Preview: Another shot at the champs
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Kansas City, Mo. --- The Cyclones and the Jayhawks meet again, this time with a trip to the Big 12 Championship game at stake. On Thursday afternoon, Kansas outlasted Oklahoma State 77-70 in overtime to reach their 15th semi-final in the 18 years of the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas has won five straight over the Cyclones and 18 of the last 19. The two met in last year's semi-final with Kansas prevailing 88-73. The Jayhawks are a potent club, but not the same team the Cyclones saw earlier this year. They are without the services of phenom center Joel Embiid, who suffered a stress fracture in his back two weeks ago. Embiid will miss the entirety of the Big 12 Tournament.
This changes the dynamic of the KU attack as Embiid gave Iowa State fits in the first two matchups, scoring 16 points and pulling down nine rebounds in Ames; 14 points and 11 boards in Lawrence. Embiid also forced the Cyclones to double team him on the low block, which created open looks for his teammates and the Jayhawks made Iowa State pay. KU made a season high 10 3-pointers in the victory over the Cyclones in Lawrence.
The focus of the Iowa State defense will shift from Embiid to Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has been on an onslaught over the last few games, scoring 41 points Saturday in a loss at West Virginia and 30 points in the win over Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals. The freshman was under immense and unrealistic expectations when he started the season, but now appears to be growing into super-stardom as the post-season beckons.
The young Wiggins played all 45 minutes against Oklahoma State and is now consistently knocking down jump shots. With the lift he gets, he is unstoppable if he is making jumpers.
But with Embiid unable to play, Kansas has a hole in the middle defensively and I would expect Iowa State to attack the other KU bigs. The three-headed monster of Georges Niang, Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane did damage to KU in Lawrence. Those three combined to score 64 of Iowa State's 81 points in the second meeting with KU and the Cyclones will need equal efforts to knock off the Jayhawks this time around.
Kansas is down to an eight-player rotation, so both teams rely heavily on their starters. Iowa State would love to get 14 points again from Naz Long, who has poured in 14 points in back to back games.
Expect the stars to shine in the semifinal, but the key to the game may be Kansas point guard Naadir Tharpe. When Tharpe plays well, Kansas has been dynamite, but he has yo-yo'd his production this season. They are 10-1 when Tharpe scores in double-figures. Tharpe scored a career high 23 points in KU's victory in Ames and added 12 in Lawrence. In KU's 8 losses, he has been held under 10 points in seven of those eight games and tends to drift and become passive.
This is a "nothing to lose" game of sorts for Iowa State. The Cyclones seem to be locked into a three or four seed in the NCAA Tournament at this point and can only help their cause from here on out. It isn't easy to defeat the champs, Kansas has won six of the last eight Big 12 titles. The Cyclones certainly have the pieces to get to their first final since 2000. It should be another wild night in the nation's best basketball conference.