Sam Mellinger

Kansas can win more than a trophy in a mostly unremarkable Big 12 Tournament

Bill Self liked KU’s second half in Big 12 Tournament win over West Virginia

KU coach Bill Self on the Jayhawks' win over West Virginia and what he expects in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday, March 16, 2019 in Kansas City.
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KU coach Bill Self on the Jayhawks' win over West Virginia and what he expects in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on Saturday, March 16, 2019 in Kansas City.

If a tournament happens but nobody really cares about the result, does it hold a championship game?

The answer: yes, and the Big 12 Tournament final will be at 5 p.m. Saturday in the Sprint Center. The winner will get a trophy and everything.

Kansas, which qualified for the title game of the nation’s No. 1 league by RPI without beating a team likely to be included in the NCAA Tournament, will play Iowa State. Many beers will be sold across the street. It’ll be fun.

Honest.

“It will be the first time in a long time that we probably won’t have a comparable home court is what I predict,” KU coach Bill Self said.

Iowa State is (by far) the Big 12’s best offensive team, and presents a particular problem for Kansas by flooding the lineup with four shooters against a team that likes to play big. So, there’s that.

The game will be competitive, too. Lots of energy. Coaches of NCAA Tournament locks often say if you’re going to lose, lose early. Get your rest. There’s nothing worse than playing games on three or more consecutive days and then losing the final.

But this is also the kind of tournament that nobody will remember in a year, or maybe even a week.

Let’s be honest. There are no likely NBA stars in this league. Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver will be the Big 12’s first player selected in the draft, and his team lost its first game to West Virginia. The Big 12’s second player drafted will likely be Texas’ Jaxson Hayes, who played 14 minutes and scored two points.

So beyond a trophy, the purpose of this tournament is to test solutions and project strengths for the tournament college basketball fans will remember. Is there anything in the big picture that Kansas will take from this week into the NCAA Tournament?

“You know what?” Self said when asked. “I don’t know.”

He actually gave a thoughtful answer. The first thing he mentioned is the broad and overriding goal: to have his rotation players leave this week with confidence.

This has been a rough season. They live a good life inside the KU program. Stuffed full of pressure, but still. A good life. This season, not so much. Injuries. A suspension. A leave of absence. You know the story. In the year the streak finally ended a conference tournament trophy would mean more than most. So, that’s one thing. Confidence.

There have been some nice spots, too. Most obviously, Quentin Grimes hit all five of his three-pointers in the first half of Friday’s 88-74 semifinal win over West Virginia, essentially pushing Kansas ahead by himself. Devon Dotson has been terrific, continuing to build one of the best freshman seasons in Self’s 16 years. Dedric Lawson has been typically efficient. David McCormack continues to contribute. Ochai Agbaji played with more juice.

Perhaps most importantly, Marcus Garrett is cutting and moving better than any point since returning from a high ankle sprain four weeks ago. He can be a liability on offense depending on his jump shot but makes up for it in other ways. He is a terrific defender, most obviously, but on a team that doesn’t always seem to have Self’s trust nobody has more than Garrett.

“This has been a good weekend for us,” Self said. “But certainly, we need to learn how to close something out.”

That’s as good a goal as any, and if accomplished against Iowa State, would go a long way toward fulfilling that overriding purpose of incubating confidence.

This group has been ineffective away from Allen Fieldhouse and not as present or strong in the biggest moments as past teams. Beat Iowa State on Sunday and Kansas can feel like it’s made progress in those important areas.

“The winner of the game will celebrate for a span of about 20 hours, and then it’s over,” Self said, referencing Sunday’s NCAA Tournament bracket reveal. “It’s over. Who cares after that, once the pairings come out? That’s how everybody will view it, but tomorrow I think it will be a highly competitive game.”

It’s not much, but it’s something. And it’ll be fun, with Kansas’ last chance to feel good before college basketball makes its annual burst into America’s cultural mainstream.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.


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