Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns could really use a win. Off to a 1-2 start in conference play, the Horns and their fans could use a boost of optimism in the worst way. But that win will be tough to come by tonight, as the 12-3 Iowa State Cyclones come to Austin.
Most preseason prognosticators had first year head coach Steve Prohm's team somewhere in the top three spots in the league, but such a high finish for Iowa State is far from assured. After starting the season with a road loss to Oklahoma and a win at home against Texas Tech, the Cyclones took a surprising loss this weekend at home to Baylor. And based on projection systems ISU looks as likely to push for .500 as it does to challenge Kansas at the top of the league standings. Such is life in the Big 12.
Scouting the Cyclones
For followers of Big 12 hoops in recent seasons, the Iowa State roster is familiar. Coach Prohm only plays seven guys, but those seven guys are good.
It all starts with senior forward Georges Niang, who has been abusing opponents since the day he set foot in Ames. Opposing Big 12 teams can thank the Lord that Niang's eligibility will be exhausted after this season.
There is a reasonable argument to be made that Niang is the best offensive player in college basketball. There just aren't players in D-I who can match up with Niang, who handles the ball like a guard, shoots nearly 40 percent from three point range, and who is arguably the most dangerous low post scorer in the Big 12. (His biggest competition for this title is Perry Ellis.)
The Longhorn with the best chance to defend Niang is Connor Lammert, although three years of results suggest that it won't always go very well. When Lammert sits, Tevin Mack may draw this assignment some, and it is hard to see Mack faring well against someone as physical as Niang.
The other focal point for Iowa State is junior point guard Monte Morris. There is a lot to like about Morris' game, but let's start with the thing that stands out the most; Morris is just a really smart basketball player. This season, Morris has turned the ball over in less than 11 percent of possessions that have ended with the ball in his hands. This would be a good turnover rate for a catch and shoot three point shooter, but for a player who handles the ball as much as Morris does it is almost impossibly low. And it isn't just some one season fluke; Morris has done this every season of his career.
Morris is a scorer as well as a facilitator, and although Niang is the sun in the Cyclone solar system, Morris is a really significant planet.
Next to Niang on the front line is center Jameel McKay. He is a 6-9 senior who is exceptionally athletic, and plays all out pretty much all the time. He runs the floor, crashes the glass, and is Prohm's best defender by far.
Matt Thomas is Iowa State's designated three point shooter this year, after Naz Mitrou-Long's college career was ended a few weeks ago by injury. Without Mitrou-Long, the Cyclones are a little less scary on offense than they would otherwise be, although Marquette transfer Deonte Burton can help to soften the blow of his loss as the season progresses, as can Oregon State transfer Hallice Cooke.
Along the perimeter, Prohm gives a lot of minutes to physical wing Abdel Nader. Nader is not much of a perimeter shooter, but he can score around the basket, and his size can potentially give Texas some problems.
The Iowa State Defense
Iowa State has a lot of talentand can score points like crazy. But the Cyclones find themselves a little bit behind the eight ball right now because of defense.
While they have one of the league's best offenses, they also have one of the league's worst defenses. Should this continue, Prohm's team will find itself somewhere around the middle of the Big 12 standings at season's end. That is not a terrible place to be, but certainly not where they expected they would land when the season started.
In general, if you want to have a strong defense, you have to do one of two things. You either have to suppress opponent two point shooting percentage (by some combination of limiting penetration and having big guys who block shots) or you have to force turnovers. Even better is if you do both of these things. Iowa State is more or less average in both categories. Other things help (like rebounding and not fouling, which are things the Cylones are good at), but they have a more limited impact.
I am not sure why Iowa State's defense isn't better than it is. More minutes for Jameel McKay this year should have made the Cyclone defensive interior better, but so far they really haven't. Maybe this is just a fluke that is soon to improve?
This is a home game for Texas, making it an absolutely winnable contest.
The biggest questions are, can Texas slow the Cyclones down even a little bit, and then hit enough shots to keep up.
The game tips off a little after 8 PM CST, and airs on ESPN2.