The 2014 Big 12 basketball tournament should be a prime opportunity to showcase one of the deepest league's in the country. In Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology update for ESPN, the Big 12 led all conferences with seven projected bids.
Thus, the Big 12 has many more significant contenders than Kansas' 10-year dominance would seem to imply. The regular-season champs will be the favorites in the conference tournament, and deservedly so.
But the Jayhawks are far from impregnable, and there are multiple teams that could stymie Kansas from winning its fourth conference tournament in the past five seasons. With that in mind, here's a look at the best dark-horse contenders who could win the Big 12's postseason crown.
Iowa State Cyclones
Besides Kansas, the Cyclones have been the Big 12's steadiest team all season. Only a 25-point loss at Morgantown stands out as a significant wart on their resume, and Iowa State appears headed toward a top-four seed at the NCAA tournament.
Iowa State plays at one of the fastest paces in the country—KenPom.com has them 10th—and that frenetic tempo has created a highly efficient offense built around solid shooting and the senior tandem of forward Melvin Ejim and guard DeAndre Kane.
Ejim, who leads the team with 18.9 points per game on 52.5 percent shooting from the field, garnered national attention for his 48-point explosion against lowly TCU last month. However, in reality, Ejim has put up one of the conference's best seasons in recent history:
The Cyclones are not simply a trendy sleeper to win the Big 12 tourney, but also to crash the Final Four. Sitting at second in the conference, Iowa State would surely love an opportunity to avenge its Jan. 13 home loss to the Jayhawks.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys are fresh off a home victory over Kansas, and they have righted the ship with three straight wins after a debilitating seven-game losing streak threatened to derail their season. Oklahoma State remains firmly on the bubble, but with Marcus Smart averaging 18 points a game since his suspension, the Cowboys once again have their leader playing like a top draft pick.
Smart's 20-point second half against Kansas was indicative of why the Pokes remain a dangerous club, even with a borderline tournament resume. Oklahoma State is peaking back toward its early-season form, and as SI.com's Zac Ellis notes, there is a prevailing sentiment the Cowboys are a tourney team:
Over the last month, the Cowboys were anything but a tournament team, but the tables have turned for this program, and the matchup with Kansas was the biggest step in proving its worth. The college basketball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Teams grow from one month to the next. For Oklahoma State, these Cowboys just happen to be peaking at the right time, and a win against a team like Kansas is just what the tournament selection committee wants to see.
The Cowboys do not really need to win the Big 12 tournament to crash the dance, but they would be well-served with a win or two. With Smart back in the fold, Oklahoma State may really be the second- or third-best team in the league, regardless of what the record says.
Winning on the road is the sign of a team that is not only talented, but also mature. Besides Kansas, the Sooners are the only Big 12 team with more than three conference road victories, which include wins at Austin and Stillwater.
If anyone is going to pass Iowa State for second in the Big 12, Oklahoma looks like the most likely candidate after notching its second win over rival Texas. As Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman notes, the Sooners' win over the Longhorns demonstrates their significant defensive progress:
The Sooner offense has rolled along all year, but its defense was questionable for large stretches.
But OU forced 16 Texas turnovers and converted those into 23 points.
“These guys have made a ton of progress defensively,” Sooner coach Lon Kruger said. “Isaiah kind of took responsibility on the perimeter to toughen us up and play with greater purpose and greater significance and the other guys fed off that.”
The Sooners lost twice against Kansas this season, but they were extremely competitive in both contests. With a better defense to supplement one of the best offenses in the nation, Oklahoma is shaping up as a postseason threat in both the Big 12 and NCAA tournament.
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