Kansas' Devonte Graham (4) battles his way by Seton Hall's Desi Rodriquez on his way to the bucket during the second half in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan., on Saturday, March 17, 2018. KU advanced, 83-79. (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/TNS)
Photo: Rich Sugg/TNS
Photo: Rich Sugg/TNS

NCAA Tournament is sweet for Big 12 with four teams still dancing

Throughout their winning weekend, Kansas State players insisted their rugged Big 12 schedule helped prepare them for the NCAA Tournament.

"I keep telling a lot of people we probably have the best conference in the nation top to bottom," Wildcats guard Barry Brown said. "What did we have, seven teams in? Seventy percent of our league."

Correct. And four have pushed through to the Sweet 16, matching the most in one tournament during the conference's 22-year history. It also happened in 2002.

This week, Big 12 teams are spread across three regions. The ninth-seeded Wildcats head to the South Region in Atlanta to face No. 5 seed Kentucky on Thursday.

Midwest Region top seed Kansas will meet fifth-seeded Clemson on Friday in Omaha, Neb.

Texas Tech and West Virginia play in the East Region semifinals Friday in Boston. The third-seeded Red Raiders face second-seeded Purdue and fifth-seeded West Virginia takes on top-seeded Villanova.

On a wild opening tournament weekend that eliminated nine of the top 16 seeds, the top four finishers during the Big 12 regular season moved on by playing to their seed.

The Wildcats defeated eighth-seeded Creighton in the first round, but the others won as seed favorites. The only upset by that definition was sixth-seeded TCU falling to No. 11 Syracuse.

The two other Big 12 teams in the field, Texas and Oklahoma, each lost their first-round games in overtime.

One reason for the success: The Big 12 was an upperclassman-dominated conference with outstanding backcourt play. Six seniors and two juniors were all-conference first- and second-team members.

Among the first-teamers are guards Devonte Graham of Kansas, Jevon Carter of West Virginia and Texas Tech's Keenan Evans. Kansas State's Barry Brown was a second-teamer. All came up big over the weekend.

Graham scored 29 in the first-round victory over Penn, Carter led the Mountaineers in their second-round triumph over Marshall and Evans led the Red Raiders with 22 as they defeated Florida in the second round.

Brown finished with 18 in the second-round victory over UMBC, which make NCAA Tournament history by becoming the first men's No. 16 seed to take down a top seed when the Retrievers defeated Virginia.

Brown took the defensive lead on UMBC standout Jairus Lyles, holding him to 4 of 15 shooting one game after he went for 28 in the upset of Virginia.

"We're used to playing against good guards in our conference," Brown said. "It's like every game."

And unlike the other major conferences, Brown and the other guards see each other often. Only the Big 12 among major conferences has a round-robin schedule. This helps make the Big 12 the most competitive conference, with nine of its 10 teams in the NCAA or NIT this season.

The success also will help the league coffers.

Victories mean revenue from the NCAA's basketball performance fund. Distribution to the conference is paid in units, this year worth about $273,000 per victory.

Units are earned for every game in which a team appears until the Final Four, and they're paid out annually over a six-year period. The Big 12 joins the Atlantic Coast Conference with the most teams remaining in the Sweet 16, with two each from the SEC and Big Ten and one each from the Big East, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and West Coast Conference.

As for Sweet 16 games among Big 12 teams, the only betting and seed favorite is Kansas, and Duke is the favorite to emerge from the Midwest Region, according to Las Vegas bookmaker Bovada.com.

But perhaps history will repeat itself. The 2002 NCAA Tournament was the first of consecutive years in which the Big 12 sent two teams to the Final Four.

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