Pop quiz. Ready?
Question No. 1: Do conference titles matter?
Question No. 2: Was Iowa State's overtime loss at Baylor on Tuesday night -- a 100-91 final that ended in regulation even at 81 before the Bears went off in the extra five -- a big deal?
Finished? Pencils down.
As you've likely deduced, how you answered the first question should anticipate how you answered the second.
Are you unconcerned with conference accolades? Worried only about the NCAA tournament? Then no, Iowa State's missed opportunity in Waco, Texas, wasn't a big deal at all. Who cares, right?
If, on the other hand, you believe that yes, of course regular-season conference titles are important -- and doubly so in the Big 12, where Kansas stands on the precipice of winning its 12th in 12 years -- then the Cyclones' lackluster finish on Tuesday was especially disappointing.
Iowa State arrived in Waco tied with Baylor at 7-5 in Big 12 play. After Saturday, when Kansas walked out of Buddy Hield's house with a win and sole possession of the league lead at 10-3, both the Bears and Cyclones found themselves vanishing in the title chase. Four of the Bears' final five games feature Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas. Iowa State still has road games in Morgantown and Lawrence, though they are offset by home games against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and TCU.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Cyclones were walking in the same building where, just three days ago, Texas Tech left with a 84-66 win. Baylor had gone 1-3 in its past four games in Waco. The atmosphere was among the Big 12's least daunting. Coming away with an 8-5 league mark, two games behind Kansas and one behind West Virginia and Oklahoma, was plausible for Iowa State.
It was even more plausible after 38 minutes and 21 seconds of basketball. The Cyclones led 81-79 at the 1:39 mark, after Abdel Nader's 3-point play gave his team its third narrow lead of the second half. Those were the last baskets coach Steve Prohm's team scored in regulation.
The final 90 seconds were a sloppy mess on both ends, for both teams. Baylor guard Al Freeman committed a casual turnover in semitransition, effectively giving the ball away to Matt Thomas. On the next trip, ISU forward Deonte Burton attempted a twisting 15-foot fadeaway over Johnathan Motley, which was promptly blocked; when Burton got the ball back, he dribbled into no-man's-land on the baseline and tossed the ball to a waiting Lester Medford of Baylor on the wing.
Monte Morris' missed 3 with three seconds remaining was easily Iowa State's best offensive possession of the final 90 seconds; and the shot from the usually reliable crunch-time weapon barely grazed the rim.
The point is, the game was there to be won. For a team that has made its name winning just these kinds of games, both this season and in seasons past, ISU's lack of execution late was startling. Instead of ending the game then and there, a short rotation -- Georges Niang, Nader, Morris and Thomas all played more than 42 minutes on Tuesday -- was forced to scrap for five extra minutes. Baylor scored 19 points in five minutes, and that was that.
This brings us to the real issue that plagues this Iowa State team: defense.
Entering the season, Prohm, a first-year coach, and his players had two stylistic goals in mind: They wanted to keep the good times rolling on offense, where they were the Big 12's most efficient team a season ago; and they wanted to pick things up just a little bit defensively.
After some early signs that ISU was headed toward doing just that, the Cyclones have regressed: They entered Waco as the league's most efficient offense (1.12 points per trip) and its seventh-best defense. On Tuesday, they shot 52 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3 and finished with an average of 1.25 points per possession. That should have been good enough to win -- except, of course, that Baylor scored 1.37.
A year ago, against conference opponents, Iowa State was the league's best offense and eighth-best defense. After Tuesday, it is ... the league's best offense and eighth-best defense. Its chances of winning even of a share of the Big 12 title have drifted indistinguishably close to zero.
Which brings us, again, to the question: Is this a big deal?
If you're the type of fan -- and they do exist! -- who doesn't care about conference titles, to whom all that matters is March, the answer is still yes. Because if Iowa State's defense plays this way in the NCAA tournament, it will have to buck years of postseason precedent to make the Final Four run that has long eluded the team.
If you do care? Congratulations. You belong to the same subset of quiz takers as the Iowa State Cyclones themselves. Rest assured, that team badly wanted to win the Big 12 title. And unless it has one grand comeback still in store, Tuesday's loss was a very big deal indeed.