AMES — As the hostility rises, so does Abdel Nader’s game.
Coincidence? Maybe, but the versatile Iowa State combo player has thrived as an off-the-bench star in true road games so far.
“Great atmospheres,” said Nader, who scored a team-high 19 points in last Saturday’s tense 74-72 win at No. 16 West Virginia. “It’s been a blast. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”
Nader hopes to unpack another big game away from Hilton Coliseum as the 11th-ranked Cyclones (12-2, 2-0) try to puncture No. 22 Baylor’s tricky 1-3-1 zone in Wednesday’s 8 p.m. Big 12 matchup in Waco.
The Bears (12-3, 1-2) lead the nation in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing foes to shoot just 27.2 percent from deep.
“You look at their numbers —a lot of zones you get open shots,” said Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg, whose team leads the nation in assists at 18.7 per game “You don’t get a lot of open shots against their zone. They do a great job of taking it away and they take away the middle, which is where (in) a lot of zones you can attack.”
Nader’s found opportunities to attack rather sparse through the first half of the season.
He didn’t play in the second half of ISU’s Big 12 season-opening win over Oklahoma State, but rose to the occasion in Morgantown as foul trouble besieged his teammates.
“He was our guy to go to down the stretch in West Virginia,” said Cyclone forward Georges Niang, who scored 16 points against the Mountaineers and played with four fouls the final 11 minutes. So I just think guys need to keep plugging away and their opportunities are going to come.”
Opportunity knocks team-wide this week. Besides the tough matchup with Baylor, ESPN’s College GameDay show will be in Ames for the first time Saturday morning. Then the Cyclones tangle with No. 8 and fellow league unbeaten Kansas at 8 p.m.
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Nader, who also scored 19 points while playing a season-high 31 minutes in ISU’s win last month at Iowa. “Two big ones in a row.”
And lots of guys hungry for minutes, for good reason. Eight different players have led the Cyclones in scoring this season. The same formula holds true on the boards.
“That’s our team, man,” said top 3-point shooter Naz Long, who is coming off an 0-for-5 long-distance performance at West Virginia. “We really are deep and we have a bunch of guys who can do a bunch of different things. There’s no drop-off as far as our rotation goes.”
Get hot — on offense, defense or both — and minutes come. It’s truly that simple for ISU, which features nine players averaging between 16.8 and 32.3 minutes per game.
“We all complement each other,” Nader said.
The Bears have also found a mostly-winning groove despite graduating key players such as Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip from last season’s team.
Bruising big man Rico Gathers ranks second nationally in rebounds per game at 11.3 and Taurean Prince is shooting 48.9 percent from long range. Both help extend Baylor’s zone pressure to the 3-point line, but Long likes ISU’s chances against the scheme.
I feel like we’re going to be be fine with having guys in the room like Dustin (Hogue) and Georges — they finish around the rim so well,” Long said. “Jameel (McKay) has length now and we have our own weapon to use against them. Shooters are just going to have to knock down shots: guys like myself, Monte (Morris), Matt (Thomas) and Bryce (Dejean-Jones). We’re going to have to be on the wing. They leave the corners open a little bit because they like to extend their zone, so we’re just going to have to be on our game.”
That’s how Nader’s been when the crowd’s cheers become boos and the backdrop changes from cardinal and gold to less welcoming shades and hues. Life on the road can be daunting and humbling, but for him, it’s meant opportunity — a chance to shine.
“I think sometimes when you’re struggling as a shooter, it’s sometimes easier to go out on the road,” Hoiberg said. “You hear the groans from the crowd when you miss a shot (at home). I certainly found it that way, that it was always good to go out and find your game on the road. You play, I guess, with a little less pressure on yourself. But I’ll say this: Abdel had two really good days leading into that game at West Virginia. He shot the heck out of it in practice. Hopefully he can carry that over into this game at Baylor.”