College Basketball Nation: Big 12

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LAWRENCE, Kansas -- If you want to really irritate Kansas coach Bill Self, ask him about players not living up to expectations. Especially the players he's coached who were one-and-done types.

The list is long, which is why his tolerance for the questioning is short.

His tipping point was probably last season when an early narrative on Andrew Wiggins emerged that he was somehow not playing to his potential. It has continued this season with freshmen Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre. And along the way, Self has found himself preaching patience to anyone who will listen when it comes to sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr.'s development.

"Most of the kids that come in with a lot of expectations are expectations that have been placed on them by outside influences," Self said.

Selden, like the others, arrived on campus as a potential ready-made NBA player. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he had the body frame. He'd shown enough explosiveness to be a big-time scorer and enough physical skills to be a good defender.

[+] EnlargeWayne Selden Jr., Michael Frazier II
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsWayne Selden Jr. said he's finding ways to stay on the court for Kansas if his shot isn't falling.
After a solid freshman season, but certainly not one that NBA scouts would consider sizzling, he dropped out of a lot of mock drafts.

"You play good one or two days in a summer camp, those things can be blown up or those things can really hurt you," Self said. "Neither one of them help or hurt you in the big scheme of things because you still have an opportunity to go out and play and show who you are."

Selden showed who he is Friday in the Jayhawks' 71-65 win over Florida. The sophomore guard bounced back from an 0-for-10 outing against Michigan State and scored a season-high 21 points to lead Kansas' rally from an 18-point deficit.

Selden admitted he might not have shaken off a poor performance so easily last season.

"As a freshman, you get down on yourself a lot," Selden said. "You struggle with confidence, you just don't really know what to do. Now if I miss shots I'm not really thinking I'm not going to play. I try to defend and do the other things to help me stay with it and stay on the floor."

Selden is aiming to become a well-rounded player whose game isn't affected by a poor shooting night.

"I think he's always been a streaky shooter, but the one thing about him is I think he's got confidence in himself and belief in himself," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "That's what really good players do ... he came back and responded really, really well."

The scouting report on Kansas is defend the 3-point line and protect the paint. All midrange shots are fair game and Donovan said he was willing to concede those. Selden blew up that blueprint, and if he can continue to do so moving forward, the Jayhawks will soar.

"We need him every game. He's a big part of the team, one of the best players," Kansas freshman guard Devonte Graham said. "We feed off of him and you [saw] what happened."

Forward Perry Ellis has been as steady all season, leading Kansas in scoring and rebounding. But for the Jayhawks to be special -- to pursue another Big 12 title and have a deep run in March -- they need one of their future pros to step forward.

Selden could be that guy. And he doesn't have to score 20 points a game to do so.

"It's not about that here at Kansas, it's about sharing the ball and playing basketball," Selden said. "If you do that, the pie is big enough for everybody."
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SEC, Big 12

This season’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge is anchored by Friday’s prime-time matchup between Texas and Kentucky. But that’s not the only meaningful game of the series. Kansas State-Tennessee, Florida-Kansas, Arkansas-Iowa State and LSU-West Virginia are all interesting, too. And you can watch them all here.

Here are the top 10 players in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using #Top10Thursday.

1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

Karl-Anthony TownsMark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports
It’s not easy to stand out on a roster full of future first-round picks. But the freshman and potential No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft has emerged as one of the premier talents in Lexington, especially on the defensive end. He has a ridiculous 18.6 block percentage (No. 2 in the country, per Ken Pomeroy).

2. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky

Dakari JohnsonMark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports
After he decided to come back following last season’s solid finish in the NCAA tournament, Johnson changed his body and tweaked his game. He’s second in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage (10.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, 60.5 percent from the field) on the No. 1 team in the country.

3. Perry Ellis, Kansas

Perry EllisMark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire
He was overshadowed by Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins last season, but Ellis is the catalyst for a Kansas team that’s chasing its 11th consecutive Big 12 title. He’s the reigning Big 12 player of the week after earning MVP honors at the Orlando Classic. He scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the title game against Michigan State.

4. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

Buddy HieldSteven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports
Oklahoma has suffered some tough losses already this season (Creighton, Wisconsin). But the Sooners will get back on the right path with Hield in charge. The 6-foot-4 junior’s stats this season have been impressive. Can’t ignore the 2.3 turnovers per game, but check out the 16.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.2 SPG and 37.5 percent clip from beyond the arc.

5. Georges Niang, Iowa State

Georges NiangAP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
He has clearly recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him during the NCAA tourney last season. Niang is shooting a career-low 30 percent from the 3-point line, but his 18.2 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 88.5 percent mark from the free throw line are all career highs.

6. Juwan Staten, West Virginia

Juwan StatenAP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo
He hasn’t quite matched last season's crazy marks. But 15.1 PPG, 4.3 APG and 1.4 SPG are still respectable numbers. Plus, he’s ranked 12th overall in the Big 12 with a 121.9 offensive rating, per Ken Pomeroy. Staten’s production has been vital for 16th-ranked and undefeated West Virginia.

7. Marcus Foster, Kansas State

Marcus FosterBrian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports
Somehow, Foster wasn’t even ranked among the best players in Texas as a prep athlete. But multiple colleges now probably wish they’d pursued the sophomore. He’s averaging 14.9 PPG. That’s commendable. His 47.7 percent connection rate on his 3-pointers is just nonsense.

8. Cinmeon Bowers, Auburn

Cinmeon BowersEthan Miller/Getty Images
The junior college transfer is an important player for Bruce Pearl. He’s averaging 15.2 PPG and 13.0 RPG for the Tigers. It might be a tough season for Pearl, but Bowers, KT Harrell and a healthy Antoine Mason will keep this program in most games throughout the season.

9. Bobby Portis, Arkansas

Bobby PortisTim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports
He grew a couple of inches in the offseason. And he was a problem before he hit 6-11. Portis (14.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.5 BPG), a potential lottery pick next summer, is one of the reasons Arkansas possesses a top-20 offense and top-60 defense.

10. Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss

Jarvis SummersSpruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports
Remember that “What will Ole Miss do without Marshall Henderson?” convo? Well, Andy Kennedy’s squad is 5-1 with wins over a previously ranked Creighton squad and Cincinnati. How? Well, Summers (14.7 PPG, 3.7 APG, 1.7 SPG) has become the new leader for the program. He’s an underrated star for a team that needed one after Henderson left the building.
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KANSAS CITY -- Here are five quick observations from Wednesday's Big 12 media day at the Sprint Center:

1. Media days can be sleepy affairs. Coaches step to the podium for early-morning interviews, answer a couple of rote questions ("Could you talk about the importance of experience for your team?") with mostly vague platitudes ("I really like our team") and then shuffle off to the next scheduled requirement. Everyone goes through the undercaffeinated motions. With rare exceptions, very little is learned.

Curtis Shaw is not a coach. He's the Big 12's coordinator of officials. On Wednesday morning, he staged a brief, scheduled interruption midway through the coaches' news conferences. Shaw's incursion wasn't just a break from the typical media day protocol; it was a genuine burst of self-criticism and new information on the NCAA's ongoing efforts to create a better, more fluid brand of basketball.

Shaw was on hand to talk about rules. More specifically, he was at the Sprint Center to discuss the so-called "freedom of motion" changes the NCAA rules committee made last season, why those changes were made, and how they'll be implemented anew in the season to come.

"The rules committee is made up of coaches," Shaw said. "They're the ones who decided the game didn't look well. The UConn-Butler game in the Final Four a couple years ago -- everyone said, 'This is enough. We're not playing basketball like this anymore.'"

As the numbers demonstrate, the changes made before the 2013-14 season really did have a positive effect. The game was more free-flowing. Scoring was up, even as the pace of the game -- maybe something only a shot-clock reduction could substantively affect -- stayed steady. But all was not well, as Shaw saw it. Even the one area where reviews for the changes were mostly positive -- the block-charge -- Shaw saw serious room to improve.

"We butchered it," Shaw said. "By January 1st, I could watch film and couldn't tell you if it was right or wrong."

The problem was not that officials didn't take the NCAA's changes to heart. It's that the interpretation lacked uniformity and created confusion. Now, the new emphasis will remove any distinction between primary defenders and secondary defenders, to streamline the block-charge call into one simple calculation: When the offensive player leaves the floor, any defensive movement is a blocking foul. That simple.

But it's not all about defense; offensive strategies also have a role to play in freedom of motion. Shaw brought a raft of clips with him to this effect, comprising a number of situations the officials will police even more closely this season: holding and tugging cutters away from the ball, illegal jostling for position on the block, illegal screens on the perimeter.

To demonstrate, Shaw showed a clip of Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes displacing a defender with his shoulder. The defender was in legal, established position as Stokes gained an advantage with his sizable torso. A made basket (and no call) were the result. Others showed tugging away from the play, the kind of thing officials might hesitate to call in the past. But after coaches insisted these kinds of plays were as crucial as any on-ball contact, Shaw is determined to hold the whole court to the same standard.

The ultimate goal? A better, more balanced understanding of legal play on both sides of the ball, no matter the position of the player or the play. In other words, a better game -- at least as far as the officials can create it.

"A rules official said three years ago, "Our time in the weight room became more important than our time in practice,'" Shaw said. "That's not the intent of basketball."

[+] EnlargeJuwan Staten
AP Photo/Andrew FergusonJuwan Staten averaged 18.1 points in his junior season at West Virginia.
2. West Virginia might be the most intriguing team in the Big 12, in that the Juwan Staten-led Mountaineers have a seemingly equal chance of being really good or really mediocre. So what will the Mountaineers do differently this season? To guide us on our quest for knowledge, a bowtie-clad Bob Huggins offered some classically Huggins-esque guruship:

"I think we're finally maybe going to try to guard somebody, which would be something new," Huggins said. "Actually, maybe [we'll] try to run to the rim and shoot a layup. We've been kind of like your dog, you know, with the electric fence. We run right to that 3 and kind of stop right there. So we're going to actually try to run in past the 3point line this year and see if that works."

No further analysis required.

3. Kansas, reigning Big 12 champs 10 years in a row, were the coaches totally predictable preseason title pick. But they weren't unanimous: Bill Self admitted he chose Texas and said the Longhorns' five returning starters, plus super-talented incoming freshmen, made them the selection.

"I think if you're looking at it in terms of their roster, they should be the favorite," Self said.

If that's the case, it might hinge on whether Jonathan Holmes, an aggressive, slashing power forward, can slide away from the rim far enough to give Myles Turner and Cameron Ridley room to work.

"We're working on it right now, figuring out each other's tendencies -- when to cut, when not to cut," Holmes said. "I've played some 3. I know the plays. It's just about finding what I can do against defenders, where I can make things work."

4. Self is being polite, of course. He's also pretty optimistic about his roster, even if he and his players don't quite know what the rotation will look like when the Jayhawks begin the season in November.

[+] EnlargeCliff Alexander
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty ImagesKansas' Cliff Alexander is one of the headliners in a group of talented freshmen entering the Big 12.
It's hard to overstate just how new different the 2014-15 Jayhawks will look from the freshman-dominated version that Self rolled out last season. There are talented freshmen here -- Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre chief among them -- but there are also a host of returners and veterans (and a transfer or two) all vying for time in the starting lineup. That competition is ongoing, meaning neither Self nor his players could say what the rotation will look like just yet.

"We've got a LOT of guys," Perry Ellis said. "And everybody's going against each other every day, trying to earn minutes. It's a different look for sure, but it's making us better as a team."

5. Any short list of 2014-15 Big 12 contenders must include Iowa State, even an Iowa State team that lost its two best players (DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim) to graduation. One reason? Transfers, of course: As he's done every season of his tenure, Fred Hoiberg has lured a crop of immediately ready transfers to Ames, the most notable of which, Bryce Dejean-Jones, should be a major contributor right away. The other reason? The emergence of Dustin Hogue, a great rebounder and role player who looks likely to push Georges Niang for post touches in the season to come.

So, how does Hoiberg do it? How do you get so many new players to integrate so quickly, each and every season?

"It's all about freedom," Hogue said. "Playing his offense is about learning how to express yourself on the court. You have to unlearn how you played before, like, 'Oh, I'm a 3, I have to play here.' You play everywhere. You can't be robotic. But once you figure that out, everything feels much freer."
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Big 12

Earlier this year, Kansas announced that Naadir Tharpe had chosen to transfer to another school for personal reasons. And a promising preseason for a team that has won or shared the last 10 conference titles was pre-empted by the perennial point guard drama that’s become the norm in Lawrence.

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?

Nothing, really.

The race remains open. It’s always open.

And that’s the problem. And that should be the fear in Lawrence.

[+] EnlargeFrank Mason
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesFrank Mason has experience but Kansas is likely to explore different combinations of players at point guard.
Sure, there’s Frank Mason. He’s experienced and a solid leader for a Jayhawks squad that will boast a robust roster of future NBA draft picks, including Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis. Last season, Mason was 10th in the Big 12 in assist rate, per KenPom.com. But he logged only 16.2 minutes per game. It’s unclear how the sophomore will perform with extended action this year.

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.

Georges Niang disputes Hield's prediction

July, 11, 2014
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On Friday, while everyone was busy talking about an obscure professional athlete returning to his hometown team, Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield -- who was at the LeBron James Skills Academy this week, fittingly enough -- dropped a rather bold prediction about the 2014-15 Big 12.

"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:

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.)

3-point shot: Baylor reaches out to Austin

June, 24, 2014
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on the Baylor Bears' invitation to Isaiah Austin to finish his degree; Marquette's new coaching staff; and why Billy Donovan could be Mike Krzyzewski's heir as the coach for Team USA.
Editor's note: Over the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. On Monday, we unveil No. 15: Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg. On Tuesday, we release No. 14.

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.

[+] EnlargeFred Hoiberg
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsFred Hoiberg has reignited the Iowa State program by becoming the Pied Piper of transfers.
He had to have the players that would allow the Cyclones to compete with Kansas that season.

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.”

[+] EnlargeRoyce White
David Calvert/NBAE/Getty ImagesRoyce White helped establish the transfer pipeline to Ames, Iowa.
White flourished and avoided the drama that had delayed his progress with the Gophers.

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.”

3-point shot: SEC/Big 12 Challenge draws

May, 8, 2014
May 8
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Andy Katz looks at the SEC/Big 12 Challenge draws for Arkansas and LSU and off-the-field trouble for Oregon.

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.

3-point shot: Oregon State coaching search

May, 6, 2014
May 6
12:32
PM ET


Andy Katz looks at replacements for Craig Robinson at Oregon State and news at the Big 12 meetings.

3-point shot: Tommy Amaker's future

April, 23, 2014
Apr 23
11:40
AM ET


Andy Katz looks at Tommy Amaker's future at Harvard and SEC-Big 12 challenge field.

Look back, look ahead: Big 12

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
10:30
AM ET
In recent years, the Big Ten has been -- arguably -- college basketball’s best conference.

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.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsAn injury to Kansas center Joel Embiid did not help the Big 12's tournament showing.
Kansas competed for a top seed in the tourney and probably would have seized one had Joel Embiid remained healthy down the stretch. Iowa State won the conference tourney title and made a run to the Sweet 16, where it lost to eventual national champ Connecticut. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State (just the second team since tourney expansion in 1985 to secure an at-large berth after enduring a seven-game losing streak during its season), Kansas State, Baylor and Texas were all in the field, too.

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.

[+] EnlargeNiang
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsGeorges Niang and Iowa State should be back in contention for a Big 12 title next season.
What we expect to see next season: Even if Myles Turner, the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, chooses another school, Kansas will still be stacked. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe return. Plus, Cliff Alexander (the top power forward in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, and fellow McDonald’s All American Kelly Oubre are on their way to Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks should contend for their 11th consecutive Big 12 crown under Self.

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.
It didn’t hit DeAndre Kane right away.

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."

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIowa State's DeAndre Kane wears No. 50 for his dad and says, "I know he's happy watching this."
With a driving, game-winning layup last weekend, Iowa State’s point guard toppled North Carolina and sent the Cyclones to the Sweet 16 to set up a Madison Square Garden clash Friday with No. 7 UConn. But the man who first put a basketball in his hands, then became his biggest fan along the way, wasn’t there to see it.

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."

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
DeAndre still managed to get his degree, then began looking for that fresh start.

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.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier and the Huskies believe they will have a home-court advantage Friday versus Iowa State.
“I told the guys, this came full circle,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know we came down here and played in the 2K Classic and won that Classic. But to come down here this time, and our guys not able to play in the last Big East tournament that was here last year, it’s all full circle.”

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.”
SAN ANTONIO -- According to the venerable RPI metric, the Big 12 had the best conference in college basketball this season. As a result, the league put seven teams into the NCAA tournament, more than any other conference.

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.

[+] EnlargeShavon Shields
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBaylor's athletic defense will have its hands full with Doug McDermott and Creighton.
First in the West Region, sixth-seeded Baylor will face off against the likely national player of the year in Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Then in the East, No. 3 seed Iowa State will take on one of college basketball’s bluebloods in North Carolina.

“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.

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
“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.”

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.

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