It's only January 7th. Iowa State has played exactly one conference game and over the next two months, will play 17 more grueling contests against one of the deeper conferences in the country. This one is long from over, but ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, Iowa State has a real chance to win this damn thing.
I assure you, I am not drunk, haven't partaken in any illicit substances and I don't think I'm crazy. The Cyclones have to be considered not just a contender for the league title at this point, but maybe even the favorite. As the title of this piece says, there's blood in the Big 12 water and Iowa State could just be the biggest, baddest shark in the area.
Now, I can probably guess what you're thinking. Iowa State beats up on a bottom feeder while Oklahoma State loses a tough one at Kansas State and Kansas falls to a very good San Diego State team and now I'm getting carried away. That's an easy conclusion to jump to, but follow me here and I think you'll see a better idea of where I'm coming from.
For the last decade, Kansas has owned the Big 12. Actually, "owned" might not be a strong enough word. The Jayhawks are playing for their 10th consecutive conference championship. That's a dynasty. To put that into perspective, KU's star freshmen trio of Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Wayne Selden would have been in the 3rd grade the last time Kansas didn't win this league.
Coming into the year, Kansas looked like a team on paper that might cruise to yet another conference championship, but as the saying goes, championships aren't won on paper. After Sunday's home loss to San Diego State, Kansas sits at 9-4 and there's good reason to believe this team might not be able to put it all together.
The Jayhawks do not shoot the ball very well, turn it over far too much and there's valid concerns about their leadership in the locker room. They've looked nothing like a Bill Self-coached team and have really struggled in close games. So it probably doesn't help things that they open up conference play with an absolutely brutal stretch of games.
Here's what Kansas faces in the next two weeks: at Oklahoma, Kansas State, at Iowa State (in a Big Monday game no less), Oklahoma State and Baylor. Sure, three of those are at home, but that is as tough of a stretch as any team in the country will see all season (although one team in the conference rival's that stretch...more on that in a bit)
Now, maybe Kansas rises to the challenge, but based on what we've seen, I'm guessing that they are going to have some serious ground to make up after the first two weeks of conference play.
And then there's Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have looked like a national title contender at times this season, but with the loss of Michael Cobbins for the year and no Stevie Clark for at least the immediate future, the Poke's depth took a serious hit and it showed Saturday at Kansas State. Bramlage is never an easy place to win and Bruce Weber's Wildcats have gotten much better over the course of the season, but that's the type of game Oklahoma State has to win if they want to secure the conference crown.
I see Oklahoma State winning their next three (Texas, @ West Virginia, TCU), but then they have a pivotal five-game stretch where they play @ Kansas, West Virginia, @ Oklahoma, Baylor and then Iowa State. I still think the Cowboys have the best trio in the country in Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash, but this team is a lot less scary without Cobbins and Clark in the line up.
Finally, there's Baylor. We'll get to more on the Bears in a moment, but they absolutely have a shot to take the league crown and can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone talent wise. They bear the burden of Scott Drew, though, and besides, it's Baylor, amiright?
Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State figure to be pretty salty, but none of those three will end up in the conference title picture.
So that brings us back to Iowa State. Much like Kansas, the Cyclones have a very frontloaded schedule. We're going to find out everything we need to know about this team over the next 8 games. This stretch looked a whole lot more promising in November and after the top ten tilt with Baylor on Tuesday night, it's @ Oklahoma, Kansas, @ Texas, Kansas State, @ Kansas, Oklahoma, @ Oklahoma State. If Texas is as improved as they look and Oklahoma is for real, that's potentially eight straight against what could be NCAA tournament teams.
If Iowa State is going to truly contend for the conference championship, then they need to get through that stretch with at least a 5-3 record and perhaps even 6-2. Is 4-0 at home and 2-2 on the road during that time doable? Is this team full of sharks or are they going to just tread water and hope they don't get bitten?
Let's Talk Baylor
Tuesday night's game features the first match up between two top ten teams in Hilton Coliseum since #7 Iowa State beat #6 Kansas in 2001. The students won't be there, but it should still be an electric atmosphere for ISU's conference home opener.
The #7 Bears are kind of an enigma. They hold a win over Colorado that is aging quite well and also took down Kentucky at Jerry World, and their only loss was to Syracuse in Hawaii. Aside from that, they really don't have any other notable opponents worth mentioning. Despite the somewhat underwhelming resume, Baylor has still managed to struggled as only Baylor can do. They survived against a bad South Carolina team and their performance against Charleston Southern wasn't much better. They staved off Dayton by one point in Hawaii and had to outlast Northwestern State in overtime at home on December 18th.
That being said, I think this Baylor team has a chance to be the best team they've fielded since Tweety Carter and Ekpe Udoh led them to the Elite 8 in 2010. Scott Drew has put together a deep team with a nice blend of size, outside shooting, experience and toughness.
The conversation with Baylor always begins with their length and this year's team is no different. The Bears are led up front by the ultra-athletic Cory Jefferson, who's leading them in scoring and rebounding, and there's 7'1" sophomore, Isaiah Austin. Austin's numbers aren't eye-popping, but he's controlling the rim at both ends of the floor. It doesn't end there, though. The real head-turner for Baylor this season has been Rico Gathers. A 6'8" 270-pound bull of a man, Gathers has been a constant double-double threat every night out. Baylor also has the ability to go small up front, which is something they haven't always been able to do in the past. The duo of Royce O'Neale and reserve Taurean Prince gives Drew a little flexibility and versatility in the post, which could come into play in tonight's match up. Iowa State's posts proved to be a little too much for Baylor to handle a year ago, but that team didn't have O'Neale and Prince simply wasn't ready to contribute big minutes.
On the perimeter, Kenny Chery is no Pierre Jackson, but he's still one of the better point guards in the Big 12. He doesn't always look to score, but can create his own shot when needed. Chery is joined by seniors Gary Franklin and Brady Heslip, who are both shooting the hell out of the ball from deep. Franklin is knocking down 44% of his 3's while Heslip has rebounded from a junior year full of struggles and is hitting his 3's at a 48% clip.
Fred Hoiberg is 4-1 head-to-head against Scott Drew and he's gotten to that point by being able to attack Baylor's zone and get his teams to play an effective inside-out defense.
The numbers say that if you're going to beat Baylor, you have to defend the perimeter and limit the second chance points when they're on offense. Baylor is scorching the nets, shooting 41.1% as a team from outside, good for 18th in the country. When they miss, they're the 4th best offensive rebounding team in the nation, much of which is due to their size.
They do turn it over on nearly 20% of their possessions, which is something Iowa State must take advantage of and despite their length and size, Baylor does not force many turnovers and gives up a fair amount of offensive rebounds. The latter has to make you think Dustin Hogue and Melvin Ejim could have big nights.
The one stat that matters above all else, though, is 0-10. That's Baylor;s all-time record in Ames.
And the Winner Will Be...
Baylor is a very good team and will be the most talented team Iowa State has faced yet, but how can you go against Iowa State at home at this point? I expect a familiar script in this one, as Iowa State faces a second half deficit, but battles back down the stretch, making just enough clutch plays during crunch time and notches their second win over a top ten team this season.
Iowa State 82 - Baylor 76
Tip: 6 PM CST
TV: ESPN2, with Dave Fleming doing the play-by-play and my man Miles Simon along for the ride
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Game Notes: Cyclones.com has you covered