With three wins in the current stretch of five straight games against ranked opponents, the Texas Longhorns have moved off the NCAA Tournament bubble and shown more consistent flashes of the team head coach Rodney Terry and players talked earlier this season about the Longhorns becoming.
The next step as Texas hosts the No. 14 Iowa State Cyclones on Tuesday evening at the Moody Center is to protect the home court at the new arena — two of the three wins in the season-defining gauntlet have come on the road while three of the four home losses by the Longhorns since the Moody Center opened happened in the last month.
History suggests that trend will reverse against Iowa State, which is 2-19 playing against Texas in Austin, losing eight straight and 14 of the last 15 road games in the all-time series.
But this is the best team the Cyclones have fielded under third-year head coach TJ Otzelberger — Iowa State is ranked No. 13 in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric with the No. 49 offense and the No. 5 defense.
BartTorvik.com ranks the Cyclones second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, but the stat that doesn’t require any adjustment to rank Iowa State as the best in the country is the team’s forced turnover rate of 26.3 percent. The defensive leader for the Cyclones is local product Tamin Lipsey, a sophomore guard who ranks sixth nationally with 61 steals and third in steals per game at 3.05.
“We’re gonna be really strong with the ball,” said Terry on Monday. “They force you into really bad turnovers — they’re aggressive defensively, they play really hard-nosed defense.”
Otzelberger’s team is heavily reliant on creating turnovers to fuel its elite defense — opponents shoot only 45.5 percent from inside the arc against Iowa State, 27th nationally, but the Cyclones otherwise don’t rank in the top 50 in any other category and are allowing opponents to shoot 34.1 percent from three-point range and record assists on 60 percent of made baskets, 344th nationally.
Offensively, Iowa State ranks in the 17th percentile in three-point attempt rate, relying instead on the No. 22 free-throw rate, although the Cyclones struggle to convert at the line, shooting only 68.5 percent. Forward Robert Jones is particularly hard to guard without fouling, which will provide a challenge for Texas forward Dylan Disu, but it’s Lipsey and star guard Keshon Gilbert who lead the team in free-throw attempts.
A transfer from UNLV, Gilbert is also the leading scorer for Iowa State at 14.2 points per game and one of the primary playmakers along with Lipsey, averaging 4.1 assists per game, but he’s also prone to turnovers, giving the ball away on 21.7 percent of his possessions. Gilbert does most of his damage at the free-throw line or inside the arc, hitting just 31.7 percent from three.
Lipsey is the second-leading scorer and team leader in assists, as well as a more dangerous shooter than Gilbert, but the designated marksmen are guard Curtis Jones and 6’8 forward Milan Momcilovic, one of the best three-point shooters in the conference at 40.0 percent. Jones and Momcilovic have combined to hit more than half of all the three-pointers made by the Cyclones this season.
For Texas, Terry believes that the Longhorns have improved defensively, although the adjusted stats don’t necessarily back up that belief — Texas ranks No. 93 in adjusted defense over the last 10 games.
“I think defensively we’ve grown over the course of the season from where we started at the very beginning to when we got to mid-year to where we are right now,” said Terry. “We play with more of an urgency. We play like a scrappy team, a team that tries to play extremely hard on that end of the floor and understanding that in order to win games in the Big 12, you’ve got to be a really good defensive team and you’ve got to work really hard at it, finishing possessions, trying to put consecutive stops together.”
Anecdotally, the end of the Saturday’s win over TCU in Fort Worth certainly supports Terry’s belief in defensive improvement, as it wasn’t just the 13 straight points scored by senior guard Max Abmas that propelled Texas to victory, it was also enabled by the Longhorns getting stops during that crucial run. After Emanuel Miller hit a three with 5:09 remaining, TCU didn’t score another basket until a dunk by Trey Tennyson with 38 seconds left and the game already decided, a stretch that included the key turnover by Miller in transition forced by Abmas and five missed, three of which came at the rim.
“Rim protection is coming right now and getting better over the course of this season as well,” said Terry. “We didn’t have a whole lot of rim protection early in the year and we’re getting getting better in that area.”
Giving more minutes to sophomore guard Chendall Weaver, who moved into the starting lineup against TCU, has helped Texas improve its ability to stay in front of opponents, as well as other individual improvement from Abmas, an undersized defender whose main focus at Oral Roberts was scoring the basketball, but is now putting in extra work on his defense as part of his daily routine.
The Longhorns also won the rebounding battle against the Horned Frogs, in stark contrast to last Monday’s home loss to the Cougars in which Houston dominated the offensive glass.
“In some part of the Big 12 play, it was an Achilles for us — we’d have a really good defensive possession and then we don’t finish it with a really good block out and give the opponent a second-chance point that they really weren’t deserving of. That kind of breaks your back over the course of games when that occurs, but I think we’ve done a better job of really trying to clean it up in terms of physical block outs,” said Terry.
“This game here is gonna be another one of those elite-level offensive rebounding teams that you’re gonna have to rebound at all five spots. They’ve got really good guards that rebound down offensively. So all five guys have got to be looking to hit somebody when the shot goes up, because this is a really elite-level team.”
BartTorvik.com gives Texas a 50-percent win probability with a projected score of 72-71 in favor of Iowa State.
How to watch
TV: Longhorn Network
Time: 7:00 p.m. Central
Odds: Texas is a two-point favorite, according to DraftKings.
Odds/lines are subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.