It’s been 14 years since Iowa State (25-7, 11-7) has been able to celebrate a championship, and they’re on the doorstep of taking home the Big 12 title back to Ames. It’s a title that would be very much earned; all those close losses and heartbreaks under the Fred Hoiberg era have been forgotten with this year’s Cyclone team, closing games out and looking like one of the best teams in all of college basketball.
One hurdle is left against Baylor (24-10, 9-9), who everybody wrote off this season after a horrible start in the conference season. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games, and there was a huge difference in both of these teams’ meetings during the regular season — Iowa State ran Baylor out of Hilton Coliseum while the Bears were able to stifle the Cyclones’ frontcourt in Waco.
The question is, how will both teams fare this time around with a Big 12 title on the line?
(16)Iowa State Cyclones (4) vs Baylor Bears (7)
Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship – Final
Sprint Center | Kansas City, Missouri
Saturday, March 15, 2014
Tip-off: 8:00 PM CT | TV: ESPN
Iowa State clearly had the tougher road getting into the championship game. They had to play both Kansas schools in Kansas City, but thanks to Iowa State fans making the trip to re-create the magic from home, Sprint Center became Hilton South. The Cyclones had some of the most inspired efforts from the frontcourt in two games, eliminating the worry of the lack of depth. The trio of guards — DeAndre Kane, Naz Long, and Monte Morris — have been great at selecting 3-point shots and moving the ball around to really make the offense shine.
Baylor put a pounding on TCU, Oklahoma, and Texas; the game against the Sooners looked closer than it was with an OU rally at the end that almost put them in position to win the game. Their defense is on fire, recording 15 blocks in the last two games, and Isaiah Austin is responsible for 12 of those. He also recorded five more against the Horned Frogs for a tournament record already.
Both Cory Jefferson and Royce O’Neale have been killing it on the boards; Jefferson had 24 in the last two games and O’Neale had 10 rebounds in each of them. Baylor’s size gives them a clear advantage in matchups in this game.
How both teams fared against each other
The Cyclones need to find a way to move at their tempo. Baylor’s size was a nonfactor when Iowa State was moving like a freight train at Hilton Coliseum, keeping the Bears out of position on defense and scoring at will inside. That happened against Kansas, but the Cyclones didn’t have to face Joel Embiid and they haven’t faced a wall like Baylor’s frontcourt.
In Waco, Iowa State was able to hit all the 3-pointers they wanted to, but received next to zero production inside, which cost them the game. They don’t live and die by the 3-pointer, that’s just arsenal they have so they can spread out the defense. That won’t work for Baylor.
What to watch for
Iowa State needs to continue finding that magic from the frontcourt. They’ve been responsible for the majority of the offensive production. Dustin Hogue doesn’t need to score as long as Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim are hitting their shots. They just need Hogue to crash the boards as best as he can. It’d be ideal if Niang could tally up the assists and Ejim could be his usual box score stuffer self with tons of points and rebounds.
On defense, the Cyclones will need to watch for Brady Heslip from 3-point range. He was a deadly 6-of-11 against Texas, tallying up 24 points. Also, Jefferson has recorded double-doubles in both games in Kansas City, and has in seven of Baylor’s last 10 games. Both of those players’ shooting efficiency are incredibly high, and ISU needs to find a way to knock some of that down.
Also, this is the most crucial thing to watch for: Iowa State fouls and Baylor free throws. The Cyclones can’t afford to get into foul trouble, especially with their frontcourt, and the Bears have taken 65 free throws in the last two games.
Out of the entire bottom half of the bracket, Iowa State didn’t want Baylor. They match up the worst against them. But, that’s the way it goes, and the Cyclones will have another challenging task ahead of them.
Will ISU’s frontcourt finally have a bit of a letdown after all of its production in the last two games? Perhaps, but they can afford that if the guards can collectively have a good game. The 3-pointer must go down if the big three struggle at all, and it should.
Making 3’s, setting the tempo, and keeping Baylor away from the free throw line is all in the equation for a Big 12 championship in Kansas City. It’s going to be tough, there will be times of struggle, and there will certainly be beefs with the refs on the court and on Twitter. But Iowa State is playing just as hot as Baylor is right now, and if that frontcourt can produce like they have for two straight games, they can do it again on the biggest stage of their season.
Iowa State’s heading back to Ames as Big 12 champions for the first time since 2000.
IAST 72, BAY 71 (Odds: BAY +2, U149)