The teams of the Big 12 are now past the midpoint of league play, and are facing opponents for a second time. And the next team up in the round robin for the Texas Longhorns are the Iowa State Cylones, who are 6-4 in conference play and 14-8 overall.
The Cyclones come into Austin on Tuesday evening after picking up a big win on the road at Kansas this weekend, handing Bill Self his tenth home loss in his tenure as the head man of the Jayhawks. It was an exciting overtime contest that revealed one of the basic truths of basketball — when a team hits 18 threes in a game as Steve Prohm’s Cyclones did, it becomes very difficult to defeat.
That is a crazy number of perimeter shots to have fall in a single afternoon, but I guess Iowa State is as likely as any team to pull off such a feat. The Cyclones have connected on just under 40 percent of their long-range chances during conference play, and Prohm has a roster full of guys who can knock them in.
On Saturday, Deonte Burton connected on 7-9 threes, Naz Long went 6-11, Monte Morris was 3-6, and Donovan Jackson went 2-3. Oddly enough in such a prolific game sharp-shooter Matt Thomas, who is every bit as dangerous from beyond the arc as the extremely terrifying Long, went 0-5.
It was just that sort of a day for the senior-heavy but undersized Cyclones, who appear to be NCAA tournament bound. After losing three starters from last season’s squad, including one of the best offensive players in the nation in Georges Niang, coach Prohm’s team is on track to match its conference win total from last season.
How do you lose such important players and still keep things on pace? Well, it helps to have a point guard like Monte Morris. Morris is good at a lot of things — for example, he is a terrific shooter — but perhaps his most important attribute is that he hardly ever makes a mistake. His turnover rate has always been exceptionally low, but this season it has reached a mind-bending level.
As of this writing, Morris is currently ranked in the top-20 nationally for turnover rate, at a little less than eight percent per kenpom.com. And that actually undersells just how impressive this result is. Morris is a point guard who controls the ball in the Cyclone offense and makes plays off the dribble for himself and his teammates.
Every player ranked ahead of him is either a catch-and-shoot perimeter player who hardly ever dribbles or a big man who finishes on dump-off passes from a guard. Morris’ turnover rate is approximately one-third of the turnover rate of Texas lead guard Andrew Jones. Morris could turn the ball over twice as often as he does and still be considered quite good at protecting the rock.
When you have a point guard who can score and almost never messes up grouped with a number of highly-skilled offensive players, scoring is almost unavoidable. If the Iowa State offense isn’t quite as good as it was when Morris played with Niang (who was unguardable at the college level) it doesn’t mean that it isn’t still very good. And during games where Burton is doing his best Niang impersonation, as he did at Kansas on Saturday and also did the last time the Cyclones and the Longhorns squared off, the offense is good enough to beat anyone.
But the thing that is helping Iowa State this season is that, despite being undersized, the Cyclones are actually playing defense. For all of the success Fred Hoiberg had in Ames, one issue was that his teams didn’t guard very well. That is not the case this season, where the Iowa State defense is able to help it win the odd game where the shots from outside aren’t falling.
The last time the Cyclones faced the Longhorns, Iowa State’s now pressure-oriented defense was on display as the Longhorns turned the ball over in 26 percent of their possessions, which is so far the highest single game turnover rate by Shaka Smart’s team this season. And while Iowa State lacks a traditional rim protecting big man, the long armed Burton does his best, and everyone does their job.
It is kind of hard to tell if the success of the Cyclone D is just an anomaly or the effect of Prohm’s different defensive philosophy. I guess only time will tell on this question, but I will note that Prohm’s teams always defended quite well at Murray State in Ohio Valley Conference games, where they ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency in three out of his four years. (In that one year that the Racers didn’t top the league in defense, they fell all the way to second place in defensive efficiency.)
But the Longhorns have a chance, simply because any time you play a game at home you have a chance. For a Texas team with limited offensive firepower, winning this game will require some combination of better ball security, hitting some shots, and finding a way to limit enough of the Cyclone offense that it gives the Longhorns a chance to win.
The Cyclones are tough in transition, where Morris, Long, and Burton excel at finding chances to drive the basket or bomb threes against a scrambling defense. This makes transition defense critical, as while Iowa State is lethal in the open court, they are merely good in half-court settings. The Longhorns saw this first hand a few weeks ago in Ames, when Iowa State managed an effective field-goal percentage of 61 percent in the first ten seconds of the shot clock.
In situations where the Longhorns can keep Iowa State out of transition, it will be up to Shaka Smart and his staff to make the right defensive bets. Do you bring extra help against Morris and Burton, giving Long and Thomas room to shoot? Probably not, as this likely leads to a quick death. Do you stay on the shooters, and force Burton to beat you off the bounce?
Maybe this works, or maybe like last time it just becomes death by a thousand cuts. Can you even do any of this against a team led by a guard like Morris, who is simply very difficult to stay in front of? We will see.
The game tips off at 8 p.m. CT, and airs on ESPN2.