The Big 12 Tournament often brings out the best in star players. Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant, DeMarre Carroll and Iowa State guard Monte Morris last season have been tourney MVPs, building up a collection of excellence over three games.
But the early games in the tournament can provide a spotlight for a supporting or role players. So it was Thursday in the afternoon session at the Sprint Center.
Largely thanks to the efforts of Kansas guard Malik Newman and Kansas State front-liner Makol Mawien, one of Friday’s semifinal games is a Sunflower Showdown as the Jayhawks put away Oklahoma State 82-68 and the Wildcats survived TCU 68-66 in overtime.
Newman’s scoring frenzy, a career-best 30 points, solved the biggest puzzle of the Jayhawks’ season as they finally overcame an Oklahoma State squad that had slapped them twice this season.
With the Pokes looking for the trifecta, opening a 10-point lead in the first half, Newman led the counterattack with three-pointers on successive possessions.
For the first time all season against the Cowboys, Kansas played with sustained grit and toughness, not to mention a lead. KU was getting it done in the middle with Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa combing to produce the output of Udoka Azubuike, out for the tournament because of a knee injury.
Big 12 player of the year Devonté Graham was his usual steady self, and Svi Mykhailiuk swished threes.
But Newman was the energy source.
“Coach has been emphasizing that guards win games in the postseason,” Newman said. “Once I saw my first couple shots going in my confidence grew.”
Newman has always possessed scoring capability. He was a national top 10 recruit who signed with Mississippi State and delivered a nice but unsatisfying freshman season in Starkville. With Graham as the team’s veteran leader, Newman wasn’t going to be cast as the main man for these Jayhawks. But he was precisely what KU needed someone to be Thursday. Newman had 20 at halftime and every point was required for Kansas to take a 43-42 lead.
“We’ve got guys capable, but we haven’t had anybody do that recently,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Malik putting us on his back was huge.”
And now not an option.
“Going forward, without Doke, we’re going to have some perimeter players play great, maybe two, to give us the best chance,” Self said.
Kansas State also felt like it added a weapon. For the first time since their first Big 12 victory, someone besides Dean Wade or Barry Brown led the Wildcats in scoring against a conference opponent.
Wade and Brown had their moments Thursday — Brown’s driving bucket was the game-winner in a 66-64 triumph — but the 6-9 Mawien was the Wildcats’ best player with 16 points, nine rebounds and several clutch plays. This from a player who brought into the game averages of 5.4 points and 2.9 rebounds in 17 minutes.
Then there was this nugget of a trend that Brown dropped after the game.
“Last game I found out that when Mak is 10 or plus points that we are undefeated,” Brown said.
Yes, 8-0, including victories at Texas and Baylor.
The Wildcats struggled to find offense against the Horned Frogs but they returned the favor, holding down TCU’s Vlad Brodziansky.
This sets up round three between the Jayhawks and Wildcats, and just as KU avoided a sweep at the hands of the Pokes, K-State seeks to sidestep a season shutout.
Kansas State was better in Lawrence than in Manhattan, but the Wildcats have never been good in the Big 12 event, losing all nine matchups with KU.
Newman and Mawien will attract defensive attention for their efforts on Thursday, but the stage of the tournament when the stars step forward has arrived. Big games from Graham, Mykhailiuk, Wade or Brown wouldn’t surprise.