When and Where: Wednesday – Saturday, Sprint Center, Kansas City
Last year: Missouri made a run through the Big 12 tournament in their final year in the league, beating Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor en route to a #2 seed before losing to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament
This year: For the ninth straight year Kansas won at least a share of the Big 12 title, finishing 14-4 in league play. There are two extra games in the conference season now, but it is just the third time in the streak in which the Jayhawks lost four or more conference games. This year they are joined at the top by Kansas State, who won the league title in Bruce Weber's first year, much like Illinois in Weber's first year.
The favorite: Kansas outscored the Big 12 by .14 points per trip, and led the nation in both two point defense and eFG allowed. They were up and down offensively, finishing with the 3rd best eFG in the league but they were 7th in turnovers, which is a big problem going forward. Still, the Jayhawks are ranked 8 spots higher in KenPom than Oklahoma State, and more than 20 spots higher than any other Big 12 team, making them a fairly sizable favorite….if they show up.
The Jayhawks need Ben McLemore to continue his aggressive play, but the keys going forward will be the play of Elijah Johnson and the number of shot attempts they can give to Travis Releford, who is second in the nation in true shooting percentage, and Jeff Withey. Johnson has played extremely well lately, with the much publicized 39 point outburst against Iowa State but also dishing 31 assists while turning it over just 12 times from the Iowa State game on. He struggled in their loss to Baylor, going just 3-13 from the floor, and how he shoots and how little he turns it over will be huge keys this weekend. Withey, meanwhile, is known mostly for being perhaps the best defender in the country, but he has improved both his shooting (58% eFG) and rebounding (21.1% def. rebounding rate) as well
The contender: Although they finished third in the league, Oklahoma State is probably the second best team in the league. They had the misfortune of playing at Kansas State for their first Big 12 game, and it went about how one would expect a young team to fare in its first road test against a veteran laden one.
Marcus Smart has gotten the lion's share of the credit for the Cowboys' success this year, but while he is at worst the second best perimeter defender in the league, I'm not sure how many people who have an eFG of 46.1% deserve to be conference player of the year. Not getting enough credit is Markel Brown, one of the most underrated players in the league, who has turned himself into a long range bomber in his Junior year, raising his three point percentage from 32% to 38%
The dark horse: Last season a team that spread the floor with a lot of guards bombed their way to a Big 12 tournament title, so why not again this year? Iowa State led the league scoring 1.13 points per possession, and they shot 39% from three in league play. Not just a long range team, they shot 52% from two as well. If they get hot they could make a run through the tournament, but the major problem is that easy baskets are at a premium: via Hoop Math, no regular attempted 50% of his shots at the rim, and only two players were over 40%.
The Cyclones have five players shooting over 35% from three, led by Senior Tyrus McGee, who has the 3rd best offensive rating in the country and is shooting 47% from deep. Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang do most of their work inside, with Ejim being by far the team's best rebounder (25.6% def. rebounding rate) and Niang being a viable Freshman of the year candidate in any year without Smart or Ben McLemore.
The Cyclones will have to beat Oklahoma, then probably Kansas and either Oklahoma State or Kansas State so they have the toughest road of any contender for the tournament title, but most neutrals will be rooting for them so that the rest of the country gets a chance to find out how fun this team is to watch