College Basketball Nation: 2012 Big 12 tournament



KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They were all on the Sprint Center podium, each member of the Missouri basketball team, sporting the commemorative hats and T-shirts given only to Big 12 champions.

Confetti fell from the rafters after the Tigers’ 90-75 beatdown of Baylor. Girlfriends and parents took pictures from the stands and players bobbed their heads as “All I Do is Win” boomed through the arena’s speaker system. The whole scene was surreal -- storybook, even -- for a school just months away from joining the SEC.

This was Missouri’s last moment in the Big 12.

And also its finest.

Then suddenly, the Tigers realized something was missing. Just as league commissioner Chuck Neinas was about to hand over the Big 12 tournament trophy, guard Kim English looked down from his perch and shouted toward the court.

“Hey Coach,” the senior said, “get up here.”

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Frank Haith
Denny Medley/US PRESSWIREFrank Haith coached Missouri to the Big 12 tournament title in his first season with the school.
Frank Haith grinned and walked toward the steps. There was a reason he’d been hiding out, a reason he’d waited to join his team on the stage. While the Tigers had been celebrating, Haith was busy wiping away tears.

“I was reflecting,” Haith said. “It’s been a special run, man.”

Indeed, the players who everyone said were too small are 30-4. The team with no depth may earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The man whose hire was ridiculed last spring is the toast not just of Columbia, but of college basketball.

You could argue that a few coaches -- a very small few -- have done as good a job as Haith this season. But there’s certainly no one that has done any better. That’s why English and his teammates wanted to make sure Haith was the first Tiger to touch that Big 12 tournament trophy Saturday. Haith always likes the spotlight to shine on his players.

But during those emotional postgame moments at the Sprint Center, he deserved it, too.

You did this,” English said he whispered into his coach’s ear. “You constructed this. You’re the reason we played the way we played.”

Just as they have all season, the Tigers treated fans to a beautiful brand of basketball in dismantling a Baylor squad that had looked dominant in its previous two wins against Kansas State and Kansas.

The Tigers shot 53 percent from the field because they passed up good shots for great ones. Their jerseys were dotted with blood because they clawed for rebounds and dove for loose balls. The crowd of 19,006 -- about 18,500 of them were Missouri fans -- got behind them because of the toughness of players such as English and Marcus Denmon, each of whom received pregame cortisone shots so they could play through nagging injuries.

“You just can’t measure this team’s heart and toughness,” guard Michael Dixon said. “I don’t really think too many people outside of ourselves and our fans thought we could do this.”

It’s not as if the Tigers haven’t tasted success before. English and Denmon were freshmen on a 2008-09 squad that reached the Elite Eight, and each of Missouri’s top seven players were key components of a team that won 23 games last season under Mike Anderson, who left in March to take the Arkansas job.

After attempts to lure Matt Painter from Purdue failed, Missouri hired Haith and spent the ensuing spring and summer being mocked nationally. Haith had led Miami to just one NCAA tournament appearance in seven seasons. And last summer, his name surfaced in a Yahoo! Sports report involving impermissible payments to Hurricanes athletes, including one basketball player. Although the NCAA is still investigating, Haith hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing.

The cherry on top of Haith’s tumultuous offseason occurred when standout forward Laurence Bowers suffered a season-ending knee injury before the start of fall workouts.

“It’s been a difficult process with all things we’ve had to go through,” Haith said. “I’ve been very humbled by the whole process. The Laurence Bowers injury, the NCAA stuff ... all that stuff. This team and our staff stayed on the course and stayed focused.”

[+] EnlargeMissouri's Frank Haith
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesMissouri coach Frank Haith got emotional in the final moments of the Tigers' victory over Baylor.
Haith talks all the time about how his players have matured.

But he has grown, too.

Haith brought structure and discipline to an erratic offense. Missouri’s 50.3 field-goal percentage ranks third in the nation. Anderson’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” defense was scrapped, but the Tigers’ quickness and intensity pesters opposing offenses and helps make up for their lack of size.

Missouri starts just one player (6-8 forward Ricardo Ratliffe) who stands taller than 6-foot-5. But instead of that being a detriment, the Tigers see their four-guard offense as a strength. Rare is the power forward who can keep up with the speedy, sinewy English. And there aren’t many small forwards who can stay in front of players such as Denmon and Dixon.

“People like to talk about what this team is not,” Haith said. “That’s what’s motivated this group. I’ve told them, ‘Let’s focus on who we are and what we can do. We can’t change. We’re not going to add any more players. We’re not going to grow any taller. We are who we are.’”

After this weekend, no one should question Missouri’s identity any further.

The Tigers are the best team in the Big 12. Maybe they weren’t during the regular season, when Kansas won the conference title by two games over their archrival. But right now, just days away from the NCAA tournament, Missouri is the best the league has to offer.

Partly because their seven-man rotation is mainly comprised of juniors and seniors, the Tigers were hungrier, more cohesive and mentally tougher than any team in the Big 12 tournament, and there’s no reason to think that won’t carry over into the games that matter most.

Missouri will almost certainly open NCAA tournament play in Omaha on Friday, but the question is whether they’ll be a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. No school from a Big Six conference has ever not been awarded a No. 1 seed after winning 30 or more regular season games.

Most prognostications, however, suggest that the Tigers will be a No. 2.

“We definitely deserve (a No. 1 seed),” Dixon said. “We’ve got 30 wins and four losses with seven guys. But it’s not really in our control. We’ll take whoever we play head-on. We don’t care who we get.”

As forward as he’s looking to the NCAA tournament, Haith wanted to make sure to enjoy Saturday’s accomplishment, too.

Cameras rolled and light bulbs flashed as Haith climbed the ladder to snip away the Sprint Center net. The crowd erupted in cheers. Just before Haith lifted his scissors toward the cotton, he clutched both sides of the ladder, stared at the ground and closed his eyes. There were no tears this time when Haith raised his head, only a large gulp.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to act, I guess,” Haith said. “I’m just going to be who I am.”


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Quick thoughts from Missouri's 90-75 victory over Baylor.

Overview: Missouri's final season as a member of the Big 12 is officially its best. Kim English scored 19 points, and Michael Dixon added 17 to propel the Tigers to the conference tournament championship at the Sprint Center. Missouri will take a 30-4 record into next week's NCAA tournament, where the Tigers will likely be a No. 2 seed.

Baylor, which defeated regular-season champion Kansas in Friday's semifinal, fell to 27-7 and is expected to be a No. 3 seed next week. Saturday's loss to Missouri was the Bears' third of the season. Perry Jones III led Baylor with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The Bears made just 39.7 percent of their shots.

Missouri never trailed Saturday, and the score was never tied. Baylor trailed by as many as eight points in the opening half, when Missouri shot a blistering 53 percent from the field. The Bears pulled within two points twice -- 33-31 and 37-35 -- before intermission. But each time, the Tigers responded with points on the other end. Missouri opened the second half with a 13-5 scoring run that made it 56-42.

Baylor never got closer than five after that.

Turning point: The Bears made a slight threat in the game's waning minutes. Trailing 75-62, Baylor went on a 10-2 run to whittle Missouri's lead to 77-72 with 2:20 left. But the Tigers made their free throws after Baylor began to foul, and it wasn't long before the game was out of reach.

Key player: It's hard to pick just one for Missouri, as five Tigers scored in double figures. Along with English and Dixon, Phil Pressey, Ricardo Ratliffe and Marcus Denmon had 15 each. Such balance illustrates the versatility and well-roundedness Missouri has shown all season.

Key stat: Not many teams would've defeated the Tigers on a night when they shot 53.8 percent from the field and 80.6 percent (25 of 31) from the foul stripe.

Miscellaneous: It was a bit of an awkward moment when Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas presented the Tigers with the championship trophy about five minutes after the final horn. Neinas has been ultra-critical of Missouri's decision to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. He was booed heavily.

The all-tournament team: Kim English (Most Outstanding Player), Phil Pressey (Missouri), Perry Jones III (Baylor), Brady Heslip (Baylor), J'Covan Brown (Texas).

What's next: Missouri is expected to open NCAA tournament play in Omaha, Neb., on Thursday. Most prognostications have Baylor going to Albuquerque, N.M., where play begins on Friday.

Stage set for Baylor-Missouri

March, 10, 2012
3/10/12
12:46
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When it arrived in Kansas City earlier this week, the Baylor basketball team noticed advertisements around town hyping a potential meeting between Kansas and Missouri in the Big 12 tournament title game.

It was talked about on television, on the Internet and in the hotel lobby. Everyone, the Bears said, assumed the Jayhawks and Tigers would be playing in tonight’s championship.

“It definitely caught our attention,” guard Brady Heslip said. “We used it as motivation.”

It worked.

Instead of Kansas, the Bears will be the team facing Missouri in tonight’s championship bout. If the two squads are as crisp and sharp as they’ve been all week, the game could actually turn out to be better than the one so many people had originally hoped for.

Missouri is 29-4 and ranked No. 5 in the country. Eleventh-ranked Baylor climbed to No. 3 in the polls earlier this season. The Bears advanced to tonight’s title game by upsetting Kansas 81-72 in the semifinals Friday.

[+] EnlargeKim English
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireKim English and the Tigers are 4-0 in the Sprint Center this season, with an average margin of victory of 25 points.
The Tigers defeated Baylor twice this season, but they said they’ll hardly be complacent after seeing how well the Bears have played in their past two games.

“Just because we’re not playing Kansas doesn’t mean we’re not playing a great team,” Missouri guard Phil Pressey said. “Baylor has so much talent and they’re playing so well. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat them.”

Rare has been the night when the Tigers weren’t at the top of their game. Missouri’s field goal percentage (50.3) ranks third in the nation. The Tigers rely heavily on their outside shooting, but their patience on offense and the pride they take in sharing the ball usually lead to high-percentage shots.

Baylor coach Scott Drew said earlier this season that Missouri was the top offensive team in the nation.

“They do two things extremely well,” Drew said Friday. “They can shoot it from the outside, and they can penetrate on anybody. So it’s pick your poison with them. You take away one thing, you get the other. That’s what great teams do. They have multiple options.”

Drew’s players seem to agree.

“If they get hot, it’s over,” said forward Quincy Miller, who is averaging 24.5 points in two games against Missouri. “They’re very good shooters. They know how to get to the paint and they know how to offensive rebound, which is a little surprising for a smaller team.

“Ricardo Ratliffe is definitely one of the best big men in the NCAA. They’ve got so much chemistry. They’re just a great team overall.”

Missouri has been especially good in Kansas City’s Sprint Center, where it's 4-0 this season with an average victory margin of 25 points. And get this stat: Guard Kim English is shooting 75.5 percent this season at the Sprint Center.

English, who averages 14.7 points, hopes to have another good game against Baylor, but he knows it won’t be easy.

Baylor surprised Kansas State and Kansas this week by playing man-to-man defense the majority of the game. The Bears are spending a lot of time in a three-guard lineup with point guard Pierre Jackson, 3-point specialist Heslip and defensive standout A.J. Walton. All three are solid ball-handlers -- Baylor committed just nine turnovers against Kansas -- who usually maintain their poise. And their presence has given more room and freedom for versatile forwards such as Jones and Miller, who combined for 31 points against Kansas on Friday.

The biggest difference, though, has been the play of forward Perry Jones III, who is averaging 24.5 points in two Big 12 tournament games. A projected lottery pick, Jones has had an up-and-down regular season and has struggled against top competition.

Or at least he had until this week.

“Perry Jones ... ever since the [ESPN.com article] about him came out, he’s been picking it up,” English said late Friday night. “He’s been playing really well. It’s good to see him playing that well. He seems like a really good kid. I love him, but I hope he doesn’t have a good night tomorrow.”

Both teams have plenty to play for.

There’s still an outside chance Missouri could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and nothing would please the Tigers more than to strut out of the Sprint Center with a championship trophy from their final Big 12 tournament ever. Missouri is leaving the league after the season for the SEC.

Even though he knows the rest of the Big 12 will be pulling for his team to keep the title out of the Tigers’ claws, Drew said Baylor won’t be distracted by outside storylines.

“Right now we’re pretty focused on what we want to do as a team,” Drew said. “That’s why we’ve been successful the first two games.”

A victory by Baylor today would mark the first time in history that a team from Texas has won the Big 12 tournament. Making the achievement even more impressive would be that Baylor defeated Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri on their home turf at Kansas City’s Sprint Center, which doesn’t exactly feel like a neutral court when 90 percent of the 18,000-plus fans are either Wildcats, Jayhawks or Tigers.

“When we had that tough stretch in the Big 12, I was like, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to beat the top teams,’” Heslip said. “But when you get a little momentum and then you win a game against a great team like Kansas, you definitely have to feel good.”

Jones agreed.

“If we keep playing like this,” he said, “there’s nowhere to go but up.”


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - About 30 minutes before their tilt with Texas, the Missouri Tigers stood in the Sprint Center tunnel and loosened their legs.

A black curtain hanging from the ceiling kept them from watching the Kansas-Baylor game that was taking place on the court, but the Tigers didn’t need to see a scoreboard to tell who was ahead.

“Everyone always cheers when Kansas scores,” Missouri guard Phil Pressey said. “But when we were standing there, we didn’t hear any cheers for a long, long time. We knew they must be losing.”

Indeed, the game a whole city -- no, a whole nation -- wanted to see on Saturday will never take place. Kansas was upset in the Big 12 tournament semifinals, so instead of one last rendition of the Border War, Missouri will face Baylor for the title. Mizzou, who is making its last appearance in Kansas City as a member of the Big 12, shellacked Texas 81-67 in Friday’s other semifinal.

“I was a little shocked (that KU lost),” Missouri guard Michael Dixon. “But we weren’t too worried about who we were going to play. The only thing we care about is winning a championship. We’ll play whoever we have to play to do it.”

As good as Saturday’s title game could be - the Tigers and Bears both look like Final-Four contenders - the matchup certainly isn’t as sexy as the one that would’ve pitted Missouri against archrival Kansas.

All week long, the buzz in KC has revolved around the potential of the two teams meeting in the title game. Tickets purchased through scalpers would’ve cost in excess of $1,000. The Jayhawks and Tigers split the regular-season series, so Saturday’s rubber match might have been for eternal bragging rights. Missouri is leaving the Big 12 after this season for the SEC, and Kansas has indicated it has no interest in continuing the series.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Ratliffe
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireRicardo Ratliffe scored 18 points and added 14 rebounds and 3 blocks against Texas.
Missouri coach Frank Haith was asked if he hoped to play KU in the title game.

“That’s a really tough question,” he said. “No, I don’t care who we play, all right? We’re happy to be in the championship game. That’s all we’re going to concern ourselves with. It’s a great opportunity.”

And it’s one Missouri certainly deserves after one of the best seasons in school history. Friday’s victory over Texas improved the Tigers’ record to 29-4. Kim English and Phil Pressey scored 23 points each and combined to make 17 of their 23 field goal attempts. Ricardo Ratliffe added 18 points and 14 rebounds.

How good was Mizzou? The Tigers won on a night when leading scorer Marcus Denmon went 0-for-10 from the field.

“That’s a great example,” Haith said, “of a ballclub that’s a team.”

Kansas had been projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing to Baylor. Now the possibility exists that the Tigers could become a No. 1 seed.

“That’s out of our control,” English said. “I’m not Joe Lunardi. I don’t know (what will happen). I have no clue. We’re just trying to win this Big 12 championship.”

To do that, Missouri will have to defeat Baylor for the third time this season. The Tigers escaped Waco, Texas, with a 1-point victory on Jan. 21 before throttling the Bears 72-57 last month in Columbia.

Missouri’s players said Baylor’s performance in its past two games has definitely caught their attention.

“They’re playing their best basketball,” English said, “at just the right time."

So, too, are the Tigers, who are hoping their final Big 12 tournament game in history is also their best.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - One day after debuting highlighter-yellow jerseys, the Baylor basketball team trotted onto the court for Friday’s Big 12 tournament semifinal against Kansas decked out in camouflage.

“A new look,” Perry Jones III said, and even though the forward was referring to the Bears’ apparel, he could’ve been talking about the entire program.

From the uniforms to the attitudes to the on-court play, everything about Baylor appears to have changed. On Friday, coach Scott Drew’s squad catapulted into the Big 12 tournament title game with an 81-72 semifinal victory over third-ranked Kansas -- the same team it lost to twice this season by an average of 16 points.

“This,” forward Quincy Miller said, “is how we should’ve been playing all along.”

Baylor, 27-6, was ranked as high as No. 3 after opening the year with 17 consecutive victories. But the Bears ended the regular season with an 0-4 mark against conference powers Kansas and Missouri.

Baylor could beat the good teams, sure. But what about the great ones?

After whipping Kansas in what was basically a road environment at the Sprint Center on Friday, it became clear that Baylor could now be mentioned in the same breath as its conference rivals. No one ever doubted the Bears had Final Four-caliber talent. But now, for the first time all season, they look like a Final Four-caliber team.

“Make no mistake about it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They beat us tonight. They were better than us, no question. That’s a good basketball team. They’re very talented.”

The victory propels Baylor into Saturday’s Big 12 tournament championship against Missouri. No team from Texas has ever won the conference’s postseason title. The Bears are currently projected as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. But there’s a chance they could move up to a No. 2 with a win against the Tigers.

Kansas, meanwhile, may have cost itself a No. 1 seed by losing to the Bears.

“Everyone, from a psychological (standpoint), wants to be on the highest seed line they can possibly be,” Self said. “But I think it’s more about matchups than a seed line.”

Kansas also might have squandered its chance to play in the Midwest Regional, which is just four hours away in St. Louis.

“To play in St. Louis means we would’ve had to have won two games,” Self said. “If we win two games, I could care less where we play. But we hurt ourselves tonight if we want to be No. 1 seed. I guess it could still happen, but some other teams would probably have to lose.”

[+] EnlargePerry Jones III
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswirePerry Jones III continued his strong Big 12 tourney run with 18 points and 7 boards against Kansas.
An even bigger story line Friday involved a game that will never even be played. Fans from both Kansas and Missouri were hoping to see the teams meet one last time -- in Saturday’s championship -- before Missouri bolts for the SEC. The Jayhawks and Tigers split the regular-season series, but there will be no rubber match in the Sprint Center.

“I’ve never said I was all right with the rivalry ending,” Self said. “I never said that. I’d like for it to go on. It’s just not going to.

“So we had two epic games with them this year. Two epic games. It’s unfortunate it’s going to end.”

And so, instead of Kansas, Baylor will be the team charged with trying to prevent the Tigers from walking away with the tournament trophy in their final Big 12 season. If the Bears continue to perform like they have in Kansas City, a victory would hardly come as as a shock.

Baylor has made a handful of adjustments in the last few weeks, and each of them is proving beneficial.

After playing a zone defense for most of the season, the Bears played primarily man-to-man defense against Kansas State and Kansas, which shot just 42.6 percent Friday.

“I was surprised they played man,” Self said. “That was a good move.”

Baylor has also started using a three-guard lineup with cat-quick point guard Pierre Jackson, 3-point specialist Brady Heslip and defensive standout A.J. Walton. All three are solid ball-handlers -- Baylor committed just nine turnovers against Kansas -- who are good at maintaining their poise. And their presence has given more room and freedom for versatile forwards such as Jones and Miller, who combined for 31 points Friday.

Baylor led by as many as 14 points early in the second half before an 18-3 run by Kansas put the Jayhawks up 58-56.

The game turned, though, when a loose ball was batted toward Heslip, who was wide open on the left wing. The sophomore swished a 3-pointer that put Baylor ahead 59-58. The Bears never trailed again.

Heslip came up huge again in the game’s final two minutes when he made a 3-pointer that extended Baylor’s 67-64 lead to 70-64. Kansas’ Tyshawn Taylor countered with a layup on the other end, but Heslip responded with another 3-pointer to make it 73-66 with 1:17 remaining.

Ballgame.

“You knew (Kansas) was going to make a run,” Drew said. “When they took the lead, I was really pleased with the poise our guys had and the togetherness, the character. For three first-year college guys and one second-year, I think they grew up a little bit tonight.

“That’s the great thing about playing in the Big 12. If you don’t have those (tests) in the regular season, you’re not seasoned and ready when the postseason comes.”

The Bears certainly look seasoned and ready now. Instead of grouping them in with the “best of the rest,” it’s time to include Baylor among the country’s elite. Even with those new uniforms.

“Hey,” Drew said, “they work for me.”


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Thoughts from Baylor's 81-72 victory over Kansas.

Overview: Fans hoping to see one final showdown between Kansas and Missouri left the Sprint Center disappointed Friday after Baylor upset No. 1 seed Kansas in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament. Back-to-back 3-pointers by Bears guard Brady Heslip in the game's final two minutes broke open a 67-64 contest and propelled Baylor to its first victory over Kansas since 2009.

Baylor advances to play either Missouri or Texas in Saturday's title game. Kansas, meanwhile, might have lost its shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks, who won the regular-season conference title, suffered just their second Big 12 tournament loss since 2005. Kansas had won five of the previous six league tournament titles.

Perry Jones III scored a team-high 18 points for Baylor and was one of six Bears in double figures. Point guard Pierre Jackson had 13 points and 7 assists.

Tyshawn Taylor had 20 points for Kansas while Thomas Robinson added 15.

Turning point: The noise level at the Sprint Center deafening after a pair of free throws by Robinson cut Baylor's lead to 67-64 with 2:25 remaining. But Heslip silenced the crowd with a 3-pointer on the other end. Taylor countered with a layup, but Heslip came up with another 3-pointer to make it 73-66 with 1:17 remaining. Kansas never threatened again. Heslip also swished a 3-pointer at the 9:05 mark that turned a 58-56 deficit into a 59-58 Baylor lead.

Key player: They were plentiful for Baylor, but the most encouraging sign was another banner performance from Jones. One night after scoring 31 points against Kansas State, Jones had 18 Friday along with seven rebounds. Jones missed his first six shots of the second half, but he didn't lose confidence. His runner in the lane put Baylor ahead 63-58 at a time when Kansas was threatening.

Key stat: Often criticized for being soft in the paint, Baylor couldn't have been any tougher Friday. The Bears outrebounded the Jayhawks 37-34. They also did an excellent job defensively in holding KU to 42.6 percent shooting. And Baylor kept its composure on offense by committing just nine turnovers.

Miscellaneous: Baylor lost its two regular-season games to Kansas by an average of 16 points ... If the Bears win the Big 12 tournament title it will mean they defeated Kansas State, Kansas and possibly Missouri in what is basically a road environment for each game.

What's ahead: Baylor gets second-seeded Missouri on Saturday. If Baylor wins, there's a chance the Bears could be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kansas will wait until Selection Sunday to find out if Friday's loss costs it a No. 1 NCAA seed.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas and Baylor have spent most of the season ranked among the country’s top 10 teams. Still, even though they’ve remained close in the polls, the Jayhawks and Bears couldn’t have been farther apart on the court.

Kansas whipped Baylor by 18 points in January. A month later they humiliated the Bears by 14 points on their home floor.

Despite the lopsided scores, KU guard Tyshawn Taylor vows his squad won’t be looking past the Bears when the teams meet for a third time Friday in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament.

“They’ve got way too much talent,” Taylor said, “for us to come out and sleep on them.”

[+] EnlargePerry Jones III
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireCan Perry Jones III keep the momentum going from his 31-point game against Kansas State?
That was obvious Thursday, when Baylor demolished Kansas State in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 82-74 score indicated. Perry Jones III scored a career-high 31 points for the Bears, showing glimpses of why he’s projected as an NBA lottery pick.

Jones had 18 points in Baylor’s setback against Kansas in Lawrence on Jan. 18 but scored just five points in the loss in Waco on Feb. 8. The NBA scouts in attendance Friday will certainly be interested to see how Jones fares in this third matchup against Jayhawks forward Thomas Robinson, a national player of the year candidate who is also projected as a lottery pick.

Jones’ teammates hope the aggression he showed in Thursday’s win over Kansas State carries over into the game against the Jayhawks. The 6-foot-11 sophomore scored from all areas of the court and didn’t hesitate to drive and mix it up down low. It was a nice look for Jones following a regular season when he was often described as passive and soft.

Also, at times this season, Baylor hasn’t done enough to get Jones the ball. Bears coach Scott Drew admitted as much Thursday.

“That’s my fault,” he said.

It will be interesting to see what kind of defensive strategy Baylor uses to try to stop Kansas today. In both of the regular-season meetings the Jayhawks’ picked apart the Bears’ trademark zone. In last month’s tilt in Waco, Kansas went on a 32-4 run to put the game out of reach. Seven-foot Kansas center Jeff Withey had 25 points.

“We played two of our better games of the year against them,” coach Bill Self said, “and they probably look back and say they didn’t play two of their better games against us.”

The Bears said mental toughness will be important if they want to keep it close against the Jayhawks in Round 3.

“A couple of times we lost our head a little bit,” Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson said. “We got rattled when they made their runs. We’ve got to stayed poised and be mature about the situation. We’ve got to go out there and execute.”

Teammate Quincy Acy agreed.

“We can’t lay down,” Acy said. “If we get punched in the face we’ve got to get back up and keep fighting.”

Win or lose, the Bears know that today’s game will help prepare them for the NCAA tournament. Most bracketologists are predicting that Baylor will be a No. 3 seed.

“If you’re a competitor, you want to play the best,” forward Quincy Miller said. “And everyone says they’re the best.”

Missouri vs. Texas: Much like Baylor, Texas will be looking to avenge a pair of early-season losses when it faces Missouri in Friday’s other Big 12 semifinal. The Longhorns lost to the Tigers 84-73 in Columbia and 67-66 in Austin.

In the second defeat, it appeared as if Myck Kabongo was hacked by Tigers guard Matt Pressey as he attempted a game-winning shot from the baseline at the buzzer. The whistle never came, though, and Missouri escaped with the win.

Kabongo took the loss hard, teammate J’Covan Brown said.

“He was mad about missing the shot,” Brown said. “The guy fouled him. But the refs don’t call everything. He was upset but he moved on.”

Apparently.

Kabongo turned in an excellent defensive effort on Iowa State’s Scott Christopherson (10 points on 4-of-13 shooting) in Texas’ 71-65 quarterfinal victory over the Cyclones Thursday. The win made the Longhorns feel much better about their NCAA tournament hopes. Texas, which went 9-9 in the Big 12, entered the game on the bubble.

Longhorns coach Rick Barnes knows his team is in for a tough task tonight against Missouri, which is coached by his former assistant, Frank Haith. The fifth-ranked Tigers are 28-4 overall and shoot 50.3 percent from the field, a mark that ranks third in the nation.

“They’re a very explosive offensive team,” Barnes said. “They can hurt you in a lot of different ways. We’re going to have to defend them.”

Texas will obviously need a big game from Brown, who leads the Big 12 in scoring with 20.1 points per game. Brown’s three-point play with 36 seconds remaining Thursday broke a 65-65 tie and propelled Texas to victory.

“I love big games,” Brown said. “I like the challenge.”

He’ll certainly get one Friday night.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Moments before a final half of basketball that may have decided the fate of Texas’ season, coach Rick Barnes stood before a dry-erase board in the Longhorns’ locker room.

On one side, Barnes scribbled three letters: “N-I-T.”

Then he took a step to his right and jotted down four more: “N-C-A-A.”

Barnes put down the marker and looked at his team.

“Who are we?” he asked the Longhorns. “Which one would you put your name under?”

By the time Texas left the Sprint Center, the question had been answered.

In a game that so many predicted they would lose, the Longhorns fought back from an 11-point deficit and defeated Iowa State 71-65 in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. Along with propelling them into Friday’s semifinal against Missouri, the victory significantly enhanced the résumé of a Texas team that entered the contest on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Now 20-12, the Horns feel much better about their chances of earning a 14th consecutive bid under Barnes, who isn’t the type to politick to the selection committee.

He shouldn’t have to.

Texas finished 9-9 in what is generally regarded as the second-best league in the country behind the Big Ten. The Longhorns’ strength of schedule is No. 20 in the country according to ESPN's InsideRPI, and they have only one defeat (at Oklahoma State) that can be viewed as a “bad loss.”

Thursday’s victory over Iowa State also should turn some heads considering the Cyclones -- who tied for third in the Big 12 standings -- entered the game touting wins in four of their previous five contests. Texas’ win Thursday came before 18,792 people, most of whom were in support of Iowa State.

“You love to walk into other gyms and quiet their fans,” UT guard J’Covan Brown said.

Texas led 65-59 with 2 minutes, 55 seconds left before Iowa State scored six consecutive points to force a tie. But rather than flounder in the face of adversity, the Longhorns flourished.

[+] EnlargeJ'Covan Brown
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireJ'Covan Brown's late-game cool helped Texas hold off Iowa State -- and strengthen its NCAA case.
With 36 seconds left, Brown spun into the lane and swished a floater as he was fouled. He sank the ensuing free throw to convert the 3-point play to give Texas a 68-65 lead. It was yet another huge shot for a player whose career has been defined by gut-check moments.

Brown scored seven of his game-high 23 points in the second half.

“A few seconds before I hit that shot, Coach was like, ‘Are you feeling it?’” said Brown, a junior. “I told him I was, and he let me go out and do my thing. It gives you a lot of confidence when your coach has your back like that.”

Brown’s performance this season -- he averages a Big 12-best 20.1 points -- is even more impressive considering he’s on a team that features five freshmen among its top seven players. Opposing defenses are geared to stop Brown, yet he still finds ways to score. His game winner Thursday came against Iowa State’s Chris Babb, who is regarded as one of the top defenders in the Big 12.

“[Brown] is a gifted offensive player,” Barnes said. “He has such great vision. On that last play he had three or four different options, and he picked the right one to get the ball where it needed to be.”

The Cyclones still had a chance after Brown’s clutch basket, but standout Royce White lost control of the ball on the perimeter, and it ended up in the hands of Texas forward Jonathan Holmes. Iowa State immediately fouled Holmes, and the freshman made both free throws to make it 70-65 with 22 seconds left.

Ballgame.

As proud as he was of Brown, Barnes was also ecstatic about the play of freshman point guard Myck Kabongo, who has been on a steady incline all season. Kabongo finished with 11 points, five assists and no turnovers -- Texas had only six turnovers as a team -- and he played excellent defense on Iowa State 3-point ace Scott Christopherson.

A senior, Christopherson entered Thursday’s game averaging 21.8 points in his previous five contests and had made 19 of 36 3-point attempts during that span. Pestered by Kabongo, he scored just 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting and missed four of his six attempts from beyond the arc.

As a team, the Cyclones made just five 3-pointers Thursday. They came in averaging nine per game.

Texas now advances to play another strong shooting team in Missouri. The Tigers are shooting 49.9 percent from the field, a mark that ranks third in the nation. Mizzou defeated Texas 84-73 in Columbia on Jan. 14 and 67-66 in Austin on Jan. 30.

“We feel good about this win,” Brown said. “But we can’t let our young guys celebrate too much. We’ve got another big one tomorrow.”

Video: Missouri's Marcus Denmon

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
10:46
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Jason King with Missouri's Marcus Denmon following the Tigers' 88-70 victory over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. Denmon contributed 24 points and eight rebounds.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Thoughts from Missouri's 88-70 victory over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.

Overview: Highly ranked teams often look sluggish and disinterested against inferior opponents in the opening game of a conference tournament. Not Missouri. The Tigers jumped out to a 23-6 lead Thursday and never looked back during an complete annihilation of an Oklahoma State squad it lost to earlier in the season.

Granted, the Cowboys were playing without injured star Le'Bryan Nash (wrist). But the freshman wouldn't have been enough to save the Cowboys in this one. Missouri's Kim English had 21 points by intermission and finished with 27. Missouri, which shot 59 percent from the field, also got 24 points from Marcus Denmon and 13 from Michael Dixon. Phil Pressey had 12 assists.

Keiton Page scored 22 points for Oklahoma State while Brian Williams finished with 21.

Turning point: With the score tied 6-6, Missouri uncorked a 17-0 run that included 10 points from English. Oklahoma State missed nine consecutive shots before Williams connected on a 3-pointer that made it 23-9. The Cowboys, though, never recovered and were down by as many as 29 points in the opening half. It was 49-24 at intermission.

Key player: English had the most points, but it was Pressey was the player who turned the most heads Thursday. Along with 12 assists, ESPN.com's Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year had 6 steals against the Cowboys. The Tigers are a special team when Pressey brings his "A" game. And even when he doesn't, they're still pretty darn good.

Key stat: Missouri might be glaringly undersized, but that rarely shows up on the stat sheet. The Tigers - who start just one player (Ricardo Ratliffe) taller than 6-foot-6 - out-rebounded Oklahoma State 40-20.

Miscellaneous: We'll talk plenty about Missouri in the coming days and week, but as for the obit on Oklahoma State ... give the Cowboys credit for continuing to improve during what could've been a lost season. Rotation players Reger Dowell and Roger Franklin both left the team before Big 12 play, and fourth-leading scorer J.P. Olukemi played just 13 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Nash missed the lpast five games with a broken wrist. Still, the Cowboys became one of just three teams to beat Missouri when they upended the Tigers on Jan. 25 in Stillwater. They also own wins against Iowa State, Texas and Texas A&M. This would've been a fringe NCAA tournament with a healthy, complete roster. Instead Oklahoma State ends its season with an overall record of 15-18, including a 7-11 mark in the Big 12.

What's next: No. 2 seed Missouri will play Texas in Friday's Big 12 tournament semifinal. The other semifinal pits fourth-seeded Baylor against Kansas, the top overall seed. Missouri is now 28-4 overall.

Video: Kansas' Elijah Johnson

March, 8, 2012
3/08/12
7:32
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Jason King with Kansas guard Elijah Johnson following the Jayhawks' 83-66 victory over Texas A&M in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Elijah Johnson scored a career-high 26 points to spark Kansas to an 83-66 victory over Texas A&M on Thursday at the Sprint Center. The victory, which came in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, catapults the Jayhawks into Friday's semifinal against Baylor. The Bears defeated Kansas State 82-74 in Thursday's first quarterfinal.

Thomas Robinson added 19 points and 10 rebounds for Kansas, while Tyshawn Taylor had 16 points and four assists. Khris Middleton led Texas A&M with 24 points.

Turning point: Trailing 21-20, Kansas uncorked an 18-4 scoring run that gave the Jayhawks a 38-24 lead with just more than two minutes remaining in the opening half. Johnson scored eight points -- including a pair of 3-pointers -- during the march. Kansas led 40-28 at the intermission and never looked back.

Key player: Kansas fans are hoping Johnson's career performance will give the junior guard plenty of momentum heading into Friday's game against Baylor -- and the NCAA tournament. His 26 points came on 8-of-11 shooting. He made five of his seven attempts from beyond the arc and also had four assists and two steals.

Key stat: Not many teams would've defeated the hot-shooting Jayhawks Thursday. Bill Self's squad shot 61.4 percent from the field and 66.7 percent (10-of-15) from 3-point range. Even Robinson made two 3-pointers, giving him six on the season.

Miscellaneous: The loss ends what has been a disappointing season for Texas A&M. Adversity first struck in the fall, when first-year coach Billy Kennedy was forced to miss the first month of official workouts after being diagnosed with early stages of Parkinson's disease. Soon after Kennedy's return, Middleton went down with a knee injury that caused him to miss 12 games throughout the season. He's never been 100 percent. Starting Kourtney Roberson, who is also injured, hasn't played since Dec. 22. And starting point guard Dash Harris missed six Big 12 games with a foot injury. All of it resulted in losses in 10 of the Aggies' final 12 games. Still, Texas A&M managed to stay competitive, as seven of those 10 defeats were by single digits.

What's ahead: Kansas advanced to play No. 4 seed Baylor in Friday's semifinal. The Jayhawks have defeated the Bears twice this season by an average of 16 points. Texas A&M ends its season with a 14-18 record under first-year coach Kennedy.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Numerous times since becoming a basketball player, Baylor’s Perry Jones has received cheers after a thunderous dunk or a shot to win a game.

But he’s never heard applause on an airplane.

Or at least he hadn’t until this week.

As soon as Jones set foot on the team charter Tuesday, his Baylor teammates sprung from their seats and gave him a standing ovation. The occasion? Jones, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, was officially on his way to his first Big 12 tournament after being declared ineligible for the event a year ago.

His debut was a memorable one, as Jones finished with a career-high 31 points and 11 rebounds in Baylor’s 82-74 victory over Kansas State on Thursday.

“Our monster came to play today,” Baylor forward Quincy Acy said.

The performance couldn’t have come at a better time for Jones, who is often criticized for playing “soft” and passive. Even though he’s still projected as a top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft, Jones is the first to admit that he hasn’t always performed up to his potential during the past few months.

That all changed Thursday.

Dunks on putbacks, 3-pointers, baseline jumpers, reverse layups in traffic ... Jones scored in just about every way imaginable in what was arguably the best performance of his career. Jones’ effort was even more impressive considering it came against one of the Big 12‘s most physical teams.

“I opened up my whole arsenal,” said Jones, who had 21 points at intermission. “I guess I was just in a zone. My teammates told me to go out there and do what I know I can do.”

[+] EnlargePerry Jones III
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelCriticized for being passive at times, Baylor's Perry Jones punished K-State on Thursday.
Jones’ success was uplifting to the Bears, who have watched all season as Jones endured jabs on the Internet and from the media about his less-than-assertive play. Jones also took a hit last season when he was suspended for the Big 12 tournament after the NCAA deemed that his family had received impermissible benefits from an AAU coach while Jones was in high school.

Only recently, in a story on ESPN.com, did Jones say that the “benefit” was a small loan to help make a mortgage payment so he and his family could avoid losing their house and becoming homeless, a scenario they had already encountered several times throughout his childhood.

“To see him smiling out there on the court was a big change,” guard A.J. Walton said. “He’s getting back to being the real Perry Jones.”

Baylor coach Scott Drew agreed.

“Throughout the year he’s received a lot of negativity,” said Drew, whose team improved to 26-5. “We’ve all shared it with him. Everybody loves Perry.”

Except for maybe the Wildcats, who trailed by as many as 16 points in the second half before a flurry of late 3-pointers made the game seem closer than it truly was. Baylor shot 57 percent and outrebounded K-State 32-26.

Kansas State coach Frank Martin called the Bears a “Final Four-contending team.” And forward Jordan Henriquez -- who had 22 points, 14 boards and four blocks -- was highly complimentary of Jones.

“He’s a good player,” Henriquez said. “They all said he’s a pro, and he came out tonight and played like it from the 40-minute mark.”

The question now is whether Jones and his teammates can turn in another banner effort in Friday’s semifinal against regular-season champion Kansas. The Jayhawks own two victories over the Bears by an average of 16 points.

“We can’t lay down,” Acy said. “If we get punched in the face we’ve got to get back up and keep fighting.”

Jones reminded everyone on Thursday that he was more than capable of doing just that. If he plays that way Friday -- and during the NCAA tournament -- the potential is limitless for Baylor.

“He just needs to keep thinking positive things,” point guard Pierre Jackson said. “I think he’s the best player in the nation. I say it every day. He’s the best player in the nation. He showed that today.”

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Perry Jones scored a season-high 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Brady Heslip added 15 to spark Baylor to an 82-74 victory over Kansas State Thursday at the Sprint Center. The victory catapults the Bears into a Friday semifinal game against Kansas.
Baylor, which got 13 points and eight assists from Pierre Jackson, shot 57 percent from the field and outrebounded Kansas State 31-24.

Jordan Henriquez scored 22 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked four shots for Kansas State.

Turning point: The score was tied at 27 with 6:43 remaining in the first half when Baylor went on 14-5 scoring run that ended with the Bears leading 41-32. Jones and Heslip each had six points during the march. Kansas State pulled within five points, 45-40, early in the second half. But that's as close as the Wildcats would get.

Key player: Often criticized for being passive and "soft," Jones couldn't have been more aggressive Thursday. Dunks on putbacks, 3-pointers, baseline jumpers, reverse layups in traffic ... Jones scored in just about every way imaginable in what may have been the best performance of his career.

Key stat: That Thursday's game was decided by eight points was somewhat surprising, considering the scores of the previous two games between Baylor and Kansas State. The Bears beat the Wildcats by two points in Manhattan but then lost to Kansas State by one-point in Waco last month. The game was actually more lopsided than the final score indicated. Baylor was up by 12 points before K-State hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the final seconds.

Jones' 31 points came on 11-of-14 shooting.

Miscellaneous: Reserve guard A.J. Walton played one of his best games of the season for Baylor, finishing with 11 points, four assists and three steals. ... Jones' mother, Terri, who has a heart condition that often keeps her from traveling, was in the stands Thursday to see her son's standout performance. ... The Bears won despite getting just two points from high-profile freshman Quincy Miller. ... Baylor likely locked up a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament with Thursday's win. ... Kansas State has been projected as a No. 8 or a No. 9 seed.

What's next: Baylor, the No. 4 seed, takes on Kansas Friday. The Bears lost to Kansas two times -- both in convincing fashion. The Jayhawks whipped the Bears by 18 points in Lawrence and by 14 points in Waco.

Big 12 tournament primer

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
3:30
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To win the Big 12 tournament this week -- assuming the seeds hold to form -- the Baylor basketball team will have to beat Kansas State, Kansas and Missouri.

All in Kansas City.

"We'd like to have it in the state of Texas," Bears coach Scott Drew chuckled, and although the wish is understandable, even Drew knows that no potential tournament site can match the atmosphere that will exist inside the Sprint Center.

Especially this season.

"This," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said, "could end up being the best Big 12 tournament ever."

Indeed.

Click here for the rest of Jason King's preview.

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