College Basketball Nation: Big 12 tourney 2014

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.

[+] EnlargeIowa State
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?

Video: Hoiberg talks about Cyclones' win

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg talks about Iowa State's win over Baylor in the Big 12 championship game.

Video: Iowa State wins Big 12 title

March, 15, 2014
Mar 15

DeAndre Kane scored 17 points and Georges Niang added 13 to spark No. 16 Iowa State to a 74-65 come-from-behind win over Baylor 74-65 in the Big 12 tournament. It's the Cyclones first Big 12 title since 2000.
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.

Video: No. 16 Iowa State tops No. 10 Kansas

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14

DeAndre Kane and Georges Niang combined to score 45 points to lead No. 16 Iowa State past No. 10 Kansas 94-83.

Video: Baylor F Royce O'Neale

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

Myron Medcalf talks with Baylor's Royce O'Neale about the Bears' Big 12 tournament win over Oklahoma.

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.

Video: Hoiberg, Niang on KSU win

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg and sophomore F Georges Niang on battling past a feisty Kansas State squad.

Video: Self, Wiggins on KU win

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

Kansas coach Bill Self and guard Andrew Wiggins talk about their overtime win over Oklahoma State.

Video: Kansas' Naadir Tharpe

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

Myron Mecalf talks with Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe about the Jayhawks' win over Oklahoma State.

Video: Baylor guard Gary Franklin

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

Myron Medcalf talks with Baylor's Gary Franklin about the Bears' Big 12 tournament win over TCU.

Video: Baylor cruises past TCU

March, 13, 2014
Mar 13

Cory Jefferson's double-double of 20 points and 10 boards helped Baylor to a 76-68 win over TCU.

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.”