KANSAS CITY -- There was so much blood. It didn't flow, it gushed.
Late in the second half of Iowa State's 94-83 victory over Kansas in Friday's Big 12 tourney semifinals, Georges Niang lay on the floor with a reddening towel covering his face. Brannen Greene had caught the Cyclones' big man with an accidental elbow on a drive.
The gash above Niang's right eye represents the war that's been staged in the weeks and months leading up to Saturday's tournament championship game between Baylor and Iowa State.
Every night a fight. Every trip a test.
Saturday’s tournament finale will be brought to you by the Big 12, America's best and most competitive league.
“Well, arguably and certainly, our thought is [that it’s] the best conference in the country, and every night you line up, it's against a really good team,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said earlier this week. “A lot of different styles in the league, some smaller teams, some bigger teams. … The balance, the depth of really good players in the league. It's tough every night.”
Kansas, the favorite and most dominant team in the tournament's history, is back in Lawrence now. And that's not just because Joel Embiid was unavailable this week.
The Jayhawks ran into a gauntlet.
This final chapter in the Big 12 features two teams that got their grooves back at the right time.
Iowa State lost four of five in January. The Cyclones nearly suffered three losses in a row earlier this month, but Naz Long's buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent them into overtime against Oklahoma State, where the Cyclones won 85-81 on March 8. The Cyclones have won seven of their last nine, and they've resembled nothing short of an NCAA championship contender during this stretch.
“Coach preaches, ‘How are you going to act when adversity hits you? Are you going to give up? Are you going to point the finger? Are you going to point the finger at yourself? How are you going to act?’” Niang said after Iowa State topped Kansas in the semifinals. “He asks us that question all the time, and I feel like we came here for a reason. We didn't want to go down with a fight, so we just kept fighting, clawing, pulling.”
Baylor's rise has been equally incredible. A rough bout of eight losses in its first 10 conference games seemed to push Baylor back into the NIT conversation. But then, the Bears recovered with a 10-1 stretch. They beat Texas, a certain NCAA tournament team, by 17 points Friday. They're playing as well as any team in the league right now.
“Basically, we've just tightened up on our defense and working on closing out the game,” Cory Jefferson said after his team’s win over Texas in the semifinals. Most of the games we have lost, when we went through the early part of the conference play, they were within, like, one to two possessions. So we were there throughout the whole game for the most part, but we just [weren't] finishing out the game, and that's basically what we've been working on.”
The two regular-season battles between these teams showcased their best and worst qualities. Iowa State embarrassed Baylor in the first game, an 87-72 victory in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 7. DeAndre Kane scored 30 points. The Cyclones beat the Bears up the floor and torched them from the 3-point line (10 for 25). They trapped Baylor's big men and forced 19 turnovers.
But things changed in Waco, Texas, on March 4. That's when Baylor just attacked the rim and threatened every shot inside the arc but only sent the Cyclones to the free throw line for two attempts. Isaiah Austin and Jefferson combined for four blocks. The Bears held Melvin Ejim and Niang to a combined 5-for-25 clip. That's the Baylor team that has whipped the Big 12 in recent weeks.
Whatever happens in Kansas City on Saturday night will be historic.
This is just Iowa State’s second appearance in the Big 12 tournament championship game. The Cyclones won the title in 2000. Baylor has appeared in the championship twice but never won it.
Whatever happens in Kansas City will also be scrappy. The Big 12 doesn't do it any other way.
The matchups in this league tend to leave a mark.