Blum: Chasing a freight train

If the NBA didn’t have their early entrant rule barring high school seniors from entering the Draft, Iowa State would be 2-0 against Kansas this season. Sixteen days after freshman Joel Embiid put himself in the spotlight with a virtuoso performance at Hilton, fellow Jayhawk youngster Andrew Wiggins erupted for a career high 29 points and seven rebounds in KU’s 93-82 victory.

Luckily, Iowa State may only see those future millionaires one more time; the young Jayhawks have done enough damage.

*** MORE — Chris Williams’ on Iowa State’s slow starts & Wednesday’s loss in Lawrence ***

Yet despite a near flawless performance from Wiggins and an uncharacteristic 10 threes from Kansas, Iowa State had the KU lead down to one point with four minutes to play. That was the closest they would get.

Iowa State didn’t attempt a shot for a two minute stretch. Turnover, turnover, “intentional” foul, offensive rebound putback, turnover. The one point lead catapulted to nine in just over a minute and the game was essentially over. Prior to the minute meltdown, the Cyclones had just eight turnovers in the entire game. The Cyclones weathered a barrage of KU offense with an equally brilliant effort, then went Plaxico Burress on their own foot.

The entire game felt as if Iowa State was trying to chase down a freight train. KU opened the game with a Charlie Weis sized punch, scoring 30 points in the first ten minutes. It was the worst possible scenario and appeared the Cyclones were going to get blown out for the first time all season. Some weak-minded foes would have checked out and tipped their cap. This Cyclone team hunkered down and made it a hell of a game.

After the first meeting with Kansas, there was a legitimate concern that Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim were not big and athletic enough to score on the nation’s elite and lanky front-courts. Those two combined to go 9-for-35 in the first outing against the long arms of Embiid and Wiggins. In Wednesday night’s contest, they responded in a big way. Niang and Ejim scored 42 of Iowa State’s 82 points in efficient fashion, thwarting the KU athleticism with ball fakes and skill. It was classic Hoiball. 

DeAndre Kane was as good as he has been in weeks, with a steady 22 points on 14 shots.

After looking sluggish in mid January, Iowa State went through stretches where their offense was the best it has looked all season. It was a very encouraging improvement against a salty Bill Self defense.

The Cyclones are now the only team in the nation to score 70 or more points in every game this season. Basketball can be made to sound complicated, but at the end of the day, the goal is to put the ball in the basket. And when they are on, the Cyclones find ways to score like a Kardashian.

The defensive side of the ball is an emerging question mark. The Cyclones have been in top 30 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense stat for pretty much the entirety of this season, which is a terrific sign. But in conference play, teams are shooting 44 percent from the floor against Iowa State. The Cyclones are allowing a Big 12 worst 78 points per game in conference play. A good portion of those points can be attributed to Iowa State’s 10th fastest in that nation tempo, but it remains to be seen if Iowa State can grind out a stop when it is needed most. They couldn’t against the Jayhawks.

And once they get the stop, securing a rebound has been a finicky proposition. In the first seven minutes of the KU game, the Cyclones had grabbed three defensive rebounds, but allowed six offensive rebounds.

I know the rebound stat has been eviscerated by some of the analytical minds in basketball as contingent on missed shots more than anything. Still, Iowa State’s rebounding in conference play is alarming. The Cyclones have been out-rebounded by every team except Texas. 

The strange thing here is last season Iowa State was above average on the boards (out rebounding 10 of 18 Big 12 opponents) with a similar cast of post players. With Scot Pollard impersonator Ryan Spangler coming to town Saturday, clearing the glass will be front and center again.  

Moral victories no longer exist in sports. The only time that idiom is used is in an anti, “We don’t believe in moral victories” sense. The anti moral victory is one hundred times more of a cliche than the original. That said, Iowa State acquitted themselves well on the road against arguably the nation’s most talented team. A KU team operating at an NCAA title caliber level.

Kansas had two guys that will be emblazoned on NBA posters in six months playing out of their minds and Iowa State’s group was step for step for most of the game.

The Cyclones were chasing a freight train and the freight train eventually won. Enjoy the next level Mr. Wiggins and Mr. Embiid; we’ve seen you enough.