DAVE SKRETTA, AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Shaka Smart is careful not to demean the Colonial Athletic Association and the Atlantic 10, where he led VCU through a combined six conference tournaments and captured a pair of championships.
Both are good leagues. Both have solid programs. Both tournaments were tough in their own right.
Neither of them are the Big 12.
“It’s going to be just a tremendous event, when you have so many great teams together in one venue,” the first-year Texas coach said before his first taste of its conference tournament.
“You have in the Big 12 so many teams that have beaten up on each other over the past two-plus months,” Smart said, “and you everyone will come together. You look at the bracket, some of the games that are going to be played early in the tournament are just phenomenal matchups.”
The tournament begins Wednesday night when eighth-seeded Kansas State plays No. 9 seed Oklahoma State and seventh-seeded Texas Tech plays No. 10 seed TCU. But it really gets going on Thursday, when each of the four quarterfinal matchups will feature at least one team ranked in the Top 25.
Already set are sixth-ranked Oklahoma against No. 21 Iowa State and No. 22 Baylor against No. 23 Texas, while top-ranked Kansas and No. 9 West Virginia await the winners in the opening round.
To put into perspective how stacked the bracket is, consider this: The third-seeded Sooners and sixth-seeded Cyclones could be seeded better in the NCAA Tournament than they are this week.
“That’s what you get in the Big 12,” said Sooners coach Lon Kruger, whose teams spent time ranked No. 1 this season, but has struggled heading into the crucial games of March. “At least you won’t have any bad losses in the tournament. Everyone is ranked.”
The Jayhawks are undoubtedly the favorites after winning the outright regular-season title, the 12th consecutive year they’ve earned at least a share of it. But recent history suggests the Big 12 tournament is wide open: Only once in the past four years has the No. 1 seed won the championship.
Iowa State has won the last two titles, knocking off the Jayhawks in the finals a year ago.
“You probably are playing to validate the regular season as much as anything else,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “That’s really what we’ll go into it thinking. We’ve proven it over a couple of months. Now we can validate it and try to play just as well.”
As the tournament gets going at the Sprint Center, here are some of the story lines:
RUBBER MATCHES: With the double-round robin schedule, there are several potential matchups between teams that split in the regular season. Three of the four matchups already set will be decisive.
STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: The Big is No. 1 in RPI with three teams in the top 10 and seven in the top 28, the most of any conference. The league is a combined 28-15 against the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, the best combined winning percentage of any conference against rival power leagues.
INJURY SITUATION: Cyclones coach Steve Prohm expects star guard Monte Morris to play after sitting out of practice this week with a shoulder injury, while the Longhorns could get big man Cameron Ridley back from a broken foot for the first time since late December.
“I don’t know definitively when he’s going to be able to play,” Smart said, “but we’re extremely hopeful and optimistic he’ll be able to play soon. He’s been cleared to do quite a few basketball-type activities.”
BUBBLE WATCH: Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU need to win the title to get to the NCAA Tournament, while the Red Raiders (19-11) will feel better about their at-large hopes by beating TCU and West Virginia.
“I’ll feel comfortable if we win the Big 12 Tournament. That’s when I’ll feel comfortable,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said. “We’d better not be comfortable. We have a lot of work to do.”
SEED LINES: As much as anything, seeding in the NCAA Tournament is at stake this week. Kansas has a chance to be the overall No. 1 seed with a strong showing, while others are also trying to move up.
“Everybody realizes you have a chance to improve your seed with each and every game,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said, “because every game is a quality-win opportunity.”