Thursday February 11th, 2016

A Texas Tech fan dressed as a Nacho Libre look-a-like stormed the court, followed by another student holding a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles big head. Fans kept coming and the party had just begun.

It took an overtime period, a missed goaltending call and a 30-foot prayer of a three-pointer that was answered with a friendly bank off the glass as the shot clock expired, but Texas Tech defeated No. 14 Iowa State in Lubbock, 85–82, for the second year in a row. Playing without starting forward Jameel McKay for the second consecutive game due to an indefinite suspension, the Cyclones suffered their third loss in their past four games and seventh total.

While Texas Tech is perhaps better than its record, Wednesday night’s loss to the Red Raiders was Iowa State’s second worst of the season, statistically speaking, behind its December loss against Northern Iowa.

Without McKay, the Cyclones’ already-short bench got shorter and their margin for error was as thin as their rotation. Coach Steve Prohm’s dream of a steady seven-man rotation this season has recently dwindled as he has had to endure the season-ending injury of senior guard Naz Mitrou-Long and McKay’s suspension.

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In McKay’s absence, Deonte Burton, a versatile, 6'4" junior, was promoted from his sixth-man role to a spot in the starting lineup. However, the suspension of the 6'9" McKay forced Iowa State to play without its tallest rotation player and any proven contributors off the bench. Junior guard Jordan Ashton played the bulk of Iowa State’s bench minutes (28 of 36, with Simeon Carter and Hallice Cooke playing four minutes apiece) but he racked up more fouls (four) than points (three).

Starting forward Abdel Nader fouled out against Texas Tech, while Burton and Georges Niang were whistled for four fouls apiece, forcing Prohm to protect Niang on defense in overtime. Four starters scored in double figures, including three with at least 18 points, but the bench added just eight, a microcosm of Iowa State’s potent but shallow roster.

Luckily for Iowa State, frontcourt depth is on the way. Prohm told reporters he expects McKay to play on Saturday “if everything works out this week.”

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The Cyclones and their fans have experienced the full gamut of emotions this season. They’ve enjoyed the highs of a 9–0 start, a trio of wins that rank among the best in the sport (over Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas) and climbing as high as No. 4 in the AP poll. But they’ve also experienced nadirs, including the loss of Long, McKay’s suspension and a handful of narrow losses.

Three of their losses were one-possession games and three others were decided by two possessions. Iowa State was this close in each, but close doesn’t cut it in the formidable Big 12.

With six of the Big 12’s 10 teams ranked in the top 25, there’s virtually nowhere to hide in conference play, but at the same time, the conference slate provides nearly weekly opportunities for resume-boosting wins.

Mark Rogers/AP

Every team in the conference has 11 Big 12 games under its belt. Oklahoma, Kansas and West Virginia sit atop the conference standings, Baylor and Texas are a game back and then Iowa State sits in sole possession of sixth place, two games behind the leaders.

The Cyclones recently weathered as tough a five-game stretch in college basketball in recent memory—four games against top-15 opponents, including three in the top five—with wins over Oklahoma and Kansas, but they’ve since dropped games against Texas A&M, West Virginia and now Texas Tech. Road games at Baylor, West Virginia and Kansas lie ahead, balanced by home tests against Texas, TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

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​Iowa State is a .500 team this calendar year and the road ahead is split between home bouts against some of the conference’s worst teams and road games against some of the best competition the Big 12 has to offer.

No one in the conference, let alone the country, is immune from an upset or heart-breaking loss. This season is as wide-open as any and there might not be a conference that produces more battled-tested teams than the Big 12 come March.

The Cyclones’ limited depth can clip the wings of a team with dreams of playing in Houston in April, but a full Iowa State team has proven it can beat anyone in the country.

“This loss isn’t going to define us,” Iowa State point guard Monte Morris told reporters after Wednesday’s loss. “We can still make a run in March.”

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