Iowa St.-Oklahoma Preview
Oklahoma may have the Big 12's best player, but no team has been more dominant in the conference tournament of late than the Sooners' first opponent.
As Buddy Hield begins his final chance to add a league title to his growing list of achievements, 21st-ranked Iowa State starts its quest for a third consecutive championship in Thursday's quarterfinal matchup with the No. 6 Sooners.
Though Kansas remains the Big 12's giant in regular-season play, Iowa State (21-10) has reigned as the kings of Kansas City the past two years. After ousting the Jayhawks in the semifinals en route to winning the 2014 event as a No. 4 seed, the Cyclones defended the crown last year as a No. 2 seed by beating ranked Oklahoma and Kansas teams in the final two rounds.
Iowa State faces a potentially tougher road to the championship this time as the sixth seed, with the chance it would need to beat three teams ranked among the Top 10 nationally. No team seeded lower than fourth has won the tournament in its 19-year existence.
"We want to definitely leave our mark," junior point guard Monte Morris said. "If we can do this (again), it'd be special to a lot of people for many different ways."
That also gives the Cyclones something to prove after a so-so regular season in which they lost six of their final 11 games. They struggled to stop the No. 1 Jayhawks in Saturday's 85-78 road loss, allowing 48 second-half points on 58.1 percent shooting.
Iowa State is bidding to join Kansas (1997-99, 2006-08) and Oklahoma (2001-03) as the only schools to win three straight Big 12 tournaments.
The stakes may be even higher for the third-seeded Sooners (24-6), as running the table could land the Sooners a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. They've won two straight and four of five following consecutive losses to Kansas and Texas Tech in mid-February.
"Our confidence heading into the postseason is high," Hield told the Sooners' official website. "Each game, we have to be prepared to go out and fight for each other. It's win or go home, so we have to have the mentality of refusing to lose."
Motivation won't be an issue Thursday. Not only did the Cyclones ruin Oklahoma's first game as the nation's No. 1 team in 25 years with an 82-77 win Jan. 18, but they dashed the Sooners' title hopes with a 67-65 victory in last year's semis.
Hield was held to 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting, including 2 of 13 from 3-point range, in that tournament loss.
Such off nights have been few and far between during Hield's magnificent senior campaign. The star guard leads the nation in 3-pointers per game (4.1) and ranks second in scoring (25.1 points per game), claiming Big 12 Player of the Year honors and emerging as the front-runner for the major national awards.
With Hield leading the way, the Sooners entered the conference tournament ranked second nationally in 3-point accuracy (43 percent) and fourth in 3-pointers per game (10.6). They're 14-1 when scoring at least 80 points, while the Cyclones are 0-9 when yielding that many.
Those records include Oklahoma's 87-83 home win over Iowa State on Jan. 2, when Hield had 22 points while teammate Ryan Spangler added 20 with 12 rebounds. Spangler, though, had two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the Jan. 18 rematch as Hield had 27.
Georges Niang, Morris and Abdul Nader all had at least 20 for the Cyclones in that win.
Niang, the 2015 Big Tournament most valuable player, is averaging 20.7 points on 60.8 percent shooting over his last seven.
Morris went 4 of 15 from the field over the last two games and injured his shoulder against Kansas, though he's expected to play.