KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Iowa State's DeAndre Kane and Baylor's Gary Franklin, two senior guards who started their college careers elsewhere, met in an elevator Friday at the Marriott in downtown Kansas City, just the two of them.
Sometime between when the doors opened and closed, a pact was agreed upon: The Cyclones had to beat Kansas. The Bears had to beat Texas. Kane and Franklin couldn't let their teams lose to the same team three times in a season.
The underdogs won, setting up a Saturday title tilt (8 p.m., ESPN) between 4-seed Iowa State and 7-seed Baylor at the Sprint Center, the first time a team seeded lower than No. 3 will win the Big 12 tournament.
"They're really good," Franklin said of the Cyclones, who the Bears split the season series with. "[Kane and I] have that kind of respect for each other where we wanted to see each other in the Finals. I have that respect for my opponent. He'll have the same respect guarding our guards as well."
Once a top-10 team, a five-game skid and a 10-game dry spell comprising of just two wins knocked the Bears to 2-8 in the conference Feb. 8. They've since gone 10-1 — the only loss to Texas in Austin, which they avenged Friday night — by riding senior Cory Jefferson, who's averaging 16.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game in the span, a boost from the 12.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg mark the forward was accumulating from the start of the season to Feb. 8.
The Bears lucked out with a first-round draw against league-winless TCU, which they struggled with, but it's been smooth sailing from there, building comfortable leads against No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 3 Texas. In the three games, Isaiah Austin has swatted 17 shots, shattering the previous tournament record (11 blocks in four games) in dedicating the week to his late grandfather, who died Wednesday.
"I've just been trying to play for him, trying to play aggressive for him," the 7-foot-1 Austin said. "My teammates have been pushing me hard in practice and they've been telling me they need more out of me. So I'm just trying to produce for them."
Senior sharpshooter Brady Heslip has been scorching, hitting 10 of 20 three-pointers in the tournament, including 6-for-11 from distance Friday against the Longhorns en route to 24 points.
Vegas has Iowa State has a two-points favorite. Ken Pomeroy's game predictions have the Cyclones winning by one, with a 53 percent chance at winning. Each team is hot, obviously, and playing their best basketball of the season. The Sprint Center figures to be heavily pro-Iowa State while Baylor didn't travel well. The Bears are playing their fourth game in four days. Something doesn't quite add up with the experts and the conventional wisdom, but as Heslip said Friday, "Felt fresh tonight, and I know we'll feel fresh tomorrow, too."
Franklin, who had five points and two assists against Texas, said his Friday postgame routine would include a cold tub, a lot of rest and nutrient-packed shakes for refueling. He's expecting to run quite a bit Saturday.
"They're really good," he said. "Their coach teaches them to get out and get buckets in transition. They score most of their points in the first 15 seconds. We have to get back on defense."
Baylor's 2-3 zone stifled Iowa State when the two met March 1, a 74-61 Bears win. The game hung in the balance until the final minute, when Baylor free throws spiked the score into the double digits, but it wouldn't have even been as close had Iowa State not shot 41.4 percent from three-point range.
The Cyclones struggled to get the ball inside without hazard, turning it over 14 times (Melvin Ejim had four, Kane had four, Niang had three). When they did, the results were poor: 12-for-31 on two-points shots, Ejim shooting 3-for-9 and Niang going 2-for-7.
Kane drilled five three-pointers, as many as he made Friday against Kansas. That was the saving grace.
"When Kenny [Chery] and I and Gary and the guards who play the top set the tone with ball pressure and we're flying around giving max effort, then the bigs are going to give max effort," Heslip said. "And Isaiah in the middle has just been an anchor, just ridiculous, erasing every guard that gets in there when we happen to let them drive."
At Wednesday's presser after his team squeaked by TCU, Baylor coach Scott Drew — who back in January prophesied the Cyclones could be a Final Four team after an 87-72 ISU win in Ames — was asked if such a narrow win could be a good thing for the Bears, to help prime them for the rest of the tourney and the contest against Oklahoma.
"I'll let you know after tomorrow," Drew quipped.
Tomorrow came and went, and the Bears beat the Sooners. Another tomorrow passed, and they beat the Longhorns. Now it's today and it's Baylor versus Iowa State for the Big 12 tournament championship, which nobody predicted, except for Kane and Franklin.