College Basketball Nation: 2010 Big 12 tournament

Video: Kansas is No. 1 seed

March, 14, 2010

Kansas earns the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Thousands of players have come through college basketball in the last 18 years.

Only 15 have two national titles. Since 1992 only three head coaches have won two national championships -- North Carolina’s Roy Williams, Florida’s Billy Donovan and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun.

[+] EnlargeSherron Collins
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesSherron Collins, the Big 12 tournament's most valuable player, will try to lead the Jayhawks to another national title.
The list of coaches could grow by one if Kansas’ Bill Self were to win a second title next month, while the collection of players could grow by three if the top-ranked Jayhawks, one of three likely favorites, were to win the championship April 6 in Indianapolis. Coaches have more opportunities. Players don’t.

We spend so much time talking about coaches winning a second national title and how rare that is still today. But what about the unique story of how difficult it is for the players to win twice in this era of early departures to the NBA draft?

It’s almost impossible, or rather implausible.

But it could happen for KU's Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich and Brady Morningstar, along with Tyrel Reed, Chase Buford and Conner Teahan.

Among that group, Collins played the most significant role on the 2008 national title team. Aldrich emerged as a threat in the Final Four off the bench inside. Reed averaged around six minutes a game. Morningstar redshirted that season, but was still a part of the roster.

“We can finally talk about a national championship run now,’’ said Collins after Kansas’ 72-64 Big 12 tournament title victory over Kansas State at the Sprint Center Saturday, completing the sweep of the Wildcats in three games, and more importantly a rare double-dip with a regular-season and conference tournament title.

“This is the reason me and Cole came back to school,’’ said Collins, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 12 points, dishing out seven assists to just two turnovers in 36 minutes. “To be mentioned with some of those greats, some of those great teams, that’s special if we can go down in history like that.’’

Kentucky won national titles in 1996 and ’98 under two different coaches. The first one came under Rick Pitino, the second led by Tubby Smith. There were five holdovers on both teams that won two championships – Cameron Mills, Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Nazr Mohammed and Allen Edwards.

Florida pulled off the first consecutive national championships since Duke in 1991 and ’92 when a collection of recruits calling themselves the ‘04s stayed together instead of opting for the NBA and won championships in 2006 and ’07. The seven scholarship players and three walk-ons who can claim two national championships were: Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Walter Hodge and Chris Richard. The three walk-ons that can boast for the rest of their lives that they have two rings as well are Jack Berry, Brett Swanson and Garrett Tyler.

It may seem like a high number of players in the past 18 years because of Florida’s consecutive titles. But it’s not. Just think of how many players compete in Division I every season. Now consider how rare it is for any of them to be in the Final Four, let alone win a national title. Then take it a step further and ponder how difficult it would be to do it twice.

[+] EnlargeCole Aldrich and Sherron Collins
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireAldrich and Collins celebrated their third victory over KSU this season. Now it's on to the Big Dance.
That’s the kind of history this trio of Kansas players is on the verge of completing if the Jayhawks can win six games.

“In this era of one-and-done, it’s hard to do it,’’ Collins said. “It’s not going to be easy, but it would be special.’’

The Jayhawks had momentum in 2008 and were one of the four favorites with UCLA, North Carolina and Memphis in an all-chalk Final Four. But there was perhaps more experience on that squad, especially upfront.

“We were more mature,’’ Collins said. “We had a lot of guys who knew what to do. We’ll still have to talk to some of these guys and help them understand to get them all ready.’’

Xavier Henry is a freshman entering his first NCAA tournament. This is the first time that Tyshawn Taylor, Tyrel Reed and Marcus and Markieff Morris will be in the role of major contributors.

“I don’t think we’re as defensively sound, or as consistently defensively sound as that team in 2008,’’ Collins said. “We do it in spurts. If you’re going to win, it’s going to be because of our defense. You’ve got to be a defensive team in the tournament and make teams play better than you do.’’

Clearly Morningstar and Aldrich have a different approach versus 2008. It’s easy for Morningstar since he wasn’t even playing then, while Aldrich was simply a role player asked to hustle, board and run the floor.

“It’s pretty cool to know that you could be a part of something like this, not just one championship but a chance to win two,’’ Morningstar said. “There aren’t a lot of easy games, even in the first and second round. It’s about not having distractions. We had a big shot guy then (in Mario Chalmers), but we’ve got one right here in Sherron. We’ve got another one in Cole at the four and Marcus at the three. We’ve got the different pieces to do what we want to do.’’

As iconic as Tyler Hansbrough was at North Carolina during his career, he still only had one title after Kansas crushed the Tar Heels in the 2008 national semifinal before Hansbrough returned to attempt to win one in 2009. Hansbrough was fortunate when Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green opted to withdraw from the NBA draft. Carolina was experienced, talented and driven to win in 2009 -- and did.

The Jayhawks had similar luck when Henry got out of his national letter to join Kansas once then-Memphis coach John Calipari split for Kentucky. Avoiding any injuries has been a blessing. Now KU stands at 32-2 and the Jayhawks have gone through most of the season as the favorite, destined to be in Oklahoma City for the first two rounds and likely St. Louis for the next two en route to Indianapolis as possibly the No. 1 overall seed.

“The reason Sherron and I came back was because we knew we had a great group of guys and had a chance of cutting down the nets in April,’’ Aldrich said of a possible second title. “It sounds easier on paper then to go through it. But if we can, it would be really special -- really special -- to be a part of such a rich and historic tradition at Kansas.’’

Final: Kansas 72, Kansas State 64

March, 13, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas took its most significant step toward winning a second NCAA title in three seasons with a Big 12 tournament championship after winning the top-rated conference by four full games during the regular season.

This was a coronation for the Big 12. Now it’s on to the NCAA tournament, where Kansas will likely be the top seed overall, protected in Oklahoma City for the opening rounds before heading to St. Louis for the regional finals.

Some quick thoughts here courtside at the Sprint Center where Kansas fans have once again gobbled up the tickets faster and in more numbers than probably any other team in the country save Kentucky.

  • Kansas’ Sherron Collins is arguably the best closer heading into the tournament. If you want a big shot then you can take your pick of Kentucky’s John Wall, West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler or Ohio State’s Evan Turner. But Collins is the one that tends to take over the game. He was sensational down the stretch in the 72-64 win over Kansas State. He played the role of Lucy from Peanuts, constantly pulling that football from Charlie Brown Saturday night. Every time Kansas State had this feeling that it could get close, Collins was there to yank KU back in front. Collins finished with 12 points, seven assists and two turnovers in 36 minutes.
  • The Morris twins may be the most underrated role players in the country. Marcus and Markieff each have a significant role on this squad in winning the national title. Marcus Morris seems to finish plays, especially broken ones, with 18 points while Markieff was able to get to the free-throw line for five free throws and grab six boards.
  • A sleeper contributor that doesn’t get much play is Tyrel Reed. Reed was 7-of-9 from the free-throw line. He could prove vital in a late-game situation in the NCAAs. While Xavier Henry came up with quality 3s in the semifinal win over Texas A&M on Friday, he struggled to make his mark Saturday going 1-of-7. Henry could be a difference maker for the Jayhawks, but it’s clear they can win without him being the most significant second option.
  • Kansas State did show it’s more than just Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, as Curtis Kelly made a few key plays, including a blocked shot, and Jamar Samuels proved he can be a big-time player when asked to do so. Samuels scored 27 points in the quarterfinal win over Oklahoma State off the bench and then made four 3s in a reserve role against Kansas.
  • The Wildcats should be fine once they’re rid of Kansas and the rest of the Big 12 teams. K-State’s toughness should prove valuable once the Wildcats get into the NCAAs.
  • This week did wonders for the K-State nation. The Wildcats can feel like they’ve closed the gap with the rest of the Big 12 to a second or third position (with Baylor and Texas A&M right there with them, and of course Texas can never be dismissed). But until the Wildcats knock off Kansas they will still be treated as if they are a step below.

Halftime: Kansas 31, Kansas State 27

March, 13, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Quick hitters here at Sunflower State central:

  • Kansas probably has a 65-35 split in fans. That was evident during introductions when the two team videos were unveiled. The KU one probably pushed the noise meter a bit higher.
  • Kansas State may win this game -- may -- but it’s obvious that Kansas is the better team and more capable of winning the national title. The Jayhawks simply don’t rely on a pair of players like Kansas State. Kansas early went to Cole Aldrich, then saw the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff get active around the basket or facing it. And then there is Sherron Collins. He’s simply just better at making plays than anyone on Kansas State. Collins gets to the hole to create for himself and others. He had eight points, four assists and zero turnovers in the first half as Kansas built a 31-27 lead at the break.
  • My one knock on Aldrich is he can start quickly but then tends to fade. Aldrich picked up a ridiculous second foul during a scrum for a loose ball. We’ll see if that becomes a factor in the second half.
  • Kansas’ Thomas Robinson, Aldrich’s replacement, needs to learn a pump fake. He came into the game, took two post shots and got them both blocked.
  • If you’re looking for one stat to show the aggression of one versus the other, look to the free-throw line where Kansas is 8-of-10 and Kansas State didn’t attempt a free throw.
  • Here’s a stat you can’t ignore. Kansas State isn’t going to win unless Jacob Pullen makes shots. He was 1-of-7 in the first half and missed all three 3-pointers. That has to change if Kansas State is going to win the game. The one blessing for the Wildcats is they are getting some production from various role players like Curtis Kelly, Rodney McGruder, Wally Judge and Jamar Samuels.
  • What is Luis Colon doing? He missed two shots, picked up two fouls and played eight minutes. To deserve more time on the court he needs to be more productive.
  • I’ve covered every power six conference tournament and I would reiterate that Kansas City, when Kansas is in the final, is one of the best for atmospheric presentation. The Big 12 and the downtown do a solid job in creating a pre-game frenzy outside with the bars and restaurants. There is a street fair type of atmosphere. Tickets were going for $200 to $400, apparently, according to the licensed scalpers outside.
  • Everyone seems to be in quite a good mood here despite some dreary weather. I’ve been here for three days and haven’t seen the sun.

Big 12 gets its dream matchup

March, 13, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Big 12 has the perfect storm.

So, too does the NCAA tournament selection committee if it wanted to get a primer to hype up their main event next week.

Top-ranked Kansas and ninth-ranked Kansas State, the two best teams in the Big 12, arguably the two teams with the most passionate hoop fans in the Big 12, will meet for the Big 12 tournament title Saturday night at the Sprint Center.

There will not be a better atmosphere for a tournament title game in 2010. Kentucky-Tennessee in an SEC semifinal in Nashville could be epic but that’s a semifinal. This is a final with one team locked into the No. 1 seed, and another that still holds out hope to grab the fourth No. 1.

One team has dominated the series, the sport in the state, and has cast a major shadow over the other program for the past two decades. And now, for once, the overshadowed one has a chance to stand on its own.

“I’m telling you if there’s a better atmosphere then what you see here, I’ll quit my job,’’ said Kansas State coach Frank Martin in the bowels of the Sprint Center late Friday night after the Wildcats beat Baylor 82-75 in one semifinal. In the other, Kansas ran away from Texas A&M 79-66 in the second half after trailing the Aggies by three at the break.

Kansas State was a national player for decades, but when Kansas won the national title in 1988 the two programs went separately.

“They continued to move forward, we took a step back,’’ Martin said. “We’re trying to make it back so that all those great coaches and players who came through here can be proud. Our fans love basketball. Kansas fans love basketball. It’s going to be great for the state of Kansas. It’s going to be tremendous for us to be able to play for the trophy and to continue to build credibility as we make the steps with this program.’’

Judging from the sea of blue outside the Sprint Center prior to tipoff and the domination of the hypnotic “Rock-Chalk Jayhawk’’ chant late Friday night, you can only imagine how the Jayhawk nation will turn out for Saturday’s finale. Not to be outdone, the purple passion of the Kansas State fans, who arguably got just as loud and somehow seemed to be in as many seats as Kansas fans late Friday night.

“If you had to play Kansas in a best out of 10 with us or any other team in the country you’re probably not winning the series,’’ Martin said. “You get one crack at the big dawg so you’ve got to take advantage of that. That’s why we played a top-five schedule. We’re the second-best team in this league and we’re playing for a conference championship.’’

The Wildcats had two cracks at Kansas, losing in overtime in Manhattan and hanging tight at Phog Allen with 10 minutes left before the Jayhawks pushed forward for the win.

Kansas won the Big 12 by four games.

“This can make everybody in Manhattan happy,’’ said Kansas State’s Denis Clemente, a transfer from Miami who has quickly grasped how much the Wildcat fans want to beat Kansas. “This is what everybody there wants.’’

Earlier Friday, Kansas coach Bill Self talked about how focused the Jayhawks were in winning the Big 12 tournament title. He said technically the tournament champ is called the Big 12 champ. So if that’s the case ‘let’s go win.’ And that’s another motivating factor for Kansas State, as if playing Kansas wasn’t the obvious one. Kansas State can lay claim to a Big 12 title, something unfathomable probably to most. The last time Kansas State played Kansas for the conference championship was in 1981, when the two schools were in the Big Eight.

“This would be like beating up your big brother who is always beating up on you,’’ said Kansas State guard Jacob Pullen. “You’re finally all grown up and now you have a chance to beat them up. Kansas has been No. 1 or No. 2 since Naismith was there.’’

There is more at stake, as well. Kansas State firmly believes it can still be in the running for a No. 1 seed, or more importantly to be in Oklahoma City for the first round as a No. 2 seed. Kansas is a lock for Oklahoma City. New Mexico’s MWC tournament semifinal loss to San Diego State may have pushed Kansas State into Oklahoma City anyway. But K-State can certainly make that moot with a win over KU.

The No. 1 seed discussion could be interesting if Ohio State and Duke were to lose in the Big Ten and ACC semifinals, respectively, Saturday.

So much can change for Kansas State if it beats Kansas.

Kansas’ Sherron Collins said no one would be able to get a ticket for Kansas-Kansas State. A licensed ticket scalper said he thought tickets would go for $400 Saturday, hefty prices for here.

“They know us, we know them, and they’re not only the best team in our league, but the best team in the country,’’ Martin said. “We aspire to be that one day. We’re not on equal footing. I would say we’ve shrunk the gap and that the gap is a lot smaller than it used to be. But to be in the conversation with them we actually have to beat them on our home court. But we have a chance to play them for a conference championship. And that’s big time.’’

Yes, it is. And no other tournament title game can touch it this season. If the game can live up to the anticipation then it will be quite a sendoff for both teams heading into an NCAA tournament, where they could meet again in Indianapolis at the Final Four.

Final: K-State 82, Baylor 75

March, 13, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Tickets may never be this hard to get in Kansas City again with a Kansas State-Kansas Big 12 tournament title game at the Sprint Center Saturday at 5 p.m.

Get here early. Parking will be a premium and your eyes will be blinded by a purple haze on one side and a parade of blue filing in from all over downtown K.C.

  • What’s great about this time of year is seeing the big-time guards who step up and win these games. You can put Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente in this category officially going forward into the NCAA tournament. Pullen hit a 3-pointer with 1:59 left, holding his hand extended for an exclamation. He nailed the trey after a wild possession ended up in his hands, giving him a clear shot to the basket. The 3-pointer was the dagger for the Wildcats as they took a 74-69 lead before winning 82-75. Pullen then got to the free-throw line for two more. And when the Wildcats needed to stretch the lead one more time, Clemente was there to finish. Clemente managed the game quite well, keeping the Wildcats in check as Baylor continued to trade the lead with the Wildcats.
  • Kansas State still needs to get more inside, but as long as the guards rebound they should be good to go against Kansas on Saturday night and beyond. Dominique Sutton had 14 boards which would be huge if he could duplicate an effort like that Saturday. But Jamar Samuels has to get more than one board like he had against Baylor. Sutton did score 14 but the guards led as expected with Pullen scoring 26 and Clemente 24.
  • Kansas State could tighten up its defense, but let’s not dismiss how offensive a team Baylor can be going forward. The Bears have multiple weapons that will be tough to keep in check next week in the NCAA tournament. LaceDarius Dunn hit a big trey late in the game and finished with 26 points. Tweety Carter was a bit out of control with six turnovers to just four assists. That has to change for the Bears to advance next week. But the name you should remember from here is Ekpe Udoh. He is something special with the way he can score facing the basket, and of course on the offensive putback. He’s tough to keep off the backboard. The Bears had 18 turnovers, which is far too many against a team like Kansas State that thrives on taking advantage of a situation like that in an important game.
  • Kansas State and Baylor certainly have the look of two teams that can play into the second weekend. Both teams are flawed, but they create matchup problems. Still, it comes down to this: if the guards are on for Baylor, as they were earlier in the Big 12 tournament, then the Bears can advance. Kansas State has to have Pullen and Clemente play well. They did. They won.

Jayhawks passing every tough test

March, 12, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Forget what's happening to the other top seeds for a minute, and whether or not they’re being pushed, losing or coming back.

Just focus on Kansas for a moment. The Jayhawks don’t need to be compared to any other team yet.

[+] EnlargeSherron Collins
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireKansas senior Sherron Collins is a big reason the Jayhawks appear poised to claim a No. 1. seed.
And through two days here at the Big 12 tournament we continue to learn just how tough this squad can be when prodded and how they have one player most don’t – someone like Sherron Collins.

Kentucky’s John Wall proved earlier Friday that he has that special something, the type of ability to take a team and carry it to a win by wanting to make winning plays. He did that in the win over Alabama. But this is his first and perhaps only time in the postseason.

Collins has done this before. He won a national title as a sophomore and is primed to claim a second as senior.

Texas A&M was arguably tired of dealing with a Kansas team that has dominated the Big 12 throughout the course of the season. The Aggies were a man down as Dash Harris couldn’t play due to a bruised hand. But that didn’t mean they weren’t ready to be the aggressor at the outset. They took the game to Kansas, built a lead and were matching the Jayhawks in enthusiasm and effort. But then the switch flipped, especially with Collins, and the run was on.

This is exactly what the Jayhawks needed going into the Big 12 title game and the NCAA tournament. You want an edge? We’ll give you an edge? You need someone to amp up the atmosphere? They’ve that covered, too.

“We’ve had that No. 1 team bulls-eye on our back wherever we go,’’ Collins said. “We know it’s going to be tough. This was good for us. Games like this boost our confidence even more.’’

Kansas won 79-66 in a game it trailed by three at the half. Collins scored 14 of his 26 in the second half. The Jayhawks also sprinkled in some zone to keep the Aggies unsettled.

The Jayhawks proved to be more versatile than we probably thought, too. They find a way to win. This isn’t easy. And Kansas won the league by four games.

It’s not like Kansas hasn’t been pushed. The Jayhawks had to outlast Cornell in the final minute at home. Winning at Kansas State, Missouri, Texas and Texas A&M was hardly a walk. All of those road wins were grinders before the Jayhawks made winning plays. But the true test of an elite team is to win the regular season and then beat the same collection of teams in a three-day period, regardless of whether the court is neutral (it’s not here).

Kansas coach Bill Self had no problem with the game Friday being a bit chippy.

“I think we’re a little more mentally tough than what I give credit to them with you guys,’’ Self said. “They’ve responded to a number of challenges.’’

Self doesn’t buy the theory, mine at least, that it is difficult to win a tournament after knowing you’ve won the regular season and are assured of a high seed, if not No. 1.

“I don’t think it should be,’’ Self said. Kansas won the Big 12 last season, yet Missouri was deemed Big 12 champions because the Tigers won the conference tournament. But Self was quick to point out that it was the tournament, not the regular-season championship. So if that’s the definition of who is deemed to be the Big 12 champ then why shouldn’t Kansas go and grab the trophy?

“If you’re going to play in this you might as well go and win it,’’ Self said. “Maybe we didn’t have the edge that some of the other teams have playing in this tournament. But you’ve got to have a little bit of it since everyone is going to take their best shot.’’

Self said the Jayhawks have been dealing with the pressure of being No. 1 for nearly the entire season. So this is nothing new. Everyone is going to come after Kansas.

“We had tough games we had to grind out when we won in 2008,’’ Aldrich said. “We knew that winning the Big 12 tournament is just another stepping stone.’’

And so far the Jayhawks continue to make the right moves prepping for the run to a second title in three seasons.

Haftime: Baylor 37, Kansas State 36

March, 12, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This is from Kansas State coach Frank Martin.

No just kidding. But a young fan thought I was Martin. Who knew?

  • I said this Thursday night and I’ll add it again: Baylor is a lot tougher than I ever thought. The Bears went right after Kansas State and didn’t back down one bit. Clearly this is a decidedly pro-Kansas State crowd but that hasn’t fazed the Bears one bit.
  • The star of this tournament so far if you’re looking for lasting impressions is Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh. He continues to be around the basketball, scoring 10 points and missing just one shot. The Bears are efficient but did have too many turnovers if they want to win this game. Committing eight was almost too costly in building a 37-36 lead.
  • Kansas State can count on Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, but can the Wildcats consistently rely on Jamar Samuels? Samuels scored 27 points in the quarterfinal win over Oklahoma State. He was limited to two points in the first half against Baylor. But if the Wildcats are going to win this game they may need more production out of someone other than Pullen and Clemente, who had 16 and 11 points, respectively.
  • Remember when Curtis Kelly was a quality option for the Wildcats getting buckets around the basket? Kelly needs to be much more active. He didn’t grab an offensive rebound in the first half.
  • Baylor is primed to ruin the all-Kansas final. Maybe it’s too good to be true for the Big 12. If Kansas State doesn’t win this game then the Bears will be playing a true road game Saturday night. If Kansas State can win in the second half, then there’s a chance for a 75-25 or at least 60-40 split of Blue/Red vs. Purple.
  • Credit the KU fans for sticking around. These folks are basketball fans. Good late-night crowd still dominate by Rock Chalk.

Kansas outlasts ornery A&M

March, 12, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas has one more game left before it can probably rid itself of Big 12 opponent intensity until possibly the Elite Eight.

The Jayhawks have dominated the Big 12 this season, losing only once. So it was natural for Texas A&M to be a bit tired of the love fest for the Jayhawks in conference. It didn’t help that the Jayhawks were playing in Phog Allen Fieldhouse East here at the Sprint Center. The Aggies held the lead for nearly 30 minutes before Kansas flipped a switch and re-asserted itself as the favorite -- not just in this league, but arguably in the country -- with a 79-66 victory.

The Aggies, playing without injured Dash Harris (bone bruise in his hand), had been the aggressor for most of the night, especially Donald Sloan and B.J. Holmes. But when Kansas went with a zone, the Aggies couldn’t make shots. The run outs for Kansas were ideal for Sherron Collins and set up some 3s for Xavier Henry. The Morris twins had their moments, Marcus and Markieff, especially the latter when he got into it with Bryan Davis for a double technical. That sent Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon into a frenzy, challenging the officials to look at Collins, too. You could tell the two teams were tired of playing against each other, even though they only played one time this season.

The Aggies should get a high enough seed to avoid a team like Kansas in the NCAAs. Texas A&M has faced a No. 1 seed in the second round as a result of winning the eight-nine game two years in a row. If Harris is healthy enough to play next week then the Aggies should be good to go.

Kansas, meanwhile, still has some swagger to deal with: either Kansas State (the Big 12 dream scenario) or Baylor in the title game Saturday night. To win the regular-season and conference title game is quite an accomplishment regardless of the level of the league. It proves the players are mentally tougher than most.

Everybody loves the Bears

March, 12, 2010
Baylor tips off against Kansas State in 20 minutes, but regardless of what the Bears do tonight, there's no doubt they'll be in the NCAA tournament. That bridge has been crossed. Baylor could possibly improve their seed with a win -- certainly if they win the Big 12 tournament, the Bears can count on improving their Sunday considerably -- but the real work has already been done.

How far Scott Drew's team gets when they get there is another matter entirely. If the collective opinion of the average ESPN chatter is any indication, the Bears will be going very far indeed.

Of what do I speak? I've been hosting live chats on the site -- hence the lower number of posts from me, in case you're counting -- from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET the past three days. It's been a lot of fun. And if any consensus has emerged (other than that people really like to ask if their team is good enough to make the Final Four) it's that you, the reader, really, really likes the Baylor Bears. Comments to that effect are constant in the chats thus far. Commenters usually ask how far I think Baylor can go before referring to the Bears as "dangerous." Or they quickly hop on to say "look out for the Bears!" Or they just write "BAYLOR" in all caps, with or without dozens of exclamation points. People really seem to like Baylor. I can't explain it. But it's true.

Of course, this isn't the most scientific finding; I haven't been keeping track of Baylor-related comments. And it's entirely possible the same five commenters keep coming in under fake names, or something. Maybe it's some sort of secret pro-Baylor Internet organization that terrorizes chat participants with repetitive opinions. More likely is the possibility that Baylor has already turned into everyone's go-to "sexy" pick, a team so unheralded they become famous for being unheralded, at which point they're not very unheralded at all.

It's funny how consensus works this way. Baylor is completely worthy of this diagnosis, but so are plenty of other teams. What makes Baylor so special? I don't know. But I do know that when I log in to the next chat we run, the comments will be rife with Baylor discussion. You guys love the Bears. Weird, right?

Half: Texas A&M 38, Kansas 35

March, 12, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Quick hitters here at Phog Allen Fieldhouse East as Texas A&M leads Kansas 38-35 in the Big 12 semifinals.

  • Texas A&M is playing with the right amount of aggression to try and beat the top-ranked Jayhawks. Donald Sloan has come right after Kansas, looking for his shot and making the big ones. He drilled a 3-pointer and then went coast-to-coast for a layup. Sloan never really got his due this season, overshadowed by Oklahoma State’s James Anderson, Kansas’ Sherron Collins and Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen. Sloan is a big-time college player who is a terrific leader. He really emerged as an even better person in the wake of his good friend Derrick Roland’s season-ending leg injury.
  • Collins is a money player, proving that he knows when to take and make big shots. The Aggies were in position to stretch a lead but Collins responded by getting fouled, making shots and getting to the free-throw line.
  • The Aggies consistently get solid role play from players like David Loubeau, Nathan Walkup and Khris Middleton. They have to have that kind of production without Dash Harris, who is not playing again due to a bruised hand.
  • What’s impressive is the way the Aggies are matching the Jayhawks on the boards, grabbing 10 defensive rebounds and limiting them to one shot on a number of occasions. I’m still waiting for Cole Aldrich to assert himself. The Aggies don’t have the size to match him but he hasn’t played large yet. Marcus Morris picked up two fouls and was limited to just six minutes. That could be huge.
  • Kansas was careless with the ball too, with a dozen turnovers.
  • If Texas A&M wins this game the committee should give them added weight for essentially a road game. There were multiple times when the crowd was rocking to get the Jayhawks going.

Jayhawks fans representing in K.C.

March, 12, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Give the Big 12 credit. They know how to create an NCAA tournament atmosphere here in Kansas City.

The pre-game aura around the Sprint Center rivaled when I was here for the NCAA tournament a year ago. There were oodles of fans everywhere, bands playing, people outside in a restaurant garden.

And the sea of blue and red for Kansas, with some spots of purple, was overwhelming. As Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said, and he’s a former Kansas player, this is Allen Fieldhouse East. Already here a few minutes before tipoff the Jayhawks dominate the crowd.

Police closed off a number of streets in and around the Sprint Center making it exceedingly difficult to get to the arena, especially if you leave your hotel late (like me) and you’re trying to get to a parking garage. Licensed scalpers are out in force. Joey Riddick, who has a business card for his services and a name tag, was selling tickets for $200 a pop. I asked him if the Big 12 dream scenario occurs where it’s Kansas and Kansas State how much tickets would go for in the championship game and he said easily in the $300 to $400 range for the lower bowl.

The other option is to get the reverse of Texas A&M-Baylor in the final. The game would be highly competitive, but let’s be honest -- it won’t be nearly as much of a demand with thousands of empty seats expected in that scenario.

Bottom line: this has the feel of a regional with the Big 12’s best four teams here. All four of these teams could be playing in the Sweet 16.

Believe it: Baylor here to stay

March, 12, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Baylor coach Scott Drew had the Bears in the Big 12 final a year ago, finishing strong after a disappointing conference season.

The Bears lost to Missouri, missed the NCAAs but raced out to the NIT final.

The carry-over was there for Baylor, leading the Bears to a record-tying 25 wins after Thursday’s quarterfinal victory over Texas at the Sprint Center. But there is still more to claim. The Bears are facing Kansas State in the semifinal Friday night with a chance for a second consecutive appearance in the Big 12 title game.

Just digest that for a second. Baylor. In the Big 12 title game for the second straight season.

That just doesn’t compute nationally, but it’s reverberating here in the Big 12. The Bears aren’t going anywhere. They have arrived as a real contender with a lineup that will lose key senior guard Tweety Carter next season, but will return the rest of the core of the team and adds a top-five talent in big man Perry Jones.

But that’s for another season. The Bears can improve their national standing with the selection committee with a win Friday night.

“We’re all fighting for top seeds,’’ Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Kansas and Kansas State are fighting for a one seed. Texas A&M a high seed and if we win maybe a two. Missouri won this tournament last year and got to the Elite Eight.’’

It’s not a farfetched concept for Baylor, either. Kansas will be the favorite regardless of what happens Friday night against the Aggies. With a decisive win over Oklahoma State Thursday, the Wildcats proved they are a real threat to advance to the Elite Eight. The Aggies would be thrilled to be playing in the second weekend after two exits to No. 1 seeded teams the past two seasons.

Baylor? The Bears are new to all of this but are playing with such a sense of pride, purpose and passion that it’s a good watch from start to finish. Carter and LaceDarius Dunn can motor and score. You can’t watch Ekpe Udoh and not be impressed by his ability, effort and overall performance. The Bears also showed a bit of an edge and toughness against Texas.

“Being on the bubble is hard,’’ Drew said. “When I was at Valparaiso, winning those three games is the three toughest days of your life -- to have to win the league.’’

Baylor doesn’t have to sweat Selection Sunday for the first time under Drew and that alone shows how far this program has come.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A quick rundown from the end of the night here:

1. Baylor can win multiple games in the NCAA tournament. Heck, the Bears are talented enough to win this tournament. The Bears played with more passion and had an edge to them against Texas that I hadn’t seen much of this season. The Bears were quick to emphatically rub it against the Longhorns, which certainly raised the Horns' anger level. Damion James got a frustration technical, demonstrating how hard it was for him to control his emotions.

2. Ekpe Udoh has had a solid year for the Bears. Can you imagine had he stayed at Michigan? If he had, the Wolverines wouldn’t be looking for scraps at this juncture. Udoh is a live wire who can play around the basket. Texas couldn’t touch him as he scored 25 points, making 7 of 8 free throws.

3. Baylor’s guards are talented enough to keep the Bears in contention for a few weeks. LaceDarius Dunn had three fouls and was a non-factor in the first half, yet finished with 19 points and nine boards. Meanwhile, Tweety Carter scored 20 points to compliment Dunn in the backcourt. The Bears didn’t get much off the bench but didn’t need to as they continued to be efficient.

4. Is there another team in the country that is heading into the NCAA tournament on more of a slide than Texas? The Longhorns will get in and could be a double-digit seed at this rate. Texas has lost three of its past five games, two of which were to Baylor. The Longhorns look like a team that is filled with mismatched parts, has lost its confidence and is incredibly frustrated. I’m not sure I’ve seen a team collapse like this down the stretch.

5. The Big 12 dream scenario is a Kansas State-Kansas title game Saturday night. You won’t be able to get a ticket here at the Sprint Center if that occurs. But to sleep on the gritty Aggies of Texas A&M or to dismiss this athletic Baylor crew would be a major mistake. Sure an A&M-Baylor matchup won’t do much for attendance but it would pit two teams that could make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

6. Clearly, the Big 12 got its four best teams in the semifinals. Ultimately, that’s what you want. You want your best on display and playing well going into the NCAAs with the best chance to advance. KU, K-State, Baylor and Texas A&M all have the look of Sweet 16 teams. Of course, KU is the favorite for the national title and K-State could be a real threat to land in Indy as well.

7. While the Big 12 has seven likely locks for the Dance, how about the way Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma State leave Kansas City? None of them can feel too great about their mojo going into the Dance. If they win their first-round game it could be a surprise.

8. Kansas State got its edge back by crushing Oklahoma State. The Wildcats will be a tough out if they run, defend, board and continue to share the ball.

9. Kansas is Kansas. The Jayhawks were pushed in the first half by Texas Tech. But the Jayhawks are tough enough to be refocused and shut down a team they should beat.

10. One thing is certain at the end of the night: Baylor and Texas don’t like each other. And this rivalry will only get more intense.

Wildcats regain their swagger

March, 11, 2010
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Kansas State got complacent. The Wildcats lost their edge. They no longer were the team that played the role of being the unwanted.

They were ripe to be beaten.

[+] EnlargeJamar Samuels
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesKansas State's Jamar Samuels scored 27 points against Oklahoma State on Thursday.
And they were. They closed the regular season by getting crushed in the second half at Kansas and then were shocked in overtime at home by lowly Iowa State.

So Kansas State coach Frank Martin did what he does best – he found the way to motivate by pitting his best players against one another for the first time since November. No longer could he afford to put Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente on the same team to rest their weary legs.

“We’re not passive, we’re aggressive,’’ Martin said. “We had backed off of that the past few weeks because it’s a long season. I didn’t wan to bury our guys. They earned that right but it took us off our edge and we had slipped.’’

Throughout the week the practices were intense with the players going two-plus hours and not checking the clock. Forget that it was March. They had to be competitive again and get back to their roots, the cause that had put the Wildcats in the position to be in contention for a No. 1 seed.

“We started to be to comfortable as a team,’’ Pullen said. “We had success early. Once everyone said we were a top five team we stopped competing against each other. Denis and I were always on the same team going against a freshman. But we switched it up and attacked each other and got competitive, fighting each other. It really helped us.’’

I’ll say. Kansas State had the look of a Final Four team Thursday night in routing Oklahoma State. At one point the Wildcats were up 30. Kansas State ended up winning by 29, crushing the Cowboys on the boards, scoring off turnovers and getting inspired play off the bench from Jamar Samuels who scored 27. You couldn’t watch Kansas State Thursday and not think highly of this squad going into the NCAA tournament.

“As a team we felt like we’re top five but we started smelling our own stuff,’’ Pullen said. “We understood what we had to do, we prepared and did a great job.’’

There is a trend brewing around the country, especially in the Big East where teams that are already in the field have shut it down to some degree in preparation for the NCAA tournament. Not so here. Kansas State is still smarting from being up on KU in Manhattan, letting the game get away and losing in overtime. Then they were close in Lawrence in the first half and let that game get away as well.

The big prize is obviously next week in the quest for a national championship, something that is within reach for the Wildcats. But don’t dismiss the importance for the psyche of the Wildcat nation of winning a Big 12 tournament title, especially if it comes against Kansas Saturday night.

“It’s very important to us,’’ Pullen said. “Our seniors have never won a championship. I lost out in high school to Derrick Rose. He took two from me. I’m trying to get one. We blew our chance against KU. Once we lost they played freely at Missouri. This is our second opportunity, our rebirth to get a ring so that one day we can actually say we have a Big 12 championship.’’

The difference in approach between Kansas State and Oklahoma State was vast. Oklahoma State is in the field after knocking off Kansas State and Kansas and splitting with Texas A&M.

A year ago the Cowboys felt like they had to win at least a game in the Big 12 to get a bid. No one team entered this event feeling that pressure with essentially seven locks here.

“It’s a different feeling this year,’’ Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “There’s no question if you have to come to the Big 12 tournament as good as it has been to win a game. That would have been a lot of pressure.’’

Ford showed no signs of angst after being down 30 and the eventual 29 defeat. He is confident the youthful Cowboys will be fine next week in the NCAAs after practicing for a few days.

“There’s a reason that three or four days ago they were being discussed as a No. 1 seed,’’ Ford said of Kansas State. “Frank has done an unbelievable job. This was more about Kansas State than about us.’’

I’ll say. And the verdict is in that Kansas State has the look of a potential Big 12 champ and a team that should hang around for a while this month.