13 days ago, Iowa State's season was effectively finished. The Cyclones had just dropped an overtime affair in Austin and sitting at 1-3 in Big 12 play, the general attitude and outlook among the Cyclone faithful was dim to say the least. It even got so bad that Steve Prohm swore off social media.
What a difference a couple games makes.
On Monday night, Iowa State will entertain league juggernaut, Kansas, in what is annually the biggest game on the schedule. Coming off three straight wins, Iowa State is now 4-3 in conference action and just one game behind a 4-team logjam atop the Big 12 standings, that just so happens to include the Jayhawks.
Sizing Up the Jayhawks
Let's get all the obvious superlatives out of the way. Kansas is king. For the last decade plus, the Jayhawks have dominated the Big 12 in a fashion rarely, if ever, seen before. Bill Self has carefully crafted a program that has sustained an unprecedented run of excellence. Criticize his often-times smug demeanor all you want, but you can't argue against results. It's Kansas' Big 12 and the rest of us are just living in it.
The Jayhawks have shown a chink or two in the armor of late, losing their last two road games in unspectacular (or spectacular if you're the rest of the Big 12) fashion, but haven't we seen this song and dance from Kansas before? They lose a game or two early on in Big 12 play and a window of opportunity opens up for the rest of the league, but in the last 11 years, nobody has taken advantage.
That type of opportunity presents itself for Iowa State on Monday night and if the Cyclones can prevail, they'll not only be taking a critical step towards reasserting themselves in the Big 12 title picture, but also doing the rest of the conference a major favor. That's all well and good and recent losses notwithstanding, Iowa State is good enough to seize that opportunity, but with Kansas, it'll be anything but easy.
Even with the two recent poor road showings, Kansas still figures to be one of the best teams in the country and you'd be hard-pressed to find a deeper team with better talent and experience. Kansas can go legitimately 12-deep (TWSS), though Self shortened the rotation to just 8 guys in Saturday's win over Texas, which included a DNP from the highly touted Cheick Diallo.
The one area Kansas hasn't been able to figure out is their fifth starter. The two-headed point guard attack with Frank Masson III and Devonte Graham has proven to be a brilliant strategy by Self and Wayne Selden Jr. has finally emerged as a consistent game-changer in his third year in Lawrence. And of course, there's old reliable, Perry Ellis. But getting production out of that fifth starter? That's been an issue. Self has used Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Hunter Mickelson, Carlton Bragg Jr. and Diallo all at times this year to supplement the other four starters, but nobody has yet to stick.
Now, that fifth starter issue is likely a little overstated and when you have the likes of Ellis, Selden and Mason playing at such a high level, everyone else is more of a role player anyway. Speaking of Ellis, this will be his last trip to Ames and I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the old man.
Joking aside, Ellis is in the final chapter of what has been a distinguished career and in 20 years when I hear Ellis' name, the first thing that will probably come to mind is Georges Niang. These two seemingly bring the best out of each other and they've saved some of their best individual efforts for their head-to-head match ups.
I know I'll never forget the Big 12 Tournament clash in 2013 when both Niang and Ellis were freshmen. You may remember the controversial finish in Ames earlier that season, which we appropriately named the "Hilton Heist". That storyline dominated the pre-game talk down in Kansas City, but once the game got underway, Ellis and Niang became the lead.
Niang led Iowa State with 19 points as the Cyclones kept pace early on, but Ellis erupted in the second half to allow Kansas to pull away, finishing with a game-high 23 points. These two have been turning in similar performances ever since, including what was possibly the pinnacle of their rivalry a year later back in the Sprint Center where Ellis scored 30 points on 11-12 shooting, but Iowa State got the win as Niang paced the Cyclones with 25 points and 7 assists.
Head-to-head, Ellis is 6-3 against Niang, but Georges and Iowa State have had the upper hand in 3 of the last 4 battles. During that span, Niang has averaged 20.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists and shot 48.6% from the floor. Ellis has averaged 18.2 points and pulled down 8.2 rebounds while connecting on 53% of his field goal attempts.
It's not quite Magic vs. Bird, but in the one-and-done era of college basketball, it's unquestionably the best individual rivalry we've seen in years, not only in the conference, but nationally.
They've each earned a first team all-Big 12 honor and at their current pace, they'll both be unanimous selections once the post-season awards are announced. Ellis has 3 regular season conference titles and 1 tournament title. Niang has done his part in carrying the Cyclones to consecutive conference tournament titles. These two have had stellar careers and each has etched his place in his respective program's history.
There is a "but" however. Niang has failed to guide a team out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament as he was injured in the first game of the 2014 tournament and was the face and leader of last year's club that fell to UAB in the first round. Ellis helped Kansas get to the Sweet 16 during his freshman campaign, but the Jayhawks have fallen in the round of 32 each of the last two years. Needless to say, the Jayhawk faithful demands more.
Each player has unfinished business and while neither figures to be a sure-thing NBA prospect, there's a legacy in the balance for both. Can Ellis lead Kansas to another Big 12 title and a Final 4 (or better)? Does Niang have what it takes to guide Iowa State to the conference championship and lead a late run through March?
Tonight will be the first of at least two battles between these dynamic seniors this season. It's been a pleasure to watch both of them play and we as college basketball fans are better off for having had that opportunity.
So Who Wins?
Come on. I'm the guy that typed, "eat shit, Jayhawks" in this very same preview a season ago. You know which way I'm going.
Iowa State 84 - Kansas 81
Tip: 8PM CST
Radio: Cyclone Radio Network
Cyclones.com Game Notes: Available here
Kansas SB Nation Site: Rock Chalk Talk