Before the season started, no one knew who would win the Big 12 Conference – it was either going to be the Kansas Jayhawks (23-8, 14-4) or the Oklahoma State Cowboys (21-11, 8-10). Or maybe both, as happens in the Big 12.
Few saw the brick wall the Cowboys hit head on in mid-season coming. The Jayhawks played their worst ball of the season early, before the conference season started, and again toward the end they had some issues. Oklahoma State, though, went to full meltdown mode in the middle of league play, losing seven straight games at one point.
It all boils down to an unfortunate quarterfinals match up for the Kansas Jayhawks. They would have been thrilled to meet the Cowboys in the tournament finals, but they won the league title for the 10th consecutive season, and are punished by playing Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals.
A clear indication of how rugged the Big 12 was this season is that the Cowboys finished 8-10, and in 8th place. They handled Texas Tech easily last night to set up what may be the most closely matched #1 seed versus #8 seed in a conference tournament in college basketball history.
Oklahoma State is probably the worst possible match up for Kansas. The Cowboys are experienced, where the Jayhawks are young. The Cowboys are the most physical team in the Big 12, while the Jayhawks prefer to win with athleticism.
Plus these two teams have a bit of a petty rivalry going between the players on both teams, and the coaches themselves.
To top it all off, the Kansas Jayhawks are without their most physical presence, center Joel Embiid, who is out for the tournament with a stress fracture in his lower back. Things are not looking very good for the Jayhawks.
The Cowboys seem to have a chip on the shoulder. Marcus Smart appeared miffed in the preseason about the attention being paid to Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. Travis Ford seems to be suffering from a little brother’s syndrome, trying to compete with an older sibling, and coming up short.
All of this has led to some very chippy, physical games between these two teams, and that plays in Oklahoma State’s favor, and they know it.
Today, the more physical of Kansas’ players need to be even more physical than usual. Tarik Black, Jamari Traylor, and guard Wayne Selden, Jr. need to play with extra intensity and physicality today. They need to be different leaders than are usually called for. They must stand up to whatever shenanigans the Cowboys bring to the court today.
The Jayhawks also need a star to play like a star. Andrew Wiggins must have a big day on both ends of the court. He doesn’t need 41 points like he scored at West Virginia in the season finale, because that game was a loss, but he needs to play big today. He needs to shine, and his teammates cannot be caught watching. They need to be helping him out.
Kansas has played poorly this season against physical teams, especially away from home. We need to see some serious growth today from the Kansas Jayhawks if they hope to win this game, they have to play one of their better all around games of the season. For once, playing an 8th seed is more punishment than reward. Champions win games like this.