KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Chris Beard played college basketball in Texas, worked for a spell at his alma mater, then spent most of his coaching career at small schools across the state before taking over as the head coach at Texas Tech.
Yet he was downright flabbergasted to learn no school from the Lone Star State had ever won the Big 12 Tournament.
“I'm a Big 12 guy. I've spent most of my life in the Big 12,” Beard said, “but I didn't know that.”
Well, the state has a good chance to change that this week.
Second-ranked Baylor, which has lost just once all season, will be the top seed when the tournament begins with a pair of first-round games Wednesday night in Kansas City, Missouri. No. 13 Texas also earned a first-day bye as the No. 3 seed and will play the No. 20 Red Raiders in the final quarterfinal game Thursday night.
Regardless of the route it takes, the Big 12 tourney champion will have beaten no fewer than three ranked opponents this week.
“It's a heck of an honor when you have seven Top 25 teams competing in it,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team has lost in the title game three times. “Whoever wins that, it's an unbelievable feeling, I'm sure. I've seen three teams celebrate and they looked pretty happy. I know our guys would love to be the first (from Texas), but there are going to be 10 teams up there really battling. It'll make for great TV and coaches will lose some hair.”
The tournament will have a different look, much like conference tournaments across the country, due to capacity restrictions brought on by the pandemic. But at least it will take place — only the two first-round games were played last year before the rest of the event was canceled with the first two quarterfinal teams going through warm-ups.
This time, it will be eighth-seeded TCU and No. 9 seed Kansas State tipping the tournament off Wednesday night. And in a sign of just how brutal the league has been this season, the nightcap features seventh-seeded and No. 25 Oklahoma against defending champion — albeit from 2019 — and No. 10 seed Iowa State.
The winner of Game 1 will face the Bears and the winner of Game 2 will face No. 11 Kansas in the quarterfinals, where No. 10 West Virginia will faced No. 12 Oklahoma State and the Longhorns face the Red Raiders.
“I don't see a positive or a negative (in being a No. 2 seed), I just see hard,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. "In this particular tournament, if you don’t play well you are going to go home, so we have to be pretty darn good starting Thursday.”
MORE ON THE BEARS
Baylor struggled after a three-week pause for COVID-19, barely squeaking by Iowa State before losing to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. But the Bears have their legs under them and their lungs back in shape. They knocked off the Mountaineers in overtime on the road, handled Oklahoma State with ease and then blew out the Red Raiders to finish the regular season.
“We're pretty locked in,” Bears guard MaCio Teague said. “We’ve still got some areas we need to improve in. We’re going to watch film coming up soon, and we’re just going to continue to get better as the season goes on.”
SEARCHING FOR CYCLONES
Iowa State has won four of the past six titles, but it would take four massive upsets to win a fifth. The Cyclones struggled with roster problems, COVID-19 pauses and a series of other issues while going winless in league play. Their only two wins this season came against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Jacksonville State.
Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham, who was voted Big 12 player of the year Tuesday, missed last weekend's win at West Virginia with an ankle injury. His status remains up in the air for Thursday's rematch with the Mountaineers, which will tip off earlier than usual — at 10:30 a.m. local time — to provide more time between games.
Good luck forecasting the Big 12 Tournament. Of the 85 games played during the conference season, nearly 40% of them were decided by five points or fewer, the highest percentage among the Power Five leagues. Home teams didn't have much of an advantage, either, winning just one more game than the road teams.
FOR THE FANS
There will be about 3,800 fans allowed in T-Mobile Center for the Big 12 Tournament. All of them will be required to wear face coverings. No hospitality venues inside the arena will be open and most events surrounding the tournament have been curtailed or canceled. Local bars and restaurants will be open with restrictions placed on them by the city.
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