SAN ANTONIO -- According to the venerable RPI metric, the Big 12 had the best conference in college basketball this season. As a result, the league put seven teams into the NCAA tournament, more than any other conference.
But whether the Big 12 was really deserving of its top-dog status will largely be determined by the two games Sunday in San Antonio.
First in the West Region, sixth-seeded Baylor will face off against the likely national player of the year in Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Then in the East, No. 3 seed Iowa State will take on one of college basketball’s bluebloods in North Carolina.
“We know that postseason is important for every conference,” Bears coach Scott Drew said. “Statistically, we were the No. 1 conference in the country. But now postseason it’s a new season.”
It’s also an opportunity for the Big 12 to confirm its distinction in two high-profile matchups. Especially following a lackluster start to the tournament elsewhere for the conference.
As a 5 seed, Oklahoma was knocked off by North Dakota State in overtime. Oklahoma State and Kansas State both fell in their 8-9 seed games to Gonzaga and Kentucky, respectively. Even regular-season champ Kansas struggled against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky, and even trailed with less than nine minutes to go in the second half.
But in San Antonio, the Big 12’s two hottest teams delivered two impressive performances in the second round.
The Bears, who had won six in a row before falling to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game, dominated No. 11 seed Nebraska from the opening tip. Baylor held the Cornhuskers to just 23 percent shooting in the first half to build a double-digit lead, then cruised to a comfortable 74-60 victory.
“We’re really confident right now,” Baylor point guard Kenny Chery said. “All these guys in the locker room, no matter what we’ve been through this year, we feel like we’re as good as any team in the country. We feel like we can play with anybody.”
The Cyclones are feeling the same way, having reeled off five wins in a row.
While other high seeds struggled in their first tournament games across the country, Iowa State continued its hot shooting. In a 93-75 smoking of North Carolina Central, the Cyclones knocked down almost 64 percent of their field goals and 53 percent of their 3-pointers.
The win, however, came at a price, as Georges Niang suffered a tournament-ending foot fracture during the second half.
“Obviously, that’s a very big loss for our team with the way that we use him and utilize his skill set to take advantage of a lot of mismatches,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Not only that, but just his enthusiasm and the way he helps keep guys together and fight through adversity -- it’s a tremendous loss for this basketball team.”
But even without Niang, the Cyclones still retain enough firepower, including Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim and All-Big 12 point guard DeAndre Kane, to slip past the Tar Heels and make a deep run in the East Region.
“This is still a confident group,” Hoiberg said. “And we’re playing a very good stretch of basketball right now.”
To keep the stretch going against the Tar Heels, the Cyclones will have to figure out how they’ll replace one of their top players in less than 48 hours. Hoiberg said Saturday he wasn’t sure yet without Niang -- who at 6-foot-7 with range could play inside and outside -- whether he’d go small or go big. Either way, the Cyclones will need sophomore guard Naz Long, freshman guard Matt Thomas and junior forward Daniel Edozie to all play bigger roles Sunday, especially helping out on the glass against North Carolina, which secured 21 offensive rebounds to hold off Providence in the second round.
“People asked me how are you going to replace him? Who are you going to replace him with?” Hoiberg said. “And you can't just do it with one guy. It's going to be by committee. And everybody's got to be ready to go out there and contribute.”
Baylor, meanwhile, will need a dogged team effort defensively to contain McDermott, who scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in Creighton’s second-round win over Louisiana-Lafayette. The Bears, and their rangy zone defense, frustrated Nebraska. But nobody lately has been able to slow McDermott, who has scored at least 22 points in his last 14 games.
“He can score in multiple ways, whether it be shooting or getting to the basket,” Baylor forward Royce O’Neale said. “So we just have to be prepared for it.”
But both Big 12 coaches said the Big 12 season has prepared their players for such a pair of tough third-round matchups.
“It was a grind to get through, but it helps prepare you for the moment that we’re in for now,” Hoiberg said. “Our conference all year has been great.”
By punching tickets to the Sweet Sixteen, the Bears and Cyclones would validate just that.