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For Big 12's bottom four, reasons for optimism remain

MORGANTOWN - It's hard for many to get too excited for what amounts to a pair of play-in games that start the Big 12 tournament this week in Kansas City, Mo.

On Wednesday night, West Virginia (13-18, 6-12 Big 12), the No. 8 seed, opens the tournament at the Sprint Center against No. 9 Texas Tech (10-19, 3-15). After that, No. 7 Texas (15-16, 7-11) takes on No. 10 TCU (11-20, 2-16).

That's four teams with losing records and a combined 73 losses fighting for a chance to enter the real bracket - the eight-team quarterfinals on Thursday that include six teams either safely into the NCAA tournament bracket or at least on the bubble.

Consider, though, two things. First, it doesn't matter what has happened the last three months. When tournament play begins, everyone is 0-0.

"It's never too late as long as you have the conference tournament,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Saturday after his team closed the season with its sixth straight loss, an 83-74 defeat at the hands of Iowa State. "As long as you're still standing, you might as well fight.''

But it's the second aspect of what those bottom four teams bring to the table that is perhaps even more interesting. As the regular season came to a close on Saturday, all four have at least some reason to believe that they are more than just sacrificial lambs.

  • Texas has been a huge disappointment all season, but much of that was because of the long absence of preseason All-Big 12 guard Myck Kabongo. Kabongo is back now and Texas is 5-3 in its last eight games after starting conference play 2-8.
  • TCU has consistently been the worst team in the conference. But the Horned Frogs' two wins in league play were stunners. First there was the 62-55 win over league champion Kansas, then on Saturday TCU ran out to a huge lead and held on to knock off Oklahoma.
  • Texas Tech can claim no such signature wins - two of its three were over TCU - but the Red Raiders fought the other bottom teams tooth and nail. In addition to the wins over TCU, there was a two-point loss at West Virginia and Saturday's overtime defeat to Texas.
  • And, of course, there's West Virginia. The Mountaineers were clearly the class of those four teams - they went 6-0 against them - and at various points during the season played every one of those top six teams right down to the wire at least once.
  • Granted, none of those resumes compare with that of Kansas - which will be playing the tournament for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament - or any of the other five teams with byes into the quarterfinals, but it does provide them with hope.

    "We just have to go to Kansas City with a new attitude,'' WVU sophomore guard Jabarie Hinds said. "We've learned a lot this season. Now it's time to use what we've learned.''

    Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1


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