The Big 12 Tournament starts on Wednesday, pitting a top-heavy group of 10 teams against each other for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Though the conference has seen better days—and far better ones, at that—there's still plenty of intrigue and gravity surrounding the event. No. 1 seeds and tournament berths will both be up for grabs in Kansas City.
College basketball is the consummate team sport, but sometimes—quite often, actually—one player is so vital that he absolutely must play well for his team to win. And a single-elimination tournament setting only makes that imperative stronger.
Here are three guys who qualify in the Big 12.
Pierre Jackson, Baylor
Baylor, per usual, entered 2013 with high expectations. They're big, they're athletic and on paper, they're good enough to hang with the big boys. But they've disappointed (again, per usual) on the court and are currently listed among Joe Lunardi's "First Four Out." (Per ESPN.com).
Now, if they want to (a) make a run in Kansas City, and (b) parlay that success into a bid in March, they'll need a massive performance from star guard Pierre Jackson.
The senior from Las Vegas is, indisputably, the keystone player on Baylor's roster. During his tenure in Waco, the formula's been pretty simple—as Jackson goes, so goes the team. If he plays well, they win; if he plays poorly, more often than not, they don't.
In the Bears' first game, against Oklahoma State, he'll be particularly important. He'll be tasked with out-dueling National POY candidate Marcus Smart. If he's unable to handle that duty, the NIT could very well be in Baylor's future.
Romero Osby, Oklahoma
Oklahoma actually does appear on Lunardi's aforementioned bracket, but with an early exit this week, that could change very quickly. With a couple wins in Kansas City, though, they'd feel much safer come Selection Sunday
And the Sooners' best shot at scoring a couple signature victories? That'd be Romero Osby.
The rugged, 6'8'' forward—a senior whose career started at Mississippi State—leads Oklahoma in points and rebounds per game. He's a bounding physical presence who, when duly motivated, is capable of banging with the NCAA's best bigs.
He'll have his work cut out for him this week, though. Iowa State played Osby well in the teams' first meeting, holding him to just six points on 2-of-10 shooting. And though he played better—much better— in their second meeting, Osby simply isn't a great matchup for the Cyclones.
If he can't combat that in the first round, Oklahoma, much like Baylor, could be looking at an NIT berth.
Jeff Withey, Kansas
Unlike Baylor and Oklahoma, Kansas' entry into the NCAA tournament isn't in flux. Even if they lose their first game by 80 points, they'll be in the field come Selection Sunday.
They are, however, jockeying for position inside that field, and with a Big 12 tournament title, they'll assuredly get a No. 1 seed.
In order to navigate their conference's field, they'll need center Jeff Withey—even more so than blue-chip freshman Ben McLemore—to be in peak form. He's the biggest, most battle-tested member of their team—something that's importance cannot be overstated.
If Withey plays the defense he's capable of playing, there's no team in the Big 12 who can beat them. He affects the game that dramatically.