Just three days after escalating to the first-place solo possession in the Big 12, No. 5 Kansas State’s run as the lone team atop the league in the nation’s cutthroat conference came to an end as the Wildcats fell 80-76 in the number 12 Iowa State. Jaren Holmes led the Cyclones with 23 points, including a pair of free throws in the closing seconds that helped cement the scoreline.
With the win, Iowa State (15-4, 6-2 Big 12) moved up to a three-way tie for first place in the Big 12 along with K-State and Texas after the Longhorns faced Oklahoma State at home Tuesday. Four players scored in double figures for the Cyclones, who went undefeated at home and swept the bad taste of a 16-point lead blown by Saturday’s loss to Oklahoma State.
Kansas State also had four players in double figures, but the Wildcats struggled defensively in the second half as Iowa State shot 62.5% from the floor in the final half and made 15 of 19 free throws. The Wildcats (17-3, 6-2) got 23 points from point guard Markquis Nowell, including 18 in the second half, but simply couldn’t find enough stops.
K-State will abandon the #1 seed line. 1 expected in the NCAA Tournament field predicted by CBS sports bracket expert Jerry Palm due to the loss. The Wildcats remain one of the best stories in college basketball after being picked to finish last in the Big 12 under first-year head coach Jerome Tang, but Tuesday was a reminder of how tough life is in the Big 12 this season.
The arrival of Iowa State
The win marks Iowa State’s first victory over a top-five opponent since the 2015-16 season, when the Cyclones beat #1 Oklahoma and #4 Kansas in back-to-back weeks. Current head coach TJ Otzelberger was an assistant on that team, which rose as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll and reached the Sweet 16 as the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Those highs seemed far off in the 2020-21 season as the Cyclones battled to a 2-22 (0-18) record. But then the ISU hired Otzelberger away from UNLV and his fortunes changed immediately. The Cyclones finished 22-13 last season in their first year under Otzelberger and reached the Sweet 16 on the heels of the worst season in program history. The 2022-23 squad is proving that last season was no fluke.
In fact, this Iowa State team looks even better than last season’s team, despite losing leading scorer Izaiah Brockington to graduation and second leading scorer Tyrese Hunter, who moved to Texas. The Cyclones are now 6-4 in Quad 1 play and are a combined 2-0 against Kansas State and Texas with which they share first place in the conference.
Kansas state fatigue
Tuesday night’s action simply reinforced how brutal the Big 12 is this season. Not far behind the trio of 6-2 teams are perennial powerhouses Baylor and Kansas at 5-3. Also at 5-3 is No. 11 TCU. All six teams in the 6-2 and 5-3 bracket appear to have a legitimate shot at winning the conference. The league’s bottom four of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas Tech are also in the top 75 in the NET rankings.
The Big 12 is a grind, but the good thing for the Wildcats is that Tang is no stranger to this reality. After 19 seasons as an assistant at Baylor, Tang knows the Big 12 better than anyone. Coming off its team’s first Big 12 loss at TCU on January 14, K-State rebounded to win against Kansas in its next outing.
There are plenty of defensive issues facing the Wildcats from Tuesday’s game film, but there’s no reason to worry due to the Iowa State loss. The Hilton Coliseum is a notoriously tough place for opponents, and K-State performed well enough offensively in that environment to win. Ultimately, the Wildcats’ defense is what let the team down.