Celebrating The Big 12 Top Performances and Most Improved Player

Posted by Brian Goodman on March 11th, 2014

Yesterday, we went around the Big 12 and named an All-Conference First team and tabbed our Player Of The Year and Coach Of The Year selections. Today, we’ll narrow our focus to the best individual game of the conference season, both by team performance and by individual player performance, but we’ll also take a moment to recognize the league’s most improved player. For a nice cherry on top, we’ll also honor the single enduring play of the 2013-14 season.

Game Of The Year

Iowa State 98, Oklahoma State 97 (3OT), February 3 at Gallagher-Iba Arena

With such little difference in quality between the second-place team and the eighth-best team, we were treated to intense, close games on a regular basis. Big 12 microsite contributor Taylor Erickson (tc_erickson) breaks down why he went with this thriller.

TE: In a year where arguably the most difficult conference in all of college basketball provided a handful of memorable contests, none was more compelling than the triple-overtime thriller that took place in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in early February between Iowa State and Oklahoma State. This one was back-and-forth for most of the night, and looked for a brief moment that it would end in double-overtime with an Oklahoma State victory before a DeAndre Kane rebound and kick-out to Naz Long led to a game-tying three-pointer with 1.4 seconds left. In the third overtime, Marcus Smart missed a fadeaway jumper in the final seconds that could have pushed the Cowboys in front, but instead saw the visiting Cyclones celebrate with a win in Gallagher Iba Area for the first time since 1988. The individual performances were equally as impressive as the game itself with Kane finishing just one assist shy of a triple double with 26 points, ten rebounds, and nine assists. Iowa State’s big three of Kane, Melvin Ejim, and Georges Niang combined to score 65 points in the winning effort. Oklahoma State was lead by the trio of Smart, Markel Brown, and Le’Bryan Nash who also dropped in 65 points. This setback for Travis Ford and company was the third straight loss in a streak that eventually stretched to seven games, and took place five days before the infamous Marcus Smart shoving incident at Texas Tech. And as if this wasn’t all enough, when these two teams hooked up again this past weekend in Ames, Iowa, they left us one hell of an encore that featured another Naz Long three-pointer as time expired to send the game to overtime. This conference has delivered so many awesome performances this season, and you can bet we’re likely to see more of the same later this week at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.

Individual Performance Of The Year

Melvin Ejim drops a bomb on the Horned Frogs

While Andrew Wiggins‘ 41-point outburst is still fresh in our minds, Kory Carpenter (@Kory_Carpenter) went in a different direction, and it’s hard to argue with his selection. As much talent as the Big 12 boasted this year (and the league will agree, seeing as they named five all-conference teams and a staggering ten honorable mentions), there’s not much debate for this category.

Melvin Ejim was fired up in more ways than one after setting a new Big 12 single-game scoring mark. (Justin Hayworth/AP)

Melvin Ejim was fired up in more ways than one after setting a new Big 12 single-game scoring mark. (Justin Hayworth/AP)

KC: When you break the conference single-game scoring record, you deserve the Game of the Year award, even if it did come against Big 12 bottom-feeder TCU. Iowa State senior forward Melvin Ejim dropped 48 points on the Horned Frogs back on February 8 in an 84-69 Cyclone victory. Oh, and he added 18 rebounds for good measure. He shot 83.3% from the field (20-of-24, which was another conference record for made field goals) and was perfect from three-point range (3-of-3) and the free-throw line (6-of-6). It was as close to a perfect game we would see in the Big 12 all season. “All the great players that have gone through this league and Melvin Ejim’s name is at the top,” head coach Fred Hoiberg told ESPN after the game. “That’s unbelievable for a guy that maybe doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves.” Ejim would go on to receive plenty of credit, as he was named the Big 12 Player of the Year by the league’s coaches and media alike. Ejim finished the regular season averaging 18.2 points per game and 8.6 rebounds per game, which was boosted by this early February game in Ames. Ejim didn’t seem like a player capable of going off for 48 points in a single game. He had consistently reached the 20-point mark early in the season, but had not scored more than 23 all season. Perhaps more remarkable than his 20-of-24 shooting were the 20 straight Iowa State points he scored in the second half. After scoring more points in a conference game than everyone from Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley to Jamaal Tinsley and Drew Gooden, Ejim could have told reporters he owns the Big 12 now and walked out of the room. Unfortunately he didn’t, deciding to praise his teammates instead. “They made really selfless plays,” he said. “We were just giving up the ball and luckily, I was on the receiving end.” But when you become the first Division I or NBA player to score 48 points and grab 18 rebounds since Shaq in 2003, it was more than being on the receiving end of selfless teammates. It was dominance.

Most Improved Player

Cameron Ridley, Texas

Cameron Ridley could have abandoned ship like many of his 2012-13 teammates. Instead, he stuck it out, and as a result, he's going dancing. (Getty)

Cameron Ridley could have abandoned ship like many of his 2012-13 teammates. Instead, he stuck it out, and as a result, he’s going dancing. (Getty)

Brian Goodman: Earlier this season, Eric Prisbell of USA Today wrote a very interesting feature story on Texas’ path to resurgence. In it, he chronicled the poor chemistry and different directions in which the Longhorns were pulled, the inordinate amount of time spent by Rick Barnes on things that took away from what he wanted to do as a coach, and how many players appeared to pack it in early as the losses piled up. While Ridley wasn’t one of the team’s four leading scorers to bolt prematurely last season, he admitted that the team’s confidence was shot, and the poor attitudes exhibited by a few seemed to be contagious. This season, however, Ridley has epitomized Texas’ improvement. He worked on his conditioning and as a result, tripled his scoring output, bumping his numbers from a measly 4.1 points per game last season to 12.1 per game in a productive 25.4 minutes per contest. He also transformed from a miserable free throw shooter (33.3 percent from the line in 2012-13) to a much more serviceable one (62 percent in 2013-14). Throw in his eight rebounds and 2.2 blocks per contest and what you have now is one of the league’s top rim protectors and probably the best one as long as Joel Embiid is tending to his back injury. He isn’t the only one who took a big leap in 2014; Le’Bryan Nash, Perry Ellis, Eron Harris and Ridley’s teammate Jonathan Holmes each made strides, but it’s tough to imagine where the Longhorns – and Rick Barnes – would be without their prized big man.

Play Of The Year

Nate Kotisso: One advantage of covering the Big 12 is that great players make great plays seemingly every night. The problem is having to choose one of them as “Big 12 Play of the Year” while ignoring a slew of others worthy of recognition. A YouTube search of “#sctop10″ pulls up plays like Ricardo Gathers’ steal and coast-to-coast jam, Frank Mason breaking Gary Browne’s ankles on the fast break or Markel Brown’s 360 dunk against the Mountaineers. Now I am a big player-dunking-on-player guy. It’s arguably the most exciting play at not only the professional but at the college basketball level as well. Our “Big 12 Play of the Year” goes to Kansas State’s Marcus Foster whose flush over Gonzaga’s David Stockton had the internet going nuts back in December.

*Honorable Mention: Had the play counted, West Virginia’s Juwan Staten would have won “Big 12 Play of the Year” because, well do I have to explain myself?

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