Championship week baby! 'Bout time
Time to engorge ourselves on tournament after tournament everyday, pretty much all day this week leading right up to Selection Sunday.
Don’t listen to what the haters say about the conference tournaments, that they are superfluous and demean the importance of the regular season. What a load. They are the perfect appetizer to the main course.
For teams who've already assembled a regular season resumé worthy of an NCAA Tournament invite, the conference tourneys offer them a chance to improve their seeding. For the teams who are on the so called "bubble," conference tourneys give them a last chance to control their own destiny. And so what if a team that's been crap all season suddenly strings together four great performances to steal an automatic bid. That's the type of run that makes March Madness so mad in the first place. Add it all up and the college basketball season and conference tournaments allow every game for every team to actually matter right down to the very last minute. It is the only sport where this is the case.
The Big 12 Tournament starts this Wednesday in K.C. If you've never been to the Sprint Center and Power and Light during the Big 12 tourney, you should go at least once. Even if you don't have tickets to any of the games. Just being up there for the convergence of all 10 schools' fan bases is worth it, especially when the weather is supposed to be in the 60s and 70s like the forecasts are saying they will be.
The Jayhawks in the Big 12 Tournament
Going into this year's Big 12 Tournament there's been a consistent regurgitation of a flawed narrative. I heard it on both 610 and 810 sports radio shows last week. It's one that claims Kansas never plays well in the Big 12 Tournament. It's a strange contention given that of the 18 previous Big 12 Tournaments the Jayhawks have won 9 of them, particularly dominant as of late, winning 6 out of the last 8.
The belief that Kansas "never" plays well in the conference tournament may be rooted in the fact that Kansas is riding a crazy 11 straight regular season title streak, and since they don't win every year's conference tournament it must be an indication that they struggle in said tournament.
The regular season title is won by the best team as established over 18 games. The conference tournament is single elimination and won by the best team as established over a 4 day span. That's not always Kansas, but most years it actually is.
After Kansas' 9 titles, Oklahoma is second with the 3 titles they won during the Kelvin Sampson era. There's a three way tie for third between Mizzou, Oklahoma State and Iowa State with 2 titles apiece.
Jayhawk fans have a strange relationship with and understanding of the Big 12 Tournament themselves, constantly debating the tournament's worth or impact on the Jayhawks' run in the NCAA Tournament. You'll hear cases on why it's important to win it all from some, why it doesn't matter at all from others, and those who say the 'Hawks should win one game and then bow out to get some rest for the big tournament. Whatever the take, all parties are convinced that their theory is the one that will prove to be the secret recipe for a Final Four run. Nobody knows. That type of thing is impossible to predict.
Of the 9 conference tournament titles the Jayhawks have won, we've seen the team follow it up by getting bounced in the Round of 64 once (2006), win the NCAA Title once (2008), and visit every round in between those two the other 7 times.
We saw how Kansas winning that fast paced, thrilling, barn burner of a Big 12 Title game against Texas - a game in which Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush for Kansas and D.J. Augustine and A.J. Abrams of Texas could not miss from 3 point range - seemed to propel Kansas to the 2008 National Title.
But we also saw how bowing out in the semi-finals of the Big 12 Tournaments of 2003 and 2012 helped a couple of shallow depthed and banged up Jayhawks teams get some rest that seemed to recharge their batteries for National Runner-Up runs.
Like I said, it's nearly impossible to measure the conference tournaments' effect on NCAA Tournament success, because in a one and done tournament anything can and will happen.
One thing Kansas fans should remember though, is the fact that the Big 12 Tournament does matter in one extremely important regard, and that is seeding. We've seen the Jayhawks slide up and down the top of the seeding chart based on what they did in the Big 12 tourney. Winning the Big 12 Tournament Title in 2007 and 2013 earned them a #1 seed. We've also seen it cost the 'Hawks a 1 seed by bowing out early in 2003, 2012, and even 2014 (although that one was a very long shot). Losing in the semis in 2005 dropped the 'Hawks from a 2 to a 3 seed. Same story in 2009 when the 'Hawks were bounced in their first game of the Big 12 tourney by Baylor.
This year's Jayhawks need to play well in this year's Big 12 Tournament. They have no shot at a 1 seed, but a 2 seed is no lock just because they won the Big 12 regular season title. They've gone 5-4 over their last nine games. Even with the stumbling finish to the season, the last two games were, in my opinion, some of the best coaching by Bill Self in a career of solid work. Those piece-meal lineups he was running out there were borderline ridiculous. Encouragingly, the performance of Landon Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Hunter Mickelson in those games has earned them the trust of Bill Self. Lucas to Traylor and Lucas to Mickelson during that Oklahoma game was the best the high low offense has looked all season for the Jayhawks. That added depth and size, coupled with the return of Perry Ellis could end up being the difference between the Jayhawks surviving or going down in the first weekend of NCAA Tournament action.
The Jayhawks need to show that the team can gel with these new parts, rediscover their outside shooting touch and just feel better about themselves with a good showing in the Big 12 Tournament. Do that and they should lock up a solid 2 seed come Selection Sunday.
Speaking of Selection Sunday
Since the tournament expanded its field to the beloved, iconic, four quartered, 16 team bracketed behemoth in 1985 (30 tournaments) Kansas has participated in 29 of them. That's tops in the nation, as is their current streak of what will be 26 straight tournament appearances come Sunday.
Whatever happens in K.C. this weekend, good or bad, the Selection Committee will not be seeding Kansas any higher than a 2, nor will they seed them any lower than a 3. So let's take a look at Kansas' performances at those two seed slots since 1985 along with their conference tournament results and their win loss records going into the tournaments those seasons.
Kansas as a 3 Seed
1985 - Big 8 Tournament Semi-Finals - 23-7
In Larry Brown's second season at Kansas, he had assembled the foundation for his Final Four team a year later in 1986, with star Danny Manning setting a Jayhawk freshman scoring record. But in '85 they posted an ugly football score victory of 49 - 38 in the Round of 64 against #14 seed Ohio and followed that up by getting bounced 66-64 by the #11 seed Auburn in the Round of 32.
1991 - Big 8 Tournament Semi-Finals - 22-7
This was Roy Williams' first Final Four team. They finished the 1991 Big 8 season as co-champs with Oklahoma State. The Selection Committee placed Kansas as the 3 seed in the Southeast Bracket from hell, which featured Nolan Richardson's Arkansas Razorbacks as the #1 seed and Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers as the #2 - the teams that finished 2 and 3 respectively in the final AP Top 25 poll. The Jayhawks responded by pounding Knight's Hoosiers in a game that was never close in the Sweet 16. Then turned Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" into just 20 minutes in unseasonably warm weather. Down by 12 at the half, Williams' Jayhawks ran up and down the court on that press for 58 second half points. I remember after the Jayhawks beat Dean Smith's Tar Heels in the Final Four as they continued their run through murderer's row, feeling relieved that Duke had beaten the undefeated UNLV Runnin' Rebels so the Jayhawks wouldn't have to face them. Perhaps they would have been better off, because Duke Handled Kansas in the National Title game, ending a pretty remarkable run.
2005 - Big 12 Tournament Semi-Finals - 23-6
Being just an overtime away from making a third straight Final Four in 2004, and returning 4 of 5 starters, this Jayhawks team entered 2005 as the first, and as of yet, only Kansas team in its storied history ranked #1 in the preseason. They got off to a 20-1 start, but finished just 3-5 over their final 8 games going into the NCAA Tournament. Nobody was arguing that the team was playing anything close to well, but nobody thought they'd lose to #14 seed Bucknell in the Round of 64. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, losing in the opening game was just something that Kansas never did before 2005. Kansas held a slim lead of 31-28 at halftime, but their offense outside of Wayne Simien just disappeared in the second half.
2009 - Big 12 Tournament Quarter-Finals - 25-7
After winning the Big 12 regular season title, the Jayhawks got booted out of their opening game of the Big 12 Tournament by the Baylor Bears. The 'Hawks looked to have shaken the sluggishness that killed them against Baylor when they easily dispatched #14 seed North Dakota State in the Round of 64 and #11 seed Dayton in the Round of 32. That Round of 32 game was made memorable by Cole Aldrich posting the first triple double (13 pts, 20 rebounds, 10 blocks) in an NCAA Tournament game since Shaquille O'Neal in 1992. Kansas faced #2 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16. They held the lead almost the entire way, stretching it to 9 points at one time, but turnovers and poor shot selection let Michigan State hang around and Tom Izzo's squad came back to steal the victory.
Kansas as a 2 Seed
1990 - Big 8 Tournament Semi-Finals - 29-4
In Roy Williams' second season at Kansas he led the 'Hawks to 30 wins, setting numerous program scoring records in the process. That offensive production came to a grinding halt though once Kansas reached the NCAA tournament. They eked out a win against #15 seed Robert Morris before losing by one point to #7 seed UCLA 71-70 in the Round of 32.
1993 - Big 8 Tournament Semi-Finals - 25-6
The 1993 Jayhawks won the conference title for a third consecutive year, the first time that had been done at Kansas since the early 1950's. Roy Williams' second Final Four team came just two seasons after his first. En route to the Final Four the 'Hawks' Rex Walters outplayed Cal's Jason Kidd in the Sweet 16. Then the Jayhawks ran up and down the court on Bob Knight's last good Indiana team in the Elite 8. However, Roy and his 'Hawks couldn't beat his alma mater, North Carolina, in the Final Four for the second time in three years.
1996 - Big 8 Tournament Runner Up - 26-4
This season marked the final one for the old Big 8 Conference. The final Big 8 Tournament Title game was a great one with the Cyclones downing the Jayhawks by one point. The loss pushed Kansas from the line of the 1 seeds to a 2. Armed with 4 future NBA 1st round draft picks in juniors Jacque Vaughn and Scott Pollard, sophomore Raef Lafrentz, and freshman Paul Pierce 1996 would prove to be the deepest tournament run during their time together a Kansas. Going through their first three opponents with relative ease, the Jayhawks looked to be in good shape to make it to the Final Four with only the #4 seed Syracuse sitting in their way in the Elite 8. No such luck. The Orange's zone defense stifled the Jayhawks all afternoon.
2003 - Big 12 Tournament Semi-Finals - 25-7
Despite beating Texas in the regular season and making it farther than the Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament, the Selection Committee saw fit to give Texas the final #1 seed over the Jayhawks. It didn't matter though as both schools wound up making it to the Final Four. For Kansas to get there though, they had to run through #3 seed Duke in the Sweet 16 and #1 seed Arizona in the Elite 8 without the services of Wayne Simien who had been lost to injury. By the time the Jayhawks ran that tough guantlet they absolutely pounded Dwyane Wade's #3 seed Marquette squad in the Final Four, before, literally, running out of gas against the #3 seed Syracuse in the National Title game. Roy Williams would leave the program for North Carolina a week later.
2012 - Big 12 Tournament Semi-Finals - 27-6
I can honestly say that this is my favorite Kansas Jayhawks team of all time. I loved the way Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson played, so strong, so emotionally demonstrative. I loved how Jeff Withey came out of nowhere to emerge as the best shot blocker in the nation. I loved how every tournament game was a win by a skin of our teeth affair. Every game though, the Jayhawks would take control with about 5 minutes left and absolutely lock down the defense, make clutch shots and just overpower their opponents. They even did it against Kentucky in the National Title, but it was too little too late. This team played with so much heart, and I truly believe had they run up against anybody other than that Kentucky team with its once in a generational super freak Anthony Davis the Jayhawks would have won the title.
2014 - Big 12 Tournament Semi-Finals - 24-9
Andrew Wiggins came to Kansas as the most hyped player in the school's history. It was honestly impossible for the kid to ever live up to the unreal expectations of Kansas fans and basketball fans spanning U.S. and Canada. Even so he was still the best freshman in Kansas history, setting the freshman scoring record and establishing himself as a freak defender who always seemed faster to the rebounds of his missed shots than anyone else on the court. With the emergence of Joel Embiid the 2014 'Hawks looked poised for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Then Embiid's back fell apart and the Jayhawks offense seemed to start grinding its gears. Still, in the last game of the season and the first Big 12 Tournament game, Andrew Wiggins scored a combined 71 points, as well as stuffing the stat sheet with blocks and steals and rebounds. His performance had 'Hawk fans dreaming of a Danny Manning type MOP worthy run in the tournament or at the least it would be enough to sustain the 'Hawks until they got Embiid back in the Sweet 16. But it never came to that as the Jayhawks had an abysmal shooting performance in losing to #10 seed Stanford in the Round of 32.
Tournament Time 2015
Whatever happens in K.C. and beyond for the Jayhawks, I'm just so glad it's March and tournament time. I feel it's my reward for living in a place like Kansas. *political commentary deleted*
Enjoy the ride everybody!
Just 9 games left. Just 9 games. That's nothing. Tick them off one at a time. Easy enough, right?