KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) It’s the marquee matchup that everyone figured would happen in the Big 12 tournament: Kansas against Oklahoma State, featuring Andrew Wiggins and Marcus Smart.
Not many people thought it would be happening in the quarterfinals.
The top-seeded Jayhawks earned a bye into Thursday’s showdown with their 10th consecutive regular-season title, but the eighth-seeded Cowboys – who at one point lost seven straight league games – needed to beat Texas Tech in a first-round matchup just to get the opportunity.
None of that matters now. The two teams picked as favorites to win the Big 12 title last fall will meet at the Sprint Center for a spot in the tournament semifinals.
”We understand the challenge. It’s going to be an incredible challenge,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. ”We have a lot of respect for Kansas, and we understand how good they are.”
In the other quarterfinals, second-seeded Oklahoma will play seventh-seeded Baylor, which didn’t put away pesky TCU until late in their game Wednesday night. No. 3 seed Texas will play No. 6 seed West Virginia, and fourth-seeded Iowa State will play fifth-seeded Kansas State.
The game that’s sure to draw the most interest, though, is Kansas-Oklahoma State.
The Jayhawks have the star freshman in Wiggins, while the Cowboys have arguably the league’s most dynamic player in Smart, who had 18 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and six steals in an 80-62 victory over Texas Tech on Wednesday night.
Neither player was particularly good in their first meeting – Smart was 3 for 14 from the field and 0 for 6 from beyond the arc, while Wiggins scored just three points. And they played to a virtual draw when the teams met in Stillwater earlier this month.
So maybe the game will be decided by their supporting casts.
The Jayhawks will be without star center Joel Embiid, who has been ruled out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his back. The 7-foot shot-blocker participated in a light shoot-around at the Sprint Center on Wednesday, but Kansas coach Bill Self said he was just ”jacking around.”
”He’s not playing this week, at all,” Self said. ”The thing about it is, we’ll play him whenever the doctors and Joel’s body say he’s ready to play, and I’m confident – and others are – that it’s going to happen. But to be real candid, we may have to advance for it to happen.”
Self means the No. 10 Jayhawks would have to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about advancing at least one more day in the Big 12 tournament, where his Jayhawks are the defending champions.
”We practiced well this week and I anticipate us playing well,” Self said. ”I can’t imagine there being a stronger field in America for the postseason tournament. It’ll be fun, it’ll be interesting and whoever comes out of it will have earned it.”
The Jayhawks and Cowboys will take the court about 30 minutes after Iowa State and Kansas State kick off the four-game quarterfinal slate on Thursday.
The Cyclones, who are firmly in the NCAA tournament, beat the Wildcats in Ames earlier this season, but fell in Manhattan just over a week ago. Kansas State is trying to take any drama out of Selection Sunday with at least one victory in the conference tournament.
Another team trying to play its way into the NCAA tournament is West Virginia, which is just 17-14 but is carrying momentum from a victory over the Jayhawks. The Mountaineers will face a Texas team that has lost four of its last six games.
”I think if we won two we’d be in great shape,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, ”but I think if we can win that first one that we would be pretty good.”
One more win would also make Baylor coach Scott Drew rest a little easier.
After knocking off TCU 76-68 on Wednesday night, the Bears have won eight of their past nine games, and believe they have done enough to slip into the NCAA tournament. But beating the Sooners would almost certainly seal the deal, even if it’s something they’ve yet to do this season.
”It’s going to be another Big 12 battle,” said the Bears’ Cory Jefferson, who scored 20 points against the Horned Frogs. ”Both teams are going to be ready.”