Preview: The rubber match

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 Iowa State handed Oklahoma its worst loss of the season on Feb. 4 in Ames, an 83-64 Cyclone victory that was led by a fierce first half shooting performance by the good guys. However on March 2 in Norman, it was Oklahoma that handed Iowa State its worst loss of the season, an 86-69 Sooner triumph.

Heading into Thursday’s Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal at the Sprint Center, Vegas likes Oklahoma by a point. favors the Cyclones by one.

On a neutral floor, something has to give.

“They just waxed us a week ago so that’s definitely fresh on our minds and that’s definitely what we are going to use as motivation going into that game,” said Iowa State’s outspoken freshman Georges Niang of his team’s worst game of the season.

“Waxed” is a good way to put it. Oklahoma pounded Iowa State on the glass that Saturday afternoon 36-27. Of Iowa State’s five starters, only two scored in double figures (Melvin Ejim and Niang had 10 a piece). The Cyclones lacked energy from the start and if it wasn’t for a combined 32 points via an unlikely combo of Tyrus McGee and Bubu Palo, this would could have been way worse.

The following Monday, head coach Fred Hoiberg said that for the first time all season long, his team came out with a lack of energy – a Kansas hangover if you will. 

Kudos to Oklahoma, specifically Lon Kruger’s senior point guard, Sam Grooms. Grooms, who entered that game averaging a measly four points per contest, dropped 19 on the Cyclones while going 7-for-13 from the field. Iowa State’s game plan was consistent with what Hoiberg has done all season long.

Take away the opposition’s top three options and see what happens. Grooms is what happened, much like Elijah Johnson and his 39 points the Monday before vs. Kansas. 

“Grooms was the difference maker down there,” said Hoiberg. “We were going to make him beat us and he did it. He made shots all the way out there. He hit a big three right before half to give them a double-digit lead.”

Que the novice basketball mind that is asking, "why let him roam exactly?"

“We really wanted to help off,” said Hoiberg. “Osby is a load down on the block and playing with great rhythm. He’s first team all conference performer. We had to supply some help down there. We’ll see what we do this time.” 

Grooms’ big game could have been a fluke but I wouldn’t count on it. In Oklahoma’s last seven games, Grooms has recorded the three best scoring outputs of his career (18 vs. Oklahoma State, 23 vs. Baylor and 19 on the Cyclones).

The Clyburn factor

Iowa State is 4-1 in league play when Will Clyburn scores 20 points or more. Those wins were over Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State. If you don’t think that Clyburn’s success is one of (if not the biggest factor) to Iowa State winning on Thursday, you’re nuts.

At Oklahoma on March 3, Clyburn disappeared. The senior scored six points while going 1-for-5 from the field. After the loss, a few of Clyburn’s teammates called him out in a team meeting.

“A couple of the seniors called me out in that meeting and let me know that I need to come every game no matter if I am doing good or bad, I have to bring my energy and do something to help the team instead of going into my shell,” said Clyburn.

He’s reacted very well. Since that meeting, Iowa State is 2-0 with Clyburn scoring 20 and 27 in wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

“He had a great week and stepped up when we needed him the most,” said Hoiberg.  “That’s what great players do. The fact that he shot 18 free throws, you know we were posting him up early and he was making some great spin moves there in the post. He was aggressive taking it to the hoop and he hit a couple of threes. When Will has that mindset that he can go take over a game, that certainly is when he is at his best.”


This one could go either way and I’m torn as far as a prediction goes. Having said that, I think that Iowa State will win and here’s why:

Chris Babb is where it starts. 

Much like Iowa State goes with Clyburn’s success, the Sooners do the same with senior Steven Pledger. Babb usually does a pretty good job of keeping Pledger in check.

Could Grooms go off and beat Iowa State again? Yeah, I guess. But keep in mind that he’s only made five 3-pointers all season for the Sooners. If that guy beats you, then so be it. If I’m Hoiberg, I take my chances. 

It’s much more important for Iowa State to provide help down low on the Romero Osby’s and Amath M’Baye’s of this world in my opinion. That is exactly what I anticipate the Cyclones will do in this quarterfinal game too.

I speak often about how Oklahoma is a great matchup for Iowa State. Last week, a friend asked me exactly what that is.

It’s because the last four times that these two programs have played. Iowa State has out-scored Oklahoma 144-51 from 3-point range. That’s a whole lot of catching up to do for a team that is only averaging 5.03 threes per game.

There are your obvious storylines heading into this game. Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang need to stay out of foul trouble. Rebounding. Turnovers. All of the basics of basketball. 

But if Iowa State’s offense is on, Iowa State wins this game. A stop here and there won’t hurt either.

That’s how I see it. And as scary as it is, I’m picking the Cyclones to win a game in the Big 12 Tournament for the first time since 2005.

The Pick 

Iowa State 79, Oklahoma 73