KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The bulls-eye on the back of third-ranked Kansas these days is about as big as it’s been in coach Bill Self’s tenure.
The Jayhawks already have defended their Big 12 regular-season championship, winning the toughest league in the country by almost any measure in outright fashion. And beginning next week, Jalen Wilson and Co. will begin defense of the national title they won with a thrilling comeback victory over North Carolina last April.
In between, they’ll try to defend the conference tournament title they won by beating Texas Tech a year ago.
“It’s all good winning the Big 12 and doing these big things, but like coach said, ‘Now the expectations are higher,’” explained Wilson, who was voted conference player of the year Tuesday. “We have a huge target on our back. Not only for winning the conference, but everyone wants to beat Kansas. Everyone wants to beat the reigning national champions. We have to understand we’re going to get everybody’s best game.”
The top-seeded Jayhawks open their Big 12 Tournament on Thursday against the winner of No. 8 seed West Virginia and ninth-seeded Texas Tech, who meet in the first game of a first-round doubleheader Wednesday night.
The other first-round matchup is a Bedlam showdown between seventh-seeded Oklahoma State and No. 10 seed Oklahoma. The winner of that game gets second-seeded Texas on Thursday.
Two quarterfinal games already are set: No. 10 Baylor, the fourth seed, plays fifth-seeded Iowa State in Thursday’s opener, and No. 12 Kansas State, the third seed, plays sixth-seeded and No. 22 TCU in the nightcap.
“You look at it, and you can see a 1 by a name, you can see a 10 by a name, and us coaches know that there isn’t that big a margin,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “And the players understand it in the Big 12 because they’ve seen it first-hand and up close how good everybody is, and how competitive it is, and how physical and tough it is.”
Especially this year.
The Big 12 had six teams in the Top 25 most of the season, and it will likely land at least seven in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. It could be as many as eight or nine depending on what happens in Kansas City this week.
“Anybody can beat anybody. I mean, whoever at the time is toward the bottom of the standings can beat the teams at the top,” Cyclones coach TJ Otzelberger said. “There’s no other league in America that has as good a coaches, as good a players, as good a programs. And so you’ve got to be at your best every single game. There’s no night off.”
One of the reasons the Big 12 has been so tough this season is that it’s stacked with experience. Three seniors, a junior and a graduate were chosen first-team all-conference Tuesday, while a senior and two juniors joined freshmen Keyonte George of Baylor and Gradey Dick of Kansas on the second team.
West Virginia may have clinched an NCAA spot with its win over Kansas State last weekend, though beating the Red Raiders would allow Bob Huggins’ crew to breath easier. Oklahoma State could have an at-large case with a run to the title game, while Texas Tech and Oklahoma likely need to win a championship to make the field of 68.
The Cowboys are back at the Big 12 Tournament after a one-year postseason ban. Their NCAA hopes have taken a hit in recent weeks with a five-game losing streak that finally ended with a win over the Red Raiders last weekend.
Texas Tech will join Texas in having an interim coach on the sideline this week. The school said Monday that second-year assistant Corey Williams would lead the Red Raiders after coach Mark Adams was suspended for making “an inappropriate, unacceptable and racially insensitive comment” to a player last week.
Rodney Terry has been holding down the interim job with the Longhorns since December. He took over when coach Chris Beard was suspended and subsequently fired amid allegations of domestic violence.
George struggled in his return from an ankle injury in the Bears’ loss to Iowa State last week, though a few more days of recovery should help. TCU big man Eddie Lampkin Jr. has missed time with a back injury and Oklahoma State star Avery Anderson III only recently resumed basketball activities after wrist surgery.