Here’s one way to measure the quality and depth of the Big 12 Tournament that begins tonight at the Sprint Center: When quizzed about the seeds of Baylor and Oklahoma State, teams from the bottom half of the conference standings that are playing in the opening round, you have to be specific:
Big 12 Tournament seeds, or projected NCAA Tournament seeds?
This is the 18th Big 12 Tournament, and after the NCAA selection committee does its thing on Sunday, the guess is we will not have seen anything like it.
Seven of the 10 conference teams should have Big Dance tickets in their pockets. The Big 12 sent seven to the NCAA Tournament once before, in 2010, when the league had 12 members.
Three of Thursday’s quarterfinal games could feature NCAA-bound teams. And given the projected seeds, they’d feel like third-round games.
After his team wrapped up practice Tuesday, Baylor coach Scott Drew marveled at the field.
“Toughest I can remember,” Drew said. “Not even close. More teams can win it this year. Normally, going in there are two or three teams that are the favorites.”
And he’s been in the league for 11 years, long enough to gear up for Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley and the Kansas national title team.
Keep in mind, history doesn’t support the idea of an open race. The first or second seeds won 12 of the previous 17 tournaments, with Kansas taking three of the last four as a top seed.
Nobody below a No. 3 seed has cut the nets, so if form holds, the winner will emerge from Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas.
Reaching the final by playing four games is four days — the task ahead of Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech or TCU — has happened only four times.
But typically, eighth-seeded teams aren’t like Oklahoma State, preseason co-favorites to win the league and led by a former conference player of the year in Marcus Smart.
No. 7 seeds usually aren’t like Baylor, which was good enough to defeat Kentucky and win seven of its final eight games, including four against likely NCAA-bound teams.
Among the first-day bye teams, sixth-seeded West Virginia appears alone in chasing an at-large NCAA spot. Unlike others in the league, the Mountaineers struggled through much of their nonconference schedule. But this is a team that beat Iowa State — a potential top four NCAA seed — by 25, and had Kansas down by that much early in the second half on Saturday.
Around the nation, nothing compares to this. The Big Ten has been excellent this year and could get half of its 12 teams on the NCAA bracket. By percentage, that’s about as close as it’s likely to be.
After the competitiveness, the biggest issue in Kansas City is the future of Kansas without Joel Embiid, who will miss the tournament because of a back injury. Through their decade of championship dominance, the Jayhawks have rarely had to deal with a major injury to a key component.
How will the selection committee consider Kansas?
It seems KU is a No. 2 seed, its eight-regular season losses offset by playing the nation’s most difficult schedule. Assuming Florida, Arizona and Wichita State are No. 1 seeds and Villanova leads for the final top spot, the Jayhawks could pass Nova by repeating as Big 12 Tournament champion.
A loss at the Sprint Center might lock up a No. 2, and if Kansas falls in its opener, a No. 3 isn’t out of the question.
The Jayhawks have reached their two Final Fours under coach Bill Self as a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed, and any coach will say the NCAA is about matchups of style and not seeds.
The same is true about the action in Kansas City this week. Seeds don’t matter, not with seven or eight teams capable of cutting down the nets.