By Chris Williams, CycloneFanatic.com PublisherFollow Chris on Twitter @ChrisMWilliams
When the Big 12’s elite perimeter scoring threats show up on Iowa State’s schedule, Chris Babb licks his chops.
Oklahoma’s Steven Pledger was Babb’s latest victim. In Saturday’s 80-69 Cyclone victory over the Sooners, Babb held the Big 12’s fourth leading scorer to a meager 2-for-11 performance and seven points. Heading into Saturday, Pledger was averaging 17.3 points per contest.
Babb’s defensive effort vs. Pledger shouldn’t have been earth shattering for any Big 12 basketball fan. This has been the case all season long for Babb, a Penn State transfer who entered the season known mostly for his 3-point shooting.
A few other Chris Babb lock down moments from this Big 12 season are…
— Texas’ J’Covan Brown and Missouri’s Marcus Denmon are currently the Big 12’s leading scorers averaging 19.7 and 17.8 points per game. On Jan. 11, Babb held Denmon to a 1-of-5 performance and six points. On Jan. 24 at Texas, Brown struggled going 3-for-16 with only 12 points. Both games equaled the second lowest scoring outputs for each player since league play began.
— Babb held Kansas State’s Rodney McGreuder to 3.5 points below his season average in a 5-of-11 performance and 11 points on Jan. 31.
— A few others…Texas A&M’s Khris Middleton’s 3-of-12 day vs. Babb on Jan. 7. Pledger’s 5-of-14 game vs. Babb on Feb. 4. Texas A&M’s Elston Turner and Middleton combining to go 4-for-16 on Feb. 11. Babb took Kansas’ Travis Relaford (3-for-9) out of Jan. 14’s loss at Kansas.
Babb’s determined defense has been comparable to that of a lockdown cornerback in football, a true luxury for any team. He’s also been a bit of a surprise for second-year head coach Fred Hoiberg, who saw this potential during Babb’s redshirt season, but had no idea he’d be this good.
During his transfer season, Babb was always practicing as somebody else. That’s what scout teams do – prepare the actual players for the opposition. When the 2010-11 campaign came to an end, Chris Babb could finally be Chris Babb. Hoiberg has been smiling ever since.
"Until you get those guys in your system, you don’t really know what you have defensively until you get them," said Hoiberg. "Every night, he just goes out there and takes so much pride in shutting down the other teams best perimeter player."
Saturday’s domination of Pledger meant more to the program than just a W in the column. During Hoiberg’s first season as Iowa State’s coach, Pledger scored 38 points in an overtime win over the Cyclones inside of Hilton Coliseum. That performance really stuck in this program’s craw. You don’t let an opponent blow you up like that in your house.
"That defensive performance on Pledger was as good as I’ve seen." said Hoiberg. "Getting into his body, making him take tough contested shots every time that he had the ball, not giving him any freedom when he’s coming off of screens. They were running their offense through Pledger. They tried to get him the ball pretty much every possession.”
Babb’s defensive intensity has been infectious this season. Just ask sophomore Melvin Ejim, who is coming off of arguably the best defensive performance of his career Saturday, as Iowa State held Oklahoma big man Andrew Fitzgerald to only two points (Fitzgerald scord a career-high 27 against Iowa State on Feb. 4).
“When you see him working hard like that, you have to work hard like that," said Ejim. "We try to take it over. On the inside we try to lock up those guys down low. It is contagious. Everyone on the team gets into that defensive mentality and once people get that mentality, we do well as a team and win games.”
Ejim and the rest of Iowa State’s frontcourt also held Kansas’ potential All-American Thomas Robinson to two of his three lowest (11 and 13) scoring outputs of the Big 12 season.
The Cyclones, who were picked by the league’s coaches to finish eighth in the Big 12, are now one victory away from winning 20 games for the first time since the 2000-01 season. A quick-scoring run and gun offense that feeds off of 3-point shooting has a lot to do with that but don’t be fooled. Even the best 3-point shooters in the world have off nights.
"There are days where that rim looks like a thimble up there," said Hoiberg.
Hoiberg, who led the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage in 2005, would know. That’s why since the first day he became Iowa State’s basketball coach, his staff has preached the good word of consistently playing relentless defense to his program.
“Every game the defense has to be constant," said Hoiberg. "Your offense isn’t always going to go the way that you want it to. You have to find a way on the defensive end to perform and keep you in games.”
There have been hiccups along the way (Baylor) but if Iowa State does indeed go dancing in March, this program’s defensive improvement over the course of the season has as much do to with it as anything.