Starting tonight, the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City will host the 2016 Big 12 Basketball Tournament. This will be the eighth time in nine years that the event has been held in Kansas City. With the NCAA Tournament just one week away, this weekend is the last chance for teams to put everything together the best they can to make it as far possible. Here are several storylines that you need to know.
The conference’s regular season champion for the 12th consecutive year will look to capture the tournament title for the first time since 2013. The Jayhawks are entering the tournament winners of 11 regular season games in a row, and may have already secured themselves the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, regardless of what transpires this week.
Senior forward Perry Ellis has been the team’s most consistent force this year, averaging 16.5 PPG, 6.0 RBG, and after his 22-point effort in last Saturday’s home win over Iowa State, Ellis is now 12th all-time in points in Kansas Basketball history with 1,667. To compliment Ellis, KU poses many threats in the backcourt, starting with point guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, who are averaging double-figures in scoring. In addition to Mason averaging 13.4 PPG and Graham averaging 11.4 PPG, both have been steady ball handlers this year, turning the ball over on only 13.7 percent of their possessions. Kansas is deep and experienced, which bodes well for success in March.
Not so long ago, the Sooners were the nation’s top-ranked team. But after dropping four of their past eight games in Feb., Oklahoma fell back to earth, finishing third in the conference. Despite their recent falters down the stretch, the Sooners still offer up many lethal intangibles. First off, they’ve got National Player of the Year favorite Buddy Hield, who is capable of going off at any moment and carrying Oklahoma all by himself. Hield is averaging 25.1 PPG on the season, and is shooting just under 50 percent from the field. The senior has made a name for himself by draining big shots late in regulation, and leads the nation in three-point field goals made, with 124.
Hield can’t do it by himself all the time, and if the Sooners want to have a chance at the title he’ll need help from fellow guards Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. The duo have been productive, both averaging double-figures, and have complimented each other well this season.
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Mountaineers ended up second in the Big 12, which is their highest finish since they joined the conference in 2012. West Virginia features the full-court press, one of the more unique styles of play in all of college basketball. Their grinding style of play has taken its toll on opponents, forcing the second most turnovers in the nation with 562.
By playing this way, no Mountaineer is on the court for more than 27 minutes per game. All season, Head coach Bob Huggins has stressed to beat teams by maximizing his depth to wear down opponents. On average, Huggins usually plays 9-10 guys throughout the course of a game. Point guard Jaysean Paige is the team’s leading scorer with 14.3 points per game, despite coming off the bench. Junior forward Devin Williams is a rebounding machine downlow, gathering an average of 9.2 boards per game on a team that is second in the nation in terms of offensive rebounding, corralling 16 a game.
West Virginia has the depth and toughness to give teams trouble. However, as a team they are only shooting 32 percent from the perimeter. This problem could become an impediment once they face either Oklahoma, Kansas, or Iowa State, who are teams that are all shooting all above 42 percent from three.
Iowa State Cyclones
Steve Prohm has experienced an up and down first season as the Cyclones’ head coach. At the start of the season, expectations were high for the Cyclones. Through several setbacks, most notably a season ending injury to starting guard Naz Long in November. Iowa State took home a 6th place finish in the conference. Some of this depicted as an underachievement. However, Iowa State has made the most out of this conference tournament recently, by winning it back-to-back seasons.
Senior and first team All-American Georges Niang is a staple of the Cyclones’ offense. By averaging 19.4 PPG, shooting 54 percent from the field and 38 percent from three, Niang has grown to be one of the more versatile scorers in college basketball. In addition, Niang is one of just three players in school history to eclipse the 2,000 career-point milestone, currently at 2,111.
Iowa State doesn’t have a deep bench, as on average they play seven guys per game. However, Iowa State still obtains a plethora of options to help Niang out. Sophomore point guard Monte Morris is experiencing his most efficient season, averaging a 6:1 assist/turnover ratio. Lanky forward Jameel McKay seems to be everywhere on the floor and provides an indispensable energy for Iowa State when needed. The senior is scoring 11.8 PPG and has connected on 59 percent of his shots from the field.
Iowa State was able to take home the tournament title the past two years, by spreading the floor and using Niang and McKay as much as possible. In order for them to win it for the third time, they will need help from them as well as their bench.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
At the start of the season, Texas Tech was picked by most experts to finish last in the conference. To everyone’s surprise, the Red Raiders shocked the conference, and in some ways the nation by completing the regular season as the seventh best team. In just his third season, Head coach Tubby Smith turned around a program that was an annual bottom-feeder into likely NCAA Tournament bound for the first time in eight years.
Texas Tech captured an abundance of high-quality wins during the season, beating six ranked teams. Four Red Raiders are averaging double-figures, and out of all of them, senior guard Todrick Gotcher is at the heart of it all. Gotcher’s stellar defense and being a veteran has propelled Texas Tech to heights unimagined once this season began.
Players to Watch For
Kansas’ Brannen Greene
Greene has been a major piece off the Jayhawks’ bench this season. The junior is shooting a nation’s best 51.7% from the perimeter. It seems that whenever Kansas is experiencing scoring droughts or needs a spark off the bench, Greene has answered every time.
Baylor’s Rico Gathers
Baylor possess an insanely tall front-court, with three starters 6’8’’ or taller. Gathers, listed at 6’8’’, isn’t afraid to throw his weight around inside and get after it on the glass. In total, Gathers is averaging 9.1 rebounds per game and provides a toughness to the Bears that is necessary for a deep March run.