Iowa State's Roller Coaster Four Days Shows the Big 12 Could Be in for a Wild Ride
Typically the No. 20 team in the country losing a league game on the road, as Iowa State did at Baylor on Tuesday night, wouldn’t register much as news. But in the preceding 75 or so hours, the Cyclones had emerged as something like college basketball’s It team. First they beat 14-time reigning champ Kansas by 17 on Saturday. Then came the next day’s news that Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike would miss the rest of the season due to a torn hand ligament. Naturally the forces of the news cycle converged, with Kansas down and Iowa State up, that the resulting two days of chatter could have given the impression that the Cyclones were the Big 12’s new favorites.
In a phone interview on Monday afternoon, Iowa State coach Steve Prohm seemed well aware of how fleeting time on top of the conference could be. Asked how the two days after beating the Jayhawks had been, the fourth-year coach said “busy, adding, “It was a good win on Saturday, but now we’re flying out of here in a couple of hours to go play Baylor. It doesn’t stop.” And the next night, that wariness was justified, as the Cyclones fell to a previously 8–5 Bears team expected by many to finish in the back of the Big 12 pack.
The episode was a reminder of the limits of reacting too strongly to recent results, but also a valuable illustration of how, after years of wondering whether it might finally be the year that someone breaks Kansas’s streak of regular season league titles (now at 14), the Big 12 race is looking open, and its gauntlet looking unforgiving enough that we could see the title of perceived frontrunner change hands more still.
Consider, on the same night Iowa State was falling in Waco, No. 8 Texas Tech held its ground at home against No. 23 Oklahoma, with Jarrett Culver’s smooth 23 points and 13 rebounds serving as notice that he might be the league’s best player and the type of scorer who can provide the country’s best defensive team with what it needs on the other end. And to the Sooners’ credit, they pushed a top-10 team on the road even without getting an A game from star guard Christian James, which bodes well for their prospects against the rest of the league, especially once those top teams have to take the trip to Norman.
Meanwhile TCU looms at 12–1, having opened its Big 12 slate by beating the Baylor team that Iowa State did not. Kansas is far from being written off—the wise move may still be to err on the side of Bill Self figuring out how to make a small-ball version of this team work in the long-term, though the Jayhawks’ slumping shooters will need to start knocking down some more shots for that to take off. And as Baylor showed Tuesday, the rest of the league is more than capable of disruption: Texas has wins over North Carolina and Purdue but lost to Oklahoma State; injured all-conference forward Dean Wade is nearing his return date for Kansas State; and as the Red Raiders’ recent three-point escape at West Virginia shows, no visit to Morgantown is easy.
The question now becomes whether the Big 12 has a clear team to beat. The Jayhawks remain its highest ranked, but must reinvent themselves at a crucial time. Texas Tech is unblemished outside a meeting with No. 1 Duke in New York, but may need to find more consistent scoring outside of Culver. And Iowa State—a deep, positionless, balanced team with a budding star in senior forward Marial Shayok—not only found out firsthand the perilousness of the spotlight but also lost forward Cameron Lard to an ankle injury that had him wearing a boot for the second half of Tuesday’s loss. (Afterwards, Prohm said he did not know when Lard might return.)
At the moment, it looks like the Red Raiders may be out front. But if the churn of expectations and extrapolations from the 75 hours between Iowa State’s latest win and loss taught us anything, it’s that there is a lot left to figure out over the next 60 days.
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It may have faded from the headlines with the season underway, but there have been substantial developments in the federal court cases stemming from the FBI’s investigation into the black market of college basketball recruiting. On Monday, former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson pleaded guilty to one count of federal funds bribery, which carries a recommended sentence of 18 to 24 months in prison. Last week, ex-USC assistant Tony Bland pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to commit fraud, which carries a recommended prison sentence of six to 12 months. Both may be sentenced to punishments below that range, including probation. (Previously, two former Adidas employees and an aspiring player agent were found guilty at their trial in October; they have yet to be sentenced.)
Richardson and Bland’s respective pleas mean they will not be part of the trials still scheduled for former Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans and former Auburn assistant Chuck Person, among others. What is interesting is that the pleas were reportedly not part of a deal to provide evidence to aid the prosecution against remaining defendants. Perhaps the pleas’ most impactful implications are what they might prevent the public from learning—with evidence against them no longer being part of the upcoming trials, there is that much less of a chance for new revelations concerning other alleged violations to enter the public record. That’s good news for anyone who may have something to hide.
1. Michigan State: The Spartans, who quietly have the nation’s second-most efficient offense, won at Ohio State and beat Purdue at home to move to 5–0 in Big Ten play, a start made all the more impressive by Joshua Langford missing their last three games with an ankle injury.
2. Virginia: The Hoos stomped then-No. 9 Florida State on Saturday in a 65–52 game that was not nearly as close as even that margin suggests. Kyle Guy has 51 points on 12-of-15 three-point shooting over his last two games.
3. Buffalo: The Bulls tore through some top MAC competition Tuesday night by beating Toledo 110–80, scoring 1.34 points per possession as sophomore forward Jeremy Harris scored a career-high 34 on 13-of-19 shooting.
4. Houston: One of just three remaining unbeaten teams, the defensive-minded Cougars—who have played away from home just twice thus far—will get to prove their mettle with upcoming road trips to Temple and SMU.
5. South Carolina: After a 5–7 non-conference showing where they didn’t beat a winning team, the Gamecocks have stormed out of the SEC gate by beating Florida on the road and Mississippi State at home.
Top of the Classes
Senior: JaKeenan Gant, Louisiana forward
The Missouri transfer went off in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ win over Little Rock, scoring 45 points while shooting 15 for 21 from the field (including 4 for 5 from three) and making all 11 of his free throws. He also grabbed 11 boards, six of them on offense.
Junior: Nico Carvacho, Colorado State forward
In three games over the last seven days, the 6’ 11”, 240-pound Carvacho had a 28-point, 20-rebound, four-assist showing against UNLV, scored 23 points while grabbing 13 rebounds at Fresno State and put up 27 points, nine boards, and four assists against Air Force. He shot 74.4% from the field over that stretch.
Sophomore: Tyree Appleby, Cleveland State guard
The Vikings’ point guard scored a total of 60 points over games at Green Bay and Milwaukee in the past week while averaging 6.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals, though unfortunately for his team, Appleby’s strong showings both came in losses.
Freshman: Zion Williamson, Duke forward
His week was more than just the dunk of the year. As efficient as he is theatrical, Williamson scored 25 points on 9-of-11 shooting in just 22 minutes against Clemson and 30 on 13-of-16 shooting against Wake Forest, grabbing 10 rebounds in each contest and dishing five assists against the Demon Deacons.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know one of the country’s best players a little better by asking them what they consider to be the best in various subjects. This week we welcome Murray State guard Ja Morant, who is averaging 23.3 points, 9.9 assists, and 6.8 rebounds for the Racers. So, Ja, tell us about the best...
...sport to play other than basketball. “I would say football. I haven’t played. I was going to, but I broke my arm when I was younger playing on a trampoline and my mom just tried to keep me away from football so I wouldn’t hurt it again and not be able to play basketball.”
...fruit. “Strawberries. That’s mainly what I grew up eating. My grandma used to always have strawberries in the house, so that became my favorite. I still eat them, just put sugar on them.”
...decoration in your dorm. “My shoe collection. I wear a lot of retro Jordans and I just put them in line in order. Now I probably have like 11, but I gave away almost 10 pairs and I still have some at home. I had a lot. I’d have to say the Concord 11s are my favorite pair right now. And I got the Travis Scott 4s that not a lot of people got, so I’d say they’re one of my favorites too.”
Social Media Post of the Week
One to Watch: TCU at Kansas, Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2
The good news for the Jayhawks is that their first game since finding out that center Udoka Azubuike will not play the rest of this season (and the sixth without him overall) comes at home against a TCU team that has played just one true road game, a win at SMU more than a month ago. The bad news is that the Horned Frogs have not looked like slouches so far this season, losing just once, and that they excel at defending the three—already a weak point for Kansas, which has struggled all season to find outside shooting beyond Lagerald Vick, who is just 7 for 29 from three over the last four games himself. For the Jayhawks, this will be the first true step of the Post-Doke Era of this season; for TCU it will be the opportunity to grab by far its most important win thus far. The Phog should be lively.