March 11, 2008

Martin and Cats eying big prize

Frank Martin will make his debut in the Big 12 Tournament on Friday. He doesn't know who No. 3 seed Kansas State will face, but the first-year head coach shares the same sentiment as Kansas' Bill Self and Texas' Rick Barnes, two veterans with plenty of experience in waiting to play until the second day of the tournament. "You want as few tournament games if you want to have a chance to win," Martin said.

And perhaps in this season more so than any other, Big 12 teams have had to battle and claw for any sort of advantage as the No. 2-ranked conference nationally in RPI strength prepares for its late-week showdown, which is set to get underway Thursday morning in Kansas City, Mo., in the first-ever Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center.

"Everything is important, everything counts, so we're certainly going to approach this like we need to play well this weekend and keep gaining momentum going into the next week," said Self, whose Jayhawks earned a share of their fourth straight regular season championship. "Anytime you lace them up you should play to win, especially when championships are involved."

While top-seeded and Big 12 regular season co-champion Texas, 26-5 after finishing the Big 12 at 13-3, and No. 2 seed Kansas, 28-3 and 13-3, hopes to play themselves into a top spot in the NCAA Tournament, K-State, 20-10 and 10-6, and Oklahoma, 21-10 and 9-7, round out the four teams that enter with a first-round bye and that hope a longer tournament stay will equate to a better seeding from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Sunday night.

K-State looks to have its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1996 virtually locked up and will look to put an end to another trend as well. The Wildcats have advanced past the Big 12 quarterfinals just twice and have never won a semifinal game. They fell to Kansas in that round both in 2007 and 1999.

"We're going into this thing with the desire, hope and vision of playing on Sunday," Martin said. "We understand it's a hard road. We understand that the Big 12 is just a ridiculous league this year."

Fourth-seeded Oklahoma reached the NCAA Tournament in 10 of 11 years prior to last season. Behind second-year coach Jeff Capel, the Sooners shoulder a hefty dose of intrigue in a league that features a buffet of teams with much at stake this week.

"Our league has been that way this whole year," Capel said. "It's been a lot of subplots throughout the season and it's a testament to how good the league is."

Subplots like Baylor starting strong -- and ending that way. After starting 16-2, the Bears were an eyesore for most of February in losing six of seven, but rebounded admirably in winning four of their last five, including a 86-73 victory at Texas Tech on Saturday. The fifth-seeded Bears, 21-9 and 9-7, will face No. 12 Colorado, 11-19 and 3-13, on Thursday, after earning 21 wins for the first time since 1987-88. Their nine league wins mark their most in Big 12 history.

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