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Big 12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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While the final standings of the Big 12 may have been predictable, the conference’s tournament is going to be anything but. When a league is projected to get up to 80 percent of its members into the NCAA tournament, “anything is possible” isn’t a cliche or tired slogan, it’s honestly a reality.

Kansas won its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season title, setting the standard for dominance in this recent era, but the Jayhawks did it this season without an overwhelming talent or athletic advantage that has so often been the mark of Bill Self’s teams. In fact, there was a fleeting moment when it looked like the Jayhawks’ streak may come to an end. It was a moment, albeit a silly one.

The story of the Big 12 tournament is that there are legitimately nine teams that conceivably could be the last one standing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and the 10th-place team, Iowa State, has been beset by injuries but the Cyclones have won three of the last four Big 12 tournaments, boast a fanbase that invades Kansas City and have three wins over ranked teams themselves.

So the question becomes not only who will win the Big 12 tournament, but how many teams will the league get into the Big Dance? If it’s eight, that will set a record for highest percentage of a conference’s teams earning bids ever. Things may have to break just right – and if they break perfectly maybe we’re talking about nine – that might be the most likely scenario, not just a long-shot one.

It’s the Big 12. Who knows what’s going to happen?

 

THE FAVORITE

Despite having perhaps his weakest and most ill-fitting roster, Bill Self got the Jayhawks on top of the heap once again, even giving them enough leeway that dropping a second game to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale didn’t hurt them. Kansas may not look like one of heavy national title contenders – despite being in line for a one-seed – in the eyes of most, but there’s pretty convincing argument that this is the most impressive of the Jayhawks’ 14 titles, especially when you consider the strength of the rest of the league

Still, the Jayhawks are vulnerable on a number of fronts. The defense can be beat, they’re 3-point dependent and Self has struggled to motivate some of his players at different times this season, complaining about effort and focus.

They’re the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

THE CONTENDERS

If Keenan Evans doesn’t get hurt, we very well could be talking about Texas Tech as the team that finally ended Kansas’ reign. After looking like a potential Big 12 player of the year, a toe injury sapped Evans’ ability to the point where a player who was routinely putting up 30 a night suddenly couldn’t even crack double-digits. It’s not surprising the Red Raiders lost four-straight – and a potential conference crown – with Evans on the mend.

Evans, after missing a game against West Virginia, returned over the weekend and got 23 against TCU, signalling he may be ready to go this week and keep Kansas from winning another Big 12 title this season.

The other frontrunner here has to be Bob Huggins and West Virginia. The Mountaineers had a late-January lull, but have otherwise been solid. They don’t make a ton of shots, but here’s betting their style of play can wear down opponents in a game-a-day format.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

It’s easily Oklahoma. Sure, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State could all use a dub, but the Sooners would be toying with an epic and embarrassing collapse if they lose in the first round and somehow find themselves outside the Field of 68. This is a team that spent much of the season’s first two months looking like a Final Four contender while Trae Young carved up the country.

Now the Sooners are hanging on for dear life having lost seven of their last nine and Young looking completely human. They could lose to Oklahoma State on Wednesday and still sneak in, but they’ve got the most to lose should they falter.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The Sooners’ spot is tenuous while Kansas State and Baylor both have to be thinking that one win in Kansas City ought to get them in the field. Oklahoma State probably will need a couple wins to counteract a non-conference schedule that features a win over Florida State and not a whole lot else. The good news for the Cowboys is it looks like they just might have the Jayhawks’ number should the two teams meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

THE SLEEPER

When Jaylen Fisher went down to injury, it was a major blow to TCU, but the Horned Frogs come to KC playing good ball. They fell to Texas Tech in the finale in Lubbock, but had won four-straight before that. Their offense is absolutely elite with plenty of shooters around Vlad Brodziansky, who can step out and stroke it himself. TCU’s defense may be suspect, but the way they can spread you out and fill it up makes them a sneaky pick to be hoisting a trophy Saturday night.

PLAYER TO WATCH

I know you’re probably tired of hearing and reading about him, but no player has more at stake at the Sprint Center than Trae Young. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t mention his name without quickly comparing him to Steph Curry, and it was just a few weeks back when his lead in the national player of the year race looked insurmountable.

Young’s legacy as a college player will be decided in the next couple weeks. Well, it could be if the Sooners’ season doesn’t end Wednesday night. Whatever struggles Young has had the last few weeks – and he was right when he said he gets guarded like no other player in the country – he can quiet all his critics with one monster month of March.

X-FACTORS

– Teams are going to key on Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk and surround Udoka Azubuike, so Kansas is going to need to get contributions from Malik Newman. If Newman can provide some pop offensively, Kansas will be in good shape.

– How healthy is Mo Bamba? The Texas freshman is dealing with a toe injury that coach Shaka Smart said makes him questionable heading into play this week. The Longhorns may not need Bamba to get past Iowa State in their opener, but if they have designs on making a serious run this week, they’re going to need their man in the middle. When he’s on his game and playing at his best, he has the ability to completely change the dynamic of a game.

– Try making sense of Baylor. The Bears opened Big 12 play with 2-7 mark before reeling off five-straight to get back in to the NCAA tournament conversation. Now, though, Scott Drew’s team has lost three of its last four. The team that won five straight can win this thing. The team that started and finished the Big 12 slate could easily go out Thursday.

NBC SPORTS BIG 12 HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte Graham, Kansas

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bill Self, Kansas

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Trae Young, Oklahoma
  • Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Mohamed Bamba, Texas

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Dean Wade, Kansas State
  • Sagaba Konate, West Virginia
  • Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Barry Brown, Kansas State

Point man: Can Nick Weiler-Babb’s move to PG put Iowa State back in the tourney?

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AMES, Ia. — It was clear Iowa State needed a change. The Cyclones stood 0-2 with an 18-point home loss to Milwaukee already on the resume. It was clear they were due for a reboot this season after losing four starters – including All-American point guard Monte Morris – but getting trounced at Hilton Coliseum by a team picked to finish eighth in the Horizon League constitutes an emergency.

The Cyclones didn’t panic, though. They adjusted. 

After that disastrous start to the season, coach Steve Prohm moved Nick Weiler-Babb from small forward to point guard while slotting the two players who had been manning the point –  sharpshooter Donovan Jackson and five-star freshman Lindell Wigginton – off the ball.

All Iowa State done since is win.

The Cyclones have rattled off seven-straight with Weiler-Babb flirting with triple-doubles, Jackson shooting 41.6 percent from deep and Wigginton looking like a future star.

“Good we moved him over there,” Prohm said.

It certainly has been good for the Cyclones. Iowa State was 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) from 3-point range, shot 38.8 percent overall and failed to reach 60 points in its opening two losses. In the seven games since, they’re converting at a 46.4 percent clip overall, 39.4 percent from distance and averaging 83.6 points per game. They’ve seemingly become a different team with Weiler-Babb at the helm.

“It’s taking a whole new role,” Weiler-Babb said. “Coach just told me whatever I have to do to win, I have to do it. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Take the ball out of the guys’ hands and give it to the scorers.”

The 6-foot-5 junior is averaging 7.9 assists along with 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s become indispensable for the Cyclones a year after being a bit player on the Big 12 tournament championship team.

“He went through some tough times last year,” Prohm said. “But that’s what everybody’s got to understand. Freshmen, sophomore, you’ve got to put your time in a little bit to have success and earn success. He’s doing that.”

The immediate returns have been spectacular for Iowa State, but a question still lingers as they eye Big 12 play later this month.

Is it real?

Or, rather, will it be real against an unforgiving Big 12 schedule? Given Iowa State’s non-conference slate, whether it is or not will determine the postseason fate of a team sitting on a program-best six-straight NCAA tournament appearances.

As good as Weiler-Babb and the Cyclones have been during their seven-game winning streak, the competition can’t be ignored. Iowa State’s best win during this stretch is either Boise State, which only got 8 minutes from Chandler Hutchison after a head injury, or Iowa, which is 5-6 with losses to Louisiana Lafayette and South Dakota State. The wins haven’t all come easy for Iowa State, either. They narrowly defeated Appalachian State and Tulsa while initially struggling against Northern Illinois and Alcorn State before pulling away.

Things have been good for the Cyclones, but they haven’t been perfect.

Iowa State is a mediocre shooting team overall and could have serious spacing issues going forward given the roster forces Prohm to play two non-shooting bigs together for major minutes. Wigginton has been excellent, scoring 20-plus in three of the last four games, but his level of athleticism is something the likes of Western Illinois can’t counter. Texas, Kansas and West Virginia can. Big swaths of the roster, which features eight newcomers, haven’t faced Big 12 caliber competition ever in their careers. Weiler-Babb’s size and skill at the point guard position makes him a major problem for mid-majors, but can he keep up this pace when he faces length and physicality similar to his own?

Those questions, though, have to be welcomed by the Cyclones. If there were answers to them for a team with so much youth and so many unproven players in new positions in mid-December, it probably would register in the negative.

That they’re unknown means there is possibility, opportunity and promise. That exists in no small part because Prohm made Weiler-Babb a point guard.

“The challenge is, what do we really want to be?” Prohm said. “But he spearheads everything we do.”

Iowa State adds to 2018 class with Horton-Tucker commitment

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In all likelihood, Iowa State is probably going to struggle this season. That’s what happens when you lose four all-Big 12 starters, one of whom was All-American point guard and second-round NBA draft pick Monte Morris. The Cyclones did bring in three graduate transfers and have a potential star in freshman point guard Lindell Wigginton, but conventional wisdom doesn’t support Iowa State extending its consecutive NCAA tournament streak to seven with that kind of roster turnover.

So, really, it’s about the future – both immediate and long-term – for the Cyclones. Especially for coach Steve Prohm, who has taken Iowa State to a Sweet 16 and won a Big 12 tournament in his two years in Ames, but did so largely with players recruited by former coach Fred Hoiberg, now of the Chicago Bulls.

That future that Prohm is trying to secure looks increasingly bright for Iowa State, no more so than after the commitment Thursday from four-star guard Talen Horton-Tucker.

Horton-Tucker is a 6-foot-5, four-star prospect that gives Prohm and Iowa State a four-player 2018 recruiting class that consists solely of top-150 players. Horton-Tucker also represents a growing trend for Iowa State of having success in the talent-rich Chicago area.

Iowa State previously hadn’t gotten a commitment from a Windy City recruit since 2009, but Horton-Tucker is the third 2018 pledge to Iowa State from the city, joining 6-foot-10 center George Conditt and 6-foot-6 wing Zion Griffin. Together they make up three of the consensus top-five players in Illinois in their class. Point guard Tyrese Haliburton of Wisconsin is the fourth member of the class.

Iowa State has never been a recruiting heavyweight (Marcus Fizer is their lone McDonald’s All-American), and even when Hoiberg was calling the shots, the Cyclones never secured a commitment from a top-50 recruit. Now under Prohm, ISU got Wigginton, top-25 in 2017, and Horton-Tucker, who had offers from Kansas and Michigan State and is just outside the top-50 in the 2018. Griffin also had an offer from the Jayhawks, the Cyclones’ chief Big 12 rival who has won 13-straight conference titles. This 2018 class is inarguably a coup for Prohm and Co.

This season may be difficult at times for Iowa State, but Prohm’s recruiting classes appear to be ensuring that whatever dip the Cyclones may take won’t be deep or lasting.

Iowa State adds graduate transfer Zoran Talley

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Iowa State added a scoring option on Thursday night, one who is eligible immediately.

Zoran Talley, who spent his first three seasons at Old Dominion, will join the Cyclones as a graduate transfer this season.

“We are excited to add Zoran to our program,” Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm said in a statement issued by the athletic department. “He has had great success, both personally and as a team, at ODU and will be an asset for our team. Zoran brings versatility on both ends of the floor and his ability to play and guard several positions will benefit us. He can score and make plays and with him being immediately eligible, that is great for us.”

Talley, a 6-foot-7 wing, averaged 11.3 points for the Monarchs last season as a sophomore. However, he was dismissed from the team in April for a violation of team rules. This was preceded by two separate suspensions during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, according to Ed Miller of the Virginia Pilot.

He redshirted the 2014-15 season, leaving him two years of eligibility remaining at Iowa State. He is set to graduate in August.

Talley and fellow graduate transfer Hans Brase (Princeton) provides a boost in scoring, as well as in experience, in a frontline that returns Solomon Young, the rising sophomore big man.

March Madness 2017: Big 12 Tournament Preview, Bracket and Conference Postseason Awards

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Big 12 Player of the Year: Frank Mason III, Kansas

Mason’s play this season makes him the no-brainer conference player of the year and perhaps the frontrunner for the national award. He’s averaging 20.5 points, 5.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and a sizzling 49.3 percent from 3-point range for the potential No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Big 12 Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas

There was a temptation to reward Brad Underwood for Oklahoma State’s turnaround, but it’s impossible not to recognize Self leading his program not only to a 13th-straight conference title, but doing it by four games in the country’s toughest league. Kansas may have the top talent in the league year in and year out, but Self’s presence on the sideline guarantees it comes together year in and year out. This season was no exception.

First-Team All-Big 12:

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas (POY)
  • Monte Morris, Iowa State: The nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio is as consistent an elite presence on the floor as there is in the country.
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: The most dynamic and important piece of the country’s best offense, Evans averaged 18.7 points per game.
  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: Mason is Kansas’ MVP, but Jackson is the Jayhawks’ most difficult matchup and is a likely top-five NBA draft pick.
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The big man doubled his rebounding output this season to average a double-double of 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Second Team All-Big 12:

  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Jeffrey Carroll, Oklahoma State
  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Deonte Burton, Iowa State
  • Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor

RELATED: Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | NBC Sports All-Americans

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The thought was coming into the year that the Big 12 would be down this season, but for the fourth-straight year it ranked as the country’s best conference by KenPom. Another thing that didn’t change was Kansas winning the league, making it 13 in a row for the Jayhawks. The league isn’t going to send a huge number to the NCAA tournament this season, but make no mistake, the conference’s round-robin schedule was a grind, making it all the more impressive Kansas cleared the league by four games.

The Bracket

When: March 8-11

Where: Sprint Center; Kansas City, Mo.

Final: Saturday, March 11, 6 p.m.

Favorite: Kansas

The Jayhawks are clearly the class of the Big 12, winning the conference by its largest margin since 2010. Kansas isn’t invulnerable at the Sprint Center, as the rest of the league has more than enough firepower to threaten them, but there’s no argument that makes anyone else the favorite.

And if they lose?: West Virginia

The Mountaineers should have swept Kansas this year. They rocked them in Morgantown, but blew a late lead in spectacular fashion in Lawrence later in the season. Their Press Virginia style seems to seriously bother the Jayhawks, and it could make for a raucous title game.

MORGANTOWN, WV - JANUARY 24: Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts to a call in the second half during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at WVU Coliseum on January 24, 2017 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Bob Huggins (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Other Contenders:

  • Baylor: The Bears went 2-4 against the top-four of the conference, but their length and the talent of Johnathan Motley makes them an intriguing matchup
  • Iowa State: The Cyclones have won six of their last seven and three members of their core — Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas — who have won two Big 12 tournament titles in their career. They’ve also have claimed wins against each of the other top teams in the league this year.

Sleeper: Oklahoma State

The Cowboys opened the Big 12 slate with six-straight losses, but then won nine of 10 before ending the season with losses to Iowa State and Kansas. Their defense is porous, but their top-ranked KenPom offense, led by point guard Jawun Evans, makes them a legitimate threat to reel off three wins in three days.

The Bubble Dwellers: One

  • Kansas State: Most projections have the Wildcats just on the bad side of the field of 68 line, which means they’ll probably have to score a win against Baylor in the quarterfinals to move the needle. Depending on what happens around the rest of the country, that one more win could be enough to earn a berth.

Defining moment of the season: Kansas erasing a 14-point deficit in the final three minutes at home against West Virginia. This is Peak Phog Allen.

CBT Prediction: Kansas

Ending perfection: Team that nearly beat both Gonzaga and Baylor gives their thoughts

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And then there were two.

Baylor and Gonzaga stand as the last two undefeated teams of the 2016-17 season with matching 15-0 records. The Bears have ascended to No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 while the ‘Zags are fifth. Together, they’ve played a combined eight games that have been decided by single digits as they’ve run to their perfect records.

One team nearly gave both their first L of the season, playing them to a one-possession game with an opportunity to take the final shot of the game.

Iowa State has come as close as anyone at topping the nation’s last blemish-free programs. The Cyclones lost to Gonzaga, 73-71, in November, and to Baylor, 65-63, last week.

“They’re 30-0,” Cyclones coach Steve Prohm told NBCSports.com, “and we were in a possession game with both of them.”

Baylor faces its toughest test of the season tonight at No. 10 West Virginia while Gonzaga has Loyola Marymount on Thursday before hosting No. 21 St. Mary’s on Saturday.

Here’s what Iowa State had to say about the two teams still hanging on to perfection.

What’s allowed them to remain undefeated?

Prohm: “The length, the size up front, the skill. When you’re building a team, that’s what you look at. You want a skilled four, you want a five with motor, back to the basket and then guards who can make plays off the dribble and make shots. I think Gonzaga’s guards are terrific. They shot it really well against us. We gave them too many threes.

“Both coaches do a great job. They both recruit really, really well. They’ve done a great job.”

How to beat Gonzaga

Prohm: “Gonzaga really, really wants to get that thing up and down the floor. The biggest thing against Gonzaga is you’ve got to slow them down and then you’ve got to decide how you want to guard (7-foot center Przemek) Karnowski. Do you want to play him one-on-one, double him? The one thing we had success is we were able to run them over some and slow them down with some three-quarter court pressure to slow the game down a little bit.

“The more you can slow them down, change defenses is big.”

Point guard Monte Morris: “It’s going to be a night where they’re not shooting it great.”

How to beat Baylor

Prohm: “They don’t attack all night. Gonzaga wants to be in the 90s. Baylor’s OK with 65-63 because they’re going to slow you down on their end of the floor defensively because they’re going to make you work against their zone.”

Morris: “Guys making shots out of the zone. It’s about guarding them well, slowing (Johnathan) Motley down and making other guys make plays, and your guys making plays.”