There may not be a conference tournament so decisive for so many teams' tournament fates as this week's Big 12 championship in Kansas City. Though the conference's top two teams are locked in to power seeds, the scrum for positioning below the top tier is as deep and competitive as any in the country.
The big question among Big 12 hoops observers right now is simple: five or six? In its 11-year history, the conference has never received six bids to the NCAA Tournament, but it's a very real possibility this year in what might be the conference's strongest ever top-to-bottom field. Also among the "never befores" to be considered is that no Big 12 team with an 8-8 conference record has received a bid to dance. As recently as last year, when the league was rated seventh by RPI, 10-6 Kansas State was left out of the field. This year, improved non-conference scheduling--highlighted by the first Big 12-Pac 10 Hardwood Series--has helped boost the league's overall profile (second in RPI), giving several 9-7 teams and 8-8 Texas A&M a chance to earn a bid.
With so many Big 12 teams still facing the possibility of a nervous Selection Sunday, it's worth looking closely at each team's resume, Big 12 tournament matchups, and likelihood of securing an invitation to the Field of 64. Each team's Big 12 tournament seed precedes its profile.
(2) Kansas (28-3, 13-3)
Pomeroy / RPI / Sagarin / Average: 1 / 6 / 4 / 3.7
(1) Texas (26-5, 13-3)
Pomeroy / RPI / Sagarin / Average: 9 / 5 / 9 / 7.7
On Solid Ground
(4) Oklahoma (21-10, 9-7)
Pomeroy / RPI / Sagarin / Average: 31 / 24 / 31 / 28.7
Strength of Schedule (RPI): 10
Vs RPI Top 50: 6-7
Vs RPI 51-100: 4-1
Vs RPI 101+: 11-2
Last 10: 6-4
Key wins: Arkansas, n-Gonzaga, n-West Virginia, at Baylor, Baylor, A&M
Questionable losses: at Colorado, at Nebraska, Stephen F. Austin
To secure a bid: Following a disheartening 18-point loss on the road to Nebraska to drop to 6-7 in conference play, Oklahoma looked like a team with an anchor around its neck. But heading into the conference championship, the Sooners find themselves on solid ground thanks to a three-game winning streak to close the regular season (A&M, at Oklahoma State, Missouri). A quarterfinal victory in the conference tourney would lock up their bid, but were they to stumble, it's mostly just a numbers game for Oklahoma. Namely, how many available at-large spots will there be for teams on the bubble? Assuming a healthy number of tourney-bound teams win their conference tournaments, Oklahoma will hear its name announced on Sunday.
Time to worry if: Should 12th-seeded Colorado upset Baylor and then Oklahoma, the big loser would be the Bears, as the Sooners swept the season series against Baylor in 2008. Losing to Baylor would be most problematic if the Bears were then to upset Texas, further boosting their resume. In that situation, it's possible Baylor's rise could come at the Sooners' expense, but there would have to be an improbably large number of conference tournament upsets to squeeze out Oklahoma. They appear to be in very good shape.
Work to Do
(5) Baylor (20-9, 9-7)
Pomeroy / RPI / Sagarin / Average: 34 / 33 / 33 / 33.3
Strength of Schedule (RPI): 31
Vs RPI Top 50: 3-8
Vs RPI 51-100: 3-1
Vs RPI 101+: 14-0
Last 10: 5-5
Key wins: n-Notre Dame, at A&M, Kansas State
Questionable losses: at Missouri
To secure a bid: The wheels very nearly came off Baylor's season during a brutal February stretch in which they lost four straight games, but they closed the season winning four of five, including critical wins over Kansas State and at Texas Tech. The win in Lubbock locking up the conference tournament's fifth seed may prove decisive to Baylor's NCAA tournament bid. Not only do they finish the season above .500 in Big 12 play, but they draw Colorado in the first round (easily the conference's worst team) and then Oklahoma. Though the difference between the Sooners and Wildcats isn't substantial, the Big 12 tournament host this year is Kansas City, where both Sunflower State teams will have friendly crowds in attendance. Though Baylor probably won't need two wins this weekend to earn a spot in the field, they would move into the 'Lock' category with a victory over Oklahoma.
Time to worry if: A loss to Colorado obviously would sting, but so would a disappointing showing against the Sooners. Though the committee evaluates a team's entire body of work, making a poor final impression certainly doesn't help. That the loss would be the third of the season to Oklahoma might especially give committee members reason to pause. One other scenario to consider: Baylor might find itself worried if Texas A&M were to win two or more games in Kansas City. In that scenario, should the Big 12 max out at five bids, Baylor or Kansas State could be the odd team out.
(3) Kansas State (20-10, 10-6)
Pomeroy / RPI / Sagarin / Average: 13 /44 / 32 / 29.7
Strength of Schedule (RPI): 27
Vs RPI Top 50: 3-5
Vs RPI 51-100: 2-3
Vs RPI 101+: 15-2
Last 10: 5-5
Key wins: at Oklahoma, vs A&M, vs Kansas
Questionable losses: at Missouri, at Nebraska
To secure a bid: The big worry for Kansas State has to be the significant disparity between their performance at home and on the road. The Wildcats were nearly perfect in Manhattan during Big 12 play, finishing 7-1 (loss to Texas) with wins over A&M (+21), Iowa State (25), Kansas (9), Nebraska (15), Oklahoma State (21), Missouri (37), and Colorado (6). However, look at the rest of Kansas State's schedule: outside a strong road win in Norman, the Wildcats haven't defeated an RPI Top 100 team away from Bramlage Coliseum. A semi-away victory over Texas A&M in the conference quarterfinals might ease any lingering concerns the committee has about this team's ability to play away from home.
Time to worry if: Kansas State's record is inflated by virtue of playing in the softer Big 12 North, making their third seed in the conference tournament somewhat deceptive. Losing to Iowa State in the quarterfinals would be ugly, but losing to Texas A&M might be worse; if the number of available at-large bids forced the committee to choose between the two, the most recent neutral floor winner (between two teams with comparable resumes) might just get the nod.
(6) Texas A&M (21-9, 8-8)
Pomeroy / RPI / Sagarin / Average: 19 / 46 / 28 / 31.0
Strength of Schedule (RPI): 57
Vs RPI Top 50: 3-6
Vs RPI 51-100: 4-2
Vs RPI 101+: 14-1
Last 10: 5-5
Key wins: n-Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, at Baylor
Questionable losses: Nebraska
To secure a bid: No team may give the selection committee a bigger headache than Texas A&M, which has fluctuated wildly in its performance from game to game. In the season's final four games alone, Texas A&M beat Texas Tech by 44, lost to Oklahoma by 27, defeated Baylor by 14, then lost to Kansas by 17. Such inconsistency suggests the Aggies may be the team to watch closest this week. A win over Iowa State is a must, but feeling comfortable on Sunday entails a win over Kansas State, as well. A&M fans might be feeling especially anxious right now because of the team's horrid track record in conference championship play - the Aggies are 1-11 all time in the Big 12 tournament.
Time to worry if: Losing to Iowa State would almost certainly burst A&M's bubble. Losing to Kansas State would force Texas A&M to root hard for all the at-large lock teams to win their conference tournaments.
Peter Bean is editor of BurntOrangeNation.com and manager of the collegiate network at Sports Blogs Nation. He can be reached here.