College Basketball Nation: Big 12
The Jayhawks have a point guard situation? Yeah, and the sun came up and Beyonce just won another award and the Cubs are struggling and another Kevin Hart movie will hit theaters soon. What’s new?
The race remains open. It’s always open.
And that’s the problem. And that should be the fear in Lawrence.
Freshman Devonte' Graham, a late signee, will compete for the slot, too.
“I think Devonte’ will be an immediate-impact guy for us,” Bill Self said via the press release that accompanied Graham’s signing. “We certainly solidified our situation in the backcourt by bringing in a quality guy, and I think Devonte’ is one of the premier point guards in the country.”
There’s also the Conner Frankamp conundrum. The sophomore can play both guard spots, but his defense could be a challenge for Self’s scheme. Frankamp shot only 31 percent on 3-pointers last season, but if he regains the stroke that made him a prep star in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, Self will have to use the guard.
That’s not the country’s most appealing crop of point guards, especially in comparison to the other top-10 teams. Duke will be led by Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Arizona has T.J. McConnell. Kentucky has Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis. Fred VanVleet is still at Wichita State. The road to the Final Four will be paved with elite PGs.
Still, Self cobbles together point guards the way MacGyver made explosives from a toothbrush, napkin and cheeseburger wrapper. The coach will figure it out.
In recent seasons, Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Tharpe all played the position for the Jayhawks. But their sometimes erratic efforts and sloppiness were a problem. They weren’t fits for Self’s system. That didn’t stop the Jayhawks from manhandling the Big 12 or advancing in the NCAA tournament.
But it kept them from their peak performance during some of those seasons.
Once again, KU is in a situation that features so much potential yet so many potential problems if Self can’t find the right point guard.
Johnson and Taylor weren’t pure point guards. But they could create shots and push the ball and run the break. They were playmakers.
With Mason, Graham or Frankamp, Kansas won’t have that. Not to that degree. There’s enough talent on the roster, however, to capture the Big 12 title without dynamic point guard play. And there’s still a chance that Self will use Graham and Mason together.
But they need a point guard who's comfortable in that role and a team that’s comfortable with that player embracing that role, too.
The Jayhawks never seemed at peace with Tharpe at point guard last season. When a Joel Embiid-less Jayhawks team came undone (14 turnovers) in its third-round loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, there were clearly some leadership and ballhandling problems that contributed to that loss.
Kansas will be favored to win another Big 12 title. The Jayhawks will crack the preseason top 10 again, and they’ll be equipped with a squad that should compete for Self’s second national title.
That’s assuming the staff reaches some conclusion, some solution, at point guard. Mason, Graham and Frankamp are all options. They aren’t stars. And they’re all young.
But someone usually emerges for Self. You don’t win 10 consecutive Big 12 crowns without a serviceable point guard.
Yet Kansas’ season centers on what happens there. Will it be Mason, Frankamp or Graham? What if Selden has to move over and help? What if these young Jayhawks don’t find a point guard they trust?
Well, they’ll eventually figure it out.
Unless they don’t.
If that happens, Kansas might be left behind come March.
"We're gonna win the Big 12," Hield told CBS' Jeff Borzello. "I'm saying it right now, we're gonna win the Big 12."
Iowa State forward Georges Niang disagreed:
"@jeffborzello: Oklahoma's Buddy Hield: "We're gonna win the Big 12 I'm saying it right now, we're gonna win the Big 12.""woah woah woah wat— Georges Niang (@GeorgesNiang20) July 11, 2014
One can only assume Niang was so incredulous because he assumes, like the rest of us, that Kansas is going to win the Big 12. (Kansas always wins the Big 12.)
He had a plan, but he didn’t have the personnel to execute it.
Fred Hoiberg had no interest in the typical rebuilding project that requires the nurturing of young players’ minds and bodies. The Mayor wanted to win now. He craved a Big 12 title today. Not two or three years from the date of his return to Iowa State in 2010.
And the pool of young men searching for second and third chances -- transfers -- provided the firepower he sought.
They had game experience and maturity. They were talented and desperate. Some arrived with warning labels, but their talent surpassed the risk for Hoiberg and his staff.
“I really came into it with an open mind,” Hoiberg told ESPN.com. “The biggest thing was getting talent to compete for the Big 12 title. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of recruiting. [My staff and I] talked a lot about how we could get the talent level up.”
Today, Ames, Iowa, is a hub -- a successful one -- for transfers. They’ve been the soil that has sprouted a bountiful stretch for a Top-25 program and a head coach who is now recognized as one of the most coveted young coaches by the NBA.
Last season, former Marshall star DeAndre Kane earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year honors after guiding the Cyclones to a Big 12 tourney title and the Sweet 16, where they lost to eventual national champion Connecticut.
Next season, former UNLV standout Bryce Dejean-Jones, former Northern Illinois star Abdel Nader and former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay could all crack the starting rotation for a Cyclones program that will seek its fourth consecutive trip to the Big Dance in 2014-15.
“The chemistry is great because it’s such an open program,” McKay said. “As far as blending with the team, honestly, I was surprised when I first got here. They all welcomed me when I got in. I never felt like a transfer or anything. I was welcomed from day one.”
The pursuit of transfers, some of whom had murky playing pasts, began with Royce White (Minnesota), a former All-Big 12 first-teamer and first-round NBA draft pick in 2012. He, Chris Allen (Michigan State) and Chris Babb (Penn State) helped Iowa State reach its first NCAA tournament since 2005.
They all came to Ames with some baggage, none more highly publicized than White’s.
White was a five-star prospect when he entered Minnesota, but he never played for Tubby Smith because of multiple legal issues. The 6-foot-8 forward had a unique set of skills. He also had the potential to mar everything that Hoiberg craved.
“Right away, right off the bat, when we first got the job, the guy we locked in on, that we knew would really help if it all worked out, was Royce,” said Matt Abdelmassih, an Iowa State assistant who has played a key role in the recruitment of transfers for the Cyclones. “Royce, I’d say, started it all for us. The reason why is getting a high-caliber player to buy in and trust us was really difficult because we were unknown. He trusted us. It took off.”
His production impacted Kane, who wanted what White had in Ames -- a positive conclusion to his collegiate career and an NBA future. Kane enabled Hoiberg to lure additional ready-now talents to Ames.
“I got to see the success rate from the guys before, and I got to talk to DeAndre Kane,” said Dejean-Jones, who averaged 13.6 points for UNLV last season. “He told me how he was in the same position I was in and how comfortable he felt going into it and just how he loved going there, so I just felt like it was the right place for me.”
Hoiberg’s naivete helped him when he accepted the job. He admits that he initially didn’t know all the recruiting rules and nuances. But his stint in the NBA also made it easier to dismiss the stigma attached to the multitude of Division I prospects who would rather see other people. Sure, some had issues he knew he’d have to address. That wasn’t unusual in the NBA, though.
So he embraced that process. As an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Hoiberg vetted young men vying for multimillion-dollar contracts.
He has applied the same tactics at Iowa State. And those investigations have revealed some red flags about players that the program has rejected.
“I had done a lot of that leading into the draft,” Hoiberg said. “Not one time has [the former coach of a player we’ve signed] said, ‘You really shouldn’t go after that kid.’ ... But we’ve turned down some pretty good players.”
White had a variety of off-court issues. Hoiberg spoke to White’s former coaches and family members, however, and concluded that the young man just needed a new environment. He was right.
Allen was suspended multiple times by Tom Izzo during his time at Michigan State. Kane had a reputation as a selfish hothead.
Both admitted their shortcomings and asked for a fresh start.
“Someone confesses to you that they really screwed up, it’s worth the risk,” Abdelmassih said.
It hasn’t been a flawless mission, though. Babb was suspended for a violation of team rules at the beginning of the 2012-13 season. Nader is due to make an appearance in court later this month after pleading not guilty to a DWI charge stemming from an April arrest -- sophomore guard Matt Thomas was also cited Saturday for operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
But Hoiberg’s first four years have not been defined by problems, although they could have been. That initial group of transfers had the potential to both reboot the program and scar it.
Hoiberg knew the possibilities. And he worried about them.
Shortly after he’d accepted the job in 2010, he attended an AAU tournament in the Minneapolis suburbs during a furious thunderstorm. He’d already targeted White at that point.
And he wanted to know if it was the right move. As he spoke with a local reporter about the pros and cons of chasing White, a rattling boom rocked the building. Then, the lights went out and the gym grew quiet.
In that dark facility, Hoiberg conversed about the light that White might provide if he could just lure the versatile talent to Ames and help him focus. Maybe the troubled power forward would be the answer and not the problem.
“There are times where you say to yourself we dodged a bullet,” Abdelmassih said, “and it’s a big bullet that we dodged because it could have backfired.”
The pairings for the 2014 SEC/Big 12 Challenge were announced Wednesday afternoon.
In the event’s second year, it will again offer a variety of intriguing matchups. The Big 12 won the first Challenge last year by a 7-3 margin, and the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney last season compared to the SEC’s three, has the edge again.
Here’s a ranking of the 10 games in this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia will not participate this season):
1. Texas at Kentucky: Call your friends. Get your popcorn ready. This will be phenomenal. Well, at least it appears that way right now. When Myles Turner, the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, picked Texas, he transformed the Longhorns into a Big 12 title contender and potential national power. The Longhorns had a solid stable even before Turner's decision. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes helped the Longhorns orchestrate one of the most surprising runs to the NCAA tourney in the country last season, considering all the departures from the previous season’s team. It’s fitting that Texas' ridiculous frontcourt will face the “Voltron” of college basketball frontcourts. Kentucky will be a problem for the rest of the country. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would form the nation’s top frontcourt without any help. Add blue-chip recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. and, well, you can see this is a rare pool of NBA prospects in one frontcourt. Plus Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back. And a couple McDonald’s All Americans will come off the bench. Is Texas a legitimate contender? Is Kentucky the top team in America and the national title favorite? This matchup could answer both questions.
2. Florida at Kansas: Bill Self just lost two players, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could be the top two players selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But this is Kansas. Hit reset and continue to win Big 12 titles. That’s just what they do in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will reload with Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, a couple McDonald’s All Americans who will fill the voids. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and a starting-point-guard-to-be-determined will be on the floor too. Point guard is not an issue for the Gators with Kasey Hill returning. They have lost the senior crew that helped the Gators beat the Jayhawks in Gainesville during last season’s Challenge, though. That is an issue. But this is a good barometer for both programs, which will each rely on youth. Billy Donovan’s 13th-ranked recruiting class, per RecruitingNation, will have to mature fast and help Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, Chris Walker and the rest of the roster challenge Kentucky at the top of the SEC next season. Walker will have to be a primary piece of the offense, not a sub at the end of the bench. But Kansas’ edge in experience and overall talent could be the difference. Look for Selden to have an All-America moment or two in this matchup.
3. Arkansas at Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg signed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones to play for the Cyclones. Add him to a squad that also features Monte Morris, Naz Long, Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang and the Fighting Hoibergs should be Big 12 contenders again. Arkansas swept Kentucky last season, but the Razorbacks struggled on the road. And Hilton Coliseum gets rowdy. Can Arkansas handle that environment? Bobby Portis is one of three top scorers from last season returning for the Razorbacks. Four-star point guard Anton Beard could make an immediate contribution too. This should be a solid matchup, especially as both squads are figuring things out early in the season.
4. LSU at West Virginia: Prior to last season, both LSU and West Virginia looked like programs that would turn the corner in 2013-14. Although both improved, they still missed expectations. So this is a statement game. If they are serious about securing NCAA tourney bids, then they have to win games like this. Juwan Staten anchors a West Virginia team that returns most of the talent from a season ago. On the other side, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will be joined by four-star recruit Elbert Robinson in a strong frontcourt that must carry LSU this season. This is one of those matchups that might mean a lot more on Selection Sunday than it will in December.
5. Oklahoma State at South Carolina: Travis Ford and Frank Martin are in similar positions. They both need one player on their respective rosters to have a breakout season. The Cowboys are deeper than the Gamecocks, but there is a lot riding on Le'Bryan Nash. If South Carolina plans to make a move in 2014-15, talented sophomore Sindarius Thornwell will have to orchestrate that evolution.
6. Baylor at Vanderbilt: Two teams with interesting outlooks. Scott Drew lost every meaningful member of last season's Sweet 16 squad other than Kenny Chery, Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, and he didn’t sign a stellar recruiting class. But he does have a bunch of reserves who have been waiting to prove themselves. For Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings will get Kedren Johnson, who missed a year due to suspension, back in the mix and add a recruiting class ranked 28th nationally by RecruitingNation. This could be the season Vandy rises in the SEC. Johnson vs. Chery will be one of the best matchups in the Challenge.
7. Missouri at Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler and three other starters return for Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad. Plus, he will add a couple top-100 recruits. New Missouri coach Kim Anderson will need youngsters Johnathan Williams III and top recruit JaKeenan Gant to step up after the Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season.
8. Kansas State at Tennessee: Marcus Foster should be the early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors. He’s the reason Bruce Weber’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a threat in the conference. Donnie Tyndall doesn’t really have a roster right now, so this one is difficult to gauge. But if the young men who have requested releases from their scholarships come back to Knoxville, then this one will be more intriguing than it appears to be right now.
9. Auburn at Texas Tech: This game won’t feature the most talent from either league. But this will be Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn, where he’s blessed with great facilities and an administration that seems determined to make a stand in the SEC. Tubby Smith didn’t turn the Red Raiders into world beaters during his first season in Lubbock, but a few surprises -- upsets over Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas -- were promising. Nothing wrong with a matchup between a couple of veteran coaches who are trying to rebuild in unique locations.
10. TCU at Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson era is over, so Andy Kennedy will try to rebuild around Jarvis Summers, incoming young players and junior college transfers. TCU coach Trent Johnson lost talented guard Jarvis Ray. Both squads will start at the bottom and probably stay there all season. This isn’t the Challenge’s sexiest matchup.
But the Big 12 fought for that perch in 2013-14. The league featured an impressive lineup, one that only the Big Ten rivaled. Realignment’s winds took more from the league (Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri) than they added (West Virginia) in recent years. Seven squads from the conference, however, earned invites to this year’s NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a conference’s success. There are only 10 teams in the Big 12, so you can definitely call it college basketball’s pound-for-pound king this past season.
Few thrived, though. Iowa State and Baylor were the only Big 12 teams in the Sweet 16, and neither advanced beyond that stage. However, the 2013-14 campaign was still a strong one for the league, excluding its lukewarm results in the tournament. The latter shouldn’t be -- can’t be -- ignored in the final assessment of the conference, but it’ll be back in 2014-15.
The Big 12 hit the reset button. An influx of top recruits and transfers is coming, so next year might be even better.
What we saw this season: In 2004, the iPhone hadn’t been introduced to the public yet. Dwight Howard was an NBA rookie. And Georgia Tech -- yes, Georgia Tech -- lost to Connecticut in the national championship.
That was also the last time Bill Self failed to win a Big 12 title (the Jayhawks finished second) during his time at Kansas. It was his first season. His reign continued last season, when he led the Jayhawks to their 10th consecutive conference crown following a rocky nonconference season. Andrew Wiggins wasn’t LeBron James, but he didn’t have to be. The freshman’s numbers -- 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 1.2 steals per game -- were as remarkable as the poise he displayed while he dealt with intense scrutiny throughout the season. His team’s round of 32 loss to Stanford in the Big Dance was a stunner, but Embiid’s late-season back injury certainly affected the program.
DeAndre Kane was able to lead Iowa State to wins over opponents such as Michigan, Iowa, Baylor and Kansas. Melvin Ejim, however, was the league’s player of the year. Georges Niang's foot injury suffered during the NCAA tournament was an unfortunate development for the program, but Fred Hoiberg proved again that it’s possible to add new pieces each season and develop chemistry. His formula works.
Marcus Smart's most memorable matchup had nothing to do with basketball. That shoving incident in Lubbock, Texas, prompted a three-game suspension, the worst of a series of lows for Travis Ford’s team. Everything that could go wrong for Oklahoma State went wrong. Season-ending injuries. Arrests. Suspensions. But Smart and the Pokes recovered to make a run to the Big Dance. Baylor found similar magic late. Cory Jefferson and Co. started 2-8 in league play but finished with a furious push that ended in the Sweet 16.
Oklahoma and Texas had successful stretches, too. But neither could maintain that mojo. The Sooners and Longhorns, however, made the Big 12 gauntlet even tougher.
Tubby Smith couldn’t get Texas Tech out of the conference’s lower tier even after a 5-3 midseason spurt -- ultimately an anomaly -- that included wins over Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia couldn’t find the quality wins necessary to be considered for an at-large slot on Selection Sunday, and a lopsided loss to Texas in the first round of the Big 12 tourney didn’t help. But the Mountaineers were the eighth Big 12 squad that finished in the RPI’s top 100.
Meanwhile, coach Trent Johnson has to be on the hot seat after TCU finished 0-18 in conference play.
Still, the Big 12 had a big season. Everything that preceded March suggested the league would have a solid showing in the Big Dance. That didn’t happen. And that took some of the luster off the regular season.
But it won’t be easy.
Hoiberg won’t stop. Niang will recover from the foot injury. Monte Morris, Dustin Hogue and Naz Long are back, too. Former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay will be eligible next season, and Hoiberg just landed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones. And there’s always a chance that he’ll add another top transfer before next season.
Oklahoma returns four standouts from last year’s NCAA tourney team. Losing Smart and Markel Brown hurts Oklahoma State, and Le'Bryan Nash could leave, too. But Phil Forte, Brian Williams, Kamari Murphy and Michael Cobbins (once healthy) will help the Cowboys compete for a berth in the tourney. A pair of ESPN 100 recruits (Joe Burton and Jared Terrell) will also be in the mix.
Kansas State youngster Marcus Foster will be the Big 12 player of the year in 2014-15. And overall, four of Kansas State’s top six scorers from last season will return next year.
Baylor is somewhat of a mystery. No great recruiting class. Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin were seniors, and Isaiah Austin is likely to enter the draft. So there will be a lot of pressure on Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale next season. How will they handle that?
There's good news in Morgantown. Bob Huggins didn’t have one senior on his roster last season. Juwan Staten (18.1 points per game) and Co. are talented enough to compete with Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma for the conference crown.
Texas will contend, too. Rick Barnes’ starters from last year, including underrated standout Jonathan Holmes, will return. And Jordan Barnett, ranked No. 86 in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation, will add more depth.
Texas Tech and TCU will have a hard time emerging from the basement in this tough field.
The Big 12 could end 2014-15 as the best conference in America. Again.
But after the hugs and the high-fives and the national television interview, back in the locker room, it finally hit him.
"I starting thinking how excited my dad would have been," Kane said. "He would have been more happy than me."
Two years ago, Calvin Kane died suddenly from a brain aneurysm no one saw coming. Especially his son.
"We talk about it every day. DeAndre's father would be overjoyed with what is going on with DeAndre right now," said Kane's mother, Carol Robinson. "It hurts him his father not being here on this road with us, seeing what his son is doing. But at the end of the day, we know he's watching and seeing what DeAndre is doing."
And what DeAndre has been doing would indeed have caused his dad to be overjoyed.
In 1980, Calvin himself was a point guard on Lamar's Sweet 16 team coached by Billy Tubbs. Ki Lewis, the father of Miami Heat forward Rashard Lewis, also was on that team. So was the father of Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, Kenneth, though he was redshirting that season after a transfer.
"What I remember about Calvin was that he was a really good kid, a good player," said Tubbs, who left for Oklahoma later that year.
Calvin had always told his son that the "time to shine" was in the NCAA tournament.
And so far, that's exactly what his son has been doing.
With the Cyclones missing third-leading scorer Georges Niang for the rest of the season because of a fractured foot suffered in the tournament opener, DeAndre elevated his game against the Tar Heels. He scored 24 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out 7 assists, rallying Iowa State from a late eight-point deficit for the victory.
But life hasn't always been so easy for DeAndre, who came to the precipice of giving up basketball and school.
While DeAndre was in high school, he and his father were inseparable. Calvin went to every game, and after DeAndre signed with Marshall, that barely stopped.
DeAndre quickly rose to stardom for the Thundering Herd and was named the Conference USA freshman of the year. Two all-league seasons followed. But in February 2012, DeAndre’s world stopped.
Calvin had been planning to visit Huntington, W.Va., to help DeAndre with his free throw shooting between games. But before he could get there and without warning, Calvin collapsed from a brain aneurysm. Carol didn’t know how to break such devastating news to her son. She called DeAndre's teammate Shaquille Johnson for help.
A Marshall assistant drove DeAndre four hours to Pittsburgh, where he found his dad connected to machines. The family had been waiting for DeAndre to arrive before having Calvin taken off life support.
"He was my hero, my No. 1 fan," DeAndre said. "What I went through with my dad, that was the hardest thing in my life. Things got to me after that."
DeAndre wanted to give up basketball after that. After all, basketball was the one thing he and his father had shared. Carol and the rest of the family pleaded with DeAndre to go back. Eventually, he did. But Marshall wasn't the same. And before long, it became clear to everyone involved that DeAndre needed a change.
"He was having some struggles," Carol said. "He was young, he had lost his dad and he was hurting."
DeAndre had lost his focus, both in basketball and in life, she said. And despite being its best player, DeAndre was dismissed from the Marshall basketball team.
"He was doing wrong, and he knew he was doing wrong," said Carol, who declined to elaborate further. "He needed a fresh start."
“DeAndre still managed to get his degree, then began looking for that fresh start.
He was my hero, my No. 1 fan. What I went through with my dad, that was the hardest thing in my life. Things got to me after that.” -- Iowa State's DeAndre Kane
The University of Pittsburgh showed interest. But Carol wanted her son to spend his final college season where he could regain his focus, and being back near old temptations of the Pittsburgh Hill District wasn't the answer.
Then Iowa State called.
So DeAndre and Carol went to visit.
"Driving in, I saw those cornfields, and you know what, I said this ain't nothing but focus town," Carol said. "This is where it's got to be. This is where my son could be successful."
Has he ever.
Under the tutelage of Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, Kane rediscovered the tenets Calvin had instilled in him. And as the Cyclones surged the past two months, Kane was named first-team All-Big 12.
"That school and that place is awesome," Carol said. "I'm so glad that's where DeAndre ended up."
Iowa State is glad he ended up there, too.
And now, he's on the cusp of leading the Cyclones to the Elite Eight for just the third time in school history.
"I've overcome hard situations," he said. "So when we were down eight points [to North Carolina], I knew I had the mental toughness to help us find a way to win."
As a tribute to his father, DeAndre has been donning jersey No. 50, because Calvin died a week before he would have turned 50. And though Calvin can't help him with his free throws or his dribbling or his defense anymore, DeAndre knows he's still watching. Calvin wouldn't miss his son's time to shine.
"I know he's watching over me every day," DeAndre said. "I know he's happy watching this."
NEW YORK -- They call the NCAA tournament the Big Dance, and the Connecticut Huskies danced their way onto the Madison Square Garden floor Thursday.
It was a brand-new floor -- the NCAA installs its own court at each tournament site -- but everything else looked familiar to the Huskies, who played here twice earlier this season and 13 times in the past four years.
No wonder No. 7 seed UConn looked so comfortable as it prepared for its noon 50-minute open practice, with several players shimmying on the sidelines before the team was introduced.
It’s UConn’s 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but this one is extra special. The Huskies were banned from the NCAA tournament last season because of poor academic performance and ruled ineligible for the Big East tournament as well.
It’s also extra special because these will be the first NCAA tournament games at Madison Square Garden since 1961.
Star guard Shabazz Napier, one of several Huskies who elected to stay at UConn despite the postseason ban, admitted Thursday he couldn’t bring himself to watch a single game of the 2013 tourney.
A huge fishing fan, Napier consoled himself by watching shows such as "River Monsters" on Animal Planet instead. “I didn’t want to watch [the tournament] because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed,” he said.
Napier has been one of the best shows in college basketball this season. A likely first-team All-American, the 6-foot-1 senior leads Connecticut in scoring (17.8 PPG), rebounding (5.9 RPG), assists (4.9 APG) and steals (1.8 SPG), and he has a penchant for making plays when it counts.
He hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against Florida in early December, scored nine of his 24 points in overtime in UConn’s win over No. 10 seed St. Joseph’s to open this tournament, and followed that up with 25 points in a victory over second-seeded Villanova two days later.
Napier also scored 20 and 27 points in the Huskies' 2K Classic wins over Boston College and Indiana here back in November, and he believes his team has a definite advantage Friday night against No. 3 seed Iowa State, despite being the lower seed.
“The thing that would help us is our great fan base coming down and supporting us, like they always do,” Napier said. “When we are down and when we’re up, they are still cheering. They give us the support, they give us that sixth man that we need to push us forward.”
Teammate Ryan Boatright believes UConn’s familiarity with the Garden will be a big plus, too.
“It just feels like a second home to us,” Boatright said. “If you’ve never played here before, it’s definitely a different feeling -- the background, the rims ... the whole crowd is dark, just the court is lit up. Everything is different than playing in a regular college stadium.”
It is expected to be a heavily pro-Huskies crowd, with the Connecticut campus just 135 miles away. UConn has always drawn well at the Garden, making this historic ticket even hotter than it already would have been.
The Metro-North commuter railroad is adding an extra express train from New Haven, Conn., to Grand Central Terminal on Friday afternoon, and extra cars to other trains departing New Haven for New York as well (and vice versa at the end of the night).
As of late Thursday afternoon, the cheapest single ticket available on StubHub for Friday’s regional semifinal doubleheader (also featuring Virginia versus Michigan State) was $594.05 -- for a bar-stool seat no less.
Ollie and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, good friends and former teammates with the Chicago Bulls, have both played at the Garden many times.
“It’s special. I can’t say it’s not,” said Ollie, who later called it “the greatest arena alive for basketball.”
The Garden was the first thing Hoiberg brought up in his pregame news conference.
“I’ll start out just by saying how excited our team is to be out here in New York City,” he said. “Our guys get the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never forget my first time here when the announcer comes on and says, ‘Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena.’”
Iowa State is used to playing in front of large crowds -- the Cyclones were ranked No. 22 in Division I home attendance this season, averaging 13,393 fans per game. But Ames, Iowa, is more than 1,000 miles away, and the Cyclones have played at the Garden only three times in school history, the last being an 84-81 loss to Rutgers in the semifinals of the 2004 NIT.
Heck, Iowa State forward Dustin Hogue, a native of nearby Yonkers, N.Y., had never even set foot in the Garden before Thursday’s open practice.
Hoiberg admitted some concern. “To come out and experience this is just awesome for our guys,” he said. “[But] you try to get the ‘wow’ factor out of the way as quickly as possible, so they can focus on the task at hand.”
The Cyclones did look a little more like tourists than the Huskies did when they walked on the floor two hours later. Hogue asked someone to take a picture of him at center court. Reserve forward Daniel Edozie pointed up at the giant overhead scoreboard in apparent glee.
But Hoiberg sounded confident that come Friday night, his team will be good to go.
“That’s been my message to them -- enjoy this day, in a very casual setting to go out there and get used to the shooting background and the rims,” he said. “Then tomorrow it’s all about business.
“Once that thing goes up tomorrow at 7:27, our guys will be ready to play.”
But whether the Big 12 was really deserving of its top-dog status will largely be determined by the two games Sunday in San Antonio.
“We know that postseason is important for every conference,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “Statistically, we were the No. 1 conference in the country. But now postseason it’s a new season.”
It’s also an opportunity for the Big 12 to confirm its distinction in two high-profile matchups. Especially following a lackluster start to the tournament elsewhere for the conference.
As a 5 seed, Oklahoma was knocked off by North Dakota State in overtime. Oklahoma State and Kansas State both fell in their 8-9 seed games to Gonzaga and Kentucky, respectively. Even regular-season champ Kansas struggled against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky, and even trailed with less than nine minutes to go in the second half.
But in San Antonio, the Big 12’s two hottest teams delivered two impressive performances in the second round.
The Bears, who had won six in a row before falling to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game, dominated No. 11 seed Nebraska from the opening tip. Baylor held the Cornhuskers to just 23 percent shooting in the first half to build a double-digit lead, then cruised to a comfortable 74-60 victory.
“We’re really confident right now,” Baylor point guard Kenny Chery said. “All these guys in the locker room, no matter what we’ve been through this year, we feel like we’re as good as any team in the country. We feel like we can play with anybody.”
The Cyclones are feeling the same way, having reeled off five wins in a row.
While other high seeds struggled in their first tournament games across the country, Iowa State continued its hot shooting. In a 93-75 smoking of North Carolina Central, the Cyclones knocked down almost 64 percent of their field goals and 53 percent of their 3-pointers.
The win, however, came at a price, as Georges Niang suffered a tournament-ending foot fracture during the second half.
““Obviously, that’s a very big loss for our team with the way that we use him and utilize his skill set to take advantage of a lot of mismatches,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Not only that, but just his enthusiasm and the way he helps keep guys together and fight through adversity -- it’s a tremendous loss for this basketball team.”
It was a grind to get through (the Big 12), but it helps prepare you for the moment that we're in for now. Our conference all year has been great.” -- Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg
But even without Niang, the Cyclones still retain enough firepower, including Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and All-Big 12 point guard DeAndre Kane, to slip past the Tar Heels and make a deep run in the East Region.
“This is still a confident group,” Hoiberg said. “And we’re playing a very good stretch of basketball right now.”
To keep the stretch going against the Tar Heels, the Cyclones will have to figure out how they’ll replace one of their top players in less than 48 hours. Hoiberg said Saturday he wasn’t sure yet without Niang -- who at 6-foot-7 with range could play inside and outside -- whether he’d go small or go big. Either way, the Cyclones will need sophomore guard Naz Long, freshman guard Matt Thomas and junior forward Daniel Edozie to all play bigger roles Sunday, especially helping out on the glass against North Carolina, which secured 21 offensive rebounds to hold off Providence in the second round.
“People asked me how are you going to replace him? Who are you going to replace him with?” Hoiberg said. “And you can't just do it with one guy. It's going to be by committee. And everybody's got to be ready to go out there and contribute.”
Baylor, meanwhile, will need a dogged team effort defensively to contain McDermott, who scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Creighton’s second-round win over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Bears, and their rangy zone defense, frustrated Nebraska. But nobody lately has been able to slow McDermott, who has scored at least 22 points in his last 14 games.
“He can score in multiple ways, whether it be shooting or getting to the basket,” Baylor forward Royce O’Neale said. “So we just have to be prepared for it.”
But both Big 12 coaches said the Big 12 season has prepared their players for such a pair of tough third-round matchups.
“It was a grind to get through, but it helps prepare you for the moment that we’re in for now,” Hoiberg said. “Our conference all year has been great.”
By punching tickets to the Sweet Sixteen, the Bears and Cyclones would validate just that.
SAN DIEGO -- In a matter of months, it all crumbled. More like the brick exterior of an old church than a cookie. A gradual but obvious decline.
Marcus Smart returned to Oklahoma State to rid his program of the lingering stench that arose in the weeks that followed last season’s opening-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA tournament. He wanted to refine his skills in hopes of securing a lengthier future in the NBA, too.
But Smart had the chance to take a top-three slot in the draft a year ago. He came back to help his teammates -- his brothers -- make a run in March. To pursue a national championship.
Seconds later, it was over. And then, Smart walked off the court.
“It’s very difficult,” said Smart, who finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and 1 block. “This team has been through a lot this season, a lot of downs and a lot of ups, and it’s especially difficult for me -- Markel [Brown] being a senior -- words can’t explain it right now.”
It was likely Smart’s last collegiate game, as most expect him to turn pro. He refused to discuss his future in detail after the game, but he suggested that the loss wouldn’t change that plan.
But the game, an 85-77 loss for No. 9 seed Oklahoma State, was also the conclusion of a bizarre season for the program. The Pokes entered the season tied with Syracuse in eighth place in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.
That position seemed solid. With Smart, Brown and Le’Bryan Nash anchoring the team, Oklahoma State had the look of a Big 12 and national title contender.
From there, calamity ensued. Big man Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending injury in late December. In early February, Stevie Clark was dismissed by coach Travis Ford following an arrest. Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan shortly after that and earned a three-game suspension and national scrutiny. Plus, the team endured a seven-game losing streak.
And it was over, it seemed.
But somehow, the Pokes fought back and became just the second team since 1985 to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after suffering a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that’s notable, considering their challenges.
“In a sense, you could say that because 64 teams make it to this point and to be considered one of those teams is always an accomplishment, to be a part of this tournament,” said Brown, who finished with 20 points. “We fell short of our goals, but it’s always a positive when you get into the NCAA tournament.”
They could not escape their past in San Diego, though. Without Cobbins, the Cowboys were futile in their attempt to contain 7-foot-1 big man Przemek Karnowski (15 points, 10 rebounds). They couldn’t stop Gary Bell Jr. (17 points) or Kevin Pangos (26 points, 12-for-14 from the charity stripe), either.
Smart played 38 minutes even though he picked up four fouls. Nash, the team’s best threat inside, played just 17 minutes due to foul trouble.
The postgame news conference for the Cowboys felt like a funeral. Brown fought off tears from the podium. Phil Forte III buried his head in his hands.
Coaches, team officials and trainers stood along the concrete wall outside the locker room in silence.
But Smart told the press that he had no regrets about returning for his sophomore season. A day earlier, he’d discussed the bond that developed within the team as it endured the drama. And even though Oklahoma State fell short of its dreams, Smart said he was proud of its effort Friday and throughout the season.
“I definitely think I left it all out there,” Smart said. “This team left it all out there.”
And that’s not debatable. Oklahoma State’s determination cannot be questioned.
But the season will end in mystery. The Cowboys left it out there, but how much more would they have left right now if everything had come together instead of fallen apart midway through the season?
We’ll never know because it’s over.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Thousands of Iowa State fans converted Kansas City’s Sprint Center into their own little Hilton Coliseum throughout the Big 12 tourney. As their favorite team advanced, more supporters arrived to enjoy the program’s first Big 12 tourney title run since 2000.
By Saturday night, they’d filled up the building. And they were treated to a coronation that reminded us that chaos reigns in college basketball’s postseason.
Logic is usually shattered by the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, an event that’s as fluid as spontaneous postgame celebrations.
Fred Hoiberg walked along the sideline following his team’s 74-65 win over Baylor and pumped his fists, extreme emotion from the usually subdued coach. DeAndre Kane led his teammates in the “Nae Nae” dance on the podium. Georges Niang hoisted his teammates onto his shoulders. And Naz Long wouldn’t relinquish that championship trophy, which the program had somehow secured despite its 0-for-13 shooting start.
As confetti fell from the rafters and Cyclones fans memorialized the moment with their smartphones, Iowa State assistant Doc Sadler watched the bash and smirked.
“We fought ’em, didn’t we?” he said.
Yeah, they did.
The Cyclones have been fighting for weeks, evolving into the trendiest of trendy Final Four picks.
They didn’t have that Final Four juice a few months ago. They lost four of five in January and even commenced March with back-to-back defeats.
Kane was too wild. Niang wasn’t big enough to joust with the top bigs in America. The Cyclones relied on the 3-ball too often.
Those were the doubts and concerns. The Cyclones heard them.
“A lot of teams say we can’t defend,” Niang said. “We stopped Baylor four of the last six [possessions]. A lot of teams said we’re not big enough. We just go out there and do it. We’ve got a killer instinct.”
But, they got hot. In the conference tourney, they beat Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games.
That might not be enough to elevate the Cyclones to a 2-seed, but their position won’t fully describe how dangerous they are right now.
Today is all about numbers. Selection Sunday centers on seed lines, RPI, wins and losses. Teams are positioned according to bodies of work. They’re left out if their respective resumes are suspect.
But the Selection Committee will not measure teams by mojo alone.
If that were the case, then Iowa State and the fiery Baylor team that it defeated on Saturday would move higher. Now, they’ll just be mouse traps for the higher seeds included in their regions, after negating doubts that surrounded them in previous months.
“We never doubted each other,” Kane said. “We stuck together. We’re brothers. We’re back. We’re back, man. But we’re not done. We want to cut down these nets but we want to cut down the nets in Dallas.”
Both the Cyclones and Bears proved in the Big 12 tourney that it’s imprudent to judge a team’s national title potential too early.
“We’re always the underdogs,” said Melvin Ejim, “we don’t really care about that.”
Anything can happen. Really.
And a team’s resume and seed line can fail to provide an accurate picture of who it is right now.
Louisville didn’t lose a game from Valentine’s Day until it won the national championship last April in Atlanta. Kentucky lost just once after Dec. 10, 2011, during its national title run the previous season.
But Michigan went 6-6 in its last 12 games, which made it easy to forget the Wolverines’ 20-1 start last season. Syracuse ended the 2011-12 campaign with five losses in its nine games entering the Big Dance. Wichita State lost in the Missouri Valley title game.
All three reached the Final Four, a possible destination for Iowa State this season.
“We had three great wins against three great teams,” Hoiberg said about his team’s Big 12 tourney experience. “All hot teams. To get this going into the tournament gives us a lot of momentum. That’s an 8-seed we just beat and they’re probably the team that’s playing better than anyone in our league.”
Selection Sunday will set up the final chapter of a great season but it won’t pen its conclusion. It’s certainly a significant element of the entire NCAA tournament.
But pay attention to the inadvertent deceit. The seeds that don’t match the programs. The paths for national title candidates that might not be as clear as they seem on paper.
Remember teams such as Iowa State, which might be playing its best basketball at the perfect time and prepping for a stint that leads to Dallas.
You couldn’t say that about this program two months ago.
But, they kept fightin’ ’em, didn’t they?
Late in the second half of Iowa State's 94-83 victory over Kansas in Friday's Big 12 tourney semifinals, Georges Niang lay on the floor with a reddening towel covering his face. Brannen Greene had caught the Cyclones' big man with an accidental elbow on a drive.
The gash above Niang's right eye represents the war that's been staged in the weeks and months leading up to Saturday's tournament championship game between Baylor and Iowa State.
Every night a fight. Every trip a test.
Saturday’s tournament finale will be brought to you by the Big 12, America's best and most competitive league.
“Well, arguably and certainly, our thought is [that it’s] the best conference in the country, and every night you line up, it's against a really good team,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said earlier this week. “A lot of different styles in the league, some smaller teams, some bigger teams. … The balance, the depth of really good players in the league. It's tough every night.”
Kansas, the favorite and most dominant team in the tournament's history, is back in Lawrence now. And that's not just because Joel Embiid was unavailable this week.
The Jayhawks ran into a gauntlet.
Iowa State lost four of five in January. The Cyclones nearly suffered three losses in a row earlier this month, but Naz Long's buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent them into overtime against Oklahoma State, where the Cyclones won 85-81 on March 8. The Cyclones have won seven of their last nine, and they've resembled nothing short of an NCAA championship contender during this stretch.
“Coach preaches, ‘How are you going to act when adversity hits you? Are you going to give up? Are you going to point the finger? Are you going to point the finger at yourself? How are you going to act?’” Niang said after Iowa State topped Kansas in the semifinals. “He asks us that question all the time, and I feel like we came here for a reason. We didn't want to go down with a fight, so we just kept fighting, clawing, pulling.”
Baylor's rise has been equally incredible. A rough bout of eight losses in its first 10 conference games seemed to push Baylor back into the NIT conversation. But then, the Bears recovered with a 10-1 stretch. They beat Texas, a certain NCAA tournament team, by 17 points Friday. They're playing as well as any team in the league right now.
“Basically, we've just tightened up on our defense and working on closing out the game,” Cory Jefferson said after his team’s win over Texas in the semifinals. Most of the games we have lost, when we went through the early part of the conference play, they were within, like, one to two possessions. So we were there throughout the whole game for the most part, but we just [weren't] finishing out the game, and that's basically what we've been working on.”
The two regular-season battles between these teams showcased their best and worst qualities. Iowa State embarrassed Baylor in the first game, an 87-72 victory in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 7. DeAndre Kane scored 30 points. The Cyclones beat the Bears up the floor and torched them from the 3-point line (10 for 25). They trapped Baylor's big men and forced 19 turnovers.
But things changed in Waco, Texas, on March 4. That's when Baylor just attacked the rim and threatened every shot inside the arc but only sent the Cyclones to the free throw line for two attempts. Isaiah Austin and Jefferson combined for four blocks. The Bears held Melvin Ejim and Niang to a combined 5-for-25 clip. That's the Baylor team that has whipped the Big 12 in recent weeks.
Whatever happens in Kansas City on Saturday night will be historic.
This is just Iowa State’s second appearance in the Big 12 tournament championship game. The Cyclones won the title in 2000. Baylor has appeared in the championship twice but never won it.
Whatever happens in Kansas City will also be scrappy. The Big 12 doesn't do it any other way.
The matchups in this league tend to leave a mark.