The Big 12 Tournament should be one of the most exciting in the nation. Given the conference's depth, the drama should begin right away in the quarterfinal round and continue right through to the championship game next weekend.
Winning the tournament can provide a massive boost heading into the Big Dance. Not only does it give the team experience in a pressure-packed environment, but the confidence that comes from winning what amounts to a warm-up event is significant.
It should be an intriguing appetizer for fans, as well. Knowing that, let's analyze the contenders most likely to be holding the Big 12 trophy once the dust settles.
The biggest advantage Kansas owns is its defense. The Jayhawks protect the paint extremely well—mostly thanks to Jeff Withey's shot-blocking ability—and force opponents into a lot of contested jumpers from the perimeter.
It also helps to have four reliable threats on the offensive end. Elijah Johnson, who ranks fourth on the team in scoring, recently dropped 39 against Iowa State in an overtime victory. Ben McLemore leads the way at over 16 points per contest.
While there's no doubt Kansas falls into the the group of contenders for the NCAA Tournament, they can't afford a lackluster performance in the conference tourney. They have the depth to win it, and can't get caught looking ahead and enter the Big Dance on a low note.
2. Oklahoma State
Oklahoma State only has one truly bad loss on its résumé. That came all the way back in early December against Virginia Tech. Since then, all of the Cowboys' losses have been against ranked opponents or on the road against conference foes.
They are another contender built on a strong defensive foundation. Freshman guard Marcus Smart is a pest for opponents. He averages three steals per game and makes sure the top-scoring perimeter player on the other side has to work for their points.
The one concern with the Cowboys is their efficiency on the offensive end. They rank 134th in field-goal percentage. Smart shoots at a 40 percent clip and Phil Forte checks in at 38 percent. They can't have an off night if Oklahoma State is going to win the conference title.
3. Kansas State
Kansas State's only loss since late January heading into Saturday's high-profile matchup with Oklahoma State came on the road against rival Kansas. The Wildcats are seemingly peaking at the right time, but there are still a couple concerns holding them to third on the list.
On defense, they lack a dominant rebounder. Nobody on the team averages six rebounds, which is an issue late in games when boxing out and grabbing boards is crucial. On offense, they only have one go-to scorer in Rodney McGruder.
Although the those individual issues are concerning, it's hard to complain about how the Wildcats are playing as a team. They force games to be played at their slow pace, which helps take opponents out of their comfort zone, and they've been capitalizing.