Dixon: Big 12 tournament is “wide open”

TCU+v+West+Virginia+Basketball

TCU center Xavier Cork (12) goes up for the tip off in TCU’s 77-67 win over West Virginia in Fort Worth, Texas, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Esau Rodriguez Olvera/Head Staff Photographer)

By Colin Post

For the majority of conferences across the college basketball landscape, the teams with a chance to win the spring conference championships are typically predictable, sitting in the top half of the conference standings.

In the West Coast Conference, for instance, Gonzaga has practically won the conference tournament before it even begins.

According to TCU head coach Jamie Dixon, though, the Big 12 conference championship could not be more “wide open.”

“I think it’s even a little more wide open. Obviously, you’ve got the home court advantage for a few of the schools,” Dixon said. “That’s what I really hope this thing becomes in the Big 12: that the tournament gives so many teams get an opportunity to win the championship.”

Between 2006 and 2019, only three different teams ever won the Big 12 tournament–Kansas (eight times), Iowa State (four times) and Missouri (twice).

Last year, though, Texas won it after a harsh duel with Oklahoma State, and the conference has only continued to get more competitive.

Right now, all 10 teams in the Big 12 rank in the top 71 on Kenpom.com, and eight of them sit in the top 42.

Even West Virginia, who finished last in the conference at 4-14 in Big 12 play, earned a win over then-No. 15 UConn (currently No. 20) in early December.

When thinking about the current Big 12, Dixon was reminded of the state of the Big East when he was the head coach at Pittsburgh (2003-2016).

“That’s what you want,” Dixon said about the competitiveness of the Big 12 tournament. “That was something in the Big East Tournament. You never knew who was going to win the thing, so many good teams.”

Here’s a look at where each of the Big 12 schools stand going into the Big 12 tournament and a player from each of them who could provide a key impact in the postseason:

Kansas

A gutsy overtime win against Texas in Lawrence on Saturday earned Kansas a share of the Big 12 regular season title and the top seed in the Big 12 tournament.

The Jayhawks almost let the title slip through their fingers after road losses to Baylor and TCU, but gutsy wins over the Horned Frogs and the Longhorns at Allen Fieldhouse sent them into the postseason on a winning note.

In their first matchup of the tournament, Kansas will face the winner of Wednesday’s first round between Kansas State and West Virginia, meaning they should be able to cruise to the semifinals.

Nothing is promised in the Big 12, though, and head coach Bill Self told the media on Tuesday that his team is already more focused on success in the NCAA tournament than in the conference tournament.

What’s more, Jayhawk forward David McCormack, a member of the All-Big 12 Third Team, will be playing in a “limited” role in the Big 12 tournament due to a foot injury.

Because of that, Kansas appears to be a prime candidate for an upset in the tournament, even as early as the quarterfinals.

A player to watch for Kansas will be guard Remy Martin. The fifth-year senior averaged 19.1 points per game two-straight years at Arizona State but failed to score in double figures once in Big 12 play this year.

Though Self verified this week that Martin will not start anytime soon, a potent scoring threat off the bench could make Jayhawks even more dangerous during postseason basketball.

Baylor

Even after sustaining injuries to their top five players at one point in time (and losing their second-highest recruit to an ACL tear), Baylor found a way to win a share of the Big 12 regular season title.

Because of that, head coach Scott Drew was named Big 12 Coach of the Year for the third-straight year.

The Bears enter the conference tournament as the two seed and on an absolute tear, winners of their last five games and seven of their last eight. Three of those seven wins were against ranked opponents.

As the defending national champions, Baylor’s mind is likely already on the NCAA tournament, but with a matchup against Oklahoma in the quarterfinals, they feel like a lock to at least be in the semifinals.

An interesting note to watch for the Bears will be if guard LJ Cryer plays in the Big 12 tournament. He missed 10 of Baylor’s last 11 games with a foot injury and is questionable going forward.

A player to watch for Baylor will be forward Flo Thamba. The senior scored in double figures four times in Big 12 play, and they all came in the last seven games of the season.

With forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua out for the season, Thamba is the Bears’ lone big man presence. In a league where talented bigs are hard to find, an effective Thamba could push Baylor over the edge for their first Big 12 tournament championship win in school history.

Texas Tech

Many felt like Red Raider head coach Mark Adams deserved to be named Big 12 Coach of the Year after he found a monumental success in his first year with a program than now-Texas head coach Chris Beard nearly left in flames.

The AP voters agreed, giving Adams the award following his third place finish in the Big 12 with a roster that he re-built after Beard’s departure.

The Red Raiders even had a chance for a share in the Big 12 title, but they dropped two of their last three games to TCU and Oklahoma State by a combined four points.

Still, Texas Tech poses a massive threat to both the Big 12 and the entire nation, ranking first overall in adjusted defensive efficiency on Kenpom.com.

To start the conference tournament, the Red Raiders will take on Iowa State in the late game on Thursday night. Winning the matchup at home, Texas Tech lost their contest with the Cyclones on the road in a game where neither team shot above 39% from the field.

That represents a big question mark for the Red Raiders, as all eight of their losses this season came either away or at a neutral site. In the bright lights of March, their nationally-renowned home court advantage could come back to bite them.

A player to watch for Texas Tech is guard Terrence Shannon Jr. Considered one of the top NBA-level talents in the conference, Shannon dealt with a knee injury all year and fluctuated between red hot and ice cold.

A talented shot creator and, at times, a knockdown shooter, Shannon has not scored double-digit points in his last five games. If he can play like the 7-for-9, 20-point performer that he was against TCU on Feb. 12, Texas Tech could have one of the best defenses and offenses in the country throughout the postseason.

Texas

The scapegoat of criticism for the Big 12 (and the majority of the nation), Texas did not quite meet the expectations that their brand-new head coach (Chris Bead) and No. 1 transfer class brought forth.

Regardless, the Longhorns showed flashes of greatness at times, taking down both Tennessee and Kansas within the confines of the Erwin Center near the middle of Big 12 play.

As the four seed, Texas will begin the Big 12 tournament with a matchup against TCU, who they defeated twice this season.

Read more: TCU basketball heading into Big 12 tournament with “no excuses”

A player to watch for the Longhorns will be guard Courtney Ramey. An All-Big 12 Honorable Mention, Ramey averaged 9.3 points per game this year and is one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference.

For a team that makes its bread and butter on the defensive side of the ball, Ramey’s leadership in that area will be key for Texas as they try to defend their Big 12 tournament crown.

TCU

Picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 preseason poll, Dixon and the Frogs surprised many with their eight conference wins.

None were bigger than their back-to-back wins over then-No. 9 Texas Tech and then-No. 6 Kansas, which led to consecutive court storms at Schollmaier Arena.

The Frogs’ matchup with the Longhorns almost feels like an advantage for TCU, as beating a Big 12 team three times in one season seems close to impossible.

Read more: TCU basketball heading into Big 12 tournament with “no excuses”

TCU will absolutely have their hands full, though, as they had fluttered between tall peaks and low valleys throughout conference play.

It should be noted that leading scorer Mike Miles has dealt with a right wrist injury since Jan. 8 and a left wrist injury since Feb. 4. He intends to play through the injuries in the postseason, though they “still hurt.”

A key player for the Frogs will be forward Chuck O’Bannon. Through the first two-thirds of the season, the USC-transfer looked like one of the best shooters in the conference.

In his last 12 games, though, O’Bannon is just 12-for-53 (22.6%) from behind-the-arc. If the fifth-year veteran can return to form, he could help boost the Big 12’s second-worst three-point shooting team (30%) into a string of playoff wins.

Iowa State

Few teams in college basketball have been in a glass case of emotions this season quite like Iowa State.

After going winless in conference play last season, the Cyclones won their first 12 games this year, climbing to No. 8 on the AP poll. They then lost nine of their next 13 games to fall to the depths of the Big 12 standings.

Iowa State then won four-straight to get back on track, but a Hilton Coliseum-low 36-point performance against Oklahoma State and close loss to Baylor ended their regular season on a down note.

Guard Izaiah Brockington, who earned All-Big 12 First Team honors behind 17.5 points per game (third in Big 12), should pose a threat to any team in the tournament, but there is uncertainty behind the reliability of the rest of the Cyclones’ squad.

Because of that, a key player for Iowa State will be guard Tyrese Hunter. The true freshman has been a prolific scorer at times this year, and the Cyclones have a winning record since the start of 2022 (7-6) when he scores in double figures.

If the guard can get going on the offensive end, he could compliment Brockington enough to slide them past Texas Tech and into the semifinals.

Oklahoma

The Sooners are a tough team to figure out. They finished just 7-11 in Big 12 play, but they beat Arkansas (now No. 15) and Texas Tech (now No. 14) both by 15-plus points.

Arkansas also took down then-No. 14 Florida earlier this year 74-67. Remaining competitive in nearly every game, seven of their 11 conference losses came by single-digit point margins.

Oklahoma did end their regular season on a roll, winning three-straight. They sit near the middle of the conference in most major categories, providing an unknown as to who they will be in the Big 12 tournament.

A key player for the Sooners will be guard Umoja Gibson. The UNT-transfer stepped up when it mattered most this season, averaging 19.3 points per game in Oklahoma’s four ranked wins this year.

Also adding 29 points in Oklahoma’s season-closing win over Kansas State, Gibson represents a ticking time bomb for the Sooners that could explode at any minute and help them compete with two seed Baylor.

Kansas State

Like Iowa State, the Wildcats have single super star complimented by a group of inconsistent, but sometimes powerful role players.

Guard Nijel Pack was named to the All-Big 12 First Team this week after averaging 17.4 points per game (fourth in the Big 12) and shooting a league best 43.6% from three-point range, which ranks sixth nationally.

Kansas State gave nearly everyone in the Big 12 trouble this year, taking down Texas Tech and Texas in back-to-back games at one point.

On the flip side, the Wildcats had three losing streaks of three or more games, ending the regular season on a five-game skid.

They should have the advantage in their first round matchup with West Virginia, but taking down Kansas would take a masterful performance from Pack, which still may not be enough.

A key player for Kansas State is Markquis Nowell, who transferred from Arkansas Little Rock over the offseason. The junior ranks first in the Big 12 in steals (2.23 per game) and second in assists (5.08).

Nowell has scored 16-plus points in his last five games. If he keeps his stellar play up on both ends of the floor, the Wildcats will win the first round and compete hard in the quarterfinals.

West Virginia

As previously mentioned, the Mountaineers won just four games in conference play, and West Virginia could be nearing the end of the Bob Huggins era.

Even so, fifth-year guard Taz Sherman is one of the top scoring threats in the conference, averaging 18.3 points per game (second in the Big 12) and earning All-Big 12 Second Team honors.

Sherman dropped 25 points on his Senior Day in a win over TCU, and he scored in double figures in all but one game this entire season.

West Virginia is certainly the underdog in the tournament, even in the first round, but Sherman alone presents the possibility that the Mountaineers could move on to the quarterfinals.

A key player for West Virginia is guard Sean McNeil. In the Mountaineers’ four conference wins, McNeil averaged 15.2 points, which is a stark improvement from his 12.2 point average on the season.

A plethora of buckets from Sherman is all-but guaranteed, but McNeil will have to provide another weapon for West Virginia for their season to continue into Thursday.

Oklahoma State

Despite finishing sixth in the Big 12 at 8-10, Oklahoma State is ineligible to play in the conference tournament due to an NCAA-imposed postseason ban.

Had they been able to play, the Cowboys would have provided a competitive matchup for anyone in the Big 12. Six of their 10 losses in conference play came by five or fewer points.

Oklahoma State defeated No. 12 Texas Tech 52-51 on Saturday in Stillwater to end their season at an even 15-15.

Up first

The 2022 Big 12 Men’s Championship will begin in Kansas City on Wednesday. The first round will feature a matchup between eight seed Kansas State and nine seed West Virginia at 6 p.m. on ESPNU.