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November 20, 2013

Breakdown: Big 12 surges with big wins

It's our weekly look at Big 12 basketball from the play-by-play voice of the Red Raiders, Brian Hanni.

PRIME PERFORMER: Marcus Smart put on a clinic Tuesday night in Oklahoma State's 101-80 blowout of No. 11 Memphis in Stillwater. Smart had 24 points in his first nine minutes on the floor -- he finished with career-high 39 points, five steals, four assists and four rebounds. Smart had been averaging 13.7 points per game this season against a softer slate in the first two weeks before erupting on national TV versus a fringe top-10 team.

For all the talk about the fabulous freshman class in college hoops this year, Smart is one super sophomore that deserves every bit as much ink and air time as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker. He may not be drafted ahead of them when it's all said and done, but he's in a similar class -- just ask Kevin Durant who was on hand for Tuesday's game at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Had Smart not gone-off on Josh Pastner's Tigers, this honor would have gone to Iowa State's Melvin Ejim, who posted a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds in a 77-70 upset of No. 7 Michigan in Ames. It was Ejim's first game back coming off a hyper-extended knee.

RISING ROOKIE: Joel Embiid has the measurables scouts drool over and a ridiculous amount of untapped potential given that he's only been playing the game since he was 16. The seven-footer grew up as a volleyball star in his native Cameroon, now he's a projected lottery pick just three games into his college career. The Kansas center had his father in the stands on Tuesday night and put on a show for dad's first ever chance to a see an organized basketball game. Embiid helped the Jayhawks beat Iona 86-66 with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Don't expect those numbers every night, but Embiid is honing his skills under a coach known for developing NBA bigs, and how he blossoms under Bill Self this year will certainly be one of more intriguing storylines in the league.

Baylor JUCO guard Kenny Cherry deserves some mention as well after pouring in 20 points to help lead Baylor to an 87-68 win over Louisiana-Lafayette Sunday. The Montreal native who used to go by Kenny-Fred Cherry is now averaging over 14 per game in helping fill the void left by departed senior Pierre Jackson.

STOCK REPORT: A week ago, Big 12 co-favorite Kansas already had a top-five win over Duke while fellow favorite, Oklahoma State, was blasting cream puffs from Little Debbie U. Fast forward a week, and the Cowboys passed Tuesday's test with flying colors, routing No. 11 Memphis by 21 with Marcus Smart looking like the Wooden Award front-runner in a year in which college hoops is long on MVP options.

The Cowboys looked every bit the part of the nation's No. 7 ranked team and did so without the services of its top scorer over the first three games, Phil Forte, who barely played after fighting an illness throughout the day. Forte had been averaging 21 a game. Markel Brown poured in 20 proving he's a more than capable Robin to Smart's Batman.

As previous mentioned, Ejim's well-timed return from a preseason knee injury gave Iowa State just the lift it needed to upset Michigan. ISU held preseason All-American Mitch McGary to nine points and six boards. The win vaulted the Big 12's preseason fourth place team into the national rankings for the first time this year at No. 21 in the AP Poll.

Texas Tech lost by 12 at Alabama last Thursday, but since then the conference has gone 11-0 -- including a quality win by the Red Raiders over Texas Southern. That 11-game winning streak from the league including two top-25 wins, three wins over projected NCAA tournament teams and TCU's first win (71-64 over Abilene Christian on Tuesday), so it's been a good week for the league with no notable fallers.

MUST SEE TV: If all goes according to plan, No. 20 Baylor and No. 13 Gonzaga should meet up next Tuesday in the semifinal round of the Maui Invitational. The winner could wind up playing No. 9 Syracuse the following night. Monday's slate of Texas vs. BYU in the CBE (Kansas City) and Texas Tech vs. Pitt in the Progressive Legends Classic (Brooklyn) should make for some interesting hoops action as well.

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