Hot prospects, cold beer: It's March again at the Sprint Center 

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Daniel Downey Jr.

The top two prospects in this summer's NBA Draft are in the Big 12 — and playing for the same team. University of Kansas Jayhawks Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins are projected to go with the top two picks in the pro draft. This week's sold-out Big 12 men's basketball tournament is likely the last appearance in conference play for Wiggins; at press time, Embiid had been ruled out due to a stress fracture in his back. Wiggins and his teammates look to hoist a championship trophy Saturday night before returning to Lawrence to prepare for a final run as a possible No. 2 seed in March Madness.

An Embiid-less KU adds intrigue to the field. Kansas State, Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State will look to claim a second win over the Jayhawks this season. Iowa State and Oklahoma will try to make the third time a charm. So will dark horses Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU - all attempting to punch their NCAA Tournament tickets.

Rock Chalkers celebrating a repeat tournament championship victory would leave the other nine fan bases to drown their sorrows at the Sprint Center — this time with actual beer. You read that right: Beer (and wine) will be served at this year's tournament for the first time since 2005.

So we at The Pitch raise our plastic tumblers to the Big 12 with our third annual unofficial tournament program. The action starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday, by which time we'll have you prepped on whom to watch, where to watch and how to flop (courtesy of a certain Cowboy).

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NCAA Tournament Locks

RPI: Ratings Percentage Index
SOS: Strength of Schedule
Bracketology breakdown: updated as of March 10

No. 10 Kansas (23-8, 14-4) RPI 3, SOS 1
Projected seed: No. 2

No. 16 Iowa State (23-7, 11-7) RPI 8, SOS 32
Projected seed: No. 3

No. 17 Oklahoma (23-8, 12-6) RPI 17, SOS 20
Projected seed: No. 5

Texas (22-9, 11-7) RPI 33, SOS 63
Projected seed: No. 6

Kansas State (20-11, 10-8) RPI 50, SOS 46
Projected seed: No. 8

Baylor (21-10, 9-9), RPI 37, SOS 10
Projected seed: No. 9

Oklahoma State (20-11, 8-10), RPI 38, SOS 25
Projected seed: No. 10

Only Chance: Win the Whole Thing

West Virginia (17-14, 9-9) RPI 83, SOS 83

Texas Tech (14-17, 6-12) RPI 113, SOS 30

TCU (9-21, 0-18) RPI 201, SOS 29

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  • Daniel Downey Jr.

Six Freshman Phenoms

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Before Andrew Wiggins ever stepped into the Phog, the Canadian had already been labeled "Maple Jordan" and compared to LeBron. The 6-foot-8 freshman forward may not have lived up to the second-coming hype, but who could have? He has been a difference maker for Bill Self's Jayhawks, averaging 16.8 points, 1.3 3-pointers, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists a game. And he's coming into the tourney off a 41-point season finale. Enjoy Wiggins while you can, Rock Chalkers. He'll easily be one of the top picks in the NBA draft.

Joel Embiid, Kansas
The comparisons to Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon sound absurd on the surface. No big man could be that smooth and dominant this early in his career, right? But have you actually seen Cameroon's new favorite son, Joel Embiid? If Hakeem was the Dream, then Embiid is the Nightmare. The 7-foot, 250-pound center is a mismatch for nearly every opposing squad — averaging 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in just 23.1 minutes — as long as he stays out of foul trouble. NBA general managers are gutting their rosters and tanking their seasons to draft Embiid.

Monte Morris, Iowa State
No one takes care of the basketball better than point guard Monte Morris. The freshman from Flint, Michigan, dishes 3.7 assists to .6 turnovers every game. Credit Morris' ball security for earning him a spot in the Cyclones' starting lineup, and possibly winning Bob Huggins' icy heart as he handed out 12 dimes with no turnovers against his West Virginia Mountaineers. The scary thing about Morris is, he hasn't even come close to reaching his peak in Fred Hoiberg's open, run-and-gun offense.

Marcus Foster, Kansas State
Bruce Weber found a gem in Marcus Foster, a 6-foot-2 guard from Wichita Falls, Texas, who has been one of this season's biggest surprises. Foster has shown great 3-point range and accuracy, hitting 39.7 per game and 2.4 percent of his attempts. Foster's 34 points and five 3-pointers led the Wildcats to an upset of then-No. 15 Texas, and his 20 points sparked an upset of then-No. 7 Kansas. Foster — averaging 15.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists — looks like the building block Weber and the 'Cats needed.

Isaiah Taylor, Texas
Isaiah Taylor's frosh season at the point for Rick Barnes was too good to ignore: 12.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3,9 assists and 1.1 steals per game. If he develops a 3-point shot, he's going to be an even more dangerous offensive threat.

Karviar Shepherd, TCU
If TCU coach Trent Johnson keeps landing recruits like Karviar Shepherd, the Horned Frogs' fortunes may soon change. TCU isn't known for getting commitments from four-star basketball prospects, but it pulled off a coup getting Shepherd to stay home (he's from Dallas) and spurn offers from Kansas, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and UCLA. The 6-foot-10, 225-pound center struggled through his rookie year (making just 40.3 percent of his shots), but still flashed his promise with double-doubles against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. There's plenty of room for Shepherd to grow his averages of 8.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks next season. And for TCU, it's all about next season.

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22 Players to Watch

Melvin Ejim, Iowa State
The undersized 6-foot-6 senior forward has taken over the Cyclones' scoring load with a second-in-the-league 18.2 points and turned Ames into Lob City while dropping 48 points on a hapless TCU squad. The Toronto native was just crowned Big 12 Player of the Year.

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
No newcomer has made a bigger impact than the Cyclones' do-it-all senior point guard, who moved to Ames as a fifth-year transfer. His 17.1 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 3-pointers recently garnered him Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
The Flop King of Stillwater should have gone pro after last season, when he was named Big 12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. His draft stock and character (see the shove in Lubbock) took a hit in his sophomore season, but with averages of 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.7 steals and 1.6 3-pointers, Smart should still hear his name called in the lottery.

Cory Jefferson, Baylor
The 6-foot-9 power forward's length is too much to handle. His muscled-up 220 pounds makes him a terror around the rim (13.4 points per game), on the glass (8.1 boards) and for opponents attempting to shoot over him (1.4 swats).

Juwan Staten, West Virginia
No one plays more than Juwan Staten, whose second year in Morgantown saw him lead the league in both scoring (18.4) and assists (5.9). If the Mountaineers' record were better, we would've been talking about Staten for POY.

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Deadly from deep, Hield can light up opponents with his 2.8 3-pointers per game or go lockdown on defense with his 1.5 steals a game. Let him loose, and he'll scorch ya. (He's averaging 16.8 points.)

Perry Ellis, Kansas
Don't sleep on Perry Ellis. The sophomore forward awakened in last year's Big 12 tournament and just hasn't let up. Ask TCU about the 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists he hung on the Horned Frogs in Lawrence. Yeah, he's not Wiggins or Embiid, but he's posting a solid 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

Markel Brown, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys' senior guard is an offensive weapon, whether he's scoring (17.2 points per game), dropping threes (1.6 per game) or dishing dimes (3 per game). But Brown's most impressive stat is on the defensive end of the floor: 1.1 blocks. Not bad for a 6-foot-3 guard.

Phil Forte, Oklahoma State
Forte is one of those players who seems to have been around forever, but the 5-foot-11 sharpshooter is only a sophomore. Go ahead and groan, because the deep threat — he's making 2.9 triples per game — has two more seasons of sinking 3-pointers — and his opponents.

Brady Heslip, Baylor
Unlike Forte, Heslip is finally a senior. The deadeye shooter (making a Big 12–best 46.4 3-pointers and 3.2 per game) gets one more shot at securing the Bears' NCAA bid.

Will Spradling, Kansas State
The senior guard came up clutch in Kansas State's upset win over then-No. 15 Iowa State. If he gets hot from deep, he'll make opponents pay.

Georges Niang, Iowa State
The 6-foot-7 sophomore doesn't really jump, so play-by-play announcers like to say his game was made for a local YMCA. Whatever his inside-outside game resembles, Niang is doing something right (as long as he stays out of foul trouble): 16.2 points, 1.4 3-pointers, 4.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists.

Jonathan Holmes, Texas
The Longhorns' lengthy junior forward stretches defense, pulling back to knock down threes, and making opposing players miserable by hitting the boards (7.3 per game) and blocking shots (1.3 per game). He's also leading Rick Barnes' rejuvenated 'Horns in scoring (13.0). The only thing holding him back is a bum knee.

Isaiah Austin, Baylor
The 7-foot-1 sophomore center's numbers regressed after a solid freshman campaign. Blame it on an offseason shoulder tear that kept him out of the pros. Austin's length has given other teams fits; he's swatting a Big 12–best 3.1 shots a game.

Thomas Gipson, Kansas State
At 6-foot-7 and 265-pounds, Thomas Gipson is a heavy load in the paint. But you'd expect the big-bodied junior to grab more than 6.6 boards a game — a team high.

Ryan Spangler, Oklahoma
The 6-foot-8, 232-pound sophomore's arms look like Affliction T-shirts, bro. And he's working a bromance on the boards, pulling down a league-best 9.4 per game.

Cameron Ridley, Texas
The Longhorns' round mound of rebound presents mismatch problems in the middle with his 6-foot-9, 285-pound body. Caution: He struggles with bigs who can play on the perimeter.

Naadir Tharpe, Kansas
The unheralded junior point guard puts on his Superman cape when needed, torching opponents with triples and taking care of business (5.0 assists to 2 turnovers).

Cameron Clark, Oklahoma
The senior forward is slump-busting late in the season after struggling in conference play. He dropped 32 points on Kansas in Norman and looked pretty good in February and March, so he could be a difference maker in KC.

Eron Harris, West Virginia
The Mountaineers know how to score. The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard is banging threes (2.8 per game) and points (17.9). Yet West Virginia's 31st-ranked offense will need a Big 12 tourney crown to swing the Big Dance.

Kyan Anderson, TCU
The 5-foot-11 junior guard is scoring in bunches for the hapless Horned Frogs — 17.9 points per game — on improved shooting (46.8 percent). TCU will need him if the Frogs are going to win a game in 2014.

Jaye Crockett, Texas Tech
The 6-foot-7 senior forward leads the Red Raiders in scoring (13.7 points) and rebounds (6.4) and is Tech's most realistic hope for getting past Wednesday.

Big 12 Award Winners

Melvin Ejim (Iowa State): Player of the Year
Andrew Wiggins (Kansas): Freshman of the Year
Joel Embiid (Kansas): Defensive Player of the Year
DeAndre Kane (Iowa State): Newcomer of the Year
Tyler Neal (Oklahoma), Phil Forte (Oklahoma State): Sixth Man Award
Rick Barnes (Texas): Coach of the Year

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Game Watches and Parties

If the closest you can get to the Sprint Center is the Kansas City Power & Light District's Live Block (14th Street and Grand), you'll be able to see the games on a big screen. If you'd rather mix with alumni from your own school, here are a few places where the locals meet.

The Cashew (2000 Grand)
Johnny's Tavern (1310 Grand)
Johnny's in the P&L is a satellite location of the Lawrence original. And the Cashew is the longstanding Crossroads Rock Chalk headquarters.

Kansas State
Shot Stop (7439 Broadway)
Tanner's (7425 Broadway; 12906 West 87th Street Parkway, Lenexa)

Kansas City Catbackers' last basketball game watch was at the Waldo Shot Stop in February. During the football season, purple Kansas fans hollered EMAW at both Tanner's locations.

Iowa State
Kelly's Westport Inn (500 Westport Road)
Pizza Bar (1320 Grand)

Kelly's hosts a Big 12 tourney kickoff happy hour for the Cyclones at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Within walking distance of the Sprint Center, Pizza Bar is the other I-State stop.

Oklahoma State
Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen (1526 Walnut)

Cowboys and cowgirls will meet for a pregame mixer at Tannin in the Crossroads before the tourney kicks off Wednesday.

Sports Cave Bar & Grill (11440 West 135th Street, Overland Park)
Granfalloon Restaurant and Bar (608 Ward Parkway)

The OU Club of Kansas City calls the Sports Cave in Overland Park and the Granfalloon on the Plaza home.

Sorry, Texas Exes. It doesn't appear you have a home away from Austin in KC.

West Virginia
Mountaineers in Kansas City will rally for a pregame reception at the Muehlebach Hotel (200 West 12th Street) two and a half hours before game time.

Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor
Tickets for Wednesdays games are going for about $10. And a great ticket can be had for about $20. Just go to the game.

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