After posting the nation’s best nonconference winning percentage of any Division I league, Big 12 teams have been a hit-and-miss proposition in the NCAA Tournament.
The league, which landed more teams in the field than any other conference (seven), has a 4-4 record in the Big Dance and is down to three contenders to cut down the nets when the Final Four comes to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, April 5-7.
Two of those contenders, Baylor (25-11) and Iowa State (27-7), are part of Sunday’s doubleheader at AT&T Center.
Iowa State meets perennial power North Carolina (4:15 p.m., KTVT/Ch. 11) and must play without standout forward Georges Niang, who suffered a season-ending fractured foot in Friday’s 93-75 victory over North Carolina Central. Baylor, the No. 6 seed in the West Regional, meets Creighton, the No. 3 seed (6:45 p.m, truTV).
Coaches from both teams stressed Saturday that they feel compelled to boost the Big 12’s national reputation in high-profile matchups.
“No question,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “Both of us, when you’re in the round of 32, you’re playing the best teams in the country. We know that postseason is important for every conference.”
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said: “Our conference all year has been great. It was a grind to get through, but it helps prepare you for the moment that we’re in now.”
Iowa State coaches and players said they are capable of advancing in the NCAA Tournament without Niang (16.7 ppg, 4.5 rebounds), who suffered a season-ending foot injury in Friday’s victory over North Carolina Central. ISU won two games this season without forward Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year, and the Cyclones plan to draw on that experience against North Carolina.
“When Melvin went down, we still found a way to win games,” guard DeAndre Kane said. “We have other guys that can step in and take the place of Georges.”
Ejim said: “Guys know that basketball is a game of adjustments. This is an adjustment we’ll have to make.”
It will not be easy. Niang, a sophomore, ranked third on the team in scoring, third in total assists (123) and fourth in rebounds (4.5 avg.). Coach Fred Hoiberg said he was not sure who would start in Niang’s spot and plans to be flexible as the game unfolds.
“The important thing is making the proper adjustments,” Hoiburg said. “If it’s working, or not working, you try to get the right five on the floor where you can compete.”
Creighton players talked openly about the significance of reaching the Sweet 16 by beating Baylor after the team fell short at this same juncture the past two NCAA tournaments. For the senior-laden Bluejays, led by forward Doug McDermott (27.0 ppg), Sunday’s game looms as a career litmus test in many ways.
“It’s always been a goal of ours,” McDermott said of a Sweet 16 appearance. “We haven’t gotten there yet as a program, so that’s something that’s in the back of my mind. We’re finally to this point again, where we’ve been the last two years, and it was a big part of my decision [to return for his senior season].”