The Big 12 Middle: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas State

In the Big 12, Kansas has locked up another conference championship and Missouri’s gotten plenty of attention, both here and elsewhere for their strong second-place finish. Texas is on the NCAA bubble. In between these teams are a trio who are heading for the NCAA Tournament, but need some attention of their own. So just as TheSportsNotebook paid tribute to the Big East Middle & the Big Ten Middle, today it’s time to give a shoutout to Big 12 and take a look at Baylor, Iowa State or Kansas State…

Baylor (25-5, 12-5, projected #3 seed): I was very high on Baylor at the start of the season and while I don’t do a formal preseason Top 10 in college basketball, I would’ve placed the Bears #2 behind only North Carolina. They haven’t lived up to those expectations, losing all four games they played against Kansas and Missouri, and consequently I have a hard time not seeing this team as a disappointment. But the reasonable side of me does say that they’ve won 25 games and have consistently beaten teams that are NCAA Tournament-caliber—the non-conference resume includes wins over San Diego State, BYU, St. Mary’s, West Virginia, Mississippi State and Northwestern. The only loss outside the Kansas/Mizzou duo came against K-State this past weekend. Maybe the worst that can be said about Baylor is that they’re a step behind their two conference rivals—which could still put the Bears in the top eight nationally.

Looking at the talent it’s easy to see why. Baylor is big up front and solid in the backcourt. Perry Jones, a 6’11” sophomore, has a future ahead of him in the NBA, averaging  13 points/7 rebounds and being a capable shotblocker. What head coach Scott Drew needs to do is rip the ball out of Jones’ hands if he ventures to the three-point line, where the post man insists on tossing the occasional brick. There’s two solid forwards who can also score and rebound, with senior Quincy Acy posting a 12/7 line, and the 6’9” freshman from Chicago, Quincy Miller putting up a 12/5 each night. Lest opposing coaches think they’ll just collapse their defenses to the post, guards Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip each hit around 45 percent from three-point range, and Jackson is a solid distributor.

Baylor has the talent to win a national championship. What they haven’t done is make it happen against the kind of teams they’ll have to beat to do this. But the experience factor does have a lot to do with that—when you start three sophomores and a freshman there’s going to be growing pains. I didn’t give that serious enough consideration in giving Baylor lofty preseason expectations, so any disappointment I feel has as much to do with shaky prognostication as it does with shaky play. What we all have to figure out now is if Baylor’s going to be one of those teams that comes together for a big March run, or if the youth breaks their hearts one more time. In my head I know I should play it safe and assume the latter, but this is a program that I’ve started to like ever since LaceDarius Dunn took them to a regional final against Duke two years ago, so I’ll probably talk myself into picking them for the Final Four and then tearing up my bracket in frustration when they lose a 3-6 game on the opening weekend.

Iowa State (21-8, 11-5, projected #8 seed): I was surprised to see the Cyclones seeded this low by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. They’re poised to finish tied for third in a great conference, swept Kansas State and stole a win over Kansas. But a look at the non-conference resume shows no notable wins, so the guess is that the relatively low seed comes from a team that took into January to really got started.

Sophomore forward Royce White is a very good young talent, and solid in all phases of the game. With a 13/9/5 stat line average, he scores, hits the boards and finds the open man. The supporting players most often open are guards Scott Christopherson and Chris Allen, both seniors, who can hit the trey. Tyrus McGee is a third guard who can also nail the long ball and keep defenses extended. Where the Cyclones are hurt by is the lack of a pure post player who could really make the defenses pay when they stretch out to the three-point line. The 6’8” White is the tallest player in the regular six-man rotation. If a big game in the conference tournament or the NCAAs stays opened up, Iowa State can win. But postseason games tend to go the other direction, so White and 6’6” sophomore Melvin Ejim will have to be ready to muscle up.

Kansas State (20-9, 9-8, projected #9 seed): Bill Martin got his team off to a solid, if unspectacular start, with quality non-conference wins over Alabama and Long Beach State, vital for a team that had some serious re-tooling to do. A double-overtime loss to West Virginia was nothing to be ashamed of and K-State has stayed steady in Big 12 play, mostly trading wins and losses and finally getting the big scalp they needed against Baylor last weekend to remove reasonable doubt about whether they were NCAA bound. I suppose Martin’s team could play themselves back into trouble if they lose at home to Oklahoma State on Saturday or cough up a first-round conference tournament game to the likes of Texas Tech, but I don’t see either as likely, much less both.

The Wildcats needed holdovers Rodney McGruder and Jamar Samuels to play well and both have come through. The 6’4” McGruder has been the team’s leading scorer at 15 ppg, and Samuels, the 6’7” post man, delivers a 10/7 nightly average. Will Spradling, a sophomore guard has also stepped up as a double-digit scorer. Martin makes full use of his bench, as Kansas State is the rare team that only has four players averaging 20-plus minutes per game, but has four others all in the 18-19 range. The strength of the bench is in the frontcourt, with 6’11” Jordan Henriquez combining with freshman power forward Thomas Gipson to deliver ten rebounds a game.

One thing Martin’s team doesn’t do very well is shoot the three-ball, and in one-and-done tournament play that will make them susceptible to a team that gets hot. But as long as that doesn’t happen, K-State is tough down low, they have a clear go-to player in McGruder and a coach who makes his teams mentally tough. If they’re a nine-seed and I’m a top seed, I’m hoping K-State gets beat in the first round.