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February 3, 2009
He's a Big 12 sophomore forward playing as well as just about anyone in the nation. And his name isn't Blake Griffin.
Iowa State's Craig Brackins lacks the Oklahoma forward's name recognition and probably will be stuck on campus when Griffin gets his NCAA tournament showcase. But Brackins has put up the kind of numbers that demand attention.
Brackins, who is 6 feet 10, has averaged 22.7 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game in Big 12 competition to rank second to Griffin in both categories. Barely a week ago, he scored 42 points against defending national champion Kansas.
"I've been doing this for a while, and I don't think anybody has ever had a game like that against us," Jayhawks coach Bill Self said afterward.
While Brackins has emerged as one of the nation's most improved players this season, his team hasn't made the same strides. Iowa State (12-9, 1-5) heads into Tuesday's game at Kansas State in a three-way tie with Texas Tech and Colorado at the bottom of the Big 12.
The Kansas game underscored the dilemma Brackins faces every time he steps on the floor. On a day when Brackins achieved the fifth-highest single-game scoring total in Big 12 history, none of his teammates scored more than eight points.
No wonder Brackins didn't celebrate his big performance. Who's in any mood to hold a party after a 15-point home loss?
"My reaction was just like any other loss," Brackins said. "We have to figure out what went wrong and correct that. It felt like any other game. It hurt because I felt we should have won the game, and we lost it."
The Kansas game highlighted a recent stretch in which Brackins has made the leap from solid performer to All-America candidate. Brackins ranks 35th in the nation in scoring (19.5 points per game) and 36th in rebounding (9.1 boards per game), but those numbers don't accurately measure his recent dominance.
Seven times this season, Brackins has collected at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in the same game. Brackins has averaged 22.5 points and 11.6 rebounds over his past seven contests. That stretch includes his 42-point, 14-rebound effort against Kansas and a 20-point, 13-rebound outing against Texas.
Brackins had 19 points and 10 rebounds Saturday in a 78-68 loss to Oklahoma, while Griffin delivered 23 points and 15 boards. Then again, Griffin has quite a bit more help.
Over his past three games, Brackins has scored 46.2 percent of his team's points.
"He's an impossible matchup," Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. "He's athletic. He scores in transition. He scores on the low block. He scores from the 3-point line. He rebounds the basketball. He's got good hands. He passes the ball. He's a nightmare of a matchup."
While he still may rank below Griffin on the pecking order of top Big 12 players, Brackins undoubtedly has come a long way in the past year. Brackins, a former five-star recruit, averaged 11.4 points and 5.0 rebounds as a freshman, but he scored in double figures just once during a seven-game stretch late in the season.
Brackins said he learned his lesson from his freshman experience.
"I don't let a bad game get to me like I did last year," Brackins said. "If I had a bad game last year, it would normally last a few games. This year, I can shake things off."
Brackins' performance backs up his statement. His only poor showing during his recent seven-game stretch came when he collected 10 points and seven rebounds while shooting 4-for-11 in a 77-46 loss at Missouri. He followed that up with his huge effort against Kansas.
His improved rebounding has been a recent development. Brackins didn't have more than seven rebounds in any of Iowa State's first five games this season.
"I sat down with my coaches and watched film of games in which I had a low rebounding [total]," Brackins said. "I'd have a good block-out, but I didn't go get the ball. Now I'm doing more to go get the ball. I'm not going to let anything get in my way. I'm going to go get it no matter what."
Brackins' comfort level with his coaches helps explain why he made the unusual decision to sign with Iowa State after attending school on each of the two coasts.
While growing up in Palmdale, Calif., Brackins played on an AAU team coached by T.J. Otzelberger, now an assistant at Iowa State. Brackins' familiarity with Otzelberger initially sparked his interest in Iowa State as he blossomed into an elite prospect at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. Brackins, rated as the No. 20 prospect in the 2007 recruiting class, eventually chose the Cyclones over Pittsburgh, Illinois and Clemson.
"I started talking to the coaching staff and I felt more comfortable with them," Brackins said. "I liked the atmosphere, and the fans here are just crazy. I felt it was a good fit."
Brackins has turned into a perfect fit for Iowa State, even if it's not yet evident from the Cyclones' record. Brackins' ability to score in different ways has proved vital for a team that doesn't have any other players averaging more than 10 points per game.
He is averaging 6.4 free throws per game, but he also has the ability to score from the perimeter.
"His versatility is what makes him special," Iowa State coach Greg McDermott said. "We've obviously used him more on the block than we did a year ago, and he's effective scoring down there. But he's making 3-point shots and has an in-between game most guys at 6-10 don't have. When he's making those perimeter jump shots, he's very difficult to stop."
The only question remaining about Brackins is how long he will remain at Iowa State. Brackins' sudden emergence has led to speculation that he might launch a pro career after his sophomore season. He downplays talk about his future and said he is devoting all his attention to helping Iowa State turn things around.
"It's frustrating, whether you do well or not, when your team doesn't win," Brackins said. "Every player wants to win. It gets frustrating."
It's almost as frustrating as trying to stop Brackins.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.