As Kansas City prepares for this week's festivities, and we survey the impending conference tournament for preview purposes, we have some obvious separation -- and some uncommon late-season intrigue -- in the Big 12.
At the top, there are a few contenders and/or obvious NCAA tournament inclusions (Kansas, Texas, Kansas State, Texas A&M, Missouri). At the bottom lie a handful of bad to just-plain-awful teams (Texas Tech, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State).
But in the middle of the Big 12 -- as George Costanza would say, right in that meaty part of the curve -- is where the real action lies. In Colorado, Nebraska and Baylor, the Big 12 has three teams that desperately need Champ Week to prove themselves to the NCAA tournament selection committee. Of course, there are varying degrees of need here -- Colorado is right on the bubble; Nebraska and Baylor are still below it -- but all three teams share a common prospectus. Simply put, they need wins.
Throw in the action we could see at the top of the bracket -- where the dominant Jayhawks are competing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, where Texas is attempting to stanch a late-season slide and where Kansas State is streaking toward the tourney -- and you've got a lot to look forward to when things kick off Wednesday afternoon.
On Wednesday morning, we enter with questions. By Saturday night, we'll have the answers. Here are some of the things to watch for in the Big 12 this week:
1. Can Colorado take care of business?
As you read above, the Big 12 has three ostensible bubble teams heading into the conference tournament. They are Nebraska, Baylor and Colorado. Of the three, the Buffaloes have the most realistic shot an at-large bid. Colorado currently sits right on top of the bubble cut line in the same messy fray as Alabama, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Michigan State and others. Nebraska and Baylor currently fall a bit below that group: Our own Joe Lunardi has the Cornhuskers and Bears in his "next four out," which means both would have to leapfrog at least four or five teams along the ever-shrinking bubble to get into the tournament by Selection Sunday.
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Colorado, with its No. 5 seed, clearly has the best draw of the group. If the Buffaloes handle Iowa State Wednesday, they'll play No. 4 seed Kansas State in the tournament's second round on Thursday. Colorado swept K-State in the regular season, and this remains a winnable game despite the Wildcats' late resurgence. But even if the Buffs can't top K-State in the second round, simply avoiding a loss to Iowa State might be enough to get into the tournament anyway.
2. Can Nebraska and Baylor shock the world?
The Cornhuskers and Bears didn't fare nearly as well in their Big 12 tourney draw. Unlike Colorado, both teams won't have the luxury of losing Thursday; both have to make a serious move up the bubble line to look more impressive than the handful of teams currently above them, and that means getting another signature, marquee win. The good news? Both teams have a shot. The bad news? Both of those shots are very, very long. If Baylor advances past Oklahoma in the first round, it will face Texas (gulp). If Nebraska advances past Oklahoma State in the first round, it will face Kansas (double gulp). And keep in mind that both teams are more than capable of losing those first-round games, let alone struggling against two of the toughest teams in the country. So, yes, at this point, if the Huskers and Bears want to go dancing, they're going to have to bust out some impressive -- and previously unseen -- moves.
3. Can Texas right its ship?
The Longhorns spent most of the season making opposing Big 12 offenses look like Division II squads. Then a few weeks ago, something strange happened: Texas stopped defending. Rick Barnes' team went from having one of the best defenses we've seen in years to one that got torched for 58 points in one half versus Colorado. With that D in sudden tatters, the Longhorns started dropping games -- at Nebraska, at Colorado, versus Kansas State. Texas bounced back with a close win at Baylor on Saturday, but it's hard to tell how much that means for this team going forward. Was that stretch of losses just a blip in an otherwise brilliant season? Or is Texas genuinely fading down the stretch, akin to last season's disappointing midseason slide? The Big 12 tournament should help answer that question.
4. Can Kansas State keep rolling?
The age-old maxim -- you want to play your best basketball down the stretch -- doesn't apply to any team in the nation more so than these Kansas State Wildcats. You know this story by now: Kansas State was ranked in the top five to begin the season but promptly lost that status thanks to its ugly offense, lackluster effort and a variety of personnel losses and off-the-court distractions. But ever since K-State toppled Kansas in Manhattan last month, the Wildcats are looking like a Final Four contender yet again, and Jacob Pullen is once again playing like a star. The question here is whether they can sustain that effort, and whether a loss now would derail the Wildcats and set them back just before the NCAA tournament.
5. Can Missouri win away from Columbia?
Missouri is the No. 6 seed in this year's Big 12 tournament, which is probably a bit lower than most expected after the Tigers' solid nonconference run in November and December. The reason that seed is so low? Mizzou can't win on the road. Mike Anderson's team is 2-7 in road games this season -- those two wins coming at Iowa State and Oregon -- and its only neutral-court win of note came against Illinois in St. Louis on Dec. 22. The Tigers have been great at home and bad on the road, and historically, teams with bad road records fare poorly on the NCAA tournament's neutral floors. The Big 12 tournament can be a bit of a neutral-court practice session, and it will be interesting to see how the Tigers respond when they're not really at home but not really on the road, either.
Player to watch: Texas forward Jordan Hamilton. Hamilton is always going to put points on the board, but when he is defending with gusto, the Longhorns can be downright impenetrable. Unfortunately, Hamilton is easily frustrated on the defensive end, and when he takes possessions off, the Longhorns give up far too many open looks in transition. You could argue that no player in the league is quite as important on both sides of the ball as the sophomore swingman.
Potential sleeper: Oklahoma State. Thanks to some putrid shooting, the Pokes have fallen out of bubble contention in the past month or so. But of the four teams in the Big 12's bottom rung, Oklahoma State is probably best equipped to surprise people this week. Can the Cowboys get hot? Don't rule it out.
Potential deep, deep sleeper: Iowa State. The Cyclones' 3-13 record in the Big 12 is deceiving, because Fred Hoiberg's team has been quietly playing opponents tough all season. I'm not saying Iowa State is going to win this thing but don't be surprised if the Big 12's regular-season wooden-spoon winner surprises Colorado in the first round.
The coronation: Kansas. No surprise here. Thanks to Texas' late slide, the Jayhawks are clearly this conference's top team, and with a couple of wins they'll seal yet another Big 12 conference tournament title, something we've grown quite accustomed to seeing in the past decade. And with the Jayhawks' large following in Kansas City -- not to mention the city's proximity to Lawrence, Kan. -- don't be surprised if this weekend turns into one long rock-chalking love-in.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog.