Outside of single elimination tournaments, there is no such thing as a must win game in college basketball. So Saturday afternoon when the 17-9 Texas Longhorns face the 19-6 Iowa State Cyclones we won't call it that; but we can say that this game is very important.
As of today, the Texas Longhorns look to be comfortably in the NCAA tournament, so long as they take care of their business. Of course, part of that business includes picking up home wins against strong opponents, and a victory over Iowa State would be among the better wins on Texas' end of season resume.
So for solidifying its position in the NCAA tournament, maximizing its seed potential, and staying above the fray on selection Sunday, a win this weekend will be very helpful for Texas.
For those who have been living under a rock, Iowa State has a pretty good basketball team. Currently sitting at a 9-4 conference record, the Cyclones are one game behind Kansas in the conference standings. If Fred Hoiberg's team is going to catch Kansas, a win on the road against Texas would really help.
Match ups are always tricky when you play against the Cyclones. No matter the construction of your team, Iowa State will find a way to use its skilled big man Georges Niang on the perimeter attacking a more traditional big man, while spacing at least three high percentage shooters around him. Or the Cyclones will attack in transition, and quickly spread the floor allowing guards Bryce Dejean-Jones and Monte Morris to work off of ball screens, often creating clean looks for a battery of deadly long range shooters that includes Naz Long, Dustin Hogue, and Matt Thomas. And of course you have to contend with center Jameel McKay running end to end and rolling to the hoop. Hoiberg will mix in a few other things, but mostly what Iowa State does on offense is pretty simple -- and exceptionally difficult to stop.
Over the last few years, Texas coach Rick Barnes has tried a few different ways to slow down the Iowa State attack, and generally has found that the best chance for success is to roll with three guard line-ups to defend Niang and all of the perimeter shooters.
I expect to see a lot of minutes with Jonathan Holmes guarding Niang, and we can reasonably expect that the Holmes/Connor Lammert front court pairing will be deployed at times in this game. Don't be surprised if Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh don't see much floor time. Playing Holmes with two other big men and sitting back in a 2-3 zone against the ball movement and shooting of the Cyclones is an activity that can only be viewed as self-sabotage at this point.
Part of the method for beating Iowa State is scoring a few points on the other end. The best defenses can cut the Cyclone offensive output somewhat, but unless Iowa State comes out ice cold from three point range (as they did in a surprising loss to South Carolina just before the start of Big 12 play), Texas will have to score some to win. And here, there is some hope.
The Texas offense has been solid over the last four games, scoring at least 1.07 points per possession in each contest. Interestingly, Texas' offense in these four games hasn't been driven by second chance points (as Barnes' teams frequently are), but instead has been based on converting good scoring opportunities out of the regular offense. And Texas was sensational on offense during the first meeting of these two teams, dropping 1.22 points per offensive trip. The offense was at its best during a furious Texas comeback that briefly made the game interesting.
It helps that Iowa State's defense is the second worst in the league. Hoiberg's approach to defense aims to keep the ball out of the paint, and controls the defensive glass. But Iowa State will give up threes, and doesn't turn teams over very often. If Texas takes care of the ball and plays its game on offense, the Horns can keep pace with the Cyclones.
We will see what happens this Saturday.