As a college basketball fan, I love watching conference tournaments. The stakes can lead to a level of intensity exceeded only by the big tournament a week later, and makes for some incredibly entertaining games. As a Kansas fan though, the Big 12 tournament has become a far less entertaining affair.
In recent years, Kansas has had a tournament bid more than sewn up well before tournament time, so the automatic bid on the line offers no incentive. Kansas has generally been the top seed, and the tournament is typically played in Kansas City, creating an expectation that Kansas will win. If they don't, it's hard not to feel a bit disappointed - any time you're favored to win and you don't, there's a letdown. If they do win, the joy is generally short-lived, and the focus quickly turns to seeding and potential matchups in the tournament that matters. In short, there's just no reason for Kansas to care about the Big 12 tournament.
Except this year.
The timing of the Joel Embiid injury couldn't have been worse. To lose (arguably) the team's most important player going into the postseason is a nightmare for coaches, the team, and fans. Kansas is now forced to learn how to play effective basketball without their dominant big man against strong competition less than two weeks before March Madness begins. The bright side, if you're looking for one, is that the Big 12 Tournament offers an opportunity to do exactly that.
Kansas has been without Embiid for three games this year. Their opponents in those contests were TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia, likely the only three Big 12 teams who won't be dancing after this week. If seeding holds, the Jayhawks' path to the Big 12 tournament title would run through Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Oklahoma, arguably the three best teams in the conference right now not named Kansas. While our seeding may already be set heading into the week, our ability to play well against strong competition without Embiid is not.
A loss Thursday would avoid the risk of injury and fatigue inherent in playing three games in three days, but it would also mean heading into the NCAAs having lost two straight and 3 of their last four. If that happens, they still would not have beaten a tournament-quality team without Joel Embiid.
However, if Kansas can put together a run, it could do wonders. Not only would it help them avoid going into the Dance with negative momentum, but it would give them three games of practice without their star center against solid competition. Sure, that would benefit the players, but giving the coaches three more games to figure out what works with regard to pace and lineup combinations would be beneficial later on, when playing teams from out of the conference with everything on the line.
Most years, I go into this tournament just hoping we don't do anything to hurt our seeding. This time around, a run to the title game could pay dividends later, even if the automatic bid isn't what's on the line. Hopefully the team rallies around adversity, and doesn't let the opportunity to gain some confidence and strategy go to waste.
Questions? Comments? Email me at PenHawkRCT@gmail.com, and follow me @kspen124