The Texas Longhorns (10-3) open Big 12 conference play with a critical three-game stretch on Wednesday night against the Iowa State Cyclones (10-3), winners of five-straight games, all at home. The game will tip at 8:00 p.m. CT and will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
The Cyclones played four solid opponents in their non-con season, picking up home wins over KenPom No. 74 Lehigh and No. 100 Iowa, while dropping a home tilt with No. 66 Northern Iowa and an away game at No. 43 Michigan. Their other 8 wins have come against average to terrible competition, the most impressive probably being ISU's 90-63 thrashing of Rice on a neutral floor.
Iowa State Personnel
Texas comfortably defeated ISU 76-53 in Austin last February, but only two starters from either team are back for this year's game -- Iowa State's Scott Christopherson and Melvin Ejim. Both teams feature a lot of new faces, and for perhaps the first time this year the Longhorns may not be the ones who possess the most dynamic newcomer. That honor arguably goes to ISU's Royce White, Minnesota's "Mr. Basketball" and a top 20 national recruit in 2009 who committed to play for Tubby Smith at Minnesota, but was suspended after he incurring theft and disorderly conduct charges at the Mall of America. White never played a game at Minnesota, opting after the suspension to transfer to Ames, where head coach Fred Hoiberg knew White well from his days in the Minnesota Timberwolves front office.
Texas has not seen a player quite like Royce White, a 6-8, 260-pound(!!) small forward who is also the team's primary ball handler and leads the Cyclones in points per game (13.1), rebounds (8.9), assists (51), blocks (17), and free throw attempts (78), and is second on the team in steals (15). ISU head coach Fred Hoiberg has constructed an interesting offense around White, often keeping all five players extended to the three point line and giving White the ball at the top of the key, where he's isolated to drive the cleared out paint. If you opt to defend White one-on-one, he uses his strong ball skills, excellent quickness/athleticism, and powerfully-built upper body to drive to the rim, where he's difficult for a defender to stop or not foul without any help. Alternatively, if you collapse any of your defenders to help stop White in the paint, he's a good passer and Iowa State is loaded with outstanding three-point shooters.
White missed most of ISU's win over Mississippi Valley State on Saturday with the flu and has not been practicing this week, but Hoiberg said he expects White to start and play throughout the game against Texas. Starting alongside White at forward is sophomore Melvin Ejim (6-6, 215), who comps pretty favorably with Texas' Jaylen Bond -- a bit undersized for a forward, but a strong rebounder and very good around the rim. ISU spells its starting forwards with roughly equal bench minutes from junior Anthony Booker (6-9, 240) and freshman Percy Gibson (6-9, 240). Booker isn't especially skilled, but he's a solid defender and with his big body he can cause problems with offensive rebounding and drawing fouls. Although still adjusting to the college game, Gibson is an intriguing frontcourt prospect from Detroit with a robust skill set, good hands, and a big body that will become more of an asset as his more of his body mass gets converted to muscle.
The Cyclones use five guards to fill the three remaining spots on the floor -- starting senior Chris Allen (6-3, 205), senior Scott Christopherson (6-3, 195), and junior Chris Babb (6-5, 220), while bringing in sophomore Bubu Palo (6-1, 175) and junior Tyrus McGee (6-2, 190) off the bench. More than anything else, this group shoots three pointers -- the Cyclones have launched 304 of them so far this year, some 43% of their total shots. (By comparison, Texas has shot 265 threes on the year, 35% of its total field goal attempts.) They also make a ton of three pointers, having connected on 115 of those 304 attempts, good for 38%. Allen, Christopherson, Babb, and McGee have all shot 53 or more three pointers on the year, while shooting 36% or better, with each having more three point attempts than two. McGee has been the most lethal from outside, connecting on 24-53 (45%), followed by Christopherson (23-57, 40%), Babb (32-88, 36%) and Allen (26-73, 36%).
Palo is the lone exception, being much more of a slasher than an outside shooter, and though he's struggled to be consistent enough, he's a dangerous little player when he's playing well. Palo has a great first step and incredibly long arms that allow him to penetrate effectively and get to the rim, where he is insanely effective at drawing contact and getting to the line.
Match Up & Keys to the Game
This is a substantially more dangerous Iowa State team than the ones we've seen in recent years, with a premier go-to player, frontcourt players with lots of strength, and a cadre of guards with good length and great shooting ability. Iowa State has an excellent home court and I suspect the Cyclones will return this year to being a very difficult team to beat in Ames.
On the encouraging side, this Iowa State team hasn't been playing very good defense to date, rarely forcing turnovers and struggling to defend two-point field goals (49.3% two-point FG% on the year). They're not a very fast team, they're vulnerable to giving up buckets in transition, and they're not particularly disciplined in terms of stopping penetration and rotating on help defense. Although they've done an excellent job of not sending opponents to the line, with these Cyclones that seems in large part to reflect a poor job challenging on defense. Iowa State ranks near the bottom of D1 in blocks, steals, and two-point field goal percentage.
Obviously, if the Cyclones are stroking it from the outside on Wednesday night, Texas will either need to make some threes of its own or make up the difference with more opportunities -- via rebounding and/or turnovers. But beyond the stuff important to every tightly contested match up, I'm focused on the following four questions for Wednesday night's battle with Iowa State:
Can Texas have a strong first half and prevent Iowa State from gaining early momentum? This young Texas team has often struggled through the first half before turning it on in the second 20 minutes, but I'm not optimistic about our chances of a rally on the road if Iowa State opens up an early lead. The crowd in Ames on is going to be eager to get raucous during this Big 12 opener, and if Iowa State goes bonkers in the early going, we're going to be trying to rally from behind with a freshman-laden team, in a hyper-hostile environment, against a very dangerous offensive team that can shoot you out of the game awfully quick. Texas needs Kabongo to play well from the outset, Brown to steady us with some scoring, and our forwards to play defense without fouling.
Who guards Royce White? Can we suit Jackson Jeffcoat up for this game? Seriously, if you haven't seen Iowa State play this year, if you've ever wondered what it would look like to see a super athletic tight end play point guard, well, tonight's your night:
Obviously, none of our guards have the size or strength to handle that beast, and with his quickness and lateral speed Clint Chapman isn't an option, unless we want White to make a run at becoming the first player to own all ten spots on SportsCenter's Top Plays. Alexis Wangmene is a plausible candidate in terms of his size and athleticism, but he struggles mightily to stay in front of players half as quick as White. I suspect we'll ask Wangmene to guard White at times, and I'll feel a lot better about this game if he gives us some good minutes doing so.
My instinct, though, is that we're going to wind up counting on Jaylen Bond and Jonathan Holmes to step up to the challenge and give us some good defensive minutes on White. We haven't seen either player try to defend anyone like White, but in terms of their make up and athletic skill set, Bond and Holmes seem like the best bets to be quick enough to stay with White but strong enough not to get mauled at the rim. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that either can do the job for a sustained period of time without fouling, and at their current foul rates White might have both on the bench with fouls in a matter of minutes.
If all else fails we can try to play zone, of course, but that's more or less a roll of the dice that Iowa State's outstanding shooters happen to have an off night shooting the three. There's no easy answer here, and I'd prefer that we accept that White is going to get his and make sure that we do our best to challenge him best we're able without fouling, live with what he's able to do on his own, and make sure we don't let his teammates bury us beneath a barrage of threes.
Who wins the battle for Texas' missed shots? You worry about a young team like Texas struggling with turnovers and poor shooting in a game like this, and with the potential for Iowa State's sharpshooters to knock down threes on their home court, that means the Longhorns may need to decisively win the turnover battle or pick up a bunch of extra shots by rebounding their own misses. Despite the team's struggles clearing the defensive glass, Texas has actually thrived scooping up its own misses this year, nabbing a full 40% of all available offensive rebounds, the 14th-best rate in the country. Iowa State, meanwhile, has been outstanding gobbling up defensive rebounds, limiting opponents to offensive boards on just 27% of their missed shots, the 22nd-best rate nationally. Texas can have a good night offensively by shooting the ball well or with a substantial edge on the turnover ledger, but with all these freshmen playing in their first hostile Big 12 road game, it may come down to our ability to get second chances.
Will J'Bongo be the two best guards in this game? As I've emphasized since the beginning of the season, the key to this Texas team having the potential to overcome its various limitations are the benefits and advantages two elite primary ball handlers can provide. Strong play from J'Bongo was critical to Texas' wins over UCLA and Temple, and it will be absolutely essential to winning on Wednesday night in Ames. For the various challenges this Iowa State team provides, they are an average defensive team that does not defend penetration well and is vulnerable in the open court to easy buckets. If Brown and Kabongo are the two best guards in the game, I like our chances to steal a huge road win, but if either or both plays poorly and/or struggles to make an impact, I'm not optimistic about our chances.
Prediction: I'm not feeling great about this match up heading in, for two main reasons. First, I'm just not sure what we're going to do defensively in terms of guarding White, and I worry a lot about our ability to do so effectively without racking up fouls. I think this is a game we need Jonathan Holmes to play well in, and I'm worried about him spending large chunks of the game on the bench with foul trouble. And second, it seems that Myck Kabongo is still in the adjustment phase with respect to playing against power-conference athletes. He's clearly progressed since the beginning of the year, and he seemed to advance to the point where he was starting to be able to put it all together against mid-major teams/players, but following his no-show in Chapel Hill and somewhat tentative showing in our last tune up versus Rice, I'm worried that he might struggle some at Iowa State. Again, I think this game is winnable if Brown and Kabongo both play strong basketball, but there are a lot of factors that make me hesitant to pick this young Texas team in its conference opener, on the road, against a team that can shoot the ball well and rack up fouls on you. I'll be thrilled to be wrong: Iowa State 76 Texas 73