College Basketball Nation: Big 12

Look back, look ahead: Big 12

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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AP Photo/Gregory BullOklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds vs. Gonzaga, is likely headed for the 2014 NBA draft.
And he could see that opportunity evaporating against No. 8 seed Gonzaga on Friday afternoon. But he couldn’t plug the leak.

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.

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Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsIn his final game for the Cowboys, senior Markel Brown scored 20 points.
The Cowboys weren’t big enough, deep enough or strong enough to stop a Gonzaga squad that shot 9-for-18 beyond the arc. Coach Mark Few’s program is 6-0 now against the Cowboys and will advance to face No. 1 seed Arizona Sunday at Viejas Arena.

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.

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AP Photo/Charlie RiedelIowa State players celebrate after winning the Big 12 tournament title.
On Selection Sunday, the Cyclones won’t be sleepers, they’ll just be contenders.

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?
KANSAS CITY -- There was so much blood. It didn't flow, it gushed.

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.

[+] EnlargeGeorges Niang
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallIt should be another scrappy game when Iowa State and Baylor meet for the Big 12 tournament championship. The teams split their regular-season meetings.
This final chapter in the Big 12 features two teams that got their grooves back at the right time.

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.

Video: Baylor crushes Texas

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

Baylor crushed Texas 86-69 to reach the final of the Big 12 tournament.

KANSAS CITY -- As Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane and a bandaged Georges Niang -- he took an elbow to the right eye -- walked off the podium, each player gave Fred Hoiberg a fist bump minutes after they’d punched Kansas in the mouth.

On Friday night, the Good Iowa State Cyclones showed up. That’s the group that might deserve a space in the Final Four of your office pool bracket. That’s the team that can turn the basketball court into a canvas with strokes of beautiful basketball that paint the picture of a program with a ceiling that keeps getting higher.

That’s also the squad that’s not always fortunate enough to see its three best players excel and avoid foul trouble on the same night. That’s when the Unpredictable Iowa State Cyclones arrive. That’s the team that lost four of five in January.

In the Sprint Center, however, Iowa State outplayed Kansas during a 94-83 win in the Big 12 tournament semifinals Friday to set up the program’s second conference tournament title game appearance, and first since the Cyclones won the championship in 2000.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDeAndre Kane and Iowa State had plenty to smile about after knocking off KU to advance to the Big 12 championship game.
At the final buzzer, the Cyclones weren’t sure whom they’d face, but they knew how they’d reached Saturday’s finale. This vital trio of talent -- Kane, Ejim and Niang -- had pushed the program into the title game.

“I think every day we play, we bring it,” Ejim said. “The chance of us three playing well is increasing and when guys that come off the bench, like Dustin [Hogue], are playing well, Monte [Morris] is playing, Daniel [Edozie] comes off and gives us some vital minutes, it shows how versatile this team is, how many weapons we have and how hard we are to beat when we're all clicking. We're doing a real good job and we're really rolling right now, and I think that it's just going to continue to go in that direction.”

With simple layups, Niang (game-high 25 points) hammered a Kansas interior defense that needs injured center Joel Embiid to return soon. Kane (20 points, six rebounds, six assists, two steals, 5-for-6 from the 3-point line) allowed the shots to come while the Jayhawks were conflicted by matchups against players who can all shoot and slash. Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year, had a quiet 19 points, five rebounds and two steals.

“We like the run and gun,” Kane said. “We like to get up and down the court. Anybody can bring it up.”

In all, the threesome collected 64 points. And they were also responsible for a defensive effort that limited Andrew Wiggins to a 7-for-21 outing and contained the Jayhawks to a 4-for-15 effort from the 3-point line.

It wasn’t just Ejim, Niang and Kane, though. It rarely is.

Morris and Hogue finished with double figures. And it’s always easier to win when you hit 11 3-pointers. The Cyclones scored 1.25 points per possession against the Jayhawks and they outscored them 41-18 outside the paint, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Ejim, Niang and Kane, however, were the conductors of the ensemble.

When that happens, Hilton Magic happens. Even in Kansas City.

“Well obviously, we play through those guys,” Hoiberg said. “They’re all guys that are capable of handling the load on the offensive end. All of them can create a mismatch out there. And I’ll tell you the thing I’ve been most impressed with is that they recognize mismatches out there on the floor.”

But talk to any Iowa State fan and they’ll tell you about their fears and nightmares. They’ll tell you what they’ve seen. They’ll talk about the times this season that the trio became a duo or an individual to the detriment of the program.

During that Jan. 13 loss to Kansas, Niang (4-for-20) went missing. Five days later, Kane went 3-for-12 in a loss to Texas. Ejim went 3-for-14 in a loss to Baylor in early March.

And those are just examples from some of the losses. There’s a distinct difference in Iowa State’s performances when only one of those leaders struggles.

And there’s an elevation that’s displayed when they’re all flowing.

“I think we're very good going forward when all three of us make great contributions,” said Niang, who sported a Band-Aid over his right eye after Kansas guard Brannen Greene accidentally elbowed him in the second half.

That was clear Friday. On that day, the Jayhawks couldn’t touch them.

And the truth is that few teams will Saturday or beyond if this continues.

It’s the “if” part, however, that worries the Cyclones faithful.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Andrew Wiggins rose. But when gravity pulled a trio of Oklahoma State defenders back to earth, he kept climbing.

Wayne Selden Jr. could have thrown that pass anywhere and Wiggins would have grabbed it and flushed that breathtaking alley-oop in the second half.

If there was anyone in the Sprint Center who could stop Wiggins, one of the most hyped freshmen in the history of the college game, he never emerged. If any doubts about Wiggins' assertiveness remained prior to his effort on Thursday in Kansas' 77-70 overtime win over Oklahoma State in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals (30 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals), they’ve probably ceased.

Wiggins is excelling now with a clear confidence and a swagger that might not be obvious on the outside, but have been proved in recent months by his performances.

Throughout his methodical dissection of the Cowboys, however, Wiggins never screamed at the guy guarding him or pumped his fists. He never glared at the cameras, popped his collar or slammed the ball on the floor. He just stood there and dominated as injured center Joel Embiid watched from the bench.

That calm was the element of his game that Bill Self wanted to tweak when Wiggins arrived in Lawrence, Kan., last summer. The coach recognized how dominant the top recruit in the 2013 class could be -- we all did -- but he worried that his persona would affect his game.

“I thought coming in that we needed to try to change him and change him in a way where he was outwardly, visibly more energetic, passionate, because he is a stoneface on the court,” Self said the day before Wiggins led Kansas to the win over Oklahoma State and a semifinals matchup against Iowa State on Friday. “And that would have been the worst thing we could have ever done.”

LeBron James was the worst thing that ever happened to Wiggins. Michael Jordan’s aura was contained by a TV world that didn’t air Chicago Bulls games on national TV three or four times a week. His highlights weren’t accessible through YouTube, and he didn’t offer 140-character updates about his life via Twitter or drop freestyle raps on Instagram.

James is the most tangible superstar in NBA history. We know more about him and his everyday life than we knew about the greats of past generations. He’s the best player in the world and the type of player who must be monitored every second he’s on the floor.

He’s appealing and relatively accessible through various channels.

As a result, there is this expectation that our greatest athletes must boast the most engaging personalities. They have to connect with us somehow. We prefer shameless arrogance over timidity. There’s something attractive about cockiness. There’s an intriguing quality about the guy who brags about his Bentleys and his women. Even if we hate his ego, we’re still drawn to him -- ask Floyd Mayweather Jr. We love the outwardly emotional athlete.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins, Phil Forte, III
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAndrew Wiggins and Phil Forte III chase after a loose ball during Kansas' win over Oklahoma State.
Wiggins doesn’t have any of that. He just plays basketball, talks quietly in postgame news conferences and leaves.

And that has been a major concern about him.

He had stretches in the first chapter of the season that weren’t brilliant. He didn’t attack enough or demand the ball when he should’ve, which is no longer an issue.

But a portion of the criticism has centered on what Self described. We wanted -- want -- Wiggins to show more fire.

I know I did.

In December, I wrote that Wiggins should play like Jabari Parker, who displays an undeniable vigor every time he competes.

And I was wrong.

Wiggins deserved better. I had no business suggesting that he had to play the way that we -- I -- wanted him to play. He deserved an opportunity to just be Andrew Wiggins, even though the preseason hype asked for so much more.

When he’s assessed according to that standard -- that he’s his own man --it’s much easier to see how good he is right now. Wiggins is one of the most unique and effective freshmen we’ve seen at this level, a statement backed by his 41-point outing against West Virginia Saturday and Thursday’s follow-up.

“I'm always open to new things,” Wiggins said. “Coach [Self] teaches me new things every day. Just preparation and practice. Always play hard, run the floor, defend your man and he just made me a better player.”

He might not be LeBron. Or Kevin Durant.

But he’s still special.

When Kansas needed a defensive play against the Cowboys on Thursday, Wiggins blocked shots and stayed in Markel Brown’s face. When the Jayhawks required offense, he scored. Jump shots, 3-pointers, dunks and drives. Effortless.

When Self’s program had to have a play in overtime, Wiggins dove on the floor for loose balls and hustled up the floor, even as 45 minutes of action zapped his lungs.

There are no guarantees that Embiid will return in the postseason after this week’s diagnosis of a stress fracture in his back that will not require surgery. Wiggins, however, accepted the new responsibilities and pressure.

The Jayhawks can still go far with him.

“As the season goes on, you see how much better he’s getting, how much more assertive he’s being,” said Selden, who finished with 14 points. “How much he’s scoring, how much he’s rebounding and blocking shots. He’s just making a case for being the best player in the country.”

Between now and the end of the season, Wiggins will continue to grow and be more decisive. And that should be a scary thought for the young men responsible for limiting him in the coming weeks.

He won’t smile much, though. He won’t suddenly become the vocal leader that the Jayhawks might need. He won’t stomp his feet and talk trash.

He won’t reveal much.

And that’s OK.

“His demeanor allowed him not to have highs and not to have lows,” Self said Wednesday. “He’s been pretty steady. He’s had a few highs, but his lows haven’t been low. … He’s been pretty steady in large part with how he’s handled the situation because he doesn’t really care about anything going on outside. He only cares about what’s going on inside.”

Toward the end of Kansas’ news conference Thursday, Wiggins finished a response to a reporter’s question with an awkward “Um, yeah” and a smile. Then, he put his head down and giggled. The rest of the room joined him.

There’s certainly a personality there.

It’s just not the one that we might crave. And that’s our problem. Not his.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- In a game it couldn’t afford to lose, Oklahoma State waded through the same funk that confounded Texas Tech in the first matchup of the Big 12 tournament at the Sprint Center.

Then Markel Brown decided that he’d had enough of the nonsense. He could see the Cowboys needed help as their rushed attack matched Texas Tech’s vacant offense in the early stages of the sloppy game.

“Set up! Set up!” Brown yelled as Oklahoma State nearly tarnished another possession.

And that’s exactly what the Cowboys did. They relaxed and recovered. They moved the ball. They swarmed. They ran their stuff. Soon after, they erupted and closed the first half on a 34-11 run.

Brown hit 3-pointers. He made defensive stops. He pounded the rim on a reverse dunk that would make Dominique Wilkins blush.

That was the maneuver that will replay on “SportsCenter” and YouTube.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsMarkel Brown's 18 first-half points made short work of Texas Tech and set Oklahoma State up to play top-seeded Kansas on Thursday.
“They threw a punch and we have to throw one back and keep fighting, and that's what we did,” said Brown, who scored 18 of his game-high 20 points in the first half of Oklahoma State’s 80-62 win over Texas Tech.

Oklahoma State, which will face top-seeded Kansas on Thursday, is in a solid position to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament largely because Marcus Smart has played like a lottery pick since his return from suspension. He scored 21 points in a March 1 win over Kansas. He had 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals in a victory against Kansas State two days later, then had 18 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and a block on Wednesday night.

Only one team has ever secured an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament after enduring a seven-game losing streak -- Iowa State in 1987-88 -- per Elias Sports Bureau. Oklahoma State could become the second.

Smart’s contributions factor into that potential history, but Brown’s leadership matters, too. Maybe more.

“You know, it was tremendous on his part, especially everything that this team has been going through,” Smart said. “You know, we needed that type of leadership, him being the senior captain on this team. He stood up and took responsibility when we needed it. It not only helped him but helped his team in a variety of ways. We're playing better basketball and part of it is because of him.”

This Oklahoma State train could have -- check that, should have -- derailed weeks ago.

Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending foot injury in late January. Stevie Clark was dismissed a few weeks after that. Smart then shoved a fan and was suspended three games. A waterfall of losses followed.

And yet, the Cowboys remain in the NCAA tournament picture despite circumstances that have flattened many programs in the past.

The young men in the locker room will tell you that Brown’s tenacity and guidance were most encouraging as they stumbled toward the bottom of the Big 12.

“He was just playing hard as he can, trying to get a ‘W’ for us,” junior forward Le'Bryan Nash said. “And that’s what you learn from guys like that. I learn a lot from him. ... He wants to win so bad."

The significance of Brown’s place as the team’s sole senior was evident before the season even started. During the first pickup game the freshmen played against the team’s veterans, Brown warned the incoming players that the Big 12 would test them. He wanted them to know that the competition level had changed and they wouldn’t excel with the ease they enjoyed in high school.

And just as quickly as he startled them, he talked to them about their potential. He pulled Leyton Hammonds aside and reminded him that he’d come to Stillwater because he was capable of competing in the league.

It was a simple reassurance that shifted Hammonds’ outlook.

“He came up to me personally and was like ‘Look dude, you know what you can do, just play,’” Hammonds said. “He knows basketball and he’s a great teammate. For him to come up to me and say that, as a freshman, I was like, ‘This dude is the leader of the team because he came out of his way just to tell me that.’”

Those are the moments that don’t crack the nightly highlights.

But Brown does that, too.

He’s not just some glue guy. He’s an athletic wing who has adjusted to various roles, including starting point guard during Smart’s three-game suspension, and has stabilized the program on both ends of the court. He can frustrate you with his range. He can hurt you with jump shots in traffic. He can embarrass you with dunks that you see but can’t stop.

Of players used on 20 percent of their team’s possessions or more, Brown is second in the Big 12 with a 118.8 offensive rating, per ESPN Insider Ken Pomeroy. He boasts career highs in points per game (17.2), 3-point shooting (38 percent) and free throw success rate (78 percent).

“I think Markel Brown is one of the premier players in the country,” coach Travis Ford said. “What he does for our basketball team, we asked him to play three different positions. He played point guard probably 15 minutes of the game tonight. Obviously when Marcus was out, he played point guard for every game.”

Oklahoma State’s recovery is a rare story. But a win over Texas Tech won’t impress the selection committee or elevate its seed.

A victory against Kansas on Thursday, however, would. That’s the next step for a program that continues to battle and make the college basketball world forget about a slide that nearly ruined its aspirations.

Brown refused to let that happen.

“I think stepping up was crucial for me, because I've been in those situations before with this ballclub,” Brown said. “I've been in some tough situations, and I was able to fight out of it. So being there, to help them, cheer them on, to let them know that we can fight another day was huge for me because of the knowledge I have.”

Tournament preview: Big 12

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

The sun rose. And Kansas won its 10th consecutive Big 12 title.

There’s more, though.

The 2013-14 campaign for the Big 12 orchestrated a shift in the conference hierarchy. The Big Ten has been the king of regular-season college basketball for years. But the Big 12 can make that claim this season. The league will enter its tournament with seven teams positioned to earn at-large NCAA bids. That’s 70 percent of the conference.

No conference can match that depth. And if the hoopla in Kansas City, Mo., is anything like the movie we witnessed in a thrilling round of conference play, then we’ll need a lot of popcorn this week because anything could happen.

What’s at stake?

[+] EnlargeKansas Jayhawks
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesBill Self's Jayhawks will have NCAA seeding to play for at the Big 12 tournament.
Kansas is still fighting for that fourth No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament but will have to do so without the services of Joel Embiid. After Embiid met with a spinal specialist in California, the initial stress fracture prognosis was confirmed and he was ruled out of the Big 12 tourney and is unlikely to play the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

"Based on that, this weekend [in the Big 12 championship] is out," Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement. "Next weekend, we feel like is a longshot, but the doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible that he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance."

So this week, for a few reasons, could be significant for the Big 12 champs.

A few wins in Kansas City would solidify the Jayhawks’ campaign, if a top seed is their best scenario. Maybe it’s not. Kansas could end up in a No. 2 slot opposite in-state enigma Wichita State. Perhaps that’s preferable. Regardless, this week could ease or complicate KU’s potential path to the Final Four.

But the Jayhawks are not alone.

Melvin Ejim, the Big 12's player of the year, and Iowa State could use this week’s tournament to attain some much-needed momentum after dropping two of three. A successful stretch would also help Texas and Oklahoma secure favorable second-round matchups on Selection Sunday.

But Baylor and Oklahoma State are the two teams that really need this tourney. Just two weeks ago, both looked as if they’d fallen out of the NCAA tourney pool.

Then Baylor won seven of its final eight regular-season games. And Marcus Smart led Oklahoma State out of a ditch, too. His return from a suspension fueled a rally of four wins in its last five games.

Both of those teams could win this tournament. Or they could stumble early. Their Thursday matchups -- potentially Baylor against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State against Kansas -- could be their toughest, assuming they’re successful in Wednesday night meetings with TCU and Texas Tech, respectively. A run in Kansas City could also position both teams to avoid dicey seeds in the Big Dance.

Baylor and Oklahoma State look good right now. But when they were bad, they were horrid. Oklahoma State endured a seven-game losing streak, and Baylor lost seven of eight during one ugly Big 12 stretch.

Additional quality wins would make it easier for the selection committee to consider the present instead of their collective, rocky past.

Team with the most to gain

What if West Virginia makes a run? On its best days, the Mountaineers have competed against the best teams in the league. And the 9-9 Big 12 squad enters the conference tourney following a whipping of Kansas over the weekend.

Juwan Staten would be a major star in any other league. A run would help him attract the praise he deserves. It’s not crazy, either. West Virginia opens the tourney against a Texas team that’s lost four of its past six. A win would lead to a matchup against Baylor or Oklahoma, two teams that split their season series with the Mountaineers. And Kansas might be waiting in the title game.

There’s nothing sexy about WVU’s 83 RPI or its 5-12 record against top-100 teams. But if you’re looking for a dark horse that could steal a bid and shake up the field, check out the crew in Morgantown.

In just a few hours, the narrative changed.

Bill Self began Monday with a “nothing to see here” routine. Joel Embiid, the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year and a critical element in Kansas' Final Four aspirations, would return eventually, he said. The freshman’s weekend trip to California, where he visited a back specialist, was the “plan” for the potential No. 1 pick in next summer’s NBA draft who missed the final two games of the regular season.

On Monday night, the tone changed. In a statement, Self said Embiid will miss this week’s Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo. He also called Embiid a “longshot” to play in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament due to a stress fracture in his back. There’s a chance, however, that Embiid could return if the Jayhawks make a deep run.

But he shouldn’t. Not this week. Not next weekend. Not even if Kansas reaches Dallas.

The potential No. 1 pick should rest and rehab in preparation for the NBA draft.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesUnless he's not at risk of sustaining further injury by playing in the NCAA tournament, Joel Embiid's next game should be in the NBA, not at Kansas.
There are thousands of Kansas fans who’d like to see Embiid return. Kansas might be a Final Four team with him in the lineup, and if he’s not available, well, West Virginia will tell you that the Jayhawks just aren’t the same team. Andrew Wiggins' 41-point effort in Morgantown on Saturday was a breathtaking performance for the young star but still wasn’t enough to beat a West Virginia team that is a longshot to make the NCAA tournament.

Louisville had Gorgui Dieng last season. Kentucky had Anthony Davis in 2012. Florida had Joakim Noah and Al Horford during its back-to-back national title seasons in 2006 and 2007. Emeka Okafor was a defensive force in the middle for Connecticut when the Huskies won the national championship in 2004.

A shot-blocking, shot-altering big man -- Embiid is 19th nationally in block rate (percentage of opponents’ two-point field goal attempts that a player blocks when he’s on the floor), according to Ken Pomeroy data -- is always an asset in the postseason.

According to ESPN Stats & Information data, Kansas’ opponents shot 44.8 percent from the field in the three games that Embiid missed this season, compared to 40.9 percent when he was on the court.

It’s simple -- Kansas isn’t a Final Four squad without Embiid. The Jayhawks might not be the best team at the Big 12 tournament without him. Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas or Oklahoma could leave Kansas City with the title now.

The personnel hit -- enter Tarik Black -- is not the only concern for Kansas, either.

The coming days will be filled with discussions about Kansas and its seed line. Is Kansas a 1-seed without Embiid? What if he doesn’t come back? If Kansas slips in the Big 12 tournament and the Embiid news becomes more ominous, the selection committee might judge the Jayhawks by this week’s performance in Kansas City.

What does the loss of Embiid mean for Kansas?

That’s an important question.

But it’s not as significant as this one: What does this all mean for Embiid?

It’s selfish to put Kansas before Embiid. This is a health issue, one that could affect his quality of life and his professional future.

Embiid’s return would certainly help one entity: Kansas. But it could do more harm to the fragile back of a young man who won’t last long in next summer’s NBA draft if he enters it.

Life isn’t just about money, but this is.

It would be ideal for all parties involved if Kansas advanced in the Big Dance and Embiid got healthy enough to play without risking additional injury.

Self, however, isn’t talking like a coach who believes that scenario is likely. He sounds like someone who is preparing to move forward without the potential All-America center.

Embiid’s back has been bothering him for months. What makes anyone think he’ll miraculously recover in a few weeks? And even if he does, why jeopardize his professional future and seven-figure salary?

Sure, college basketball is about the kids, the game, the purity of competition, the amateurism, the team and the blah, blah, blah, blah. Whatever. When you’re a possible top-three pick, draft positioning has to be considered. And what if the injury lingers? He’d be better off getting paid to rehab in the league (Jared Sullinger, Nerlens Noel) than waiting in Lawrence another season and possibly watching his draft stock take a hit. (See Mitch McGary.)

Embiid is no different than a University of Kansas economics major. He’s in Lawrence to learn, grow and eventually make some money as the result of his collegiate experience.

And there’s no reason to diminish the progress he has made toward attaining that goal.

This means that Wiggins will carry more weight if Embiid doesn’t come back. Black will have to log more minutes. The Jayhawks will need more from Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis, too. Every player on that roster will accept more responsibility in the final chapter of their season if Embiid can’t help the program in the NCAA tournament.

If college basketball is really centered on the journey of the student-athlete, then Embiid should be allowed to capitalize on his potential by prepping for June and staying off the court.

Stay on the sideline and make your money, Embiid. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But there is something wrong with any push, public or private, to see Embiid play and potentially hinder his future.

Tournament-worthy Tuesday

March, 5, 2014
Mar 5

If the NCAA tournament comes anything close to what we witnessed during Tuesday night’s slate of 7 p.m. games, we’ll have a fulfilling end to the college basketball season.

This closing week of the regular season felt like the opening weekend of the tournament with upsets that will potentially upset the tournament bubble. A must-win for Georgetown ended with a 75-63 victory over No. 13 Creighton. A must-win for Baylor ended with a 74-61 triumph over No. 16 Iowa State. Georgia Tech contributed to the downward spiral of No. 7 Syracuse by pulling off a 67-62 upset.

No. 1 Florida and No. 25 Kentucky both needed second-half awakenings before pulling away for their respective wins.

No. 12 Michigan was the only team than made the outcome totally boring. The Wolverines secured the Big Ten title outright by pummeling Illinois 84-53.

Baylor and Georgetown played with the desperation of teams needing to solidify their résumés. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the Bears in as an 11-seed before beating Iowa State. Tuesday’s win should just solidify their standing -- especially if they end the regular season with a win at Kansas State to reach .500 in Big 12 play.

[+] EnlargeBrady Heslip
Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY SportsBrady Heslip scored 18, including five 3-pointers, to help Baylor upset No. 16 Iowa State.
Eight of Baylor’s 10 losses had come to ranked teams, but the Bears changed that narrative by executing down the stretch. They held the Cyclones scoreless the last four minutes of the game.

Brady Heslip broke a 61-61 tie with his fifth 3-pointer of the second half and the Bears never trailed again.

Georgetown’s win over the Bluejays propels it into Saturday’s regular-season finale with another opportunity to impress the committee at No. 6 Villanova. The hot-shooting Hoyas jumped on Creighton from the beginning en route to shooting 54 percent from the field.

It was the defensive job they did on Creighton’s Doug McDermott that keyed their win. Though McDermott did score 22 points, he needed 23 shots to get there. The Hoyas held him to just six points on 3-of-10 shooting as they built a 42-28 lead at halftime.

McDermott got hot in the second half and led a charge that cut a 16-point deficit down to five with 1:34 left. But the Hoyas made five of six free throws and Creighton couldn’t muster another basket to close the game.

Syracuse’s fall from being a potential No. 1 seed in the tournament appears to be complete unless it can turn things around quickly. That doesn’t seem likely as the Orange lost for the fourth time in five games and suffered their second setback to a team in the lowest third of the ACC.

The Yellow Jackets were a perfect senior night opponent having entered the Carrier Dome as losers of their past four. But they were in control most of the game against a Syracuse offense that again struggled to score.

C.J. Fair delivered 28 points and Tyler Ennis added 18, but no other Syracuse player reached double figures. Guard Trevor Cooney went 3-for-12 from the field -- including just 1-of-7 from 3-point range -- and finished with seven points.

The Orange sorely missed the presence of sophomore forward Jerami Grant, who is nursing a back injury and did not dress out for the game. Grant averages 11.8 points and is their leading rebounder with 6.7 rebounds.

The loss dropped Syracuse one step closer to a full scale panic. Kentucky nearly joined them.

The Wildcats trailed Alabama 28-25 and were flirting with their first three-game losing streak in five years. Tied at 32-32 in the second half, they used a 9-2 spurt to take the lead for good en route to a 55-48 win.

It wasn’t an overwhelming show of strength for the Cats. They shot just 32 percent from the field, including a 1-for-11 outing by James Young, but they showed fortitude they didn’t have in the loss at South Carolina. Julius Randle's 11 rebounds powered a 41-27 advantage for Kentucky, which helped it outscore Bama 18-3 in second chance points.

No. 1 Florida made upset-minded South Carolina believe that it was headed toward paying another SEC fine. The Gamecocks knocked off Kentucky on Saturday leading their crowd to rush the court after the game. That drew a $25,000 fine from the league for violation of policy and another violation would have upped the ante to $50,000.

The Gators led just 28-26 at halftime and by four points at the under-12 media timeout. The Gamecocks’ confidence seemed to be rising with each minute they remained close, but Michael Frazier II put an end to that.

Frazier already had five 3-pointers in the half. He made six more over the game’s final 11 minutes, including his first of those six that ignited a 15-0 run en route to a 72-46 win. Frazier set a new school record with his 11 3-pointers, beating Joe Lawrence’s mark of nine set on Dec. 27, 1986. He also scored a career-high 37 points.

The Illini never really had a chance against Michigan. They held their previous four opponents to less than 50 points. The Wolverines scored 52 in the first half. They bombarded Illinois by shooting 11-of-14 from 3-point range and 67.9 percent overall from the field.

The win secured Michigan’s first outright Big Ten title since 1986. The Wolverines were the only ranked team that seemingly were never seriously challenged on Tuesday. That’s why, although the tournament is still two weeks away, the madness has already started.

Rest assured, Kansas fans, Joel Embiid's back injury shouldn’t change the Jayhawks' seeding much, regardless of how the last two games go.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsKansas freshman Joel Embiid will miss the team's final two regular-season games but "could return for the Big 12 tournament."
Coach Bill Self announced Monday that Embiid will miss KU’s final two regular-season games against Texas Tech and West Virginia, but said the big man "could return" for the Big 12 tournament.

Resting Embiid is, needless to say, the smart and prudent thing to do. Back injuries are notoriously tricky, and with the season heading into its critical mass, this is the time to let him breathe. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo already has expressed his remorse for not giving Keith Appling enough time to heal for the Red Cross station that is the Spartans' roster.

The beauty of the timing for Kansas, too, is that whatever happens in these last two games shouldn’t hurt it. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi elevated the Jayhawks to a 1-seed this week, a reward for KU’s ridiculously tough schedule and a punishment for Syracuse’s late-season swoon. Regardless of how these last games turn out, that shouldn’t change.

The selection committee, remember, will put a virtual asterisk next to these results, recognizing that Kansas played without one of its most impactful players.

It could get a little dicey for the committee if Embiid remains on the sidelines through the Big 12 tournament. Those games would still have the injury dispensation, but the committee also would have to weigh whether it would be fair to expect the freshman to return in time for NCAA tournament play.

Three years ago, Syracuse’s Arinze Onuaku injured his knee in a Big East tournament game against Georgetown. The injury was initially labeled a strain, and when asked for feedback from the committee, Syracuse said it expected Onuaku back in time for NCAA play.

The Orange were awarded a 1-seed, but Onuaku didn't play in the tournament for Syracuse, which lost in the Sweet 16 to Butler.