The Kansas Jayhawks and Iowa State Cyclones are set to face off in the Big 12 Tournament title game on Saturday, pitting the winners of last six league tournaments against one another. Amazingly enough, this will be the first time during this stretch of tournament dominance by the two teams that they will face each other in the finals.
There’s potential seeding implications in the NCAA tournament on the line in this matchup, along with the obvious bragging rights that come with winning (plus the relatively meaningless automatic bid). Kansas, currently projected as a four seed by both ESPN and CBS, has a slim but nonetheless possible chance of sneaking onto the three line. Iowa State, meanwhile, is being projected as a six by both outlets, and could be bumped even higher on Selection Sunday with a tournament win and help from some other conferences.
KU played a low-scoring, rock fight of a game against Texas in the Big 12 tournament opener, holding on for a 65-57 victory. On Friday, the Jayhawks didn’t struggle nearly as much with their semifinal opponent, easily defeating the West Virginia Mountaineers 88-74.
Along with the usual suspects (junior forward Dedric Lawson and freshman guard Devon Dotson, specifically) Kansas has gotten key contributions in each game from arguably less likely sources. Against the Longhorns, it was freshman forward David McCormack who grabbed both rebounds and headlines, pulling down nine boards along with a 13-point performance on 6-7 shooting. He was, especially in the first half, the best player on the floor for either team.
In the semifinals it was freshman guard Quentin Grimes who showed out, scoring 18 points with 16 coming in the first half, including going 5-of-5 from three-point range in the opening period. Grimes’ offensive potential has never been questioned, even while his heavy playing time has been throughout the year. If the Jayhawks can get key contributions on both ends from anyone outside of Lawson and Dotson they can hang with anyone.
Iowa State won its first game of the tournament in typical Cyclones fashion: They were unstoppable from beyond the arc. ISU went 13-of-25 from deep in an 83-66 win over the Baylor Bears, never letting Scott Drew’s team back in the game once they got hot shooting the ball.
In their second game, however, a 63-59 victory over the Kansas State Wildcats, the Cyclones bucked that trend by winning without shooting particularly well. They went 6-of-22 from three, instead relying on interior scoring to put up points, all well doing enough to limit K-State’s scoring chances on the other end. The Wildcats were obviously missing senior forward Dean Wade’s presence, but the Cyclones did an excellent job taking advantage of KSU mistakes.
Arguably the biggest asset for Iowa State in terms of personnel is that while it isn’t a deep team, it has several players who have the potential to pop off for a huge game at any moment. Players like senior guard Mariol Shayok and freshman guard Talen Horton-Tucker can go unconscious scoring the ball against anyone, which makes them nearly impossible to guard. And if a player like junior forward Michael Jacobson is feasting on the glass like he did against K-State, when he grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds, it gives the Cyclones that many more chances to get buckets offensively.
The Jayhawks can’t afford to give the ball away in this one. Considering ISU’s propensity for ridiculous scoring stretches, KU can’t give them any extra chances. Turnovers have been a problem for Kansas all season, even in the comfortable games; in the semifinals the Jayhawks won by 14 despite giving the ball away 16 times.
Additionally, similarly to how its first two games of the tournament shook out, Kansas needs multiple players to step up and make plays. Lawson led the Big 12 in scoring (and rebounding) this season, he is always going to get his. And Dotson is averaging 15 points per game over his last three, playing some of his best basketball when KU needs it most, which is truly saying something considering how strong his freshman year has been as a whole. But contributions from the likes of McCormack, Grimes, freshman guard Ochai Agbaji or even sophomore guard Marcus Garrett will be necessary as the games get even tougher and more important for the Jayhawks.
Expect Lawson and Dotson to have big numbers, but be on the lookout for the ball to be spread around early in search of a hot hand.
Similarly to what was expected entering the semifinals, this game is probably more about what Iowa State does or doesn’t do more than it is about anything Kansas does. If the Cyclones have one of their torrid shooting days, which is possible no matter how good the opposing defense is, they’re likely going to win.
That’s what makes ISU so scary, though. For most of the season that was a requirement for Iowa State to win, it needed to make a preposterously high percentage of threes to pull out victories. But the Cyclones showed against K-State that they can, in fact, beat good teams by other means. Rebounding, physicality, interior scoring; if Iowa State is beating you with those as the cornerstones of its game, everyone is in trouble.
The simplest road map to winning today for ISU is shooting well from deep. If that happens, the game will need to be a track meet with KU shooting an equally unbelievable number of threes to stay close. But Iowa State can also win if it plays smart and takes advantage of nearly every mistake Kansas makes (again, turnovers will be a big deal).
Kansas is 15-17-1 against the spread this season, while Iowa State is 18-15.