Big 12 Tournament is Basketball Nirvana

West Virginia made it to the finals of the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship, but in all honesty it didn’t play very well. There are two ways to view that, of course, and we’ll take a brief look at each.

First, it’s troubling that the Mountaineers weren’t near their peak performance level in Kansas City. Momentum being what it is, it would have been good had WVU executed consistently, rather than riding a rollercoaster of ups and downs. The Mountaineers didn’t have to face either Baylor or Kansas, but was still unable to bring home the title, and the problems that cropped up ran across the board, and varied from game to game. From shooting to rebounding to defense, West Virginia was unable to put together a clean effort in any of its three games. That’s been a hallmark of this team, which makes corrections difficult. The coaches are chasing a moving target in this regard, and playing a game of Whack-A-Mole that seems to be on repeat.

“We haven’t played well all weekend or week, whatever it is, really, in all honesty,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said after the final game. “We didn’t play well against Texas. We didn’t play well against Kansas State, and we sure didn’t play well today.”

On the other hand, the Mountaineers have now made the finals in consecutive years, and have shown that they can win when playing at less than peak efficiency. Despite its abysmal shooting against K-State, which was not much better against Texas, WVU found a way to win both contests. Granted, that was one game against the dregs of the league (UT) and another against a team squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, but both were still wins. That is also a hallmark of this team, albeit one of the positive side.

So, where from here? Which West Virginia team will show up in the Big Dance next weekend? That, depending on your point of view, is the beauty or the agony of the whole thing.

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West Virginia was 28-of-52 from the free throw line during its three games in Kansas City. While Huggins continues to lament a lack of gym time as one of the culprits, it’s hard to see how that could have been the case this week. WVU had shootarounds and practices at the Sprint Center, and also journeyed to Rockhurst University, just a few short miles from the team hotel, for multiple practice sessions. Unless players were just standing around at some of these sessions (and evidence suggests they do not), it’s tough to pin the bad shooting on a lack of practice time.

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As usual, the Big 12 put on an exceptional event for the week in K.C. From the ease of accessing the arena, to the pure collegiate atmosphere and the dining and entertainment of Kansas City’s adjacent Power & Light District, the fan and team experience is very well done. While the arena lacks the charisma and history of the Big East’s Madison Square Garden, the entire Kansas City area embraces the four-day tournament, and it’s the centralized focus of the town, as well as much of the surrounding states during the week.
It’s a college basketball purist’s dream, and the area facilitates the crowd and transportation issues effectively, something nearly impossible to do in New York. Even in West Virginia’s fifth season in the league, the entire Big 12 Championship experience remains fresh and unique, and a worthwhile venture for Mountaineer fans sooner rather than later. A rare Friday night snow and cold snap put a damper on the outdoor activities on Saturday, but that was the first time in all of our trips to K.C. that weather interfered with the festivities.

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On one of our trips to the District, we connected with former Blue & Gold News staff member and current Central Missouri assistant men’s basketball coach Chris Richardson and his fiancée, Katie Smith, who are both WVU grads and West Virginia natives.

The Mules, based an hour away from Kansas City in Warrensburg, just completed their postseason tournament inside UMKC’s Municipal Auditorium. UCM’s men’s team finished 21-9 on the year – another feather in the cap for one of our alums. Chris also scored the biggest upset in Missouri basketball history by snaring a “Yes” from Katie, who is UCM’s video media coordinator and general coverage expert of all Mules and Jennies athletics. (Yes, UCM’s women’s sports teams are the Jennies.)

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In the Sprint Center, Texas was housed in a lockerroom just down the hall from West Virginia, and head coach Shaka Smart had to pass the WVU media in accessing his team’s area during Wednesday’s open media session. Inadvertently, I lightly caught the coach with an extended elbow, and we both offered a quick, “Sorry, excuse me” to each other. Despite a difficult season, and the lowest seeding in the tournament, Smart remains among the genuinely nice head coaches in a conference with many. His attention to Huggins after his defibrillator delivered a shock during the last meeting in Morgantown, and my brief exchange in the Sprint Center hall, are just a couple examples among many.

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For all the Big 12 does well, policing who uses the media shuttle leaves much to be desired. On the midday trip to the Sprint Center (WVU played at 7 p.m. Eastern, but the Blue & Gold News staff went early to watch games), I was one of just two media people on the shuttle, yet it was full. It seems fans and some administrators are piling in, and though there are multiple shuttles, it does cause a backlog at times. The same was true of the Marriott premium member lounge, where people were routinely bringing in far more than one guest. But with a breakfast spread that includes eggs, bacon, sausage, fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, muffins, croissants and the kicker of smoked salmon, one could hardly blame them. Add in the evening hors d’oeuvres and a fantastic pool and workout facility, and the media does live large for much of the week.

For the second consecutive year, the Big 12 not only served the typical media meals, but also added an espresso beverage cart. From americanos and lattes to espresso and cappuccino, the selection was complete with flavorings like hazelnut and chocolate. The steamed or frothed milk atop the beverage was even decorated with a little design. Team logos were not an option, however.

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West Virginia fans fancy themselves as being diehard supporters, and that is true to a degree. However, there’s not a fan base in the nation that equals Iowa State, and the way they support their school – with the key word being support.

Not only do they show up in droves at the tournament, but they cheer constantly. When their team is playing poorly, they still get up and cheer, and just a couple of buckets are met with a cacophony of noise that’s usually reserved for a 14-0 run. That happened time and again in ISU’s championship game win over West Virginia, and there’s no doubt it helped the Cyclones. WVU fans need to remember this when they say they’ll cheer, “when the team does something to deserve it.”