Regular-season play in the Big 12 will come to a close over the weekend and determine the final seeding for the conference tournament next week. It should be one of the most exciting tourneys, as at least six schools are capable of making a deep run.
As it stands now, the 10 teams have separated themselves into three categories. Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are the top contenders. Oklahoma, Iowa State and Baylor are the dangerous sleepers. And the other four squads are the long shots.
It should make for an awesome atmosphere with plenty of drama in Kansas City. Let's examine the most important player for each of the main contenders. The player who steps up from this group will give his team a great chance to walk away with the trophy.
Kansas: Jeff Withey
Withey is the prototypical college athlete. He received very little playing time during his first two seasons with the Jayhawks, but his game was steadily improving during that time and now he's transformed into a force for Kansas.
The senior center is averaging 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocks per contest, all of which represent career highs. If the Jayhawks are going to run the table in the conference tourney, they need him to maintain or improve on those numbers.
Most importantly, they need him to defend the paint and rebound. They have enough perimeter talent, led by Ben McLemore, to pick up the scoring slack. The same can't be said on the defensive end, which makes Withey crucial to the team's success.
Kansas State: Rodney McGruder
The Wildcats have an efficient offense, but not a high-scoring one. They play at an extremely slow pace and only two players are averaging more than 10 points per game.
While it's certainly working, Kansas State must be prepared in case another team attempts to play a more up-tempo style. That's when the pressure would really begin to rise on McGruder, who leads the team in scoring for the second straight season.
If another team is pushing the pace early, it's McGruder's job to keep the game within reach until Kansas State can get things back under control. As much as the Wildcats would love to play every game at their pace, sometimes it's just not possible.
Oklahoma State: Marcus Smart
Oklahoma State has been playing really well since the end of January. It's no surprise that uptick in play coincides with Smart starting to settle in at the college level. He's topped the 20-point mark four times since the loss to Baylor. He had just three such games before that.
The talented freshman is a tremendous asset because he can do it all. He can score by attacking the paint or knocking down outside shots. He can lead the offensive attack, rebound and even his defense is above average for a first-year player.
Now that he has confidence to go along with all that talent, he's the type of player who can get hot in the tournament and carry the Cowboys to a title. He has to make sure to keep getting other players involved, though, and abandon the game plan that got them this far.