After Monday night's upset in Manhattan, the Big 12 is suddenly wide open. Not only is Iowa State in the running for the conference title, but Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Baylor are all within striking distance if things play out the right way. We chatted with Matt Gray of Wide Right & Natty Lite about it. Here's what I had to say in answer to his questions.
PC: Kansas has slipped in a couple of recent road games, opening the door for other teams to possibly grab the Big 12 title. Iowa State is just 0.5 games back. Can they pass up KU?
MG: In a word, yes. All respect to Baylor, but Iowa State's remaining four games are definitely winnable. After tonight, we go away to K-State, home vs. Oklahoma, and finish up at TCU. Hilton Coliseum is a fortress, and I fully expect to remain strong there. At K-State will be tough, but we've (hopefully) put the road woes behind us. Kansas has to close conference play at Oklahoma, and that game will be the deciding factor on if the Big 12 crown will be shared or won outright.
PC: Is there a more aptly named player than Naz Long? He’s knocking down 42% of his threes this season on nearly 6 attempts per game. What kind of impact does his shooting have on ISU’s offense as a whole?
MG: 3sus has got to be a nightmare to gameplan against. His outside shooting is one of the keys to our offense, because it forces defenses to pay attention to him and opens up things in the paint for Georges Niang and Jameel McKay. Although we don't rely on the 3 as much as in years past, our offense really begins to hum when we're knocking down shots from outside. Naz is chief among them, but as we saw on Saturday, someone else like Matt Thomas can get hot too.
PC: Jameel McKay has really seemed to come on in conference play. How have his season and role progressed, and how important is he for ISU’s hopes for a Tournament run?
MG: I'm not sure anyone could have predicted the effect McKay has had on our season. After sitting out almost all of non-conference play, he's really adapted to life in the Big 12 quicker than everyone expected, earning a starting spot over the past few games and justifying it with his stellar play. Averaging 10.2 pts, 6.8 rbs, and 2.6 blks per game, he's a key component of our offense and defense. His energy and defensive improvement will be a key factor in determining how far we make it in March.
PC: What’s the case to be made for Georges Niang as a Big 12 Player of the Year candidate?
MG: Despite his inconsistent scoring, Niang is The Guy for our offense, and deserves to be in the Player of the Year discussion. His numbers (13.7 pts, 5.2 rbs, and 3 asts) in conference play are great, but it's the way he does things that really set him apart. He can shoot from outside, knocking down 45% of his shots from behind the arc. When a defender tries to take that away, he can move inside with a vast array of jump-hooks and layups off the glass. A mismatch no matter who is guarding him, his ability to take what a defense gives him is vitally important to the Iowa State offense, and when he plays within himself it's a joy to watch. He probably won't win Player of the Year, but he fully deserves to be considered as a top player in our conference.
PC: What’s your game prediction? Is this going to be as close as it was in Waco, or will the Cyclones ride the Hilton Magic to a secure victory? Where will this game be won or lost?
MG: Tonight, I'm calling a Cyclone victory, 75-69. That Baylor zone can be stingy and they're a great offensive rebounding team, but I don't see them pulling the upset. Hoiberg will have everyone crashing the glass, and someone off the bench (Dejean-Jones, Thomas, or Nader) will bring a spark to the offense. As long as Iowa State doesn't go 5+ minutes without scoring and allow Baylor to remain close, I think it's a comfortable 2-3 possession win, with the Bears possibly making a run to keep it close towards the end of the game.
I'm with Matt. Iowa State has a (relatively) friendly schedule their last four games, while Kansas has Texas and West Virginia at home, then closes the season in Norman. If the Jayhawks stumble, the Cyclones will likely be right there to be the first Big 12 outright champion not named "Kansas."
Looks like it'll be an exciting finish in the Big 12 after all.