After an 18-game, round-robin grind of a conference season, you'd think we'd have a better idea when it comes to handicapping the Big 12 tournament. But loyal readers of WRNL, let me tell you, this is as wide open as I remember this tournament field being in recent history. You could make the argument that as many as eight teams have a legitimate shot of making the tournament final on Saturday evening and of those eight teams, who knows how many actually have what it takes to cut down the nets in the Sprint Center in Kansas City?
Yours truly will be on hand for the entirety of the tournament (or at least until my wife makes me leave) and when I'm not gorging myself on Oklahoma Joe's or stumbling out of Kelly's, I'll be parked in the arena, taking in as much basketball as possible.
For Iowa State, this tournament will begin to shape how we remember this team. Thus far, the Cyclones have put together one of the better regular seasons in program history, notching nine wins against the RPI top 50 and remaining a fixture in the top 25 since mid-November. That's all well and good, but in college basketball, your legacy is formed by how well you play and how deep you go into the post season.
The Big 12 tournament hasn't exactly served as the ideal launching point for Iowa State, however, as prior to last year, the Cyclones had lost their first game in the conference tournament 7 consecutive years. Fred Hoiberg and crew managed to snap that streak though, with a 73-66 win against Oklahoma in the quarterfinals a year ago.
On Thursday, Iowa State will come to Kansas City as the #4 seed and will play 5th-seeded Kansas State at 11:30 AM. These teams split their regular season series with each team winning at home. According to Cyclones.com, Iowa State has faced Kansas State just once in the Big 12 tournament, besting the Wildcats by a 78-64 score in the 2004 tournament.
By now, I'm sure you've probably seen or heard most of the the numbers and stats thrown around for this grudge match, but in case you haven't, the following figures seem to be the buzz of the message board world this week:
- Of K-State's 11 losses, 9 have come away from the friendly confines of Bramlage Coliseum and the Wildcats are 5-9 overall outside of Manhattan on the year. On the other hand, Iowa State is 8-6 away from Hilton Coliseum, but a perfect 4-0 on neutral courts this season.
- Kansas State enters the game on a two-game losing streak. This program hasn't endured a three-game losing streak since the 2009 season.
- By all accounts, the Wildcats might be the best team defensively in the conference. They held opponents to just 41.1% shooting in conference play, which also included a paltry 30.7% from outside. In Ames, Iowa State managed to shoot 48.1% from the floor and hit 9-18 3-pointers en route to scoring 81 points. The Cyclones were one of four teams to score at least 80 in regulation against Kansas State in league play. In Manhattan, however, Iowa State as a team struggled mightily on the offensive end, shooting just 23-66 (34.8%) and hit just 7-27 (25.9%) of their threes. Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane combined to score 54 points in the loss, but the rest of the team scored just 19 points.
- Big 12 Player of the Year, Melvin Ejim (that's just awesome to type by the way), scored 50 points total in the two match ups and will need to have another big game on Thursday if Iowa State is going to advance. Keeping Ejim on the floor will be key for the Cyclones, but that's easier said than done. Ejim has picked up at least 4 fouls in 6 of his last 7 games.
- The Wildcats aren't exactly an offensive juggernaut and while no stat could possibly back this next statement up, I'm not so sure that there's a team that sets better screens in the Big 12. Bruce Weber's scheme may not be geared around lighting up the scoreboard with spacing and mismatches, but this is team that can run some offense and create open looks. Look no further than Kansas State's assist rate of 64%, which is actually better than Iowa State's 63.8%. Both teams are among the top ten nationally in the category and while the Cyclones lead the country in assists per game, it would appear that the Wildcats are just as good when it comes to manufacturing open looks.
- The contrast in style between these two teams boils down to how they treat each possession. Iowa State has the third-quickest trigger nationally, averaging just 14.9 seconds per possession while Kansas State prefers a much slower pace, firing off a shot every 18.7 seconds per possession. Those nearly 4 seconds may not sound like much, but that figure puts K-State in the top 100 nationally in terms of possession length.
- When it comes to taking care of the ball, few teams do it better than Iowa State as the Cyclones turned it over on only 14.2% of their possessions during the regular season (7th nationally). Kansas State was average in terms of turnover rate (18.5%), but did turn it over on average more than their opponents in Big 12 play (-1.33).
And the Winner Is...
I'm getting the sense that most Iowa State fans are fairly optimistic about this game. I don't know if it's the old Cyclone fan in me or if it's seeing this program routinely fall in the conference tournament for the better part of the last ten years, but this will be a tricky spot for Iowa State.
Bruce Weber guided Kansas State to the championship game a year ago and while this is a different team, Weber has just enough holdovers and young guns to make that type of run again. It's often said that in college basketball, hot shooting may not always travel, but good defense usually does.
Luckily for Iowa State, this team doesn't rely on the 3-ball as much as they did the two years prior and gets the bulk of its points in the paint. Last year, Iowa State generated 37.4% of its points from outside, which was the 9th highest rate in the country, but this year, the Cyclones are far more reliant on getting paints in the paint, scoring 50.7% of its points inside the arc. That being said, this team may not live and die by the three like their predecessor, but you better believe that when Iowa State is hot from outside, they become awfully difficult to defend.
Aside from the match up on the floor, I'll be curious to see what the splits in the stands are. Given that Kansas City has a much larger alumni base for Kansas State, you'd think that the Wildcats would have a decided advantage in the stands, but that might not be the case. Iowa State sold out of its allotment of tickets for the tournament not only once, but twice. The conference offered up additional tickets to the Cyclones and the fan base stepped up, buying every all-session pass made available. Iowa State always travels well to Kansas City, but Cyclone fans may turn out in record numbers on Thursday (and potentially beyond).
Ultimately, I think Iowa State prevails for a few reasons; 1) The three best players on the floor will be wearing Cyclone uniforms. 2) While both teams are dominant at home and have struggled to some degree away from home, Iowa State has proven to be better away from its home arena. 3) I think the Cyclones have the ability to dictate the tempo in this match up and can get this game into the 70s or 80s where Kansas State has shown they aren't comfortable.
Iowa State 79 - Kansas State 73
Tip: 11:30 AM CST
TV: ESPN2 with Brent Musberger and Fran Fraschilla on the call
Radio: Available via the Cyclones Radio Network (reports of Eric Heft closing down Kelly's the night before will be completely unfounded).
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Great stuff here
Kansas State SBN Site: Bring On the Cats
Predicting the Tournament
Wednesday, March 12th
#8 Oklahoma State 82 - #9 Texas Tech 69
#7 Baylor 91 - #10 TCU 65
Thursday, March 13th - Quarterfinals
#4 Iowa State 79 - #5 Kansas State 73
#1 Kansas 75 - #8 Oklahoma State 71
#7 Baylor 83 - #2 Oklahoma 80
#3 Texas 77 - # West Virgina 72
Friday, March 14th - Semifinals
#1 Kansas 84 - #4 Iowa State 79
#7 Baylor 75 - #3 Texas 67
Saturday, March 15th - Finals
#1 Kansas 83 - #7 Baylor 76
(Yes, I realize Joel Embiid is out, but you doubt Bill Self all you want. I've learned my lesson).