1. Now only a half game back of first place in the conference with four games left (Baylor, @ KState, Oklahoma, @ TCU), who poses the biggest threat to Iowa State winning out and sharing the regular season Big 12 Title?
cylentbutdeadly: The road game at Kansas State is the most daunting. Ignore Kansas State's record and look at who they've knocked off at home; Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
KFitzy87: While the trip to Bramlage Coliseum will be very tough, I'm actually going to go with the game against Oklahoma at home. The Sooners only have three games left, but if they win out they grab a share of the title as they play both ISU and Kansas to close out the season. It seems like everyone's kinda forgotten about Lon Kruger's squad in the aftermath of K-State's win over the Jayhawks... Don't count out Oklahoma just yet.
austinnarber: I don't worry about playing at home anymore, so you can throw out Baylor and Oklahoma, as hasty as that seems. Couple of revenge games there anyway. Iowa State matches up with Kansas State pretty well, so I'm not losing sleep over this one either (despite Monday night, Bramlage is a different place entirely when Kansas comes to town). Oddly enough... it's... it's TCU, isn't it? They've won their last two home games, played Kansas down to a three-point nail-biter in January, and they don't have a damn thing to lose. It's going to come down to the final week regardless, and this is the one that concerns me.
Vegas CyClown: In order from hardest to "easiest": K-State > TCU > Oklahoma > Baylor. Oklahoma carries the keys to the outright title.
Cyclone Scholar: I still think that team is Kansas. They have nothing to lose, other than their streak of Big 12 regular season titles. They're the "big brothers" of the conference, so everyone is still chasing them until they give up that top spot. If Kansas wins out, that puts a lot of pressure on teams like Iowa State to win out, and not allow this opportunity to pass. That type of pressure can start to weigh heavily on players.
KnowDan: From a competitive standpoint it's clearly Oklahoma. They control their destiny more than Iowa State does and gets Kansas on their floor to end the season. Head-to-head the match up in Manhattan this weekend is the key to the kingdom. Assuming the Cyclones hold court at home then the game in Manhattan will decide if this team earns at least a share of the conference championship. The Wildcats have been salty at home this year and while knocking off two Top 15 teams in less than a week is a challenge, I have little doubt Weber will have them ready for it.
2. Which Iowa State player needs to step up over the remaining games to ensure the team goes 4-0?
cylentbutdeadly: You can point to really any player on the Iowa State roster and make a convincing case for why he needs to step up, but over these last four games, no player is more important than Georges Niang. Simplistic? Sure. Niang is the leader of this team and its best player and if Iowa State is going to truly put itself in a position to win a conference title, he has to put the team on his shoulders and carry it there.
KFitzy87: It's player(s)... More specifically, bench players. See how amazing we looked against Texas when Matt Thomas and Bryce Dejean-Jones played well? The Cyclones are a much bigger and scarier monster to tame when they can keep throwing knockout blows with the second unit in the game.
austinnarber: This isn't a question you can definitively answer with this team. Time and time again, we've seen guys disappear and others answer the bell. The Cyclones have won games on one of Niang's off nights. They've won with Long scoreless. They've won with Dejean-Jones in street clothes. McKay's been playing like an All-American lately, so it's unfair to ask him to step up more than he already has. Morris continues to do everything right and has now added a shot to his repertoire. Thomas is starting to look like the sniper Hoiberg recruited two years ago. Could Hogue be a bit more visible? Probably. As this year's "glue guy," as much as I despise that term, he's probably the best answer to this question. Get Hogue firing on all cylinders down the stretch and I'm not sure anyone stops this train.
Vegas CyClown: All of them.
Cyclone Scholar: Naz Long. He's been somewhat quite these last couple games, and I feel a breakout coming on. He's lights out in his career vs. Baylor, and with a big performance tonight, that could help ignite the team down the stretch. When Iowa State is hitting their threes, and Naz starts to stretch defenses, that's when we're at our best and our confidence is at it's highest, and that usually starts with him.
KnowDan: I'll echo the others by saying Niang and the bench are equally important. Niang is finally becoming the facilitator he needs him to be and as long as he keeps taking what defenses are giving him and involving others he's going to have the best stretch run of any player in the league.
As long as two guys on the bench are hitting double figures this team won't lose a game. It's when Dejean-Jones hits one shot, Thomas scores to his average, and Nader is silent that this team gets in trouble. If two of those three are having games like they have the past three then this team becomes virtually unguardable. On Saturday it was BDJ and Thomas, the previous Saturday it was Nader and BDJ. The combo doesn't matter, just get the 25 points.
3. Setting aside Iowa State and the other title contenders (KU and Oklahoma) for a moment, who out of the rest of the conference stands to gain the most from these last few games?
cylentbutdeadly: Texas and Oklahoma State are the only teams in the Big 12 that are really on the bubble. They obviously have to put together a few wins to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Perhaps an overlooked team, however, is TCU. The Frogs aren't going to make the NCAA Tournament, but still have an excellent shot of getting an invite to the NIT, which would be a major building block for that program going forward.
KFitzy87: Basically anyone not named Texas Tech. The middle of the pack teams are jockeying for seeding, bubble teams are fighting to get in and TCU still has a chance to make some sort of postseason tournament. It feels good to be a lock for the tourney, doesn't it?
austinnarber: Without a doubt, Oklahoma State. Just as we thought they may not lose another game after knocking off Kansas and Baylor over a three-day stretch, they've dropped three straight. OSU is as bubbly as bubble teams get right now and get Texas Tech and TCU next week on seven days' rest, finishing up the season in Morgantown. The Cowboys have an opportunity to play their way firmly into the NCAA Tournament by winning out, and I wouldn't eliminate the possibility of Travis Ford snagging Big 12 Coach of the Year in the process. For my money, it's Dreamy or Huggins, but I don't get a vote now do I?
Vegas CyClown: Texas
Cyclone Scholar: Hands down TCU....only slightly kidding. We as Iowa State fans all too well know what a few upsets or wins at the end of a regular season can mean going into a long off season. Pull off a couple wins to close out the year, pull an upset or two while spoiling another teams hopes and dreams, and that positive momentum can mean a lot not only to players, but the fanbase as well.
KnowDan: Kansas State can only play spoiler at this point, but the middle of the pack is all fighting for seeding in Kansas City and beyond. That includes West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Texas. If any of those three want to get hot and win in Kansas City they'd be best served to avoid the 7 or 8 line and avoid having to play four games in four days to win.
4. Apart from the title race, what has been the story of the conference season so far?
cylentbutdeadly: The Big 12 has been lauded as the deepest conference all winter, but the best storyline by far is how these final two weeks will play out. Both Iowa State and Oklahoma have excellent chances to unseat the Jayhawks from their throne and the regular season championship is going to come down to that final Saturday on March 7th.
KFitzy87: Texas and their inability to live up to expectations. Everyone figured the Longhorns would be the ones to give Kansas their biggest challenge to end the streak. Now, UT is struggling to even qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Rick Barnes' seat could fry an egg right now.
austinnarber: Kind of a cop out, but I think the story is how loaded this conference is. Per KenPom ratings, I believe only the 2004 ACC has been historically tougher (eight of nine teams finished above .500 and six got tournament berths that year -- all seeded 6 or higher). And it shows, from Kansas drubbing Iowa State in Lawrence all the way down to the apparent rebirth of TCU basketball. I now worry about playing in Lubbock. I worry about the Horned Frogs ruining our Big 12 title hopes. Kansas State beat KU convincingly in Manhattan, Oklahoma is 19-8 and could make a Final Four run. Never a dull moment, never an easy contest. That's been the story.
Vegas CyClown: The under-performing Texas squad.
Cyclone Scholar: That the writers and talking heads actually got it right. All we heard about leading up to the season was who can take down Kansas atop the Big 12 standings. The talk surrounded on Oklahoma and Iowa State both being the top two contenders, and with 2 weeks left in the regular season, both team have a legitimate shot at either owning or sharing the Big 12 conference title. They also said Texas would be there too, but like my colleagues already stated, that is a crazy storyline in and of itself.
KnowDan: It has to be Texas. Rick Barnes said years ago that he's there to get talent, win games, and if a championship happens, so be it. This is arguably his greatest collection of talent in the past five or six seasons and they've laid an egg. When Myles Turner was hailed as the next big thing in the Big XII and seems to be spending more time sitting when it matters, well, Austin, you have a problem.
5. Prediction time: how does Iowa State finish conference play, and does OU take down Kansas on the last day of the regular season?
cylentbutdeadly: Iowa State will beat Baylor and Oklahoma at home and will win a tough fought game at TCU, but it's Saturday's tilt against Kansas State that is a complete toss-up. The Cyclones took a huge step forward last week in winning at Oklahoma State and Texas, but does this team have what it takes to win four in row on the road to close the year? I think they can.
KFitzy87: I'm leaning 4-0, but I wouldn't be surprised to see us drop that Oklahoma game. If we do happen to lose that one, the Sooners better beat KU at home or I will walk to Norman and burn the town to the ground myself... HOWEVER, we've seen Iowa State make some huge strides over the past couple weeks and I think they realize how close they are to one of their preseason goals - close enough to go into each game with the focus needed to bring home a championship.
austinnarber: West Virginia beating Kansas last week is the best possible thing that could've ever happened for Iowa State. Iowa State is going to win out. I'm confident in that. Oklahoma is going to beat Kansas is its home finale. I'm less confident in that, but that's the way a lot people will lean I think (including Vegas). This will tie the Cyclones and Jayhawks atop the conference, with the tiebreaker likely being... a 2-0 vs. 1-1 record against the Mountaineers. Sure, it'll be a share of the crown (yuck), but come Big 12 Tournament time, Iowa State will be the one with that (1) next to its name.
Vegas CyClown: I'd love to say Iowa State wins out and OU defeats Kansas to hand the Cyclones the outright title, but I feel like we both drop one to share the title with 13-5 records.
Cyclone Scholar: I'm going totally homer on this one and saying yes, Iowa State finishes 4-0 and OU does them a huge solid and knocks off Kansas, ending their run at the top, and capping off an incredible end to the conference season. Iowa State uses this positive momentum and carries it into March, and wins the National Championship. Shortly thereafter, every player on the team is chosen to represent Team USA in an Olympic style world tournament, and
Gordon Bombay Fred Hoiberg is chosen to coach the team and lead them to victory over Iceland in the finals..this actually isn't even as ridiculous as the plot in that movie, whatever, it could happen!
KnowDan: I think we finish 3-1 to end the regular season with a loss to Kansas State in Manhattan on Saturday. This game concerned me a week ago, even despite Kansas State's struggles, and it continues to concern me now. They play great defense when they're engaged and Bramlage is a difficult place to win in no matter the year.