- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Craig Brackins had put up monster numbers early last season.
The Iowa State forward lit up Northern Iowa on the road for 32 points and 16 boards. He scored 28 points and grabbed 17 boards against Jacksonville State and added another 38 points and 14 boards at Houston.
But none of it had as much meaning as the 42 points and 14 boards he put up against Kansas. Even if they came in a 15-point loss to the eventual Big 12 champs. Overnight, Brackins went from a talented but overlooked player on a bottom-dwelling Big 12 team -- considered more a project than a legitimate pro prospect -- to a first-round lock whose name became instantly known to NBA talent evaluators and agents alike.
"If I had never had that Kansas game, I wouldn't be in this situation," Brackins said during the U.S. team's three-day trial for the World University Games. "That changed my life. It was crazy. I realized I was on another level. It made me change to not be as humble and to realize that this is real and to open your eyes."
Upset over the loss and trying to escape the newfound attention, Brackins left Ames, Iowa, after the game, and visited some friends at an NAIA school in Northern California.
"It came out of nowhere for him," Iowa State coach Greg McDermott said in a phone interview. "Any time you play a conference school that knows your personnel and knows you and yet an individual can't be stopped that day, then that raises everyone's eyebrows. Craig had taken his game to another level."
Brackins was 11-of-19 from the field and 17-of-21 at the free throw line and made 3 of 5 3s against the Jayhawks. Not bad for a 6-foot-10 forward from Palmdale, Calif., who wasn't expected to be an NBA-ready talent after only two years of college basketball.
"It was Kansas, it was on a national stage and it was against [Kansas center] Cole Aldrich and whoever else tried to guard him," McDermott said of the 82-67 loss to Kansas in Ames on Jan. 24. "He had the game of his life, yet he didn't want to talk about it because we didn't win."
Representatives of agents, or runners, became aware of Brackins after the Kansas game. He was the next big thing, the player who could be convinced to bolt because he had a major game against a big-time team in a high-profile conference, regardless of Iowa State's floundering record.
"I'd see the same faces on the road," Brackins said. "I didn't know who they were. They just coming up to me and telling me, 'Hey, Craig, let me talk to you for a minute.' If I didn't know them, I kept walking. I thought my phone was going to blow up. It's a good thing I didn't have Facebook."
Despite the onslaught of attention, and as much as Brackins tried to dismiss his newfound fame, he was ready to embrace a decision to leave Iowa State after two seasons and no postseason appearances.
"I thought he was gone after spring break," McDermott said. "I knew he was going to declare for the NBA draft. But his mother is a strong woman. She and Craig talked and made a commitment to each other [for him to return]."
Brackins made the mature decision. He didn't listen to the runners. He didn't think about the potential dollars of being a first-round pick. He solicited the advice of former Iowa State guard Mike Taylor, who was asked to leave the Cyclones program two years earlier. Taylor went to the Developmental League and made it to the NBA a year ago as a second-round pick of the Los Angeles Clippers.
I knew I could go back and polish my game. And then I felt like we had some good players coming back. I'm going to do everything in my power to not let this team be bad.
-- Craig Brackins
"I looked at what he was going through and kept hearing about the business aspect of the NBA and how you had to watch out for people," Brackins said. "I wasn't ready for that. I kept hearing about all the money aspect with him and his agent and how much of a headache it is. I thought he'd be focusing on basketball, but he's focused more on the business."
Brackins said as soon as the season ended (the Cyclones finished 15-17, 4-12 Big 12), he was gone. But the talk with Taylor and his mother, Jane, got it back to a 50-50 decision, and eventually he made the choice to stay in Ames.
"I knew I could go back and polish my game," Brackins said. "And then I felt like we had some good players coming back. I'm going to do everything in my power to not let this team be bad."
"I wouldn't have guessed [he would have been in this position] after averaging 11 points and five rebounds as a freshman," McDermott said. "Four games into the season he was averaging less than four rebounds a game. Craig and I talked about how he had a chance to be a dominant rebounder and average double figures."
Brackins finished averaging 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds a game.
"Over the course of three weeks after the season he went from almost certainty that he was going to deciding to stay for all the right reasons," McDermott said.
Brackins' decision is much more unique than the ones made by Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu or Oklahoma's Willie Warren. Those two were returning to programs that had been in the NCAA tournament. Iowa State wasn't close. And the chances in a league with potential Final Four teams Kansas and Texas and likely NCAA teams in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State at the very least make it even more difficult to have hope.
But he does.
That's why he was at the World University Games trials in Colorado Springs two weeks ago, trying to sharpen his post-up skills as well as become a much sharper 3-point shooter (28.4 percent last season). Brackins made the team but hasn't started in any of the three exhibition games so far in Serbia. He hasn't shot the ball well, going 2-for-7 in the three exhibition games before the tournament begins Thursday.
Brackins' decision has even more ramifications than simply his own career. He might have saved McDermott's, too. Had he left, the Cyclones would have lost their top scorer for the fourth straight season.
Will Blalock and Curtis Stinson bolted for the NBA before McDermott's first season in 2006. McDermott cut Taylor loose in June of his second season. A year ago, top scorer Wesley Johnson decided to leave McDermott in June for Syracuse, where he's expected to be the Orange's top scorer for Jim Boeheim in the fall.
"We needed good luck," said McDermott, who hasn't had a .500 record in the Big 12 or overall in his three seasons, let alone a winning mark.
But according to McDermott and Brackins, the addition of JC transfers 6-6 Marquis Gilstrap (Gulf Coast CC, Fla.) and 6-10 center LaRon Dendy (Indian Hills CC, Iowa) and incoming 6-3 freshman guard Chris Colvin (Whitney Young High, Ill.) and 6-5 Antwon Oliver (William Horlick High, Wis.) has changed the athleticism on the team.
"We hung with teams like Kansas and Texas, but we let it slip away," Brackins said. "It would come down to matchups, and we couldn't guard those people. But with Marquis and Chris we can."
"We were competitive for 25 to 30 minutes in most games a year ago," McDermott said. "Then people got the best of us with their athletes. We've addressed that in recruiting. Craig returning can help us move this program back to where it belongs. I think he can develop better at Iowa State rather than sitting on a bench in the NBA."
Had Brackins left, the reality is the Cyclones would be picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12. Now they have a chance to climb.
McDermott upgraded the schedule to showcase Brackins. Iowa State goes to Pac-10 favorite Cal in the Pac-10-Big 12 Hardwood Challenge, and will play Duke at the United Center in Chicago in a second trip to the area. Iowa State is also in a tournament outside the city with Saint Louis and then either Notre Dame or Northwestern in the second game. Iowa State will host Houston, Bradley, Northern Iowa and Iowa. The one true road game in nonconference play is at nearby Drake.
"We've got to make a move," McDermott said. "It's hard to play catch-up in our league since it's so good. Losing our best player every year has prevented continuity. Now I feel like with seven players returning and the guys coming in we finally will have continuity to move this program forward."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Iowa State forward Craig Brackins went from an unknown quantity to a possible lottery pick with a big performance against Kansas. But he opted against the NBA draft, returning to school to help bring the Cyclones out of the Big 12's basement.