If Texas (8-7, 0-2) were entering Saturday's game at Iowa State (10-4, 0-1) having opened Big 12 play 2-0, or even 1-1, this match up would take on an entirely different dynamic than it does with the Longhorns' season on the ropes. There's enough basketball left that a Tournament bid turnaround can't be ruled out, but the team -- which had very little margin for error to begin with -- now has to pick up that home loss to West Virginia somewhere else on the schedule. If there's going to be an NCAA run, this Longhorns team has to start winning some games like Saturday's at Iowa State.
The Cyclones were such an oddity the last couple years because Royce White is such an oddity, and Fred Hoiberg (rightly, I think) structured his team around his odd centerpiece. And while it may have been fair to assume that after White departed to the professional ranks Iowa State would fall back a notch this season, the Cyclones haven't missed a beat and very nearly knocked off Kansas at Phog on Wednesday night.
What has become clear during Fred Hoiberg's three-year tenure as head coach at Iowa State is that the former NBA sharpshooter can coach some offense. After deploying a slow-it-down and spread-em-out strategy last year with Royce White running point, Hoiberg has his team running and gunning again this year, and to excellent results. The Cyclones go 9 deep, with a roster chock full of players who can handle the ball, run the floor, and shoot from the perimeter. What Iowa State lacks in earning trips to the line (among White's specialties), they make up for with extra three point baskets and a deadly effective transition offense.
They're also one of the most experienced teams in the country. With senior Michigan State transfer Korre Lucious taking over the point for the departed White, the Cyclones have frequently startd a junior (Melvin Ejim) and four seniors (Lucious, Will Clyburn, Tyrus McGee and Chris Babb), with a fifth senior (forward Anthony Booker) averaging nearly 15 minutes per game.
One name Longhorns fans should go ahead and get to know is Georges Niang, the 6-7 freshman forward from Massachusetts who played with Nerlens Noel in AAU and has made 2 starts, including Wednesday at Kansas. I'm a huge, huge fan of Niang's game, which features ridiculously great footwork, high elite hands, impressive range, and dizzying array of moves -- including some that make you wonder if he time traveled from the 1950s. "Was that a triple pivot?" I'm also a fan of the Cyclones' other underclassman forward, sophomore Percy Gibson, the 6-9, 260 lefty who also has great hands and and polished offensive touch around the rim, and continues to increase his production as his conditioning improves.
Bottom line: this is a very solid roster with excellent depth and experience, ball handlers galore, strong perimeter shooting, and two young forwards with unusual offensive polish for collegiate forwards. The team's Achilles' heel is once again defense, which is average in most regards but has done an outstanding job of limiting opponents to one shot.
Match Up & Prediction
Facing such an experienced, high scoring team, is this young Texas squad destined to lose? The Longhorns have overcome Hilton Magic to win 3 of the last 4 in Ames, and while they'll be decided underdogs on Saturday, here are three rays of hope to which you might cling. First of all, this Texas team has tended to play well against opponents with similar profiles to Iowa State; this group benefits from a higher paced game that opens up the floor for the offense and pits them against an average defensive team (think UNC, Baylor).
Second, there's also a key match up in this game that may well be the dispositive one on Saturday: the Longhorns' national best three-point field goal defense (22%) versus Iowa State's three-point heavy offense (34% of points come from beyond the arc). It won't matter if Texas shoots the ball as pitifully as they did on Wednesday versus West Virginia, but if they score like they did against UNC and Baylor and Iowa State has a 5 for 24 shooting day from three point land, the Cyclones will have a problem on their hands without improving elsewhere to make up for the lost offense (e.g. by getting to the free throw line).
And third, one area where Rick Barnes' teams have tended to excel is in the immediate aftermath of a miserable showing. The Cyclones are coming off a loss in which they played well, but lost at Kansas in overtime anyway. Texas is coming off a loss in which it played like shit and choked away a home win in an overtime loss to West Virginia. It's thin gruel, but if that translates into a motivational edge for Texas, that could be the difference where picking up a Big 12 road win is concerned.
Unfortunately, the list of reasons to favor Iowa State is longer and more substantial, and it's just really hard to feel good about Texas' chances after the way the team fell apart on Wednesday night. Then again, the West Virginia debacle was a letdown game following the crushing defeat at Baylor, and that's precisely the position Iowa State will be in following their crushing overtime defeat at KU. So who knows? Again, if Iowa State isn't putting points on the board via the three-point shot, they're going to have a tough time scoring absent some stark improvements elsewhere.
Something in my gut is telling me that Texas is going to play well and steal a win on Saturday, but my head has no serious case to offer in support of the good guys... Recognizing that we could very easily lose this game by 15+ points if we're struggling to score and ISU is hitting threes, screw it: I'm going with my gut. Texas finds just enough offense, and grabs just enough ISU misses from three, to pull off the road upset: call it, Texas 73 Iowa State 71.
Want the perspective from the other side? Wide Right & Natty Lite has an open letter to the Longhorns hoops team.