March 19, 2014

Iowa State, not Kansas, is the Big 12’s best Final Four hope

League teams seek to back up stellar regular-season stats with NCAA Tournament success

For months, Big 12 men’s basketball coaches have been extolling the virtues of their league as the ultimate laboratory to create teams capable of making deep runs in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

From the league’s double round-robin schedule to the quality of coaching peers and NBA-caliber players, there has been widespread optimism about seeing one or more Big 12 teams advance to the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, April 5, 7. Because the Big 12 is the official host of this year’s event, watching a league team cut down the nets after the championship game in JerryWorld looms as the potential payoff for conference administrators who have invested years of preparation to stage the first Final Four in DFW since 1986.

“I like our chances,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, whose league has more teams in the field (seven) than any other conference. “We have a number of teams with the potential to play at that level if they get hot and stay healthy.”

Bowlsby’s brash talk is justified. He oversees a league that ranks first among the nation’s conferences in league-wide RPI and strength of schedule. The Big 12 also posted the nation’s best winning percentage in nonconference play (.797), thanks to a 102-26 record in intersectional matchups.

But no league team earned a No. 1 seed in the 68-team bracket. The Big 12’s highest-seeded team, No. 2 Kansas (24-9), is expected to play its first two tournament games without 7-foot center Joel Embiid (back injury), the Big 12 defensive player of the year.

Kansas has struggled in recent games without Embiid in the lineup, dropping its regular-season finale to a West Virginia team that did not make the NCAA field and falling to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament. The Cyclones (26-7) claimed the conference tournament crown, as well as a No. 3 seed in the East Region, heading into Friday’s game against North Carolina Central (8:50 p.m., San Antonio).

Based on tournament seeds and potential matchups in the NCAA bracket, the logical conclusion is that Iowa State — the only Big 12 team with an undefeated record against nonconference opponents this season — projects as the league’s best bet to make it to Arlington.

Yet Kansas, at 10-1, received the Big 12’s best odds from Bovada Sports Book to cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium. Iowa State received 33-1 odds to emerge as the national champion, the second-best odds among league teams.

Based on what we know heading into Thursday’s first full day of tournament games, here is a top-to-bottom look at Big 12 teams considered most likely to make it to Arlington:

• Iowa State: The Cyclones have the league’s best three-man nucleus of veteran players capable of dictating the action on both ends of the floor (F Melvin Ejim, G DeAndre Kane, F Georges Niang). Led by Ejim (18.1 points per game), the Big 12 Player of the Year, the Cyclones rank sixth nationally in scoring (82.9 average) and are dangerous inside and behind the 3-point-arc. Placed in the East Region, Iowa State is grouped with the softest No. 1 seed in the tournament (Virginia). As the region’s No. 3 seed, the Cyclones loom as a good matchup against guard-heavy Villanova, the No. 2 seed, and easily could meet Michigan State, the No. 4 seed, in the Elite Eight. Remember: ISU posted a 12-0 record in nonconference play and did not duck good teams while compiling that.

• Baylor: Winning the NCAA Tournament is all about getting on a hot streak at the right time: six tournament games in March and April. Few teams are streakier than the Bears (24-11), who climbed into the top 10 of the AP poll with a 12-1 start, faded with a 2-8 stretch, then resurfaced with a 10-2 run. The return to health of point guard Kenny Chery has overlapped the Bears’ recent hot streak. So has some dominant inside play from center Isaiah Austin, an Arlington Grace Prep graduate. Baylor has enough firepower to make it to an Elite Eight showdown against Arizona, the top seed in the West Region. Baylor also is 15-3 in its last four postseason tournaments under coach Scott Drew (two NCAAs, two NITs).

• Oklahoma State: One of the league’s lowest-seeded teams in the tournament (No. 9) also is one of its most dangerous. Mitigating circumstances (key injuries, three-game suspension for G Marcus Smart) hampered the Cowboys in the regular season. But OSU is 5-2 since Smart (17.8 points per game) returned to the lineup, with the losses in overtime at Iowa State and in overtime against Kansas in Kansas City, two hostile environments. Given a chance to thrive in a neutral site as an NCAA team, the Cowboys’ three-player nucleus of Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown ranks among the nation’s best. Do not discount the Cowboys despite their 21-12 record.

• Kansas: With a healthy Embiid, the Jayhawks would be at the top of this list, not in the middle. But Kansas has struggled defensively without its 7-foot rim protector and seems ripe for a second-round exit against the New Mexico-Stanford winner. If Embiid returns sooner than expected from his back injury (possible), and is immediately effective (dubious), Kansas could get past the second round and become a prime contender to advance to Arlington. But that is asking a lot from a team that struggles defensively without Embiid in the lineup.

• Oklahoma: The Sooners have a coach with Final Four experience (Lon Kruger), an underrated inside presence in forward Ryan Spangler and a boatload of 3-point shooters led by guard Buddy Hield. The Sooners rank seventh nationally in scoring (82.2 average), a huge asset, but can be hot and cold from the perimeter. As a No. 5 seed, OU opens against a dangerous No. 12 seed in North Dakota State and probably would face San Diego State in the second round. The Sooners will need some matchup luck, in the form of upsets elsewhere within the West Region, to wind up in Arlington.

• Texas: The Longhorns (23-10) play the most suffocating defense in the Big 12, which will translate nicely to March Madness. But the team’s biggest asset, a strong front line, will be matched by Arizona State, the team’s opponent Thursday in Milwaukee. If Texas, the No. 7 seed, advances in the Midwest Region, the Longhorns face a probable second-round matchup against Michigan, a No. 2 seed and Final Four team last season. It’s hard to see this young team making it to Arlington.

• Kansas State: The Wildcats, a No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region, received the toughest draw of any Big 12 team. K-State opens against Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll, and probably will face No. 1 seed Wichita State (34-0), the nation’s only remaining undefeated team, if it gets past Kentucky. In a stacked Midwest Region, it would take a mini-miracle for K-State to advance to Arlington.

Big 12 breakdown

Based on odds released by Bovada Sports Book, here are the Big 12’s best bets to cut down the nets in Arlington:

Kansas 10-1
Iowa State 33-1
Oklahoma State 40-1
Oklahoma 100-1
Baylor 100-1
Texas 100-1
Kansas State 200-1

Final Four favorites

Final Four odds by Bovada Sports Book :

Florida No. 1 seed 11-2
Michigan St. No. 4 seed 7-1
Louisville No. 4 seed 13-2
Arizona No. 1 seed 9-1
Virginia No. 1 seed 10-1
Wichita St. No. 1 seed 10-1
Kansas No. 1 seed 10-1
Duke No. 3 seed 12-1
Wisconsin No. 2 seed 20-1
Villanova No. 2 seed 20-1
Michigan No. 2 seed 20-1
Syracuse No. 3 seed 20-1
Creighton No. 3 seed 20-1

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