Thursday night’s quarterfinal battle between Oklahoma and Iowa State was just the latest in a long line of highly competitive contests between the two schools, as the Cyclones and Sooners have consistently delivered thrilling, high-scoring contests over the last three seasons. In three meetings this season, the two teams combined to score over 150 points each time, with an aggregate margin of victory amounting to only 12 points. Thursday’s quarterfinal, a three-point win for the Sooners, was an individual showcase of two the Big 12’s best players. For 40 back-and-forth minutes, Iowa State’s Georges Niang (31 points) and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield (39 points) threw haymakers; culminating in a dual postgame interview with ESPN‘s Holly Rowe in which both players called the performance “special.” And yet, as special as those individual performances were, last night’s contest revealed continued concerns about how deep either team’s March can go.
Hield’s night was certainly spectacular. The senior guard poured in 39 points on 21 shots and grabbed nine rebounds. He only made two of his six three-point attempts, instead dazzling within the arc, knocking down fadeaways and catching alley-oops. Hield, though, has never been the Sooners’ problem. The concern for Lon Kruger’s squad looking ahead is whether he will get sufficient help. On Thursday, the rest of the Oklahoma team combined to shoot 14-of-42 (33.3 %) from the field. Hield’s backcourt mates (and the Sooners’ second and third leading scorers), Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard, made a meager 5-of-19 attempts. After delivering highly efficient performances for the first three months of the season, the duo has struggled with consistency down the stretch. In games since the beginning of February, they have each shot better than 50 percent from the field just once. During that stretch, Oklahoma has gone 7-4. For the Sooners to make a deep run this month, Buddy needs some help from his backcourt buddies.
For Iowa State, the concern is a physical one. Point guard Monte’ Morris suffered a strained rotator cuff in the Cyclones’ loss to Kansas last Saturday and the injury kept him out of practice leading up to the Big 12 Tournament. It also caused him to compare his jump shot unfavorably to none other than Dwight Howard. Morris admitted that he was in pain during Thursday’s loss to the Sooners, finishing a miserable 1-of-9 from the field and delivering a season-low two assists. A full recovery will likely take two to six weeks, but perhaps an early elimination could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for an Iowa State team that lacks a backup point guard. Morris will now be able to rest his shoulder for a full week leading into the NCAA Tournament, which should help the Cyclones get one of the nation’s best point guards back to better strength.
Last night’s game between Oklahoma and Iowa State was as exhilarating a matchup as you’ll find in the quarterfinals of a major conference tournament, but it also revealed some concerns about each team going forward. Sure, Buddy Hield and Georges Niang can deliver outstanding performances on a nightly basis, but it will be the successes or failures of their teammates that determines how far they can go this March.