AMES — It’s been almost a month since ESPN college basketball analyst Seth Greenberg crowned Iowa State sophomore Monte Morris as the nation’s best point guard.
He’s still No. 1 — and not merely in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He’s got a great understanding of how to play the game,” Greenberg said late Friday afternoon during a media session in advance of the network’s first-even College GameDay broadcast from Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. “He’s got a great understanding of what coach (Fred) Hoiberg wants. To me, great point guards see all five defenders, whether it’s a ball screen or a half-court set. They see plays early, they see plays develop, they understand the flow of the game, they understand getting the ball to a hot hand, they make good decisions — not just an assist but as the pass that leads to the basket.”
Sounds like Morris, who was jolted by Greenberg’s high on-screen praise in late December.
He’ll try to live up to the then-somewhat unexpected hype at 8 p.m. Saturday when the No. 11 Cyclones host No. 9 Kansas.
"I wasn’t even watching the game,” Morris said shortly after Greenberg dubbed him the best at his position. “I think I was sleeping or something. I woke up to about 40 text messages that were like, ‘They talking about you on Sports Center.’ I was shocked a little bit. I feel like I am playing at a high level right now.”
Still is. Morris has 83 assists to 15 turnovers in 15 games. He’s also raked away a team-best 24 steals. Even Greenberg’s GameDay colleague, Jay Williams, is coming around.
“J-Will said he didn’t defend, so they’re going to be killing him tomorrow,” Greenberg said.
“They” would be “you,” Cyclone fans. And Williams — the former Duke star — didn’t exactly say Morris doesn’t defend …
“He was joking with me, yes,” Williams said of Greenberg. “I think Monte Morris has a chance to be great.”
How good is he now?
“At the beginning of the year I didn’t think he was a top five point guard in the nation,” said Williams, a two-time all-American with the Blue Devils. “Now I think he’s a top three.”
Morris isn’t concerned with those hypothetical, if well-informed numbers right now. He’s only as good — or great — as his teammates.
“I don’t try to give credit to myself like that,” Morris said. “It’s just an opinion from someone, a big-time guy. Overall, I ain’t nothing without the 14 guys I play with. I feel like it is a good accomplishment but we still have a lot to do.”
That they do. Morris does, too.
“I also think a reason why he is able to be great — and it’s to take nothing away from him, but you’re great when you play with great players, too, and guys that understand how to play,” Williams said. “People would say to me back when I was in college, ‘Oh, you’re a great point guard.’ Well, I’m OK, but I’m also playing with Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Dahntay Jones: I’m playing with great players. And when you play with guys who understand spacing and how to operate; how to communicate, how to actually hit somebody on the ball screen and can finish your plays — if you don’t have anybody that can finish your plays, you don’t have six or seven assists per game. But obviously i think the ceiling is extremely high for that young man.”
Morris can make another skyward move against the Jayhawks, who have won nine of the last 10 meetings with the Cyclones at Hilton.
“He’s a terrific defender, he’s making open shots,” Greenberg said. “But the big thing to me is that, what do defense’s try to do to the offense? They try to take them out, they try to make them play faster than they want to play. And you can’t do that to Monte Morris. He’s going to play at the pace that coach wants him to play at. He’s going to get them organized and in a set and they’re going to flow into what they do, which is really hard, but he does it seamlessly.”
MCKAY, PART 2: Cyclone fans unleashed their wrath on Greenberg when he described transfer big man Jameel McKay as a skilled role player in early November. “Cyclone Nation absolutely destroyed me when I said he’s a really good role player, but that’s what he is — and it’s a very important role,” Greenberg said. “You need a guy that con protect the rim. you need a guy that can get out on ball screens and get back in the play; a guy that can get you a couple easy baskets by getting to the offensive glass. That’s an important role. Not everyone can be Georges Niang, Not everyone can be Monte Morris.“
The 6-8 McKay’s averaging more than three blocks in the past five games.
“The magic of Fred, to me — his coaching is putting guys in position to play to their strengths,” Greenberg added. “And if Jameel McKay plays to his strengths, he changes this team.”