Big 12's bottom feeders look for strong finishes
It's a little lonely at the bottom of the Big 12.
After all, the conference has as many as seven Big 12 teams in line for NCAA tournament bids, a stellar RPI rating, top players, top coaches, the works. What's not to love?
Well, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa State will likely see their seasons end at next month's league tournament in Kansas City barring an unlikely run to the tourney title. The Buffaloes, Cornhuskers and Cyclones have all fallen out of the limelight and below .500, both overall and in league play.
Now, they face a battle to simply finish with a winning record.
The challenge for the Big 12's bottom feeders is to overcome the disappointment of poor league showings and end the Big 12 season much better than they've started it.
They'll certainly have the opportunity to do so, because the Buffs, Cyclones and Huskers all face each other over the next few weeks.
``We'd like to finish with some momentum, obviously, heading into the Big 12 tournament,'' Iowa State coach Greg McDermott said. ``I'd like to think that we can gain a little momentum and a little confidence by winning a few down the stretch.''
Colorado was expected to struggle this season, having been picked last in the Big 12's preseason coaches' poll. A 12-14 record, a 3-9 mark in the Big 12 and a 20-point loss at No. 1 Kansas on Saturday doesn't exactly scream progress, but things appear to be looking up for the Buffs under third-year coach Jeff Bzdelik.
Colorado is just one victory from matching the four conference wins they had in Bzdelik's first two seasons. The Buffs would be there already had Marcus Relphorde's short jumper at the buzzer dropped in to avoid a 64-63 loss at Iowa State on Jan. 30.
After traveling to face Missouri on Wednesday, the Buffs host Iowa State and play at Nebraska - which looms as their best shot yet to end a conference road losing streak that's reached 35 games.
Despite a losing record, Colorado has one of the league's best backcourts in junior Cory Higgins and stellar freshman Alec Burks. Relphorde, a junior, is averaging 12 points and a team-high 5.5 rebounds in Big 12 play.
The Buffs have just one senior, guard Dwight Thorne II, and could enter 2010-11 with hopes of climbing out of the cellar.
Bzdelik isn't ready to put 2009-10 in the books just yet, though.
``We still have a winning season within our grasp. We're a very young team, and our goal is to get better every time we step out on the court,'' Bzdelik said
Nebraska (13-14, 1-11) just wrapped up a brutal six-game stretch that featured five ranked opponents - including two against No. 6 Kansas State and a date at No. 1 Kansas - and lost them all.
The Huskers can breathe a bit easier with a trip to Iowa State and home games against Texas Tech and Colorado coming up, but they don't intend to.
``The thing that we have to be concerned about is just our basketball team,'' Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. ``No matter who we're playing, we've got to get a taste of winning.''
If it wasn't for bad luck, Iowa State wouldn't have any at all.
Many thought the Cyclones (13-14, 2-10) could emerge as a contender in coach Greg McDermott's fourth season. But season-ending injuries hit guard Charles Boozer and forward Jamie Vanderbeken, and then Lucca Staiger stunned everyone with a midseason departure for a professional deal in his native Germany.
Iowa State is down to eight available scholarship players and has lost nine of 10. Extended minutes have taken their toll on star forwards Marquis Gilstrap and Craig Brackins, who shot a combined 14-of-57 from the floor in home losses to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
The Cyclones keep fighting and their fans keep coming out. Only Kansas and Texas rank higher in average home attendance than Iowa State, which is drawing 12,650 a game to Hilton Coliseum.
``I still think there's a lot of fight in them,'' said Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon, whose Aggies survived a late rally and beat the Cyclones 60-56 on Saturday. ``To have 13,000 people there for Texas A&M, which really isn't a rivalry game for them ... I thought speaks volumes for their fans and that everybody still believes that Iowa State cannot only get it going maybe at the end of this year but in the future.''