KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been exactly five years since Oklahoma entered the Big 12 tournament fully understanding it had a spot in the NCAA tournament sewn up.
Yes, last season the Sooners played in the tournament, but as a No. 11 seed. They unquestionably received one of the last 10 at-large bids.
Won’t be the case on Sunday. The 17th-ranked Sooners (23-8, 12-6) are projected as a fifth seed or better for March Madness. Anything above that would be a shock.
So, how important is the Big 12 tournament for the Sooners?
“It’s hugely important,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “We’ll treat every game like it’s the most important thing.”
It’s the sentence Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby would love to hear from every team. The four-day, nine-game tournament at Sprint Center is the league’s largest event. This year, it appears to be the most wide open it has ever been.
Top-seeded Kansas, which earned the conference title by two games, will be playing without freshman center Joel Embiid and has dropped two of its last three. His absence, seemingly, brings the eighth-ranked Jayhawks back to the pack.
The pack is immense. The Sooners finished second in the league but only six games ahead of ninth-seeded Texas Tech, which beat them at Lloyd Noble Center on Feb. 12. The Sooners will face seventh-seeded Baylor at 6 p.m. today. The Bears have won seven of their last eight games.
The team that cuts down the nets Saturday night will have passed through a meat grinder.
Some coaches don’t want that just five days before beginning play in the NCAA tournament.
Kruger isn’t in that contingent. His players would love to climb a ladder and snip some twine Saturday.
“The Big 12 tournament is the most important thing to us because it’s next,” point guard Jordan Woodard said.