The most difficult week of the regular season starts to night. The Texas Longhorns play two challenging road games -- the first coming tonight in Ames against Iowa State, while the second will be played this Saturday against Kansas.
Like most other teams in the Big 12, Iowa State has gone through a "what is wrong with the Cyclones" period. During the second half of January, Fred Hoiberg's team lost four out of five games. Of course, two of those four losses were against Kansas, and Iowa State also dropped road games in Austin and against Oklahoma. Since that stretch, a slide which was created almost entirely by the schedule maker, Iowa State has only lost one additional game. That loss came last week at West Virginia, a game where the Cyclones were drowned 102-77. (I used the word "drowned" intentionally. That is not a typo. West Virginia was 13-22 from three point range. That is a drowning.)
Part of Iowa State's problem in its five conference losses this season has been having to play tough teams on the road. That won't be an issue tonight; while Texas surely qualifies as a tough opponent, Hoiberg's men will be playing in the familiar territory of Hilton Colosseum.
And part of the Cyclone's trouble has been that opponents have been murdering Hoiberg's sagging D from beyond the arc. West Virginia's hot shooting last week in Morgantown goes a long way towards explaining how Iowa State lost by 25.
Iowa State presents a difficult challenge for Texas. When the Longhorns have the ball, they look to attack the basket, either by going inside to Ridley or with dribble penetration. But Iowa State is as good as any team in the country at preventing these things from happening. When these two squads last met in Austin, the Cyclones limited Texas' initial attempts at the basket, and the Longhorns were forced to fight back with three pointers (going 8-24 from three) and offensive rebounds (Cameron Ridley went 3-4 on putbacks of offensive boards, while Jonathan Holmes was 2-2).
In the half-court, the Cyclone defense will give up open three point attempts to a patient team. It will be up to Texas to find them and to make them. Baskets inside will be more difficult to come by.
When Iowa State is on offense, they are extremely difficult to slow down. In their prior match-up, Texas did well, holding Hoiberg's squad to 1.0 points per possession. Texas did this in part by bottling up DeAndre Kane, who wasn't allowed to get to the basket at all against a set half-court defense. Turning Kane again into a jump shooter should be a priority for Texas tonight.
The Longhorns had less luck containing versatile Iowa State big men Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim. Both players are skilled and difficult to contend with. Ejim and Jonathan Holmes are a fun match-up, as both players have a lot of similar elements to their game. Niang will challenge Cameron Ridley, forcing him to defend away from the basket. Of course, Niang will also have to contend with Ridley inside, on the other end of the floor.
Road wins are hard to come by, and a trip to play a strong Iowa State team at Hilton is a serious challenge. We will see if Texas is up to it.
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