The Big 12 Conference tournament is always a grind, and first round byes are valued not only because they ensure matchups against lower seeds, but players are more rested should one’s team travel deep into the bracket. Teams play every night until they lose, and assessing the likelihood of success often hinges on how fresh a team’s legs are. Nowhere was that more evident than the 2009-2010 team’s NCAA run. The Wildcats earned a #2 seed that year and swept aside North Texas and BYU in the first two games. Then, in the Sweet Sixteen, the Wildcats were forced into a draining contest against Xavier that required two overtimes and led CBS Sports to dub it “one of the best games in the history of the Sweet 16.” The game began at 8:30 and ended around midnight. Jacob Pullen logged 40 minutes in that game, Curtis Kelly had 43, and Denis Clemente 48 – only allowed two minutes of rest the entire night. 36 hours later, K-State lost to Butler in a game the Wildcats struggled to run down lose balls and fight for rebounds. Butler went on to face Duke in the National Championship, while K-State fans were left to wonder what if… following the Elite Eight loss.
For the University of Kansas, the semifinals got ugly as a 62-40 over Texas Tech lead with 10 minutes left ballooned to 91-63 by the end of the game. Only two KU players saw more than 30 minutes of action (Ben McLemore – 32 – and Travis Releford – 31). 14 players saw playing time, and 11 saw at least five minutes. Iowa State had a more difficult dispatching Oklahoma, winning 73-66. The Cyclones’ key players all logged more playing time.
On the other side of the bracket, Kansas State easily downed Texas 66-49, and had a solid rotation of big men with D.J. Johnson and Thomas Gipson each playing for 15 minutes and Jordan Henriquez 10. Gipson likely would have received more playing time, but was saddled with early foul trouble and finished with four on the night in limited minutes, opening the door for Johnson to see enhanced time while scoring a season high eight points. Johnson is still raw and it would be unwise to expect that sort of contribution on both ends of the court from him every night, but limiting Gipson’s playing time is a good thing if it doesn’t put the team in jeapordy. Henriquez was limited due to back problems, and his status going forward is shaky.
Another question mark is Will Spradling, who played 24 minutes while attempting to work back into the rhythm of the game following a bruised sternum suffered against Texas in late February. The injury has made breathing so painful Spradling had to miss two games, only played five minutes of a third, and was unable to practice. Although he was able to contribute 24 minutes Thursday night, fatigue may be an issue Friday and Saturday as his body is not used to being forced to recover. Atrophy sucks when your opponents are in prime shape.
Facing the Wildcats will be an Oklahoma State team that should have rested its starters early but failed to maintain a huge halftime lead against Baylor and ended up squeaking by, 74-72. In addition to minutes, time of game may be an issue here as well. Oklahoma State’s game did not conclude until around 10:45, meaning the Cowboy players probably got back to their hotel rooms around midnight – later if they ate somewhere other than the hotel after the game. This isn’t a pity party for OSU – K-State played a night game as well, and the Cowboys narrowly avoided overtime (largely due to a bad foul call against Baylor with 2.6 seconds left, but that’s an article for someone else to write). However, should Oklahoma State advance to the finals and be expected to play a KU squad that was already hydrating and resting their legs before the sun even went down Thursday, there’s an undeniable advantage built into the equation. Of course, that’s the advantage of being the #1 seed. If you don’t like it, win the conference next year.