College Basketball Nation: Naz Long

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

But whether the Big 12 was really deserving of its top-dog status will largely be determined by the two games Sunday in San Antonio.

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

“We know that postseason is important for every conference,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “Statistically, we were the No. 1 conference in the country. But now postseason it’s a new season.”

It’s also an opportunity for the Big 12 to confirm its distinction in two high-profile matchups. Especially following a lackluster start to the tournament elsewhere for the conference.

As a 5 seed, Oklahoma was knocked off by North Dakota State in overtime. Oklahoma State and Kansas State both fell in their 8-9 seed games to Gonzaga and Kentucky, respectively. Even regular-season champ Kansas struggled against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky, and even trailed with less than nine minutes to go in the second half.

But in San Antonio, the Big 12’s two hottest teams delivered two impressive performances in the second round.

The Bears, who had won six in a row before falling to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game, dominated No. 11 seed Nebraska from the opening tip. Baylor held the Cornhuskers to just 23 percent shooting in the first half to build a double-digit lead, then cruised to a comfortable 74-60 victory.

“We’re really confident right now,” Baylor point guard Kenny Chery said. “All these guys in the locker room, no matter what we’ve been through this year, we feel like we’re as good as any team in the country. We feel like we can play with anybody.”

The Cyclones are feeling the same way, having reeled off five wins in a row.

While other high seeds struggled in their first tournament games across the country, Iowa State continued its hot shooting. In a 93-75 smoking of North Carolina Central, the Cyclones knocked down almost 64 percent of their field goals and 53 percent of their 3-pointers.

The win, however, came at a price, as Georges Niang suffered a tournament-ending foot fracture during the second half.

It was a grind to get through (the Big 12), but it helps prepare you for the moment that we're in for now. Our conference all year has been great.

-- Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg
“Obviously, that’s a very big loss for our team with the way that we use him and utilize his skill set to take advantage of a lot of mismatches,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Not only that, but just his enthusiasm and the way he helps keep guys together and fight through adversity -- it’s a tremendous loss for this basketball team.”

But even without Niang, the Cyclones still retain enough firepower, including Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and All-Big 12 point guard DeAndre Kane, to slip past the Tar Heels and make a deep run in the East Region.

“This is still a confident group,” Hoiberg said. “And we’re playing a very good stretch of basketball right now.”

To keep the stretch going against the Tar Heels, the Cyclones will have to figure out how they’ll replace one of their top players in less than 48 hours. Hoiberg said Saturday he wasn’t sure yet without Niang -- who at 6-foot-7 with range could play inside and outside -- whether he’d go small or go big. Either way, the Cyclones will need sophomore guard Naz Long, freshman guard Matt Thomas and junior forward Daniel Edozie to all play bigger roles Sunday, especially helping out on the glass against North Carolina, which secured 21 offensive rebounds to hold off Providence in the second round.

“People asked me how are you going to replace him? Who are you going to replace him with?” Hoiberg said. “And you can't just do it with one guy. It's going to be by committee. And everybody's got to be ready to go out there and contribute.”

Baylor, meanwhile, will need a dogged team effort defensively to contain McDermott, who scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Creighton’s second-round win over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Bears, and their rangy zone defense, frustrated Nebraska. But nobody lately has been able to slow McDermott, who has scored at least 22 points in his last 14 games.

“He can score in multiple ways, whether it be shooting or getting to the basket,” Baylor forward Royce O’Neale said. “So we just have to be prepared for it.”

But both Big 12 coaches said the Big 12 season has prepared their players for such a pair of tough third-round matchups.

“It was a grind to get through, but it helps prepare you for the moment that we’re in for now,” Hoiberg said. “Our conference all year has been great.”

By punching tickets to the Sweet Sixteen, the Bears and Cyclones would validate just that.

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Walking toward the locker room, Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane looked haggard yet relieved. His words said it all.

"Man, that was huge," he said.

Indeed, it was.

Kane’s Cyclones had just capped off their 98-97 triple-overtime win over Oklahoma State at Gallagher Iba Arena on Monday night. The Cyclones appeared on the brink of falling below .500 in Big 12 play multiple times during the three-overtime thriller, but ISU made the key shots and got the key stops when it needed them to earn the program’s first win in Stillwater since 1988, a span of 18 games.

With both teams sitting at 4-4 in Big 12 play and understanding the critical nature of the head-to-head battle, ISU and OSU took turns throwing punches and responding to each other’s runs during regulation and the first two overtime periods. Cyclones sophomore Naz Long hit a 3-pointer to force a third overtime after OSU appeared poised to earn an emotional win on the night the program honored former longtime coach Eddie Sutton.

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Kane
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsIowa State needed every one of DeAndre Kane's 26 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in its triple-OT win over Oklahoma State.
"He rose up with no fear and hit the biggest shot of the game to extend it," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Freshman guard Monte Morris buried a clutch 3-pointer with less than a minute left in the third overtime to give the Cyclones a lead they would never relinquish, as Le'Bryan Nash’s last-second jumper clanged off the rim.

"We had guys step up [with] Naz, Monte making huge shots," said ISU forward Melvin Ejim, who finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds. "The confidence coach instills in us to go out and knock down that shot with confidence showed today. We had multiple guys step up and make big shots."

Now Iowa State’s fortunes could be turning after having lost four of their past six games heading Monday’s clash. The schedule becomes Iowa State’s friend over the next four games, with ISU (17-4, 5-4) hosting TCU (Feb. 8), Texas Tech (Feb. 15) and Texas (Feb. 18), with another big Monday matchup at West Virginia on Feb. 10 serving as the lone road tilt.

"To gut this win out was huge. It would have been a very difficult loss," Hoiberg said. "I’m proud of our guys to win it."

For Oklahoma State, things aren’t looking quite as rosy. The loss dropped the Cowboys below .500 in Big 12 play with their third straight loss, Marcus Smart struggling, the dismissal of freshman guard Stevie Clark earlier in the day and questions about effort surrounding Travis Ford’s squad.

The Cowboys (16-6, 4-5), who rose as high as No. 5 in the AP poll earlier this season, ended Monday in seventh place in the Big 12.

Ford, OSU’s sixth-year coach, was a man of few words after the game as adversity continues hit the Cowboys locker room, but his words were revealing.

"There were things we can build on that we haven't seen in the last week and a half," Ford said. "That's the positive part of it. We just need to go get a win and go from there. We need to play with that kind of effort for 40 minutes."

Positive words based purely on the effort of a team that was considered among the nation’s best at one point this season? This is not why Smart returned to OSU. The Cowboys are on the brink of disaster as they enter the second half of conference play.

Asked how his team can get things back on track with back-to-back road trips to Texas Tech and Texas on the horizon, Ford was at a loss for all words but one.

"Win," he responded.