Big 12 poised for best tourney ever
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."
Third-ranked Kansas and fifth-ranked Missouri are both Final Four threats while No. 11 Baylor is enjoying the best season in school history. Kansas State has spent time in the Top 25 and enters the tournament having won four of its last five games. One season after going 3-13 in league games, Iowa State experienced a huge resurgence and finished in a tie for third place in the Big 12 standings.
Other than Baylor, all of the aforementioned schools will bring huge followings to Kansas City this week. Tickets for the semifinals and finals have already sold out. Bars and restaurants in the Power & Light District across the street from the arena are preparing for rowdy crowds.
Here's a quick glimpse into what may be in store in the days ahead.
Top Three Storylines
Is a No. 1 seed at stake?
Kansas -- which won the regular-season title for the eighth straight season -- has been tagged as a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament ever since it beat Missouri in Lawrence on Feb. 25. But what if Missouri defeats Kansas in this week's title game? That would give the Tigers two wins over the Jayhawks in three meetings. Would that be enough to catapult them over KU in the quest for a No. 1 seed? Kansas is currently No. 6 in the RPI while Missouri is No. 15. The Jayhawks' strength of schedule (No. 15) blows away that of Missouri (No. 113).
The Longhorns have never missed the Big Dance under Rick Barnes, but they're in danger of it this season. Texas finished just 9-9 in league play and its only quality nonconference win came against Temple. As the No. 6 seed this week, Barnes' squad enters the tournament on the outside looking in. A victory over No. 3 seed Iowa State would certainly enhance Texas' chances, but the Longhorns may need to win two games to avoid losing sleep the night before Selection Sunday. Losing forward Alexis Wangmene (broken wrist) in Saturday's regular-season finale against Kansas was a tough blow.
Will Missouri get the last laugh?
No team will have more fans rooting against it this week than the Tigers, who are leaving the conference after this season for the SEC. Nothing would pain Big 12 schools more than to see Missouri walk away with the title in its final appearance in the league tournament. Don't be surprised if it happens, though. Led by Marcus Denmon and Kim English, the Tigers are as mentally tough as any team in the country -- and they're itching to play Kansas again after blowing a 19-point lead in last month's overtime loss in Lawrence.
Five players to watch
Royce White, Iowa State: The 6-foot-9, 270-pound White leads the Cyclones in points (12.9), rebounds (9.2) and assists (5.2). His size and versatility make him one of the most unique and enjoyable-to-watch players in all of college basketball.
Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas: The senior actually averaged more points in Big 12 games (18.6) than highly touted teammate Thomas Robinson (18.2). No point guard in the country has been better than Taylor over the last two months.
Phil Pressey, Missouri: The Tigers are on a different level when the hiccup-quick Pressey brings his A-game. The Big 12's leader in steals is also a menace on the defensive end.
Pierre Jackson, Baylor: Last year's national junior college player of the year has given the Bears some much-needed swagger. Jackson has a knack for hitting big shots in the waning minutes of close games.
J'Covan Brown, Texas: The Longhorns' trigger-happy guard has never met a shot he doesn't like. Brown is a pure shooter who has shouldered a heavy load for youthful Texas. No lead over the Longhorns is safe when Brown is on the court.
Hottest team: Kansas has won eight in a row since losing to Missouri in Columbia on Jan. 4. Taylor and Robinson have been the two best players in the league during Big 12 play, and in 7-foot center Jeff Withey, Kansas has a defensive presence that is unmatched by other conference teams.
Coldest team: Texas Tech is the obvious answer, with just one Big 12 win. But another team that has struggled is Texas A&M, which has lost nine of its last 10 conference games. Six of those nine setbacks have been by single digits, so the Aggies -- who have battled injuries all season -- are clearly getting better under first-year coach Billy Kennedy.
Sleeper pick: Iowa State may not be able to sneak up on anyone after finishing in a tie for third in the conference. But while everyone else is dreaming of a Kansas-Missouri final, there's a strong possibility Fred Hoiberg's squad could sneak its way into the championship game. Iowa State has defeated Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State (twice). And it's played Missouri well despite losing both of its games against the Tigers, whom they'll likely play if they get by Texas in the quarterfinals.
Potential upset -- Texas Tech over Oklahoma State: The Red Raiders finished just 1-15 in Big 12 play, but they improved significantly throughout the season. Just one week ago, Texas needed overtime to defeat Billy Gillispie's squad. Oklahoma State is still the favorite in this game, but the Cowboys may have a difficult time without injured star Le'Bryan Nash.
Best first-round game -- No. 4 Baylor versus No. 5 Kansas State: The Bears and Wildcats -- each of whom received first-round byes -- will square off in the quarterfinals Thursday. The teams split their regular-season series, with the games decided by a combined three points. Baylor is the more talented team, but Kansas State is playing much better of late.
Best potential semifinal game -- Kansas versus Kansas State: Local merchants are crossing their fingers that Kansas State defeats Baylor on Thursday, because if that happens, the Wildcats will likely play Kansas on Friday. The building would be sold out for a doubleheader that could feature Missouri versus Iowa State in the nightcap. Kansas defeated Kansas State twice this season, but the Wildcats are more than capable of beating the Jayhawks.
Pick: The Border War will end on neutral ground when Kansas and Missouri square off in the title game. There's no way this contest can be as riveting and exciting as the last one, but expect a close score nonetheless. I'm going with Missouri 72-68.
Barbecue advice: Any trip to Kansas City should involve a trip or three to one of the area's legendary barbecue joints. There are plenty of places to choose from within a few miles of the Sprint Center. Seriously, a cab ride won't cost more than $5.
Arthur Bryant's makes the best sandwiches and Gates has the best ribs. Both are the casual, order-at-the-counter kind of restaurants. If you're looking to enjoy a nice dinner in a more upscale environment, Jack's Stack is definitely the way to go. The burnt ends are phenomenal, and the "Round-up" (sampler platter) is enough for two.
For those with a rental car, the best barbecue in town -- and almost every Kansas Citian will tell you this -- is at Oklahoma Joe's. No more than a 15-minute drive from the arena, it's well worth the trip. I'd suggest getting the rib and one meat dinner with pulled pork. The ribs are the best in town.
The Z-Man sandwich (brisket with provolone cheese, an onion ring and barbecue sauce) is also very popular, although I'd suggest substituting pulled pork for the brisket, which simply isn't as good in Kansas City as it is in Texas. Oklahoma Joe's french fries are the best. Good luck -- and send me your reviews.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.