Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

March 13, 2014

Big 12 tournament holds great importance for OU

Sooners open up the Big 12 tournament on Thursday against Baylor in quarterfinals in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been exactly five years since Oklahoma entered the Big 12 tournament fully understanding it had a spot in the NCAA tournament sewn up.

Yes, last season the Sooners played in the tournament, but as a No. 11 seed. They unquestionably received one of the last 10 at-large bids.

Won’t be the case on Sunday. The 17th-ranked Sooners (23-8, 12-6) are projected as a fifth seed or better for March Madness. Anything above that would be a shock.

So, how important is the Big 12 tournament for the Sooners?

“It’s hugely important,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We’ll treat every game like it’s the most important thing.”

It’s the sentence Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby would love to hear from every team. The four-day, nine-game tournament at Sprint Center is the league’s largest event. This year, it appears to be the most wide open it has ever been.

Top-seeded Kansas, which earned the conference title by two games, will be playing without freshman center Joel Embiid and has dropped two of its last three. His absence, seemingly, brings the eighth-ranked Jayhawks back to the pack.

The pack is immense. The Sooners finished second in the league, but only six games ahead of ninth-seeded Texas Tech, which beat them at Lloyd Noble Center on Feb. 12. The Sooners will face seventh-seeded Baylor at 6 p.m. today. The Bears have won seven of their last eight games.

The team that cuts down the nets on Saturday night will have passed through a meat grinder.

Some coaches don’t want that just five days before beginning play in the NCAA tournament.

Kruger isn’t in that contingent. His players would love to climb a ladder and snip some twine Saturday.

“The Big 12 tournament is the most important thing to us because it’s next,” point guard Jordan Woodard said.

A decade ago, the Big 12 tournament was OU’s de facto home away from home. It claimed the event three straight times from 2001-03.  

However, there’s no irrefutable evidence OU improved its seed by winning the conference tournament any of those years. The Sooners were a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2001, but were No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25 going into the event. They ranked No. 3 in 2002 and still received a No. 2 for March Madness. In 2003, they received a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, but were ranked sixth, nationally, prior to the Big 12 tournament.

But that was back when Big 12 crowned its tournament champion late Sunday afternoon. The NCAA tournament selection committee lacked the time to digest the significance of a Big 12 tournament title.

That changed when the championship game moved to Saturday night in 2010.

Still, a lot of people — many of them coaches — believe when an NCAA tournament berth is in the bag, the conference tournament becomes an exhibition.

Kruger understands that rationale.

“Some might say if you lose, you’re fresher going into the NCAA tournament. We haven’t had that luxury yet. We’re still at the point where we try to compete as well as we can every time out,” he said. “I’m not saying people don’t, but we’re not thinking in those terms.”

Perhaps it’s a matter of OU needing to re-establish itself as one of the Big 12’s best programs.

Success in the conference tournament has been minimal over the last decade. OU has not reached the semifinals since 2008 and is 5-10 in the last 10 conference tournaments. That mark includes going 0-2 the last two years.

Finishing second in the league marks just the sixth time since 2003 OU entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed or better.

Winning a conference title — even the tournament — would elevate the Sooners’ stature. But so would playing a couple weekends in the NCAA tournament.

“Obviously, one team is going to win it and the other six or seven are going to prepare for the NCAA tournament. At that point, it becomes the most important,” Kruger said. “We’ll go into it like the other nine teams — trying to win the conference championship.”

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