KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What Kansas basketball did during Big 12 play this season was unprecedented, the first program to finish with 17 wins in the league’s 18-game double round-robin format.
With the Big 12 Tournament tipping off Wednesday, a simple glance at this year’s bracket will reveal another significant chunk of the conference’s membership also made history, albeit for far less impressive reasons.
"I’ve never seen the league like this," said KU coach Bill Self.
"This," as Self put it Monday on his weekly radio program, is the cluster of programs that managed to finish third in the Big 12 standings, yet still a squinting-distance behind the top-ranked Jayhawks (28-3) — Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia all finished the regular season with 9-9 records in league action, with those squads seeded Nos. 3-6, respectively, in the Big 12 Tournament.
It may be a mistake to consider the Sooners any better than those other three teams simply because they came out ahead in the tiebreaker scenarios.
"We shouldn’t look at it like that," Self said. "There were four teams that tied for third, so the three seed isn’t better than the six seed or the four seed isn’t better than the five seed."
KU won the Big 12 by two games over second-place Baylor, with a canyon of separation between those potential NCAA Tournament one-seeds and the four third-place finishers that are all hovering near the bubble.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi on Tuesday night had West Virginia slotted as a seven-seed, Oklahoma as a nine-seed, Texas Tech as a 10-seed and Texas as an 11-seed and the next-to-last team in the field.
While the Jayhawks appear to have little to play for this week — Lunardi remarked over the weekend that KU had "lapped the field" and is a lock for the NCAA Tournament’s top-overall seed regardless of what unfolds at Sprint Center — the same isn’t true for the third-place finishers, particularly the Longhorns and Red Raiders, who could drop out of the field entirely with a defeat in their 11:30 a.m. Thursday quarterfinal showdown.
The winner of that game would play the Jayhawks in a 6 p.m. Friday semifinal, assuming KU can get past either eighth-seeded Oklahoma State or ninth-seeded Iowa State in a 1:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal.
"Texas, the way they played down the stretch, they had a chance to seal it by beating Okie State, and Okie State blows them out, beats them by 20-something, from start to finish," said Self, referring to the Longhorns’ mystifying 81-59 defeat to Oklahoma State last Saturday in Austin, Texas. "So that puts (Texas) back to probably on the good side of the bubble, but still yet, who knows what will happen?"
The Red Raiders, meanwhile, also dropped their regular-season finale, a 66-62 defeat to the Jayhawks on Saturday in Lubbock, Texas. That outcome represented the fourth straight loss for Chris Beard’s crew, which despite an 18-13 record is ranked favorably at most advanced analytic outlets — KenPom.com, for example, has Texas Tech as the nation’s 21st-best team.
"People have said some things about Texas Tech. Tech’s in. I mean, there’s no way they can’t be in," Self said. "Their metrics are way too good."
Self considered the Mountaineers "positively in," and he used that same label for Oklahoma, which rallied from a 19-point second-half hole to top TCU 78-76 on Saturday in Fort Worth, Texas. Interestingly, Self wasn’t willing to completely rule TCU out of the NCAA Tournament consideration, depending on how the seventh-seeded Horned Frogs perform this week.
"I still think they have a shot. If they were to make a run and get to the finals, I think you could make a case for them," Self said. "But I think our league is on fairly solid footing for six unless something unexpected happens."
As for Self’s group, the outlook appears clear, even if a three-games-in-three-days scenario unfolds.
While the 17th-year Jayhawk head coach may try to steal minutes of rest here or there for Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett, don’t expect any of the players in that frontline trio to miss any late game-deciding moments, much less sit out the tournament entirely.
"We want our guys to be healthy, but the bottom line is it’s not fair to those kids to say we’re going to rest (them) if they play. They’ve been playing all year long," Self said. "So we’ll have enough time where … unless something happens the next couple days, we should be as good as we’ve been for a while (entering Thursday)."