One of the biggest events in Kansas City annually is the Big 12 Basketball Championship, which takes place at the Sprint Center. Though I did not have any dog in this fight (as a Californian who went to Gonzaga for undergrad, Big 12 basketball is still pretty new to me), I was able to go and enjoy the experience. Here are some of my thoughts from attendance at Day One of the Big 12 Championship back in 2017.
I am not going to pretend by any means I am an expert on Big 12 hoops. Growing up in the West Coast, it was primarily a diet of Pac-12 (then Pac-10) and WCC basketball, and if I got up early enough in the mornings, it would be Big East or Atlantic 10 basketball on ESPN (oh the Marcus Camby UMass, Ray Allen UConn, Allen Iverson Georgetown, and Kerry Kittles Villanova days). The Big 12 (or Big 8 in its prior existence)? Eh…I haven’t really cared or paid all that much attention to it. Kansas? I would have rather seen them upset in the tourney than win a national title (wasn’t the biggest Roy Williams guy). Texas? They were cool when they had Kevin Durant…I guess (I did see him play against a Nick Young-led USC team my sophomore year in college when the NCAA Tournament held games in Spokane; somehow, they played some of the most uninspired basketball ever; this Texas team was led by Durant and DJ Augustin and somehow they looked like a NIT team that day). Everybody else? Sans a brief love affair with a Frank Martin and Michael Beasley-led Kansas State team (mostly to combat Tyler Hansbrough apologists), I have developed an apathy for Big 12 hoops over my nearly 30 years of existence on this earth.
However, the past four years, I have lived in the heart of Big 12 country (Kansas City). No longer are UCLA, or USC, or Cal, or Gonzaga, or UW gear the norm, but rather Jayhawk, Wildcat, and Cyclone apparel instead. When people bring up Kirk Heinrich, and Nick Collison, and Georges Niang, they don’t highlight their middling careers as NBA bench players, but rather their hey-days as Midwestern college basketball legends. It’s been an adjustment. In some ways, I enjoy all the attention on college basketball from January-to-April (College football dominates November and December) that is for the most part ignored in the West Coast until conference tournament time. (The NBA is king in the West Coast, and with the Warriors, Lakers, Blazers, Kings, Clippers and Suns, can you blame them?)
On other occasions though, I find the adjustment to Midwestern D1 hoops difficult, as I find the average Big 12 basketball fan views basketball in the most “Gene Hackman-from-Hoosiers” fashion possible. Certain guys are loathed (Andrew Wiggins) while other guys lauded (Wayne Selden) because the average Big 12 fan mistakes supreme individual skills for “showboating,” or “declaring for the draft early” not as an “exceptional opportunity” but “as selfish.” (Yeah, I would play basketball for free and risk millions of dollars so I can eat at a campus cafeteria 5 days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. too). Crappy, low-scoring, shitty shooting performances are seen not as “bad basketball” (like it should be), but “defensively driven, gritty contests”. And the NBA in the average Big 12 fans’ mind is seen as “boring” while a 54-52 game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is characterized as “the right way to play the game.” (even if those teams shoot around 30 percent and each turn the ball over 20 times…but hey! Fundamentals, right? Whatever those fundamentals are.)
But I get it. The name on the front matters more than in the back, and that makes sense at any college, let alone Big 12 country. These people aren’t necessarily basketball addicts like myself, but just college sports fans, so I can understand the misinterpretations and heavy “college-is-better-than-the-NBA” bias (I certainly used to be that way for a period of time…than I graduated college). So, this year, instead of just hating the Big 12 like I have done most of my tenure here in Kansas City, I decided to see what Big 12 basketball really was all about, and what better way to do it than to go to the first session of the Big 12 Championship at the Sprint Center.
Pregame: Power and Light
The Power and Light district is probably the biggest entertainment district in Kansas City. In most instances, it sucks. It feels very manufactured, and overly caters to a “just out of their fraternity and sorority” crowd. Everything tends to be overpriced, and ruckus usually happens because Mizzou frat boy can’t stand that his KState sorority girlfriend is talking to that KU dude from a rival frat. (Can you tell that I wasn’t in Greek life in college?) I feel like for a Friday night in Kansas City, there are way more authentic places to go to, especially off the strip in Westport (the main strip has become P&L lite), in the Crossroads or even the Strawberry Hill area of Kansas City, Kansas (though to be frank, those places are more for “hanging out” rather than “partying” or “clubbing” like P&L).
However, to it’s credit, the P&L exhibits the “Big 12 aura” of the Championship week. The main concourse area of the P&L is decked out with Big 12-basketball themed regalia, and legions of basketball fans are supporting their schools in appropriate colors. Whether it was Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas, Texas Tech, etc. every patron that late afternoon in Power and Light with a beer or mixed drink in hand seemed to have some kind of vested interest in a particular school participating over the four-day affair. To be honest, I was impressed. I don’t think the WCC Tournament in Vegas or Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles would have that kind of school gear-to-fan ratio. At those tournaments, it would be common to see some NBA stuff or some other school stuff. But Wednesday evening? It was strictly Midwestern college apparel only. Nothing else allowed.
The downside of the pregame festivities? Prices. 14 dollars for a Blue Moon. Yeesh…I thought the cost of living was supposed to be less in the Midwest?
Game 1: TCU (8 seed) vs. Oklahoma (9 seed)
After a Final Four appearance a year ago, this season has been the polar opposite for Lon Kruger and the Sooners. I knew the loss of Buddy Hield would hurt, but holy smokes…OU cannot shoot at all. In both halves, the Sooners got off to decent starts, using their length and size to get easy buckets around the paint. However, that all changed when Jamie Dixon got his TCU to switch to a 2-3 zone. Somehow, the Horned Frogs’ 2-3 chewed up the Sooners like a Kansas class 6 school chewing up a class 4A-II one on the high school boys basketball court. Because TCU took away the paint with their 2-3, the Sooners settled for mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper (the most inefficient shot in basketball…ask Marshall’s Dan D’Antoni). And one shot after another just clanked off the rim. And from beyond the arc, they weren’t much better, as they shot 4-18, good for 22.2 percent. There are many ways to beat a zone beyond shooting, of course (ball movement; smart screens; getting it in the middle; attacking the baseline, etc.). However, outside shooting is the easiest ways to exploit zone-defenses, and lacking the ability to shoot (as Oklahoma has displayed all year by their 47.4 effective field goal rate, which ranks 300th in the nation) made it that much harder for the Sooners to score buckets. Add that with the fact OU was careless with their skip passes (they turned it over 10 times), and it makes sense that they lost by nearly 20 in the 82-63 first round contest. Granted, this was a young and injured OU team, so expectations were low going into the tournament (even with a win over TCU, they had a date with Kansas in the next round; and at 11-19 going into the game, they weren’t going to any postseason whatsoever). Hence, judging from the body language of Kruger (Kruger didn’t even stand up from his seat until the first media timeout), the bench, the cheerleaders, band, and the fans decked in Sooner gear in the stands, it was obvious that they were just ready to get this miserable season over with.
TCU on the other hand, may have been the most impressive team of the night. Though they lost 7 straight to finish the year (hence, killing any at-large potential they may have had) and finished 17-16 and 6-12 in conference, this is a vastly improved TCU team from years past. And why? Dixon. I don’t think Dixon was given enough credit in his tenure at Pitt. He had them regularly competing for Big East championships and had them competitive in the ACC when they arrived, not easy to do considering the pedigree of the other programs in the conference (Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, etc.). The biggest knock on Dixon was that he never made it to the Final Four, even though he had teams with enough talent to do so…allegedly. After all, how many Pitt Panthers that Dixon coached are playing in the NBA? Eh…not many (I can’t name any off the top of my head). That just goes to show you how Dixon maxed out their potential when they suited up for him in Pittsburgh.
The energy the Horned Frogs brought to the court in this Big 12 first round game proved to be impressive, and by the end of the first half, it was obvious that TCU had the Sooners whooped. TCU basically owned the Sooners on the little details: 50-50 balls, jumping the lanes on skips, energy off the bench. etc. Yes, this TCU team is probably hoping for a NIT berth (at best). But the attitude displayed on Wednesday night stemmed directly from coaching, and Dixon has this team playing with a moxie and a confidence that wasn’t really seen under Trent Edwards. (Then again, Edwards was a horrifically overrated coach; he had one good year at Nevada where he upset a Gonzaga team that probably was over-seeded and he had a couple of good years when he had the Lopez twins at Stanford; other than that though, his teams at Stanford, LSU and TCU have been crap, and I’m surprised he lasted as long at TCU as he did).
But while Dixon deserves credit, make no mistake, this TCU team is talented. I haven’t watched a lot of them this year (well…to be honest, not at all, because I watch a combo of NBA, Euroleague and WCC primarily), but they certainly are a team capable of playing above their seed and record. Though inconsistent, Jaylen Fisher is a talented floor leader who can go off when he’s feeling it, both with his strong dribble drive as well as his pull-up jumper (though he really wasn’t on tonight, as evidenced by his 90 offensive rating for the game, highlighted by 3-of-12 shooting overall). Slovakian center Vladimir Brodziansky, certainly lived up to All-Big 12 honors hype, as he went for 20-6 on 10-of-13 shooting from the field, dominating the Sooners bigs with a trio of strength, soft touch around the rim and footwork in the block. Considering my affinity for European players in college, the NBA and abroad, I was surprised Brodziansky had been off my radar for so long. He absolutely made mince meat of the Sooners, and I look forward to his matchup with Landen Lucas of Kansas Thursday.
However, one of the biggest stars of the game proved to be Kenrich Williams, KenPom’s MVP for the game with an offensive rating of 140 on only a usage rate of 21 percent. Williams went for 19 and 9 on 8 of 10 shooting from the field, including 2 of 4 from beyond the arc. He also had 3 steals (initiating the Horned Frogs fast break off lazy skip passes by the Sooners) and 3 assists as well. While talking with a couple of KU fans during the Texas-TTU game, he seemed to be a focus point, especially considering Josh Jackson is suspended for the first game, and it is debated whether anyone else on the Jayhawks will be able to step up in response to that defensive assignment on Williams.
While the Jayhawks will be able to weather Brodziansky with Lucas and Fisher with Mason, it will be interesting to see who Bill Self will match up on Williams with Jackson out. While the Jayhawks should be heavy favorites, another big game by Williams could make this 1-8 second round Big 12 Championship game a lot closer than expected, and in single-elimination competitions like the Big 12 Championship “closer than expected” can lead to an upset if the chips fall right (bad shooting night from the Jayhawks, foul trouble, etc.)
Game 2: Texas Tech (7 seed) vs. Texas (10 seed)
I was looking forward to this game more than the TCU-OU contest because I had a strong interest in both of the coaches. I have always had an affinity for Shaka Smart back to his VCU days: he’s a fiery coach, and I loved the “Havoc” style they put on teams on a nightly basis. As for Tech, while I know what Chris Beard did at Little Rock and currently at Texas Tech, I was interested to see what his teams looked like? Were they scrappy? Were they tough? Could they handle the athleticism and size of Texas? Were they like his Little Rock team last year or a whole different animal all together?
That being said, at the end of the game, I came away disappointed in both teams. Now, that’s not to say I think any less of the coaches. I think they are excellent in their profession, and it’s difficult to do consistent damage in a conference like the Big 12 where there are so many accomplished coaches (seriously, Oklahoma State and TCU lost Travis Ford and Edwards and replaced them with Brad Underwood and Dixon, respectively…that’s like upgrading from a Honda Civic to a BMW Z4). However, it was obvious after Wednesday’s night games that they still have a long way to go and some adjustments to make if they want to really challenge the league’s upper half of Kansas, Iowa State, West Virginia and Baylor.
At the start, it looked like Tech was going to make this a blowout. They got off to a 23-11 lead, and the Red Raiders just seemed to out-hustle the more highly-recruited Longhorns. McDonald’s All-American Jarrett Allen kept getting pushed around on the block like a timid high school kid, and the Longhorns kept settling for crappy, contested shots. Furthermore, Tech pounced after loose balls in the first half, as well as 50-50 balls on the offensive glass. The “Havoc” I expected to see from Smart’s Texas team was non-existent in the first 20 minutes. They didn’t communicate on defense. They didn’t play together. They didn’t press. It was as if Rick Barnes was still coaching the Longhorns, not the plucky Energizer bunny who led a Mid-Major team to the Final Four. My thinking midway through the first half was “Hey, maybe Tech can make a run and get that at-large tourney berth after all, especially if they carry this momentum into the West Virginia game next round.”
But after the Longhorns got a tip in at the buzzer of the first half to make it 26-20, things changed. Tech seemed less cohesive on offense. Texas turned up the pressure on defense, throwing full court and half court presses that were non-existent in the first half. While Tech in the first half looked like the team desperate to keep their season alive, it was the Longhorns in the second half that had taken that mantle. Make no mistake: this was not a good basketball game, and the Longhorns, though they won 61-52, did not play well at all. They scored 1.00 per possession this game (compared to Tech’s 0.85 mark), but that spiked up at the end during a frantic 28-10 run during the last quarter (i.e. 10 minutes) of play. They only shot 5-23 from beyond the arc, but they started the game 1-of-13 or 1-of-14 (I’m too lazy to check; either way, it was shit). And Allen, who did receive All-Big 12 honors and scored 10 points, did so on 2 of 9 shooting with only 3 rebounds. The Longhorns certainly have potential, and when they’re clicking, they show glimpses of the team that had so much promise in the preseason. But to think they got a shot against West Virginia? Neigh way, Jose.
As for Tech, I wondered if something happened that just sapped their energy and momentum. At the end of the first half, I noticed a player went down hard at the buzzer, and that appeared to be a sign of things to come. Tech looked slower, which is not surprising considering they play one of the slowest paces in the nation (they rank 328th in pace). But slow can be a good thing if a team is crisp and clicking in the half court and making teams work. However, more often than not in the second half, it proved to be the opposite. It was a bit sad to see, because there were definitely more Tech fans in the building, and it’s always nice to see obnoxious Longhorns fans be put in their place, no matter what the sport. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t the Red Raiders’ half and hence, night. They couldn’t handle the Longhorns’ speed and athleticism, and that will be a major building block for Beard this off-season: getting his team bigger and faster to match up better with the big boys of the Big 12.
I hopped on the streetcar at the station across from the P&L around 10’ish, when the game finished. It was packed like a New York subway train during Friday morning rush hour, but it was worth the inconvenience, as I had to take it back to Union Station to pick up my car (I parked in that area to avoid the expensive parking; I’ll take 5 buck parking over 30 any day). Most of the conversations i overheard stemmed on how Kansas would fare against TCU. Most were pretty positive, most felt confident, though the questions surrounding the loss of Jackson for the first game certainly came up on occasion in the sardine-crammed car more than once.
Kansas City probably will never get a NBA team (again) in my lifetime. I won’t be able to afford tickets for the remainder of games this week, but I do hope one day to get session tickets for the first two days of the tournament, mainly because I’m a basketball junkie and spending dozens of hours watching hoops is heaven to me.
Is the Big 12 Championship a hoops heaven? Maybe not mine exactly. I don’t really understand the Big 12 like some fans in this area. Basketball is different for me than it is for them. I associate Keith Langford more with UNICS Kazan or Paul Pierce with the Celtics than the Jayhawks, and I understand that’s sacrilege in these parts. It’s why the Big 12 Championship won’t be the kind of hoops heaven for me as it is for someone who went to school in Lawrence or Manhattan or Ames, Iowa.
But it IS a kind of hoops heaven, and that’s worth experiencing, especially when its in the city that you live in.
Just make sure you come with a lot of cash.