Following Texas' critical wins against Texas Tech and at West Virginia, coupled with Iowa State dropping its last two contests at OU and versus Kansas, the Longhorns (13-4 overall) and Cyclones (14-2) will square off on Saturday with matching 2-2 records in conference play. The game will tip off at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin at 3:00 p.m. CT and will be televised on the Big 12 Network (check listings in your area).
Both teams will be highly motivated to fight for a victory in this one. For Iowa State, not only does Saturday's game present an opportunity to pick up a precious road win, but should Texas hand the Cyclones their third straight defeat, the upcoming schedule (vs K-State, at KU, vs OU, at OSU) could plausibly shut Fred Hoiberg's squad out of the win column until February.
For the Longhorns, the need to pick up a win this weekend is less urgent than it would have been had they not picked up the two big wins against Tech and West Virginia, but as difficult as road wins are to come by in the Big 12 in any season -- let alone when the conference is as loaded as it is this year -- teams that aspire to play in the NCAA Tournament know how important it is to protect home court. If we set the target mark for a bid at 9-9, every home loss requires a corresponding win on the road. Texas will have a fair chance to win at TCU and Tech, but absent any additional road victories, the Longhorns would need to win three of their home games against Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. A win on Saturday would be a huge step towards 9+ conference wins and an invitation to the Dance.
Turning to the match up, don't let the Cyclones' two-game slide fool you: Fred Hoiberg has put together another dangerous team in Ames this year. Currently slotting in at No. 16 in Ken Pomeroy's rating system, Iowa State opened the season with 14 consecutive victories, which included home wins over Michigan, Iowa, and Baylor, and BYU in Provo.
The Cyclones have been fantastic offensively since the moment Hoiberg arrived in Ames, but this year the fourth-year head coach has a team that is excelling on defense, as well. Iowa State's defensive success this season owes in part to excellent defensive rebounding (opponents are grabbing just 28% of their missed shots, 44th nationally) and, even more so, to its ability to limit free throw opportunities (the Cyclones' 25.1 Free Throw Rate allowed ranks 2nd nationally). In both of those regards, Saturday's game will be a strength-vs-strength match up, as the Longhorns' offense owes much of its substantial improvement from a year ago to precisely those two factors: securing its own misses (37.1 ORB%, 33rd nationally) and earning shots from the charity stripe (47.1 FTRate, 41st nationally).
Whose strengths will prevail on Saturday? The optimistic take might see an edge for Texas playing on its home court, where the officials are less likely to call the type of game that denies the Texas offense the opportunity to earn scoring chances at the line. Where Big 12 basketball officials are involved, who knows what the hell will happen, but in the battle for offensive rebounds, Texas' advantage is straightforward: the Longhorns' size advantage over the Cyclones will be substantial. ISU's roster is athletic and to a man filled with terrifically skilled basketball players, but the Cyclones' excellent defensive rebounding numbers are likely inflated a bit by good fortune. (That the Cyclones offensive rebounding percentage of their own misses ranks 344th nationally is strongly suggestive.) Iowa State benefits from legit length on the perimeter (and depends all five players on the floor committing to team rebounding), but the Cyclones will have to find other ways to neutralize Texas' interior size, because among those in the regular rotation they simply don't have any size on the interior.
Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim are outstanding basketball players who can play for my team any day, but they go 6-7 and 6-6, respectively. Dustin Hogue is a terrific athlete and has proven to be one of the best and most important JuCo signings of the season, but he's also just 6-6. Hoiberg decided to stick to his guns during Monday night's loss to Kansas in Ames, declining to dip into his bench for interior help while the Jayhawks' front line murdered the Cyclones on the glass and free throw line. That's been Hoiberg's approach all year and one can hardly argue with the results, but after the way KU crushed them in the paint for their second-straight loss, and facing a Texas team that presents a similar challenge, if the Cyclones find themselves overwhelmed in the paint again on Saturday, I won't be surprised if Hoiberg doesn't dip into his bench for minutes from 6-9 junior forward Percy Gibson, who has barely seen the floor at all this year, but looked like a genuinely promising prospect as a freshman. The lefty doesn't fit well with what Hoiberg has Iowa State doing (and I'm a little surprised the lefty hasn't transferred out of the program), but he could be a useful asset off the bench against Texas, a fact of which his coaches may be reminded watching film of last year's game in Ames (8 points in 13 minutes).
If Iowa State does succeed in keeping Texas off the offensive glass and away from the free throw line, they'll be a good bet to outscore the Longhorns. Once again, ISU boasts a terrific offensive attack in which all five players are dangerous from anywhere on the floor. The Cyclones are again one of the best teams in the country in transition, with excellent ball handlers and open court players at every position on the court. This year's version of the Running Hoibergs aren't as dangerous a perimeter team without Tyrus McGee and his in-the-gym range, but when they're shooting it well they are incredibly difficult to beat. Memo to Javan Felix: please stop defending perimeter shots like you have the closing ability of a player who's 6-8 with a 10-foot wing span and springs in your shoes. Thanks.
As well as Hoiberg did to sign Dustin Hogue from the JuCo ranks, that wasn't even his best transfer acquisition of the offseason. That honor belongs to the signing of DeAndre Kane, the troubled Marshall star who led the nation in technical fans last year and was finally dismissed from the team by his exasperated head coach. Like Royce White before him, Fred Hoiberg welcomed the talented-but-troubled player with open arms and has deftly mentored him into a successful role under his guidance, using his skill as an offensive teacher to help Kane channel his focus on maximizing his considerable talent on the basketball court. With elite ability to get to the rim and a legit jump shot that extends 20 feet, Kane presents a tremendous challenge to defenders, and the match up between him and Demarcus Holland will be a fun one to watch. Texas needs to defend Kane intelligently within a broader defensive game plan: he's going to score some points, but that's okay; the bigger danger to Texas is in poorly coordinated help defense that results either in ill-advised fouls and/or losing track of Kane's teammates, giving sharpshooters like Monte Morris and Naz Long open looks beyond the arc, where they're deadly.
I'm looking forward to this game. This young Texas team has been a joy to watch all season long, and though the match up with Iowa State looked like a bit of a long shot as recently as a week ago, it's difficult to overstate how impressively the Horns responded to the challenges required of Big 12 play by the losses to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, intensifying their defensive focus and pressing their advantages to take care of a game Tech squad at home and win on the road in Morgantown.
I touched on the reasons to feel optimistic about the Longhorns' ability to grab offensive boards and score at the line, and let's add the win in Chapel Hill to that list. The Tar Heels are a different team than Iowa State, but in that win we saw what Texas is capable of in an open court game, and it bodes well for Saturday's match up with Iowa State. Part and parcel with that, this is a game where Isaiah Taylor's strengths are fully in play, which is always a good thing.
In the end, I'll hang my prediction on Texas' defensive intelligence and ability to keep key players out of foul trouble. If the Longhorns' defensive plan affords Iowa State the opportunity to put three points on the scoreboard at a time, I have trouble seeing us being able to keep up. Avoiding that fate depends on awareness and disciplined team defense, which we're both capable enough to play and young enough to screw up. The foul trouble is just another component of that broader task, and if Texas does succeed in playing smart, cohesive team defense, their advantages will have space to emerge.
Last year's home game versus Iowa State was one of the best games I've ever attended, and while I'd rather Texas won going away, here's to hoping we're treated to what should be a great college basketball game. I'll take Texas to keep pushing towards March, 75-72.