For a team with NCAA tournament aspirations there are always a handful of pivotal games. These games don't actually matter any more than any other conference contest does -- building a proper resume requires that you win the games that you should win as well as the ones that you might win -- but there are some games that are more likely to place a team either in or out of post season play, simply due to the uncertainty in their outcome.
This afternoon's match-up between Texas and Iowa State is such a game for the Longhorns, as my friend Peter Bean indicated in his Texas-Iowa State preview:
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.
If the Longhorns do need to go three out of five at home against Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Baylor, then the best time to start compiling those wins is right now.
But it isn't going to be easy. Iowa State is quite good. Fred Hoiberg's collection of nearly interchangeable parts -- center Georges Niang will often handle the ball while point guard DeAndre Kane works over a smaller defender on the block -- creates headaches for the defense at all five positions on the floor. This mix of five skilled players, all capable scorers, has torched defenses so far this season. The Cyclone's only poor offensive performance this season occurred in their recent loss to Kansas, and that was a game where Iowa State at least partly stopped itself by going ice cold from three point range.
I don't believe the concept of stopping the Cyclone attack is a realistic goal. They are good in so many ways that the opposing defense must choose its battles wisely, and hope that they miss some shots. Do you play off of Niang to limit his dribble penetration and hope that his season-long three point shooting slump continues? Do you even have a player on your roster with the size and quickness combination to execute such a strategy? And even if you do have such a player, do you have a second one to match up against Melvin Ejim? How much do you collapse the defense to cut into Kane's attacks on the basket, and how does your approach to Kane expose you to the three point shooting of Naz Long?
Defending the Cyclones is a terrible problem to have. A team simply has to place its bets, and try to keep pace on the other end against a fairly stingy Iowa State defense. It is a defense that builds a wall around the paint, cuts off penetration, doubles low post players, boxes out offensive rebounders, and forces opponents to patiently work for a perimeter shot against a closing defender. This is how they play defense in the NBA.
But the Longhorns have a few bullets in the chamber. The Cyclone approach to D expertly covers most of the problems associated with playing an undersized lineup, but not all. Hoiberg lacks a player who can match up inside with physical big man Cameron Ridley, and while Iowa State is one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country (a signature trait of Hoiberg's teams) there haven't been many opponents who have kept Texas off the offensive glass.
If Texas can hit a few threes -- shots that you can get against Iowa State if you work for them -- and can get busy on the glass, it could be a very interesting afternoon in Austin.
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