourney against a Texas team that’s lost four of its past six. A win would lead to a matchup against Baylor or Oklahoma, two teams that split their season series with the Mountaineers. And Kansas might be waiting in the title game.
There’s nothing sexy about WVU’s 83 RPI or its 5-12 record against top-100 teams. But if you’re looking for a dark horse that could steal a bid and shake up the field, check out the crew in Morgantown.