KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Some bear more favorable odds than others, but each of the conference seeds Nos. 1-9 that practiced Wednesday at the Sprint Center — we exclude TCU because, 0-18 — is optimistic it can end Saturday night with ladder steps and scissor snips.
A delightfully weird and extremely competitive Big 12 regular season, which saw Big Mondays became appointment viewing, gave us the following:
Anyone can beat anyone, especially with Joel Embiid, KU's Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, out with a back injury through at least the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
"I think it's wide-open, you look at our league right now — we've got seven locks for the NCAA tournament," said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, adding West Virginia can help itself with a couple wins in Kansas City. "It's gonna be, I think, as exciting a Big 12 tournament as there's ever been."
From the Cyclones' standpoint, the absence of Embiid helps. Tremendously. In two games against Iowa State, the 7-foot freshman poured in 30 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and sent away six shots.
The last few weeks, in fact, has seen Iowa State fans run through the hypotheticals in an effort to figure out what the Cyclones need to do to avoid Kansas in Friday's semifinals. ISU lost two out of its last three, setting up a quarterfinals rubber-match against Kansas State and then … big, bad Kansas, which is 5-0 against ISU the last two seasons.
But now, with Embiid out, it's questionable the Jayhawks themselves get to Friday's semis, likely facing a red-hot Oklahoma State team Thursday.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 2 Texas, No. 6 West Virginia and No. 7 Baylor will tango.
The Jayhawks as always will have a strong contingent of fans at the Sprint Center. Iowa State hopes to match it, with 3,200 tickets sold compared to 1,150 last season.
"This is basically a neutral site but I know it's going to be packed," freshman point guard Monté Morris said. "It's huge to have good support. The more people on your side, the better."
Cyclones Need Niang
Sophomore forward Georges Niang was named to the All-Big 12 third-team by the coaches, a deserving honor. Niang's had stretches where he played like a first-teamer. That's currently not the case.
Indeed, Niang scored 22 big points to beat OSU on March 8, but he needed 25 shots to do it — 7-for-16 on two-pointers, 2-for-9 from behind the arc.
"He got 25 shots," Hoiberg said. "I'm telling you, he could have had a 35-point night with as many of his balls went in and out."
At least it was some sort of production from Niang, who scored eight and four points in losses to K-State and Baylor, respectively.
"He was a little bit flat," Hoiberg said. "I talked to him about getting a little more air underneath his ball. I think some of it was due to foul trouble; he just wasn't able to get into rhythm in the two games we lost."
Niang fouled out in overtime against Oklahoma State. Against OSU and Baylor, he picked up four fouls. Adjusted to 40 minutes, Niang is called for an average of 4.3 fouls, slightly worse than Melvin Ejim's rate (4.2).
Iowa State lost at Manhattan the other week in part because Niang was absent offensively, cutting by 33 percent Iowa State's "Big Three" of Ejim, Kane and Niang.
From Streetball to Sprint Center
Much has been made of this being DeAndre Kane's first Big 12 tournament but lest we forget: Dustin Hogue has never been here, either.
And forget we might, because Hogue has been charged with doing the Cyclones' dirty work, the quiet stuff that won't make the airwaves — rebounding and hustle. We can measure the former — the 6-foot-6 Hogue is pulling down 10.4 boards per game and eats up 21.5 percent of available defensive rebounds, No. 116 nationally — and not the latter, but it's clear Hogue has given the Cyclones an extra little kick in his first year since transferring from Indian Hills C.C.
Go back further, though, to Hogue's prep days in Yonkers, New York, and that's where you'll find the root of his doggedness.
"Back home, if you're not playing hard or diving on the floor, if you're not doing whatever it takes to win, then you're not gonna get respect," Hogue said Wednesday. "That's how I take it out here. If I see somebody not playing hard then I'm not gonna respect them."
The junior scores when he cans. Twelve points one game, five the next. He rarely blocks shots. He doesn't come up with steals. But Hogue, despite his wildness, manages to stay out of foul trouble. For the most part, Hogue's a selective shooter: His effective field goal percentage (59.1) is No. 80 nationally, per kenpom and his offensive rating of 119.5 is 150th-best nationally.
This all might be a bigger stage for Hogue — the cameras, the lights, all the fans — but he's been in more intimidating environments.
"The Yonkers gyms are tough," Hogue said. "The Bronx, too. But Yonkers is tougher than anywhere.
"We play tough there, we play hard, we don't call no fouls."
Hogue frequently has played at Harlem's famous Rucker Park (where yours truly was once dunked on in a casual game of two-on-two, via alley-oop).
"Rucker is how it looks on TV," Hogue said. "The competition is crazy. You've got to play hard or else you're not gonna get the respect you want."
Thomas Still Working on His Shot
Freshman guard Matt Thomas didn't develop his pump fake-dribble-floater in reaction to college defenders closing out quicker than high schoolers.
"That's a move I've always had," Thomas said.
It's just not a move he's had to use so much.
Thomas is shooting just 33.6 percent from three-point range, but his reputation as a high school sharpshooter precedes him. Opposing players, as detailed scouting reports dictate, are jetting defenders to the corner the moment the ball heads to Thomas. By the time he catches it, there's not much room to shoot. So he'll fake it, take a dribble or two in, and launch a floating jumper (which has had mixed results).
"When I can get a shot off, I'll try to shoot the three," Thomas said. "Especially if you make one first, they're gonna close out hard and obviously on the scouting report I'm a shooter, they're gonna be closing out hard and wanting me to put it on the floor. It's just a move I have that when they take away my shot I can go to."
The best player on his Onalaska, Wisc., high school team, Thomas had the ball in his hands often, able to create and get off his own shot whenever. At least for now, he has to rely his teammates to feed him the rock — and get it to him quickly.
"This is probably the most catch-and-shoot I've ever done," Thomas said. "That's something I want to work on next offseason: Try to get it off even quicker just because the speed of the game is so quick. You have to be ready, have your feet set and stay balanced."
Slumps and streaks have told the tale of Thomas' first year in Ames: 0-for-3, 1-for-4, 0-for-4 from three in mid-January losses; 4-for-6 and 3-for-5 in wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma. He's the first one to admit as much.
"I've had my ups and downs," Thomas said. "But when shots aren't falling you've just got to stay confident. I think [against Oklahoma State] I started 0-for-2 for 0-for-3 and then hit a three in the second half. You have to believe the next shot's going in even if you start 0-for-10."