Earlier this week, I was in Ames for Iowa State’s 15-point win over Baylor. The Cyclones fans I talked to were both excited and nervous about their upcoming stretch.
Kansas at Iowa State on Monday is a crucial matchup in the Big 12 race. If the Cyclones could beat and outlast Kansas -- assuming they defeated Oklahoma over the weekend -- the program’s supporters (others, too) figured that Iowa State would be the front-runner for the conference title.
But the Sooners spoiled those plans on Saturday when they recorded an 87-82 win over the No. 9 Cyclones.
The easiest explanation would be one that suggests Iowa State overlooked a solid Oklahoma team. That's not an accurate take, and it’s also not fair to Lon Kruger or the Big 12.
Iowa State lost on the road to a solid Oklahoma squad. It's really that simple. And the Cyclones (14-1, 2-1 Big 12) won’t be the last Big 12 school to have a tough time on the road in league play.
The Cyclones love the 3-pointer, and the Sooners did a great job contesting Iowa State at the 3-point line (6-for-26). The Cyclones also committed 13 turnovers.
But the Cyclones also made 52 percent of their shots and scored 82 points -- rare numbers in a loss.
Other than its 18-for-21 clip from the free throw line, Oklahoma’s numbers weren’t mind-blowing. The Sooners (13-3, 2-1) just fought and hustled and attacked an undefeated team that entered the game with the greatest winning streak in school history.
When Kruger took control of the program prior to the 2011-12 season, Oklahoma was in trouble. The Sooners had just come off a 5-11 season in the Big 12.
In his first year, Kruger’s squad didn’t make any grand strides, going 15-16 overall and 5-13 in conference. But the Sooners made big strides in Year 2, as Kruger took the Sooners to the NCAA tournament last season. OU is the fifth program that Kruger has led to the Big Dance.
The Sooners were expected to take a hit this season, as they lost last season's top scorers, Romero Osby and Steven Pledger, and welcomed seven new faces to the program. In all, Kruger had more than 40 points per game that he had to replace.
He did that.
This season’s Oklahoma team was ninth in adjusted efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy) and sixth in the nation at 87.0 points per game entering Saturday. Buddy Hield (22 points Saturday) was among five players averaging at least 10.5 points.
The Sooners’ defense (177th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) still needs work, but they’ll win multiple Big 12 games this season simply because their offense is so potent. It’s not easy to win a shootout against Iowa State, which also possess one of the nation’s top-10 offenses.
That win certainly boosts Oklahoma’s NCAA tourney status and is also a major victory for Kruger as he continues to shape the program in Norman.
But it’s also a statement for the Big 12.
Pound for pound, the Big 12 is one of the strongest leagues in the country. Baylor, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Kansas were all ranked in the latest Associated Press poll. Eight of the 10 teams in the conference had top-70 RPIs entering the weekend, too.
The Big 12 has underrated depth.
When a Big Ten contender loses to Illinois or Purdue or Minnesota, the league’s backers suggest that those wins say more about the conference’s overall toughness than about the team that lost.
Well, it’s the same situation in the Big 12. Iowa State’s loss to Oklahoma says plenty about the competition within the league.
Sure, the Cyclones have some issues that shouldn’t be ignored, in Georges Niang's ongoing foul trouble, DeAndre Kane's 16 turnovers in the past three games and a possible ankle injury that could affect him if he’s available Monday to face the Jayhawks. And what’s wrong with Matt Thomas (4-for-14 from the 3-point line since New Year’s Eve)?
But it’s not the end of the world for the Cyclones. Not even close. A shot at redemption will come Monday. And there will be other opportunities after that. It’s still early.
The pursuit of the conference title, however, will demand victories over gritty teams such as Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kansas State. Even Texas might finish with a few unexpected wins.
The top of the conference has one of the best four-team lineups in the country.
Kansas is beginning to figure things out after a rocky nonconference season. Coach Fred Hoiberg might have his best team in Ames. Baylor’s athleticism, length and versatility were enough to beat Kentucky, and the Bears will win big games in conference, too. And Oklahoma State is led by a national player of the year candidate.
The rest of the conference won’t offer many easy matchups, either.
And Oklahoma’s win over Iowa State -- along with West Virginia’s battle with Oklahoma State on Saturday -- proved as much.