The No. 15 Texas Longhorns continue the regular-season ending stretch of four games away from the Erwin Center on Tuesday with a trip to Ames to face the Iowa State Cyclones at 6 p.m. Central on Big 12 Now/ESPN+.
The Cyclones are a bit of a study in contradictions at this point in the season. Head coach Steve Prohm’s team has only two wins all season, is winless in the Big 12, and hasn’t found the win column since before Christmas. But last week, Iowa State played Baylor down the wire in Waco, ultimately losing 77-72.
So Texas head coach Shaka Smart has emphasized to his team that Iowa State will approach Tuesday’s game with the same type of desperation that defined Texas Tech’s efforts on Saturday with the Red Raiders coming off three straight losses.
“They’ve played really well,” Smart said on Monday during a Zoom call with reporters. “They’ve played really hard. Steve’s done a terrific job keeping those guys highly engaged, highly motivated, believing in what they’re doing. So, it’s our responsibility to go out there and play our best game. We don’t necessarily control what they do. We can control ourselves.”
Iowa State has four dangerous players — playmaking lead guard Rasir Bolton, sharpshooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, slashing forward Javan Johnson, and frontcourt banger Solomon Young.
“I think it has to start on the defensive end,” Smart said. “Iowa State has some terrific offensive pieces. Bolton obviously is one of the best guards in the league. Javan Johnson had a terrific game against us the first time — we tried different guys on him and he was scoring the ball at will particularly the second half. Solomon Young is a guy that has given a lot of teams in this league trouble including us. And then Coleman-Lands, I told our guys I think he’s the best shooter in the league coming off a screening action, on the move, which is obviously harder to shoot that way than it is when you’re stationary. So, those guys and then some of their others are legit players and we’ve got to do a good job.”
Beyond Smart’s preference for always focusing on the defensive end, there’s opportunity for the Longhorns because the Cyclones struggle in some key areas like protecting the basketball, getting second-chance opportunities with offensive rebounds, and getting to the free-throw line.
Avoiding fouls was a point of emphasis for Smart in the film room with his players, with Smart pointing to a late-clock foul call on senior guard Matt Coleman defending Texas Tech’s Mac McClung and a transition foul on redshirt junior guard Andrew Jones on Kyler Edwards.
After cutting the lead to three points with 3:22 remaining, those two fouls and the subsequent four made free throws helped Texas Tech stymie the Texas momentum and the Longhorns never got closer than that.
A missed three-pointer by sophomore forward Kai Jones in between those fouls helped contribute to Andrew Jones hacking Edwards on the break and represented another point of emphasis for Smart — taking better shots. After the game, the coaching staff cut up eight to 10 shots that Smart didn’t like and showed them to the team, with Smart emphasizing to Kai Jones the importance of understanding time, score, and situation.
Smart said that’s something that he coaches harder now than he did when he was at VCU. With the Rams, Smart allowed his players significant leeway in terms of shot selection if they were playing hard on defense. Now he takes a simple approach that doesn’t leave players with quite as much freedom.
The first type of shot that Smart wants to get is a good shot in the paint. The second type is a step-in three from one of the team’s best shooters, an area where Texas is shooting about 38 percent this season. Every other shot falls into the third category that represented too many of the looks against Texas Tech.
Part of better shot selection includes more emphasis on getting the ball to senior forward Jericho Sims around the basket, whether that’s through pick-and-roll actions or simple post-up opportunities. Sims is shooting 73.4 percent from the field during Big 12 play, the best in the conference.
Of course, it’s not as simple as just throwing the ball into Sims and letting him go to work, as opponents are more consistently sending extra defenders at the rugged forward, meaning that Sims often doesn’t have a chance to dribble and instead has to look for his open teammates.
But despite the difficulties of getting clean looks, when the three lead guards aren’t playing well, as they were not on Saturday, Smart wants Sims getting closer to 10 shots a game rather than the five shot attempts he had against the Red Raiders.
For the guards, Smart wants to get Andrew Jones going after three subpar performances in which Jones has struggled to score at all, but has really struggled from beyond the arc, hitting only 3-of-19 attempts (15.8 percent).
“Particularly I think getting Andrew going — he’s the best scorer on our team,” Smart said of what the guards need to accomplish. “You know, he’s had some phenomenal offensive games this year, but giving him the opportunity to attack closeouts, to shoot the ball from outside, and getting to the foul line is really, really important.”
While Jones has taken 12 free throws in the last two games, he’s only reached double digits in one of the last three games.
For Coleman and junior guard Courtney Ramey, Smart wants them to focus on defense and making plays for their teammates.
“I think for the other two guards, making sure that they really lead from the standpoint of getting their teammates opportunities on the offensive end setting the tone on the defensive end for who we want to be just leading and I think that is critical for Matt and Courtney,” Smart said.
With Texas as a heavy favorite in this game with an 85-percent win probability, according to KenPom.com, Smart is taking a big-picture approach over the final three games of the regular season as the team tries to gain a level of consistency heading into the postseason.
“Not only do you want to win, but you want to be playing as well as you can be playing going into March,” Smart said.